Washington's response to Charlottesville attack: three questions

President Trump is returning to Washington today as both Democrats and Republicans push him to take a stronger stand against white nationalist violence.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Trump waves as he walks from Marine One to board Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, N.J., on his way back to Washington on Monday morning, Aug. 14, 2017. He is scheduled to meet with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray over Charlottesville violence at 11:30 a.m.

August is supposed to be quiet in Washington. But sudden violence in Charlottesville, Va., is roiling US politics and confronting officials from the president to vacationing lawmakers with a test of their ability to respond to the nation’s bitter and enduring racial divisions.

Results have been mixed. From Capitol Hill the condemnations have been strong and bipartisan. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas called white supremacists “repulsive and evil,” for instance, and said that the violent car incident that left one person dead should be investigated as “domestic terrorism.” Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia said that those who traveled to his state to “spew hate” have “no place here.”

But President Trump’s public response drew widespread criticism for its failure to denounce the loose coalition of Nazi sympathizers and white power proponents by name. Nor did the Justice Department immediately designate the car attack with a domestic terrorism tag.

Mr. Trump is returning to Washington on Monday for a brief visit and the issue is sure to reverberate through the city. Three questions:

Is it domestic terrorism?

Late Saturday the Justice Department announced that it has opened a federal civil rights inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of a young woman after a car driven by an apparent Nazi sympathizer plowed into a crowd of protesters. But as of Monday morning it had yet to designate the act as suspected domestic terrorism. Such a designation would have political as well as legal ramifications.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as Senator Cruz, called for such a move over the weekend. Domestic terrorism, as defined legally, is an act intended to coerce the US government or population. Acts of domestic terrorism are much more likely to fall under federal jurisdiction. Ordinarily, a fatal vehicle incident would be prosecuted in state courts as a matter of course.

Naming the attack domestic terrorism would allow the FBI more leeway in terms of its ability to obtain documents or other records related to the crime. It would also be a clear statement of the government’s judgment about the nature of the groups that rallied in Charlottesville to ostensibly protect a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

It’s likely this will happen, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. On Monday morning he told television interviewers that the attack meets “the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute.”

Mr. Sessions, along with newly confirmed FBI Director Christopher Wray, are scheduled to meet with Trump at 11:30 Monday morning.

Will Trump say more?

On Sunday night the White House issued a brief statement saying that the president “of course” denounces the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and other specific hate groups. On a trip to Colombia, Vice President Pence spoke strongly against “dangerous fringe groups.” But Trump’s own Saturday statement, which decried “violence on many sides,” left the impression that the president is reluctant to condemn white nationalist groups, many of which have embraced his presidency.

Trump is scheduled for a brief press appearance on Monday and he may have more to say on the subject. He is famously reluctant to back down on anything, however. It’s possible he’ll just aim at other targets.

How will other Republicans respond?

The president and GOP leaders were at odds prior to the Charlottesville tragedy. Trump’s tweets critical of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell have irritated many Republican lawmakers and opened cracks in the party as it approaches a month critical to the White House legislative agenda.

Increasingly, it appears Trump is a complete outsider, willing to maneuver against his own nominal party as well as Democrats. That’s not likely to help him get things done in the fall.

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