Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday that the Charlottesville car attack could be prosecuted as a hate crime, saying that federal authorities "intensely" probing the case could ultimately decide to prosecute the driver in a number of different ways.
Sesssions cautioned that no federal charges were imminent as officials are still conducting an ongoing investigation into the deadly attack that killed one woman Saturday and injured 19 others.
"It doesn't have to be done immediately," he told NBC News in an interview. "We will be working with the state to see how they will proceed with their charges. We could bring charges whenever the investigation justifies them. But I don't think we should just feel like we've got to do it in a matter of hours or days."
Local authorities have charged James Alex Fields Jr., 20, with second-degree murder, hit-and-run and three counts of malicious wounding. He is being held in a Charlottesville jail about two miles from the site where police say he crashed his car into a group protesting white supremacists and neo-Nazis who had gathered in Charlottesville.
Sessions's comments characterizing the attack as a potential hate crime, during which he again stressed how seriously the Justice Department takes what happened, came as President Donald Trump has drawn intense criticism for his reaction to the Charlottesville violence.
During a remarkable news conference Tuesday in New York, Trump — who had at first declined to condemn hate groups by name, then did so after blowback - defiantly reiterated his belief that "both sides" were to blame for the bloodshed. He also defended some of the marchers who descended on Charlottesville.
A day after Sessions said the Charlottesville car attack meets the federal definition of domestic terrorism, Trump on Tuesday pilloried the suspected driver but declined to call the attack terrorism when asked by a reporter.
"I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country," Trump said. "You can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. There is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism? Then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer. What he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing."
Sessions's comments labeling the Charlottesville incident terrorism echoed the way a number of lawmakers and citizens have characterized the car attack, but they did not immediately suggest what kind of federal prosecution could follow. There is no specific federal criminal charge for domestic terrorism, so authorities seeking to prosecute Fields in federal court would need to charge him with another crime.
Experts have said that the attack might straddle the line between terrorism and a hate crime and could ultimately be viewed as both. Former federal prosecutors said that a possible hate crime prosecution would depend on whether Fields was specifically targeting someone in a group covered by the hate-crime statute.
"If you're a racist and you kill someone, that doesn't mean it's a hate crime," said Timothy J. Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney in the Western District of Virginia, which encompasses Charlottesville. "There has to be an explicit connection between the two for it to be a civil rights offense."
Heaphy, who lives in Charlottesville, said that federal and local authorities will coordinate as they pore through Fields's history and social media accounts and speak with people that know him in an effort to uncover whether there was anything directly linking the car attack to a hateful ideology.
"The question is, is there a connection between the odious views that this person evidently has and his action at that time?" Heaphy said.
Federal officials, who launched a civil rights investigation Saturday, have approached the incident as both an act of terror and a civil rights case. The Justice Department said it dispatched FBI counterterrorism agents and counterterrorism prosecutors Saturday. Sessions also said Wednesday that federal authorities could ultimately opt to prosecute a civil rights violation, a hate crime or unspecified "other charges" in the case.
"We are working it intensely on the assumption that we may well want to prosecute it under one of those theories or whatever theory that we would find," he told NBC. "We're also working with the state and local authorities who clearly have jurisdiction too, and often they're the ones that have the best charge."
In some other cases, federal authorities followed local charges with their own. This happened in two high-profile situations in South Carolina recently. After the Charleston church massacre in 2015, local authorities charged the attacker, Dylann Roof, with murder. The Justice Department later indicted him on federal hate crime charges. Similarly, after Michael Slager - a former North Charleston police officer - was charged locally with murder for shooting a man fleeing a traffic stop, a federal civil rights charge was filed against him.
In both cases, the federal charges proved key. Roof was found guilty in his federal trial and sentenced to death, so he pleaded guilty to the state charges to avoid a second death-penalty trial. A mistrial was declared in Slager's trial, and though local prosecutors pledged to try him again, the local and federal cases were both resolved in May when the former officer pleaded guilty to the federal civil rights charge.
Sessions said that whatever authorities decide to do in Charlottesville, "you can be sure it'll be fully investigated and thoroughly prosecuted."