WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions is committed to prosecuting those who commit religious hate crimes, a Justice Department official said Tuesday as Democratic senators questioned whether the Trump administration's rhetoric and policies have contributed to a spike in such offenses.
Eric Treene, the department's special counsel for religious discrimination, offered no theories for what has caused a recent rise in religious hate crimes, but said Sessions has urged the nation's federal prosecutors to pursue those cases as part of his tough-on-crime agenda. Treene's comments came during a Senate Judiciary Hearing to address a rise in hate crimes.
"It's no accident that there is a rise in hate crimes, because we're in an environment where the president targets Muslims with his language," said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, referring to Trump's travel ban prohibiting new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and his tough talk on immigration. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. asked whether appointing people like Steve Bannon, who led a far-right media organization that promoted anti-immigrant views, has emboldened those who want to commit hateful attacks.
"The attorney general has been consistent and strong in his message that hate crime is violent crime, and we need to do everything we can with all the tools in our prosecutorial tool box to fight this problem," Treene said.
Sessions has ordered an internal committee to study the issue of hate crimes, including how law enforcement agencies can better investigate and document them. Treene pointed to federal data showing a 23 percent rise in religion-based hate crimes between 2014 and 2015 — namely against Muslims and Jews. But FBI statistics unquestionably undercount, he said, because they use data from police agencies around the country provide it voluntarily.
The lack of solid data stymies officials' ability to fully understand the problem but won't stop the Justice Department from devoting resources to it, he said.
The committee hearing came after this year's wave of more than 150 bomb threats against Jewish community centers. Authorities arrested an Israeli Jewish hacker who they said was behind the harassment. Treene said that investigation and several others are ongoing.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a report last week showing an increase in cases of anti-Semitic intimidation and vandalism last year, evidence that anti-Jewish bias intensified during the election.
Trump has drawn criticism from a variety of religious leaders who have said he was too slow and tepid in his response to religious bias. The president condemned vandalism at Jewish cemeteries, then last month issued his most full-throated condemnations of anti-Semitism, including a promise to "confront anti-Semitism" during remarks at a Holocaust remembrance day event in Washington.
Trump has issued no comparable condemnation for anti-Muslim bias.
Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, told lawmakers that using the bully pulpit to condemn hate is important. Data on hate crimes will never be complete unless minority communities feel comfortable reporting crime, she said, urging officials to continue interfaith outreach and trainings for law enforcement.
Treene said a June "summit" on prosecuting and preventing hate crimes will involve local police and religious leaders.
Associated Press writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.