White supremacists and violent extremism pose a “persistent, pervasive threat” to the US, FBI Director Chris Wray told members of Congress on Thursday. His comments broke from those of President Trump, who has repeatedly downplayed the threat.
“The danger, I think, of white supremacists, violent extremism, or any other kind of violent extremism is, of course, significant,” Wray told the House Appropriations Committee, when asked how his agency is addressing the threat. “It’s a persistent, pervasive threat. We tackle it both through our joint terrorism task forces on the domestic side as well as the civil rights program on the criminal side through hate crime enforcement.”
Wray’s comments stand in stark contrast to how Trump has referred to white supremacist movements and violence despite a number of high-profile cases during his presidency.
The day after 50 people were shot and killed in the New Zealand mosque terror attack, where the suspect left behind a racist manifesto, Trump said he didn’t see white nationalism as a growing threat.
“I don’t really,” Trump told a reporter in the Oval Office on March 15. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.”
It was not the first time Trump has drawn backlash for his comments regarding white supremacists and race.
During an angry, off-the-cuff press conference in 2017, Trump defended racists who marched in Charlottesville and sparked riots. Heather Heyer, a counterprotester at the rally, was killed when James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately drove into the crowd.
“You also had some very fine people on both sides,” Trump said at the time. “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group, you also had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers.”
Despite Trump’s comments, FBI statistics show hate crimes across the US have risen consistently.
According to the most recent report, hate crimes increased 17% in 2017 over the previous year, the third straight year reported hate crimes have increased.
Wray added that the FBI was reaching out to local law enforcement agencies to ensure that hate crimes, which have historically been underreported, are kept track of to get a more complete picture of the issue.
“We are determined not to tolerate hateful violence in our communities and we’re going to aggressively investigate those cases,” he said.