WASHINGTON (CN) — Thomas Cullen made it his mission as a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney to put white supremacists behind bars, and now is soaring through his nomination process to serve as a federal judge in Virginia.
Last year, Cullen secured a life sentence for James Fields Jr., convicted on hate crimes for his car attack at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that killed counterprotester Heather Heyer and maimed and injured dozens more. The rally began as a protest against the removal of a Confederate statue but quickly drew in large numbers of counterprotesters opposed to white supremacy.
But Cullen didn’t stop at locking up Fields, a neo-Nazi. The U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, where he is nominated for a federal judgeship, and his team of litigators turned their legal prowess on four members of a white supremacist group called the Rise Above Movement who also attacked counterprotesters in the 2017 Charlottesville riot.
Leveraging an anti-riot statute originally passed in the 1960s to clamp down on Vietnam War protests, Cullen charged the right-wing extremists with conspiracy to commit violence and crossing state lines to riot.
In the wake of the deadly rally, President Donald Trump famously said there were “very fine people on both sides,” a response criticized by many to be a sickening endorsement of the attacks.
But Cullen on Wednesday firmly denounced the violence that shocked the country.
“These gentlemen came to Charlottesville, they beat and injured numerous people, unprovoked — including ministers, African Americans, woman — despicable acts of violence,” he said in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The prosecutor, who hails from a prominent Republican Virginia family, told the committee that the prosecution affected him deeply both professionally and personally.
“There is no question of all the cases I have been fortunate enough to work on in my career that this was the most rewarding, and for a lot of reasons the most important,” Cullen said.
Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine commended Cullen for his leadership on the Unite the Right case, calling the prosecution righteous and necessary for the country to heal.
“He’s the kind of U.S. attorney whose track record would suggest that he’s gonna be true to that equal justice under law expectation that we have for whoever sits on the bench,” the senator said.
Questioned by Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on how the experience of prosecuting white nationalists would impact him as a judge, Cullen, 43, explained how he did not always understand the threat of domestic terrorism in the U.S.
Referring to an op-ed he published in the New York Times, Cullen said that since 2008 more than 70% of the nearly 400 extremist-related killings in the U.S. were linked to right-wing extremist groups.
“I’m young enough that I consider myself a member of the post-9/11 generation,” Cullen said. “And I think there is an assumption and a misconception that we make in America that most extremist-related violence in this country and abroad are committed by Islamic, fascist, ISIS-type groups. But in reality in this country over recent years most of the extremist-related violence has come from the right.”
In response to the judicial nominee’s earnest take on the misconceptions birthed by racism in America, Feinstein gently asked Cullen again how the prosecution would impact him as a judge.
The nominee, his passion reined in to a degree, offered a response more akin to the prepared statements for nomination hearing, telling the California senator that he plans to draw on all his experiences if appointed to the bench.
While recognizing the power a U.S. attorney carries — “to be wielded with discretion and caution” — Cullen said as a former criminal defense attorney, he also grasps the importance of protecting civil rights for all criminal defendants.
Returning to the impact of the Unite the Right case, Cullen said: “Participating in that particular prosecution really affected me personally deeply and professionally. I’m sure it will carry on if I am lucky to be confirmed.”
Senator John Kennedy, R-La., drilled Cullen on his New York Times op-ed statistic that most extremist-related killings since 2008 were carried out by right-wing groups.
“Do you believe that if we counted all of them up statistically there are more acts of violence on the right than on the left? I thought that’s what I heard you say,” Kennedy asked. “And if it’s true, what’s the basis for you saying that?”
“The basis for that is data,” Cullen calmly replied, assuring the Republican that law enforcement has also noted a concerning uptick in violent acts by left-leaning organizations, citing the antifascist group Antifa as an example.
Kennedy’s GOP colleague, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, came at Cullen with a softer tone of questioning, looking to the nominee to opine on the First Amendment. The U.S. attorney, again citing his experience prosecuting white supremacists, recognized that the constitutional right protects “even the most abhorrent speech.”
“It’s the bedrock of our society,” Cullen said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also took up the nomination of John Peter Cronan to serve as a U.S. district judge in the Southern District of New York, and Jennifer Togliatti to serve as a U.S. district judge for the District of Nevada. All three nominees are expected to be confirmed to the bench.