THE MORNING PLUM:
President Trump’s reluctance to issue a direct, full-throated condemnation of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville continues to be scrutinized for clues to Trump’s personal sympathies (his racism and white nationalism) and to his political imperatives (his need to avoid alienating hard-core elements of his base at a time when scandals are closing in and his unpopularity has driven him into the danger zone).
But that reluctance should also be looked at against the backdrop of a broader pattern that has taken shape, one that could have serious policy consequences for the country. Trump has been dramatically inflating certain types of threats (those posed by immigrants and migrants from majority-Muslim countries) while playing down or failing to acknowledge the seriousness of other ones (those posed by domestic right-wing extremists and potential Russian sabotage of upcoming elections).
Two new pieces make this pattern starkly clear:
First, Trump continually exaggerates the threat posed by immigration. The Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee reports on a new Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that has been filed against Trump’s Justice Department. To summarize, the lawsuit seeks to establish whether Trump lied in a speech to Congress this year when he claimed that according to administration data, “the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.”
Those remarks were part of a broader campaign in which Trump was pushing for his travel ban, which has now been partly held up by the courts. Trump attributed that assertion to “data provided by the Department of Justice.” The lawsuit, which was filed by Lawfare Blog founder Benjamin Wittes, seeks to determine whether that data exists — and by extension, whether Trump invented its existence to justify the claim. Wittes first submitted a FOIA request asking for any communications between the White House and DOJ showing that this data was provided. He hasn’t received a reply, so he filed the FOIA lawsuit.
We will find out soon enough whether that DOJ data exists. But right now, the claim looks like complete nonsense. Lee, who is a Post fact-checker, did an extensive dive into various data sources that we do know exist and found that they don’t come close to supporting Trump’s claim. More to the point, however, Lee also shows that this is part of a pattern, in which the threat of terrorism from foreigners has been exaggerated by Trump on multiple occasions. The travel ban itself represents such an exaggeration: It is premised on the idea that refugees and immigrants from the designated majority-Muslim countries represent a major national security threat without more extreme vetting, yet this whole rationale has been undercut by two analyses from Trump’s own Homeland Security Department.
The still-larger pattern here: As part of his recent embrace of a plan to slash legal immigration in half, Trump has made inflated claims about the impact that low-skilled immigration has on American workers and about the degree to which immigrants drain welfare benefits. If the lawsuit described above does show that Trump invented DOJ data, it will be a powerful illustration of the deep rot of bad faith that infests this administration when it comes to the blithe disregard of empirical information in making policy, particularly on (but not limited to) immigration.
Second, Trump appears to be reluctant to confront the far-right fringe threat — and the Russian threat to future elections. NBC News’s Benjy Sarlin talked to multiple experts who have concluded that Trump needs to more aggressively confront white supremacist groups who, they believe, have been energized by his rise. They are demanding that his administration roll out a comprehensive plan to try to contain this trend. Meanwhile, a memo from the FBI and DHS that was obtained by Foreign Policy warned this spring that white supremacist groups carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group in recent years and “will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year.”
To be fair, it’s hard to know what Trump’s rhetoric tells us about the reality of what is going on in terms of security policy at the agencies. But Trump’s rhetorical emphasis matters, too — and in more ways than one. As those experts told NBC’s Sarlin, Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and Muslims itself appears to be playing a role in emboldening white supremacists to play a more vocal role — even as his muted response to the latest outbreak of white supremacy, initially at least, also emboldened those groups. And so, the exaggeration of one threat and the reluctance to call out the other one are intertwined with one another.
In the background of all this, Trump has a well-documented history of dismissing concerns about Russian undermining of the 2016 election as a hoax. This has forward-looking significance: Our intelligence services have warned that Russia will try again. By constantly dismissing claims of Russian sabotage as a hoax — not just the idea of Trump campaign collusion in it but also the sabotage itself — Trump signals he isn’t taking seriously this future threat to our elections.
The bigger story here is that this developing pattern is not just significant for what it tells us about Trump’s personal views and desire to appeal to certain elements in his base. It also speaks to Trump’s policy priorities when it comes to defending the country.
* SOME REPUBLICANS ARE FINE WITH TRUMP’S CHARLOTTESVILLE RESPONSE: McClatchy has a striking report telling us that many Republicans see no problem with Trump’s reluctance to call out white supremacy by name:
The Republican base is fiercely defending Donald Trump’s response to a white nationalist rally, arguing that the president’s dayslong refusal to explicitly condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis is a matter of splitting hairs … interviews with GOP strategists and local officials from across the country reveal that many Republicans outside of Washington think Trump addressed the situation adequately.
The article quotes some Republicans saying that, because Trump condemned bigotry “on many sides,” that was good enough.
* TRUMP WAS RELUCTANT TO ADMIT A MISTAKE ON CHARLOTTESVILLE: Under withering pressure, Trump issued a statement yesterday calling out white supremacy by name. But the Associated Press reports that he didn’t want to do it:
Loath to appear to be admitting a mistake, Trump was reluctant to adjust his remarks. The president had indicated to advisers before his initial statement Saturday that he wanted to stress a need for law and order, which he did. He later expressed anger to those close to him about what he perceived as the media’s unfair assessment of his remarks, believing he had effectively denounced all forms of bigotry, according to outside advisers and White House officials.
Have we mentioned that a big part of the story here is that Trump is incapable of grasping that he might have any kind of obligation to the public at this important national moment?
* TRUMP CHAFED AT ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS’: The Post adds this nugget of reporting on Trump’s state of mind, post-Charlottesville:
Senior aides said Trump has long chafed at expectations to bow to political correctness, but they acknowledged that he was frustrated by how he was being characterized by the media.
Yep, it’s all about him. Always.
* AFTER CHARLOTTESVILLE, FAR RIGHT IS EMBOLDENED: The New York Times reports that white nationalist and other far-right groups are feeling pretty good about where things are headed, and are planning to escalate the activity:
Some were making arrangements to appear at future marches. Some were planning to run for public office. Others, taking a cue from the Charlottesville event — a protest, nominally, of the removal of a Confederate-era statue — were organizing efforts to preserve white heritage symbols in their home regions.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic reports that alt-right groups have scheduled more rallies for this Saturday, which will provide a key test of whether the movement is gaining strength in the Trump era.
* A BIG TEST FOR TRUMP AND JEFF SESSIONS: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which shields “dreamers” from deportation, turns five years old today. CNN reports that its supporters think it’s in real trouble, and here’s why:
Ten state attorneys general, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, have issued an ultimatum to the Trump administration — sunset DACA by September 5, or we’ll challenge it in court. … If the court allows arguments against DACA, the Justice Department would be forced to decide whether it will defend the program … The White House offered a cryptic statement on the program’s future, expressing only concern with illegal immigration.
And so, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will soon have to say whether he’ll defend DACA in court, and Trump will eventually have to say whether he favors ending the program.
* STEPHEN BANNON’S FATE HANGS IN THE BALANCE: The Times reports that Trump has been considering ousting chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon for months and that Bannon is in trouble with new chief of staff John F. Kelly:
Mr. Trump has sent Mr. Bannon to a kind of internal exile, and has not met face-to-face for more than a week with a man who was once a fixture in the Oval Office, according to aides and friends of the president. … Mr. Kelly has told Mr. Trump’s top staff that he will not tolerate Mr. Bannon’s shadowland machinations, according to a dozen current and former Trump aides and associates with knowledge of the situation.
Special bonus tidbit: The Times also reports that Bannon has argued against criticizing far-right groups too severely, which will shock exactly no one who has been paying attention.
* AND TRUMP IS ALWAYS QUICK TO CONDEMN. EXCEPT THIS TIME: CNN has a good piece looking at all of the times that Trump was very quick to condemn violent extremism by name and contrasting them with his reluctance to call out the domestic terrorism in Charlottesville:
Patience has never been a marker of Trump’s response to terror — confirmed or not. … Trump has never been overly cautious or shy about denouncing or naming those who carry out terror attacks, often using passionate, angry language to make his point.
But in this case, CNN notes, his initial response contained “no mention of neo-Nazis or white supremacists” and “no condemnation of their hateful ideology.” What could explain the difference?