As President Trump's travel ban is debated in court, the White House's varied defenses of the move are coming under fire, including White House press secretary Sean Spicer's references to an Atlanta terror attack. (Video: Jenny Starrs / Photo: Jabin Bostford/The Washington Post)

On three occasions in two days, White House press secretary Sean Spicer rattled off examples of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil while defending President Trump’s travel ban affecting seven majority-Muslim countries.

All three times, the talking point was nearly identical: We must do more — just ask the victims’ families.

What was puzzling, though, were the cities he invoked to prove this point. Spicer mentioned San Bernardino, Calif., and Boston, both places where the attacks were carried out by people who had self-radicalized in the United States but had foreign ties.

Then he threw in Atlanta, a city whose only terrorist attack were bombings orchestrated by a Florida-born domestic terrorist with no foreign ties. They happened in the 1990s, including one during the 1996 Olympics.

The head scratching commenced.

Reporters scrambled to identify what exactly Spicer was implying with the Atlanta addition. That the travel ban could have prevented a born and bred U.S. citizen from attacking Atlanta? Was this another “Bowling Green massacre” incident, the White House again invoking a terrorist attack that never actually happened?

The Daily Beast was the first to link the three Atlanta references, but when it asked the White House for clarification, it got no reply, the publication reported. CNN followed up with its own version of the story, and Spicer didn’t answer its questions either. Reports from other news media followed.


During the daily news briefing at the White House on Jan. 30, White House press secretary Sean Spicer invoked an unspecified terrorist attack in Atlanta while defending President Trump’s travel ban, the third time he had done so in two days. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Then nearly 24 hours after the Daily Beast broke the story, Spicer offered an explanation via email to ABC News: When he referenced the Atlanta terrorist attack, he “clearly meant Orlando.”

A White House spokesperson confirmed that clarification in an email to The Washington Post Thursday morning.

Orlando, a city located 450 miles south of Atlanta in a different state, is a popular Florida tourist destination and home to Mickey Mouse. It was also, on June 12 of last year, the site of the most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history.

Forty-nine people were killed and even more injured when officials say Omar Mateen stormed Pulse, a popular gay dance club, on Latin night and opened fire.

President Trump and his aides, including Kellyanne Conway, have been using the attacks in Orlando, San Bernardino and Boston as talking points during media circuits to defend the ban. But the administration’s use of all three cities — particularly Orlando — remains an odd choice.

Mateen was a U.S. citizen, born in New York to Afghan parents. He, like the Boston Marathon bombers and San Bernardino shooters, self-radicalized in the United States and had no direct ties to any terrorist organizations, though they claimed to be inspired by them.

Afghanistan is not on Trump’s list of travel banned countries, nor is Pakistan, where Tashfeen Malik, one of the San Bernardino shooters, was born. Malik’s husband and co-attacker, Syed Farook, was an American-born U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent.

And the countries where the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston Marathon, were born aren’t on Trump’s ban list either.

What the perpetrators in all three attacks do have in common, though, is their faith. All practiced Islam, a religion that President Trump has repeatedly disparaged in public appearances and tweets, words that could be weaponized against him as the courts decide the legality of his travel ban.

The White House has insisted in recent weeks that the ban does not target Muslims. Trump’s own rhetoric, several state attorneys general argue, suggests otherwise.

Spicer’s Atlanta revelation comes just two days after President Trump suggested during a trip to Florida that the news media is purposefully not covering acts of terror. Spicer later clarified the president’s remarks, claiming what he really meant to say was that certain incidents were “underreported.” Hours later, the press secretary provided examples — a list of 78 alleged terrorists attacks that occurred between 2014 and 2016.

As a frame for the way the Trump administration views terrorism, the list was telling.

Not only was it littered with spelling errors, but the list contained factually inaccurate information. More than half of the incidents involved two or fewer deaths and the list focused largely on Western victims, even though the vast majority of terrorism deaths occur in a handful of geographically concentrated Muslim-majority countries.

Three of those countries — Iraq, Nigeria and Syria — weren’t mentioned at all on the White House list. The other two, Pakistan and Afghanistan, got a single mention each, for attacks that injured one U.S. citizen and killed 14 Nepali security guards, respectively.

No Atlanta terrorist attack was included on the list, but the exhaustively covered San Bernardino and Orlando attacks were.

“Two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized, and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre,” Conway told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in an interview on Feb. 2. “Most people didn’t know that because it didn’t get covered.”

It didn’t get covered, it turns out, because a massacre in Bowling Green, Ky., never happened. Conway later claimed she misspoke, but The Washington Post later learned that the White House senior adviser had referenced a massacre or attack in Bowling Green during two additional interviews.

This teed up the outcry that followed Spicer’s mention of a mystery Atlanta attack.

On Jan. 29, ABC News’s Martha Raddatz asked Spicer about the travel ban and whether it led to humiliation for travelers denied entrance to the United States, like an Iraqi interpreter who worked for the U.S. military and was temporarily detained. No, Spicer said, then continued:

“… what do we say to the family who loses somebody over a terroristic — to whether it’s Atlanta or San Bernardino or the Boston bomber?”

The next day, during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Spicer revived the same line.

New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters asked if President Trump was motivated to sign his executive order by an imminent threat to the United States.

Spicer responded:

“Too many of these cases that have happened, whether you’re talking about San Bernardino, Atlanta, they’ve happened, Boston,” Spicer said. “Jeremy, what — do you wait until you do? The answer is we act now to protect the future.”

Later that day, during his daily White House press briefing, Spicer lumped Atlanta into his examples for a third time:

“We’re reviewing the entire process over this period of time to make sure that we do this right. But I don’t think you have to look any further than the families of the Boston Marathon, in Atlanta, in San Bernardino, to ask if we can go further.”

Before Spicer clarified his remarks late Wednesday, experts and the authorities had told the Daily Beast and CNN that Atlanta’s inclusion was nonsensical.

“There has not been a successful jihadi terror attack in Atlanta,” Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, told the Daily Beast.

Atlanta police spokeswoman Elizabeth Espy told CNN by email that the last known terrorist attack in the state of Georgia was in 1996.

That year, Eric Rudolph planted a 40-pound bomb filled with nails and screws in Centennial Park during the Olympic Games. One person died and more than 100 others were injured. Rudolph wasn’t named a suspect in the bombing until 1998, and wasn’t formally indicted until 2000. He was also charged in three other bombings; at an Alabama abortion clinic, near an Atlanta abortion clinic and outside a popular Atlanta lesbian nightclub.

In 2005, Rudolph pleaded guilty to all four bombings and was sentenced to serve four consecutive life sentences plus 120 years in prison.