The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump played down domestic terrorism. Now we pay the price.

Pallbearers carry the casket of Joyce Fienberg from Beth Shalom synagogue after a funeral service in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Since President Trump came into office, touting his Muslim ban, his focus when it comes to terrorism has been on Islamic terrorists outside the United States. Until very recently that’s just about all the administration addressed. Even when the terrorist was a longtime American resident, as was the New York truck bomber who drove his truck into a pedestrian footpath killing eight people on Oct. 31, 2017, Trump has used terror as a pretext to change immigration laws, end the visa lottery system, deny refugees entry and now deploy troops to the border. The result is an atmosphere of xenophobia and conspiracy theories that disturbed figures will act upon, although that is plainly one result.

In January, Lawfare bloggers recounted:

Last February [2017], President Trump claimed during an address to a joint session of Congress that “the vast majority” of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since Sept. 11, 2001, were foreign-born, and he attributed this claim to the Justice Department; “according to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country,” he said.
We were suspicious of this claim, so [Nora] Ellingsen and [Lisa] Daniels dug into the data. They discovered that the publicly available Justice Department data simply did not show that a majority of terrorist or terrorist-related crimes were committed by people who came from abroad. For one thing, this data set does not include domestic terrorism convictions. That is, it does not capture domestic terrorism subjects, who are more likely to be white and natural-born U.S. citizens. Leaving out those convictions is a big mistake. Last year, when Ellingsen and Daniels wrote about President Trump’s executive order, they found that 1,306 defendants had been convicted of domestic terrorism offenses in the U.S. since 1996. That’s more than twice the number of international terrorism convictions during the same period.

Trump repeated his specious claim last January:

This was false. The report did not say this.

He’s now on the verge of canceling the Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program, which aims to prevent domestic terrorism. Interestingly, earlier this month the administration did release a “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” which represented a change of approach, albeit after two years of largely ignoring domestic terrorism. “We will also confront the threat of terrorists in the United States who seek to further their political or social aims through unlawful acts of violence without foreign direction or inspiration,” the report noted. The vast majority of the report still focused on Islamic terrorism threats, but it at least included this:

Lastly, the United States has long faced a persistent security threat from domestic terrorists who are not motivated by a radical Islamist ideology but are instead motivated by other forms of violent extremism, such as racially motivated extremism, animal rights extremism, environmental extremism, sovereign citizen extremism, and militia extremism. Such extremist groups attempt to advance their agendas through acts of force or violence. Notably, domestic terrorism in the United States is on the rise, with an increasing number of fatalities and violent nonlethal acts committed by domestic terrorists against people and property in the United States.

The report was short on specifics, but there did seem to be some recognition that while Trump continued to obsess about yesterday’s threats, domestic terrorism was growing. (Throwing in a grab-bag of ideologies with white nationalist terrorism, however, suggests a decided lack of seriousness about the latter.)

Deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus reflects on what the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue means for her family, for Jews and for Americans. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

“Today, Americans are more likely to be killed by their fellow Americans than jihadists,” former special FBI agent Clint Watts tells me. “And yet, we treat each incident as a one off, when they are connected by ideologies of hate and white nationalism.” He adds, “The President has the power to mobilize on domestic extremists, but he does not and instead ignores the gravity of the situation. As he doesn’t seek to protect all Americans, just all of his supporters.” One might even conclude that Trump’s own rhetoric and hysteria over immigration fuels domestic terrorists’ anger and gives nonviolent racists license to spout hate.

Well, perhaps once the election is over and Trump is done promising to deploy thousands of troops to “protect” us against unarmed women and children hundreds of miles away, he and the new Congress can start devoting some resources and attention to domestic terror. It might start with hearings and a report on the connection between racist ideology/rhetoric and action. Trump, it seems, has been chasing the wrong or at least less serious threats for political reasons while providing inspiration and cover for domestic actors who share his anti-immigrant, nationalist agenda.