In an interview with us, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told us that the designation itself, which has no legal basis, appears to be a “characteristically political act."
Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, also said that if this particular designation were to translate into meaningful policy actions by the administration, numerous House Democratic committees would scrutinize both the initial designation and the policies flowing from it.
“What the administration is trying to do is delegitimize peaceful protests,” Schiff told us.
Trump’s new push appeared to gain momentum Monday. In a conference call with governors, Trump handed the phone to Attorney General William Barr, who claimed law enforcement must “dominate the streets,” which would require the police to develop “adequate force” and the “dynamic ability to go out and arrest the troublemakers.”
How to do this? Barr said the federal government will get involved: "The structure we’re going to use is the Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
This came after Trump tweeted on Sunday:
The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2020
Trump cannot really do this. First, antifa isn’t an organization at all. It’s more of a loose affiliation of people who use the word to describe their opposition to fascism. And the law allows only foreign groups to be officially declared as terrorist organizations.
But Trump and Barr are trying to create the impression that the violence is the work of left-wing extremists, as opposed to anarchists or white supremacists trying to stoke mayhem.
Thus it is that after Trump’s tweet, Barr announced that the FBI would be partnering with state and local police to identify violent protesters, explicitly labeling them domestic terrorists.
This was also picked up by national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who told CNN that “antifa radical militants" are "using military tactics to kill and hurt and maim our police officers.”
In fact, no police officers have been killed or maimed during these protests, nor is there evidence of anyone using “military tactics," other than the police themselves.
Other Republicans are also hammering this message. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas took the remarkable step of play-acting a “no quarter” order for troops to quell the “insurrectionists”:
A no quarter order is a war crime, prohibited even in actual insurrection since Abraham Lincoln's signed the Lieber Code in 1863. Such an order is banned by international law and would, if carried out, be murder under American law. https://t.co/YbSw1sM9KW https://t.co/OiNsRT7PPy— David French (@DavidAFrench) June 1, 2020
The bottomlessly loathsome Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida managed to outdo even that:
Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) June 1, 2020
The apparent goal, at best, is to paint the violence as largely left-wing in origin and perhaps to excite Trump’s supporters with threats of military retribution. Never mind that there’s little evidence so far of much organization behind the violence that has occurred, let alone anything that would constitute “terrorism.”
At worst, the goal is to confuse people about the true nature of the protests themselves at by making them appear manipulated by left-wing radicals.
The thing about this, though, is that even the threat of such a designation constitutes use of the levers of government in a highly political way — to frame messaging about the protests in a manner Trump’s fever dreams tell him will benefit him. We’ve seen this endlessly from the administration.
“This action is a transparently political one,” Schiff told us, adding that it’s designed to “suggest that these protests are all driven by some illicit purpose or organization."
“Of course that’s not true at all, but that’s what’s behind this destination,” Schiff continued, noting that the goal was “distraction,” to avoid confronting “the reality of police violence against African Americans.”
Indeed, as New York University law professor Ryan Goodman notes, even if Trump can’t legally do this to antifa in particular, the whole point is to employ law enforcement structures to reinforce the administration’s political framing of the moment, which is itself highly dubious.
Schiff was skeptical this would amount to much more than bluster on Trump’s part. But Schiff added that if by any chance it did result in actual policy, numerous House Democratic committees, including his, would examine it.
“You’d certainly have to examine any policy action they’d purport to take and how they would define people as members of this organization,” Schiff told us. He said this would also entail examining “what steps led them to target one particular organization on the left when the problem in the United States has been predominantly on the right in terms of domestic terror.”
Said Schiff: “The question is whether they’ll really take any demonstrable step and what that step will be."