When President Trump floated the despicable conspiracy theory that a 75-year-old man who got brutalized by police might be linked to “antifa,” it dominated an entire news cycle.

That’s perhaps understandable. But let’s not lose sight of this: It’s also a huge deal that Trump and his top law enforcement officials have all said repeatedly that the civil unrest has been infiltrated by antifa, not just as a throwaway bit of political theater, but to help sustain the claim that we’re under attack from “domestic terror.”

Not only that, Trump has said this to justify floating what would be an enormously consequential policy move — that is, invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 to send in troops to quell the unrest.

Trump’s antifa bluster, however, has just taken another hit. ABC News reports:

Despite repeated Trump administration assertions that the antifa movement has hijacked the ongoing protests around the country sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, a new federal intelligence bulletin points to white supremacists and other would-be domestic terrorists as the main problem lurking behind potentially lethal violence.
Though the document issued by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center also includes a warning to law enforcement about anarchist extremists, it makes only a limited mention of the left-leaning, loosely affiliated antifa movement, and appears to undercut recent criticisms of the movement by President Trump and top administration officials.
“Based upon current information, we assess the greatest threat of lethal violence continues to emanate from lone offenders with racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist ideologies and [domestic violent extremists] with personalized ideologies,” according to the bulletin, which was obtained by ABC News.

In this memo, antifa is confined to a footnote, ABC reports. The document says that “anarchist extremists” pose a threat to police and government property, and says in that footnote that “some anarchist extremists self-identify as ‘Antifa.’” But it adds that identifying with antifa is also associated with nonviolent activity that may be constitutionally protected.

In other words, according to this intelligence assessment from inside Trump’s own administration, the biggest threat of lethal violence comes from domestic lone wolf types with racially or ethnically motivated violent ideologies.

There’s no direct claim here that antifa is actually behind any violence. Indeed, all it says is that anarchist extremists do pose a threat, and also, tangentially, that some anarchist extremists apply the term “antifa” to themselves, not that any of those who do self-identify that way currently do pose a threat.

That’s consistent with what we know, which is that antifa isn’t even an organized group. It’s a loose term for various left-wing radicals who appear to share a willingness to engage in street brawling to prevent what they see as the threat of rising fascism.

A former DHS official helped me understand what this means. He said bulletins like this are sent by federal agencies like the three named here to local law enforcement — as part of information-sharing arrangements — to alert them as to what they should be on the lookout for.

In other words, the former official suggested, this is more of a guide to law enforcement as to what to keep at the top of their minds. And in this case, there’s no meaningful warning about antifa.

It’s difficult to square this with the public rhetoric we’ve heard. It’s important to stress that the president himself and numerous top law enforcement and national security officials have all made these claims:

  • Trump himself has directly linked the claim about antifa to a broader assertion that we’re under assault from “domestic terror.”
  • Attorney General William P. Barr has drawn this link, claiming: “The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”
  • National security adviser Robert O’Brien told CNN that “antifa radical militants” are “using military tactics to kill and hurt and maim our police officers.”
  • Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, has claimed that these “protests” have “devolved” into “acts of domestic terrorism.” For good measure, Morgan put sarcastic quotes around “protests.” That’s a top law enforcement official speaking.

As the former DHS official explained it to me, it’s hard to extrapolate that much from leaked documents such as this, because they constitute only a snippet of information out of a massive stream. So it’s plausible it’s actually giving us, if anything, an inflated sense of the degree to which any “anarchist extremists” pose a threat, which would make all those assertions worse.

As President Trump threatens to unleash the military on American cities roiled in civil unrest, it's clear that he's embracing his inner Nixon. (The Washington Post)

What all this really illustrates is how little we know about what the government actually has determined about what’s driving these protests. That underscores how depraved and irresponsible it is for the president and top officials to keep making these assertions without providing any real evidence and insight — say, with a briefing to senior members of Congress — into what their basis for them is supposed to be.

It is not being treated as a big enough story that Trump and his top officials keep claiming we’re under assault by “domestic terror” without feeling the slightest need to justify this in any meaningful way. It’s another sign of the creeping normalization of all these ongoing degradations.

Read more: