President Biden’s newly released strategy for countering domestic terrorism, like any shuffling of major national security priorities, deserves close scrutiny, as abuses in the name of keeping America safe are a sadly bipartisan tradition.
A close reading of the 30-page document reveals a remarkable omission: A clear position on whether the U.S. government requires new legal authority to successfully hunt down, prosecute, and imprison homegrown extremists.
That question has been front and center since Biden took office vowing to fight back against politically motivated violence at home, like the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot that forced a halt to a ceremony validating his 2020 election victory.
The new approach doesn’t come out in favor of new laws. It doesn’t come out against the possibility of new laws. It just leaves the door open to maybe, possibly, and with congressional assent, seeking them in the future.
“We will seek to determine whether there are any gaps in our capabilities that should, consistent with our needs and our shared values, be addressed through legislation,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said as he unveiled the strategy.
The blueprint itself leans a little more — a little — into the idea new laws might be needed.
“Grappling with today’s evolving domestic terrorism threat, we must ask the question of whether legislative reforms could meaningfully and materially increase our ability to protect Americans from acts of domestic terrorism while simultaneously guarding against potential abuse of overreach,” it says.
Moreover, “new criminal laws, in particular, should be sought only after careful consideration of whether and how they are needed to assist the government in tackling complex, multifaceted challenges like the one posed by domestic terrorism and only while ensuring the protection of civil rights and civil liberties.”
“We will, in consultation with the Congress, consider whether seeking legislative reforms is appropriate and, if so, which to pursue,” the strategy says.
In a briefing for reporters held on condition of anonymity, a senior administration official said: “We concluded that we didn't have the evidentiary basis yet to decide whether we wanted to proceed in that direction or whether we have sufficient authority, as they currently exist at the federal level in conjunction with possible in all 50 states, to continue as we are.”
That’s a lot of words to say that the government has no evidence it is in any way hamstrung by the limits of current authorities.
(The strategy says domestic terrorism is defined as “activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” In case you wanted to know.)
There is support in Congress for giving the federal government new, expanded authority to go after domestic terrorists in a manner more closely resembling foreign extremists.
In March, I interview Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Relations Committee, when he was advocating for new legislation modeled on a proposal from two years ago.
“The bill would broaden the list of charges prosecutors could use against suspects to bring them more in line with the tools they have to go after international terrorists. The 2019 bill would have modified the U.S. Code section on terrorism to include options for the death penalty, prison sentences and fines for attacks carried out by U.S. actors on U.S. soil.
‘When you’re talking about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere, they’re not governed by the Constitution; but domestic terrorism is,’ McCaul said. ‘We were very careful how we crafted the bill. We don’t get into political thought, free-speech issues that are guaranteed under the First Amendment.’”
At the time, the ACLU firmly opposed the plan, with spokeswoman Manar Waheed bluntly declaring “a new domestic terrorism statute should be off the table.”
“The government already has more than sufficient statutory and investigative power to address white supremacist violence, including over 50 domestic terrorism-related statutes and a plethora of hate crimes, if it chooses to use them,” Waheed told me at the time.
But the administration’s ambivalence was already on display. FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee, boasting of his agents’ successes “using the tools they have.”
“But certainly I think you would be hard-pressed to find any FBI director that wouldn't welcome more tools in the toolbox,” Wray said.
What’s happening now
Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza early this morning in retaliation for incendiary balloons in the first flare-up since a May truce. “Israeli jets struck military compounds allegedly belonging to Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, according to an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) statement,” Paulina Villegas and Michael Miller report. “There were no immediate reports of casualties from the airstrike. Israeli authorities said that incendiary balloons launched into Israeli communities near the Gaza border sparked 20 fires on Tuesday and another four fires on Wednesday, according to Israeli media.”
To start your day with a full political briefing, sign up for our Power Up newsletter.
Lunchtime reads from The Post
- “What offenses did Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, commit in Britain? New report forces police to review claims,” by Jennifer Hassan: “British police say they will review allegations made in a recent Channel 4 News investigation that convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and his former partner, Ghislaine Maxwell, sexually abused, trafficked and groomed multiple women and girls in Britain over a period of 10 years. The claims, of which there are at least half a dozen but the broadcaster said could be ‘much higher,’ aired on Tuesday, prompting fresh calls for the Metropolitan Police Service to fully investigate the Epstein scandal which has thrust Britain’s Prince Andrew, the second-eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II, into the spotlight due to his ties to the disgraced U.S. financier.”
- “Paul Gosar demands name of Capitol officer who killed rioter Ashli Babbitt, saying she was ‘executed,’ ” by Julian Mark: “In a hearing on Tuesday, Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) abruptly turned his questions for FBI Director Christopher A. Wray toward the Capitol Police officer who fatally shot Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran who tried to leap through a window during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Gosar demanded to know why the FBI hasn’t disclosed the name of the officer, who was cleared of wrongdoing by prosecutors in April. ... His comments, which came the same day he joined 20 other House Republicans in voting against awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the officers who protected the Capitol on Jan. 6, have gone viral on social media and drawn swift rebukes from critics and some colleagues who accused him of downplaying the severity of the insurrection.”
… and beyond
- “U.S. housing market needs 5.5 million more units, says new report,” by the Wall Street Journal’s Nicole Friedman: “Construction of new housing in the past 20 years fell 5.5 million units short of long-term historical levels, according to a new National Association of Realtors report, which is calling for a ‘once-in-a-generation’ policy response. The industry lobbying group said it hopes the report, which was released Wednesday, persuades lawmakers to include housing investments in any infrastructure package.”
- “Delivery Apps like Grubhub and DoorDash charge restaurants huge commission fees. Are delivery co-ops the solution?” by the Counter’s Vivienne Machi: “Owners and workers across the country, from Ohio to Nebraska to Washington, D.C., are now pooling their resources to launch alternative delivery models in their own communities that could potentially compete with the large apps. Many have emerged as cooperatives, where the eateries pay membership fees to fund operating costs and driver and dispatcher salaries. They in turn receive ownership responsibilities and a yearly share of profits.”
- “The Cucapá in Mexico fight against climate change and oblivion,” by Telemundo’s Albinson Linares: “A searing drought is exacerbating the deadly heat in a region that long ago saw its river flow diminished, after almost a century of U.S. engineering projects, as well as a focus on water for agriculture. ... Mexico is experiencing the worst drought in three decades. NASA images from the recently released Landsat 8 satellite showed the extremely low levels of the Villa Victoria dam, one of the capital's main water reservoirs.”
Biden meets Putin
Biden and Vladimir Putin's summit in Geneva is over. Before it began, the Russian leader said he hopes the summit will be productive.
- The summit wrapped up after the leaders ended the second of two scheduled sessions at 5:05 p.m. local Geneva time. The meetings lasted about three and a half hours.
- Biden and Putin will now hold separate news conferences. Follow our live coverage here.
- “For the first session, Biden was joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Putin was accompanied by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The initial session was to be limited to those four, plus interpreters,” John Wagner writes. “The White House said in a statement that Biden and Putin [moved] into an ‘expanded bilateral meeting,’ with more aides joining on both sides.”
- “Putin expressed hope for a productive meeting, and Biden said it was important to meet face to face, as the two leaders settled in for the beginning of [the] initial session in a library at the Villa La Grange,” Wagner and Anne Gearan report.
- “Mr. President, I would like to thank you for the initiative to meet today,” Putin told Biden. “The U.S. and Russian relations have a lot of issues accumulated at the highest level. … And I hope that the meeting will be productive.”
- “Biden said he hopes the two countries can cooperate where they have mutual interests and find a path forward on issues on which they disagree. He also referenced ‘two great powers,’ a line certain to be welcomed by Moscow.”
- Putin usually makes world leaders wait for him. But, in a break with the past, he was punctual this time. “Putin arrived before Biden — as previously agreed upon — almost exactly on time, at 1:04 p.m. local time, and the U.S. president arrived 15 minutes later, at 1:19 p.m. local,” Ashley Parker and John Hudson note.
- The two leaders were greeted by Swiss President Guy Parmelin. “I wish you both presidents a fruitful dialogue in the interests of your two countries and the world,” Parmelin said. Biden and Putin then shook hands and ignored questions from reporters.
- Putin’s trip to Switzerland marks the first time he’s traveled outside Russia in more than a year. “Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Putin has made few public appearances, largely conducting official meetings over video from his suburban Moscow residence,” Isabelle Khurshudyan reports. “Those who wished to meet with Putin in person had to first quarantine for two weeks. That included the NBC crew who interviewed Putin in Moscow ahead of Wednesday’s summit. Journalists in Geneva said the Kremlin brought in its own mobile laboratory to administer rapid coronavirus tests to those who planned to attend Putin’s news conference after the summit.”
- The reporter pool was a bit of a mess. “Shoving ensued as pools of reporters from the United States and Russia sought to enter the villa where the two leaders were meeting,” Wagner and Khurshudyan report. “U.S. and Russian security officials repeatedly told reporters to line up separately and in single file, but that never happened, according to reporters on the scene. Instead, the journalists pushed and shoved trying to enter the building.” From the pool report: “Both presidents watched and listened to the media scuffle in front of them. They appeared amused by the scene.”
Russian state media released a photo of the second session:
Biden and his aides have been careful to lower expectations for the summit.
- “The White House has said that Mr. Biden will also raise the issues of Mr. Putin’s repression of his domestic political opposition, Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine and foreign election interference,” the New York Times’s Marc Santora, Michael Shear and Anton Troianovski report. Meanwhile, “the Kremlin has said that there are areas of common ground, like climate change, where the two sides can find agreement. And for Mr. Putin, the symbolism of the summit itself is important to demonstrate the respect he seeks on the world stage.”
- Still, Biden and his aides “have been careful to lower expectations,” Shear writes. “‘We’re not expecting a big set of deliverables out of this meeting,’ a senior administration official told reporters aboard Air Force One as the president flew from Brussels to Geneva on Tuesday ahead of the summit.”
The Republican National Committee criticized Biden’s meeting with Putin even before it began.
- RNC communications director Danielle Alvarez suggested that giving Putin an audience amounted to handing the Russian leader a win, Wagner reports. “Biden’s foreign policy failures have strengthened Russia at the expense of our country,” Alvarez said.
- The RNC did not offer a similar critique when Trump met with Putin in 2018. Back then, Trump famously refused to criticize Putin for what U.S. intelligence said was a concerted effort by Russians to interfere in the 2016 election.
We still don’t really know what happened between Putin and Trump in Helsinki. Congressional Democrats are no longer investigating the meeting.
- “Congressional Democrats said they are no longer seeking records of Trump’s private meetings with the Russian leader, despite previous concerns Trump tried to conceal details of their conversations,” ABC News’s Benjamin Siegel reports. “ ‘The Biden administration is looking forward, not back,’ said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., whose panel once considered subpoenaing Trump’s interpreter to testify about his July 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, where only an American interpreter was also present.”
- “In 2019, The Post reported that the former president went to ‘extraordinary lengths’ to conceal details of his conversations with Putin, leaving some subordinates without a clear record of the world leaders’ interactions.”
- “Rep. Tom Malinowksi, D-N.J., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who served as an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, said details about Trump and Putin’s conversations are ‘historically very interesting,’ but less relevant given that Trump ‘is not shaping US policy towards Russia or anything else.’ ”
Quote of the day
“It’s always better to meet face to face,” Biden told Putin as their meeting began.
At the table
Today, we’re having lunch with Colleen McCain Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who recently became the executive editor of the Sacramento Bee and McClatchy’s regional editor for California. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Knox: First off, congratulations. At the risk of giving your newsrooms collective palpitations, what kinds of changes can you see yourself making to news reporting, or editing, or marketing at the Bee?
McCain Nelson: I’ve been thrilled to deliver the really good news to my newsroom that we’re actually investing in more journalists and investing in local journalism at the Bee. And so we recently posted several jobs as part of an expansion of our staff.
We’re working hard to augment some coverage areas, we’re working hard to provide more in-depth journalism, and we’re working hard to really be responsive to the questions that readers tell us they want us to answer.
We’re actually reimagining the Bee, and updating it, and investing in our newsroom and adding to our staff.
Knox: We’re emerging from two crises, the pandemic and the resulting economic devastation. We’ve had a year of protests related to killings by police. What do these things mean for the news media in 2021?
McCain Nelson: For the Sacramento Bee, the last 15 months have really helped underscore the value of local news. For us, the Sacramento Bee has played an essential role in helping our readers navigate the pandemic. Readers turned to us to find out information about their community: do they need to wear a mask? Where they can get a vaccine? Now they want to know if they won the vaccine lottery.
I think it’s easy to lose track of how many amazing feats of journalism have been executed during the last year or so under stressful and even traumatic circumstances. I think that now, as we start to emerge from that year, our challenge at the Bee is to answer the question of how do we continue to provide our audience with post-pandemic news and information that they find equally essential.
Knox: Polls tell us regional and local news outlets enjoy greater public trust than national outlets. What can the latter learn from the former?
McCain Nelson: We try hard every day to be responsive to our readers. We want to be transparent. We try to show them how the news is reported. And we introduce ourselves to our community. We want to be part of the community. We want to answer the questions our readers are asking.
For a long time, a lot of news organizations just published news and expected readers to take it at face value and to know how we did our jobs. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can explain to readers — how we came to produce this story or what went into the sourcing — so they understand how we do our jobs and why they can believe in the news that we’re reporting.
Knox: What’s the best way to respond to disinformation and misinformation?
McCain Nelson: I think that we need to provide readers with a roadmap that helps them become informed consumers of news.
At this point, it’s kind of the Wild West online, and people just encounter information in so many different places, and they don’t necessarily have the tools to sort out what’s credible or what’s actually journalism, or what’s just kind of shouting into the voice.
It’s incumbent upon us to provide readers with information about how we did our reporting, why what we’re doing is journalism, and then also provide them with the tools to assess what some other outlets in the online universe are doing and why that can’t be trusted.
I think a lot of us just assume that readers understand the difference between something they see on Twitter, versus something that’s on a blog, versus something that’s actually reported, substantiated journalism. And so we need to spend more time helping them become discerning and informed consumers of news.
Knox: What’s your vision for how to cover national politics?
McCain Nelson: Our vision for covering politics is to cover local politics. Our focus at the Sacramento Bee is intensely local. And so when we cover national politics, it’s through a local lens.
Our reporters who are stationed in our Washington, D.C. bureau for the Sacramento Bee write about how D.C. issues affect Californians. We’re always looking through the California lens, we’re always looking through the Sacramento-region lens and saying how does this affect our audience. There are so many different places that our readers can find out what’s happening in D.C., writ large, or what President Biden is doing in Brussels this week, or what he’s saying to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But there’s really only one place where our Sacramento audience can find smart coverage of national political issues that affects their lives. That’s our lens for covering national politics.
Hot on the left
Democrats are wondering what's going on at the Department of Justice under Merrick Garland, write the Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey and Scott Bixby: “While they have largely praised Garland’s first steps on key issues like voting rights, the attorney general has also presided over a series of decisions that have lawmakers frustrated or downright angry. ‘I am very concerned by what I had hoped would be a departure from some of the worst behaviors of the Trump administration,’ said Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), a House Judiciary member, who mentioned a number of issues Garland has been weak on in the eyes of progressives. Among those continued Trump policies, the DOJ has kept seizing land near the southern border that would be necessary to construct more of the border wall. It has defended in court a Trump-era posture of denying green cards to certain immigrants living legally in the U.S. And the Justice Department has stood behind Trump-era policies friendly to the fossil fuel industry. .... While virtually all Democratic lawmakers have been inclined to give Garland the benefit of the doubt, several key figures in the party are signaling that their patience is wearing thin. ‘The Department of Justice has a very long to-do list,’ said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). ‘I would strongly urge the Department to prioritize the civil rights work, voting protection, antitrust, and not the initiatives begun during the Trump era that undermine justice in this country.’”
Hot on the right
Is Benjamin Netanyahu out for good? “To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of his demise may be greatly exaggerated,” writes the National Review’s Victoria Coates. “One significant advantage for Netanyahu as he leaves office is the makeup of the government that is replacing him. The internal contradictions and incoherence of the change coalition were on full display last week as the group blew through a deadline when they could not come to an agreement on managing the roads in West Bank; this was an excellent example of the sort of contentious issue that will bedevil a coalition that includes both an Islamist Arab party and a far-right party, which tend to see such things very differently.”
Share of active federal judges by race and ethnicity, visualized
In his first four months, Biden nominated as many minority women to the federal bench as Trump had confirmed in his entire four years. A Washington Post analysis of Federal Judicial Center data shows all women, regardless of race or ethnicity, are underrepresented on the judiciary.
Today in Washington
Biden is meeting with Putin. They are expected to meet for four to five hours. Later, Biden will hold a news conference before heading back to D.C.
Vice President Harris is meeting with members of the Texas state legislature who last month blocked passage of legislation that would’ve made it significantly harder for Texans to vote.
Jimmy Fallon celebrated that New York reached Biden's 70 percent vaccination goal: