Last week, as the Trump administration warned of the dangers of a migrant caravan heading toward the United States from Central America, pipe bombs were sent to at least 13 Democratic critics of the president. Then, on Saturday, a gunman killed 11 people in what is believed to have been the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history.
Critics have condemned both the pipe bombs and the killings at a Pittsburgh synagogue as the result of the Trump administration’s failure to address the continued threat from domestic right-wing terrorists, while the president instead emphasizes a crackdown on undocumented immigrants and Islamic extremism. It’s a shift in focus that is widely supported by Trump’s Republican base, and has been underscored by his administration’s cuts to counterterrorism funding even as the president demands appropriations for a border wall.
“The administration bases its policies on what’s the loudest and most clickable headline,” Ali Noorani, the executive director of the DC-based National Immigration Forum, told BuzzFeed News. “It does nothing to keep the American public safe.”
A 2017 US Government Accountability Office report on countering violent extremism found that of the 85 violent extremist incidents resulting in death since Sept. 12, 2001, right-wing extremist groups were responsible for 62 deaths, or 73%, while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 deaths, or 27%.
The grants, which were part of the $10 million Congress appropriated for the Department of Homeland Security’s countering violent extremism programs, or CVE. BuzzFeed News previously reported that in January 2017, then–DHS Secretary John Kelly halted CVE grants and ordered a review of the programs. The agency then terminated funding for Life After Hate, a group that focuses on neo-Nazis, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which is involved in community-based violence prevention.
“Terrorism that comes from anti-Semitic white nationalist sources is not deemed a priority by this particular program of the administration,” Noorani said. “If the federal government is serious about protecting the American public, they would look at domestic terrorism in all its shapes and forms, and it doesn’t seem they want to do that.”
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said that the Obama administration also did not allocate much funding to CVE, though the rhetoric toward domestic terror threats was markedly different under the Democratic president than it has been under Trump.
“The rhetoric was different but the programs were the same,” Hughes said.
Mustafa Tameez, a former consultant to DHS under the Bush administration, said it’s wrong to focus on DHS redistributing the CVE grants, because the grants are a very small part of countering right-wing terrorism.
“I don’t think that’s the right measurement to be focusing on. It’s easy to point the finger — ‘Here’s something tangible we can see, and DHS did it,'” Tameez told BuzzFeed News. “We have to refrain ourselves from doing that if we are going to pull our national security apparatus together and focus on where the threats are.”
The $10 million in CVE grants were meant to be a laboratory experiment to see what counterterrorism programs could be scaled up, Tameez said. The US should continue to expand its focus on the root causes of right-wing, homegrown extremism, he added, pointing to the amplification of extremist views on social media.
“We have to broaden the vision because extremism is growing and we have to address those issues without taking political shots,” Tameez said. “We have to refrain ourselves from doing that if we are going to pull our national security apparatus together and focus on where the threats are.”
Even as DHS has scaled back programs countering right-wing extremism, it continues to ramp up spending requests to combat the supposed threats posed by immigration. Last week, Trump’s DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the department has asked the Pentagon for military aid in response to the caravan making its way toward the US border.
Robert Bowers, the man suspected of carrying out the attack inside the Pittsburgh synagogue, posted about the caravan on Gab, a messaging platform that prides itself on championing free speech and is popular with the alt-right.
He posted a Fox News video of the caravan with the message “The Mass Migration Agenda…diversity for you but not for jew.” He also reposted other posts on Gab that called the people in the caravan “illiterate brutal murderers.”
Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform organization, said there is no evidence that the migrant caravan is a national security threat.
“They’re focusing on a caravan of tired and hungry Central Americans seeking safety in America still a thousand miles away, and there’s multiple domestic terrorist attacks actively being directed at Americans,” Sharry told BuzzFeed News. “People are committing political violence because they’re following [Trump’s] lead and the only thing that can stop them are the voters. … He’s making a horrible incredibly dangerous situation worse.”
Sharry also criticized Trump for an announcement he reportedly has planned on Tuesday, revealing a plan to prevent immigrants, including asylum-seekers, from entering the US across the southern border.
“We just had the largest massacre against the Jewish community in America and he’s planning on giving speeches to inflame division,” Sharry said. “We are at a very dangerous moment.”
John Sandweg, a former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that given the pipe bomb threats and the shooting in Pittsburgh, Trump should not give the rumored Tuesday speech announcing a potentially massive immigration policy change.
Sandweg, who ran ICE in 2013 under the Obama administration, said that while the situation at the border does not merit any policy change, Tuesday would be a particularly bad time to roll out such a shift, given that the nation is still coming to grips with the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the apparent attempts to bomb the offices and homes of several Democratic politicians and news outlets last week.
“The anticipated directives are a dramatic overreaction to this humanitarian crisis,” Sandweg said. “This is not a security problem — 100% of the caravan that makes it to our border will be apprehended, screened, and processed for removal.”
“These are times when we need to come together as a nation and represent our true values,” he added. “To announce that we will no longer provide refuge to those fleeing persecution is simply un-American.”