White House officials rebuffed efforts by their colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security for more than a year to make combating domestic terror threats, such as those from white supremacists, a greater priority as specifically spelled out in the National Counterterrorism Strategy, current and former senior administration officials as well as other sources close to the Trump administration tell CNN.
“Homeland Security officials battled the White House for more than a year to get them to focus more on domestic terrorism,” one senior source close to the Trump administration tells CNN. “The White House wanted to focus only on the jihadist threat which, while serious, ignored the reality that racial supremacist violence was rising fast here at home. They had major ideological blinders on.”
The National Counterterrorism Strategy, issued last fall, states that “Radical Islamist terrorists remain the primary transnational terrorist threat to the United States and its vital national interests,” which few experts dispute. What seems glaring to these officials is the minimizing of the threat of domestic terrorism, which they say was on their radar as a growing problem.
“Ultimately the White House just added one paragraph about domestic terrorism as a throw-away line,” a senior source involved in the discussion told CNN. That paragraph mentions “other forms of violent extremism, such as racially motivated extremism, animal rights extremism, environmental extremism, sovereign citizen extremism, and militia extremism.” It made no mention of white supremacists. (A separate paragraph in the report mentions investigating domestic terrorists with connections to overseas terrorists, but that does not seem to be a reference to white supremacists.)
The document mentions that domestic terrorism is on the rise, but the subject is only briefly addressed, all the more stark given that FBI Director Christopher Wray’s July testimony that there have been almost as many domestic terror arrests in the first three quarters of the fiscal year — about 100 — as there have been arrests connected to international terror. Wray noted that the majority of the domestic terrorism cases were motivated by some version of white supremacist violence, adding that the FBI takes the threat “extremely seriously.”
Said a current senior Trump administration official, “DHS is surging resources to the [domestic terrorism] issue, but they’re behind the curve because of lack of support from the White House. There’s some legislative and appropriations work happening, but the reality is there won’t be a FY20 budget for the department so they will have to make do.”
In March of this year, right after the slaughter of 51 Muslims in New Zealand by a white supremacist, President Donald Trump said he did not think white nationalism was a rising threat around the world. “I don’t really,” he said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
One former senior administration official says he “took some hope and comfort that domestic terrorism was even mentioned” in the National Counterterrorism Strategy, because it meant agencies could use it as a hook to prioritize the threat with funding and manpower.
A senior administration official defended the final analysis.
“This Administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism was the first to ever include domestic terrorism,” the official said. “This issue continues to be a priority for this Administration, and the National Security Council has launched an interagency process focused on combating domestic terrorism in support of the President’s counterterrorism strategy.”
Why the White House pushed back so much is a matter of some debate. The former senior administration official noted that the White House, specifically the President, has a problem criticizing white supremacy, and says he “didn’t have expectation they would get behind it” — the brief mention of domestic terrorism as a threat in the National Counterterrorism Strategy — “because the preponderance of it involves white supremacy and that’s not something this administration is comfortable speaking out against, until the other day by the President and even that was pretty hedged.”
The former senior administration official noted Monday’s remarks following the El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, shootings were read from a teleprompter. “You don’t hear the President mention white supremacists when he’s speaking extemporaneously.”
The senior source close to the Trump administration acknowledged the President’s reluctance to criticize white supremacists was part of “an overlay” of all these discussions.
“You know it will trigger the boss,” the source said. “Instinctively you know he’s going to be averse to mentioning that.”
But, the official said, “primarily the people with their pen on the document,” were motivated by something else. “The last administration was too politically cautious in calling out the threat of Islamist terrorism,” the official said. “But that doesn’t mean we needed to overcorrect and ignore what was a surging domestic threat.”
The sources tell CNN that the one paragraph about domestic terrorism was the best the Department of Homeland Security officials could get. DHS went with an “all forms of terror” approach and “restructured offices and experts to be ideologically agnostic but focused on the threat wherever it morphed,” said the senior source involved in the discussions. “When it became clear the White House was going to say little if anything on domestic terrorism we asked that they at least say in the Counterterrorism Strategy that there would be a subsequent domestic terrorism strategy.”
But the White House would not agree to that, either, sources tell CNN.
During the lengthy back and forth, the senior source tells CNN, one White House official proposed that the National Counterterrorism Strategy focus radical Islamists and foreign drug dealers, since that would please the President.
“But those things don’t go together,” the source recalled. “That was part of the warped worldview they had there.”