It’s not exactly a secret that Donald Trump’s race-baiting, fascistic administration has turned a blind eye to violence committed by extreme far-righters. Trump said there were “very fine people” among the ranks of the neo-Nazis behind a deadly march in Charlottesville in 2017, encourages bigoted conspiracy theories like white genocide and QAnon, and recently came to the defense of a right-wing militant who killed two people at protests against racism in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
So it’s similarly not much of a surprise that a federal whistleblower complaint obtained by the New York Times and CNN on Wednesday claims that the White House put pressure on the feds to turn a blind eye as well. According to the complaint, top Department of Homeland Security officials including its particularly pliable acting chief Chad Wolf ordered changes to intelligence reports that would parrot Trump’s lies that the anti-fascist movement is the largest existential threat to the survival of the country.
DHS brass ordered that reports be changed to downplay the threat of white supremacist terrorism and falsely portray antifa groups as a major terror threat, per the complaint. The document also alleges that DHS officials demanded evidence that large numbers of foreign “known or suspected terrorists” are entering the U.S. through the southern border and that former DHS chief Kirstjen Nielsen lied to Congress that thousands had done so. (This is hot bullshit.) Orders also came down demanding the cessation of “intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference” in the 2020 elections, a sore spot for Trump.
The whistleblower separately alleged that in 2019, then-acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Ken Cuccinelli was infuriated by reports detailing conditions in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as they might make it slightly easier for migrants to claim U.S. asylum. The report states that Cuccinelli blamed “deep state” operatives who had infiltrated his agency for producing the documents.
The report was filed by Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s intelligence branch—which helps operate joint federal-state-local intelligence sharing operations called fusion centers that extend the tendrils of the U.S. surveillance apparatus nationwide. He’s not a sympathetic character: Murphy was demoted from his post last month amid backlash to his office’s compilation of information on journalists and protesters. The New York Times reported he had also directed subordinates to refer to protesters outside the federal courthouse in Portland as “VIOLENT ANTIFA ANARCHISTS,” as well as proposed a plan that would de facto deputize Muslim community leaders to spy on others. Murphy now says he was targeted for refusing to edit DHS reports to better reflect the political whims of his superiors. (He wants his old job back.)
Republicans have pressured DHS to downplay the threat posed by white supremacists and other far-right extremists for over a decade, successfully quashing an intelligence report on the topic in 2009. The White House has in particular sought to portray antifa, an ideologically diverse movement of left-wing groups that largely operate autonomously and which has rarely escalated beyond vandalism and occasional street brawls with far-right groups, as a nation-spanning anarchist terror collective that somehow also has a defined hierarchy. Meanwhile, a draft version of DHS’s latest annual threat assessment—which DHS officials could change again before release—warned that white supremacists are by far the “most persistent and lethal threat” domestic terror threat in the U.S. through 2021.
“We judge that white supremacist extremists (WSEs) will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland through 2021,” the report stated. “WSEs almost certainly will continue to target racial and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, politicians, and those they believe promote multi-culturalism and globalization at the expense of the WSE’s identity.”
Subsequent drafts of the document were modified to replace some references to white supremacists as “Domestic Violent Extremists,” a vaguer term that could be used to refer to conflate white supremacists with completely different things like antifa. According to Politico, DHS also modified the document to include sections referring to recent, widespread protests against police racism and brutality across the country.
White supremacist groups have benefited from a digital economy that incentivizes and monetizes extremist content and creates echo chambers for like-minded individuals. This has allowed atomized far-right ideologues to regroup and recruit at scale.
Federal authorities have remained mostly focused on the online habits of Islamic extremists, paying only limited attention to individuals using the internet to disseminate white supremacist propaganda and recruit for far-right organizations. Another former Trump official who held the role of assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention, Elizabeth Neumann, told NPR the threat resembled that posed by the Islamic State.
Far-right groups “borrowed from ISIS’s playbook and they learned how to radicalize people online,” Neumann told NPR. There was “the pivot to bring your own weapon to the fight, use whatever you have: a knife, a gun, a vehicle, vehicle ramming.”
“This is a specific strategy of white nationalists and alt-right groups,” Western States Center program director Lindsey Schubiner told the Washington Post. “White-nationalist and alt-right groups use jokes and memes as a way to normalize bigotry while still maintaining plausible deniability, and it works very well as a recruitment strategy for young people.”
The draft DHS report also makes clear that when white supremacists, homegrown violent extremists, and all other domestic violent extremists are compared, the white supremacists killed the most from 2018 to 2019 by a massive margin. The report noted that 2019 was the deadliest year for domestic extremism since the bombing of a federal complex in Oklahoma City in 1995.
According to data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, between 1994 and 2019 attacks by individuals holding some sort of left-wing ideology caused 22 deaths. The center found that right-wing terrorists killed 335 people over the same time span, including numerous gun massacres carried out by white supremacists.
In May 2020, Murphy wrote, he was also directed by Wolf on behalf of National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien to “cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the US and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran.” Murphy claimed he did not comply because doing so would “put the country in substantial and significant danger.” Murphy also said the DHS chief of staff contacted him in June to order him to “cease any dissemination of an intelligence notification regarding Russian disinformation activities” pending a meeting with Wolf.
The Government Accountability Office ruled last month that the Trump administration illegally appointed Wolf and Cuccinelli, who is now working as Wolf’s deputy director, to their positions. The GAO said that both men are “serving under an invalid order of succession” in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Both Wolf and Cuccinelli have more or less ignored this and carried on as though nothing has happened.
According to the Times, the same lawyers who represented the whistleblower that leaked details of Trump’s efforts to have Ukraine intervene on his behalf in the 2020 elections—which Congress impeached Trump for last year—are representing Murphy. The attorneys, Mark S. Zaid and Andrew P. Bakaj, wrote Murphy was clearly terminated for the “compilation of intelligence reports and threat assessments that conflicted with policy objectives set forth by the White House and senior Department of Homeland Security.”
“Mr. Murphy followed proper lawful whistle-blower rules in reporting serious allegations of misconduct against D.H.S. leadership, particularly involving political distortion of intelligence analysis and retaliation,” Zaid told the Times.
Correction: 9/10/2020, 9:18 a.m. ET: A previous version of this post misstated the title of Chad Wolf. Wolf is acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.