Trump cuts funds to fight anti-right wing violence
The Trump administration’s decision to cut federal funding for groups fighting right-wing violence has come under new scrutiny following the president’s controversial response to violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.
Trump, who faced a firestorm of criticism for not initially calling out white supremacists, the KKK and neo-Nazis on Saturday, explicitly denounced the hate groups by name on Monday and vowed to fight against violent extremism.
But the botched immediate response has some critics questioning the White House’s commitment to the issue, and they point to the funding cuts as evidence.
“It’s a disgrace that Trump is cutting out Countering Violent Extremism funds for white supremacists and neo-Nazis. We know that the domestic terror threat from them is as great as it from Islamic radicals. It’s a very serious situation,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I find the pattern of cutting this money to be typical for the Trump administration’s unwillingness to take seriously the threat posed by these people, whether they’re doing it intentionally or not.”
Even before Charlottesville, critics were slamming the administration for making changes to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant program that is aimed at supporting community efforts to stop violent extremism and recruitment efforts.
In the final days of the Obama administration, $10 million in Countering Violent Extremism funding was awarded to 31 different applicants, including several groups dedicated to combating white supremacy and de-radicalizing neo-Nazis.
But the Trump administration froze funding for the grants while it reconsidered the applications, re-examined the goals of the program and altered how the grant program would measure efficacy.
Reuters reported at the time that the White House was considering retooling the program to focus more on radical Islamic extremism than on white supremacist groups. Trump also proposed entirely eliminating the program in his 2018 budget request.
When the administration finally released its revised list of grant recipients this summer, funding was pulled for a total of 12 grant recipients — including $400,000 for a group called Life After Hate, which was one of the only original grant recipients focused on fighting far-right extremism.
The nonprofit organization, which was touted by then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson in a press release, is one of the only programs in the U.S. devoted to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other white supremacy groups.
The Trump administration also cancelled a $900,000 grant that would have gone toward the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to counter jihadist and white supremacist recruiting.
Tony McAleer, one of the co-founders of Life After Hate, said they were counting on the federal dollars to implement a strategic initiative to proactively identify white supremacists online who want to leave the movement.
The organization, which relies on donations and volunteer work to help provide resources and support, can’t afford to proceed with the effort on its own.
“They threw the baby out with bathwater. What happens now is that we have to passively wait for people to reach out to us,” McAleer said.
“If they had given us the funding right away within a month or two of being awarded, we would have been up and running before Charlottesville. Whether or not we would have made a difference, it’s impossible to know.”
The DHS emphasized in a statement that “sixteen of the 26 recipients have applicability to all forms of violent extremism and as such will address the threat of domestic terrorism.”
Seven new applicants also won funding, while seven of the existing recipients got a funding boost.
Those getting the funding boost generally were law enforcement agencies or proposals backed by police.
“When the Trump administration took over, they rejiggered the program so that a large portion now goes to law enforcement agencies,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Under President Obama, the last administration also focused efforts in the controversial counter-violence program on the Muslim community, Patel noted.
“This administration is making explicit what was already implicit with the previous administration, which is the focus of these kinds of programs is to find ways of combating certain kinds of violence over others,” she said.
The focus on Muslim extremism is getting new scrutiny, however, after the events in Charlottesville — as are comments from White House adviser Sebastian Gorka last week that white supremacists are not the problem in the U.S.
“Obviously, given what we saw in Charlottesville this weekend, that should no longer be something that the Trump administration assumes,” Beirich said. “They need to get their act together on these people.”