National Security

Trump’s Charlottesville response stirs debate on ‘domestic terrorism’


President Trump is conspicuously avoiding the term “domestic terrorism” to describe the attack in Charlottesville, Va., that killed a 32-year-old woman and injured many others.

The Saturday violence at a white supremacist rally has been almost uniformly characterized as an act of domestic terrorism by officials across the political spectrum, including by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose department is investigating the case. 

But Trump on Monday afternoon stopped short of using the phrase when he took the podium to condemn individual groups that commit “racist violence” 

{mosads}His language was a stark contrast to his insistence on the use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe Islamist extremism — a popular conservative position he embraced on the campaign trail.

“When will President Obama issue the words RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM? He can’t say it, and unless he will, the problem will not be solved!” he tweeted, following the December 2015 Islamic State in Iraq and Syria attack in San Bernardino, Calif.

Trump’s delay in denouncing white supremacist groups by name has been widely condemned, even in his own party. Critics questioned whether the president was reluctant to criticize supporters, as some were wearing his trademark red “Make America Great Again” hats in Charlottesville and touting support for him. 

“It’s [a question] the administration might have to answer fairly soon — why the president immediately reacts when it’s Islamic terrorism but didn’t do it in this case,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist.

Mackowiak characterized the decision not to use the word “terror” as part of “a blind spot” the president has where civil rights are concerned — and a reluctance to accede to a growing chorus of voices demanding he take that step.

“I’d put that question in the category of a botched response and a blind spot that he personally has towards these issues rather than some specific decision that he believes it doesn’t meet that threshold,” Mackowiak said. “I doubt that he’s given it that level of thought.” 

But, he added, “he’s made a career of not doing what people demand he do.”

Allies of Trump shrugged off the discrepancy between the president’s statement and the one from Sessions, arguing that the president’s statement condemning the violence was unequivocal and should have been sufficient.

“The people who are still complaining about the president’s words Saturday and Monday will never be pleased with anything he says,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser. 

Civil rights advocates for years have argued that the U.S. has a double standard when it comes to political violence, with only acts committed by Muslims labeled “terrorism.” The term is rarely applied, they say, to attacks by right-wing white extremists like Dylann Roof, who was charged with hate crimes after opening fire in a black church in South Carolina in 2015.

“When you don’t take acts of political violence that are committed by white people, it suggests that non-white people are committing most of the acts of terrorism in the United States, and that’s actually not true,” said Don Haider-Markel, who chairs the Department of Political Science at Kansas University.

The phrase “domestic terror” typically sparks fierce debate. The almost uniform use of the term to describe the attack in Charlottesville — including from Republicans like Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) — caught Dr. Erin Miller, who manages the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, by surprise.

“It’s pretty remarkable how on all sides of the political spectrum — save one person in particular — people seem willing to use the term terrorism,” Miller said.

Legally, the use of the term is largely symbolic. The administration has described the investigation as a civil rights probe, although Sessions on Monday morning said that it “meets the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute.” He added that both terrorism and civil rights investigators are working the case.

James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old suspect arrested in connection with the attack, has been charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failure to stop at the scene of a fatal crash. Fields allegedly plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters who were peacefully marching — a deadly tactic that has been repeatedly employed by ISIS.

Federal law defines domestic terrorism as violent acts within the U.S. “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or to influence government policy or conduct.

But for crimes that aren’t typically associated with terrorism — like shooting a group of people as opposed to hijacking a plane, for example — prosecutors charge individuals with terrorism only if there is an international connection. That structure is baked into federal law to avoid sweeping up ordinary criminal activity under the umbrella of terrorism. Prosecutors instead rely on other charges — like hate crimes, in the case of Roof — to go after perpetrators.

Yet the “domestic terrorism” designation can trigger enhanced investigative powers — as well as bring what might otherwise have been a state case under federal jurisdiction.

“We are pursuing it in the Department of Justice in every way that we can make a case,” Sessions said Monday on ABC News’ Good Morning America. “You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation towards the most serious charges that can be brought because this is unequivocally unacceptable and evil attack.”

Both the Trump and Obama administrations have faced accusations of not being tough enough on alt-right extremism.

In the Roof case, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch took heat for declining to charge the case as terrorism. The emotionally charged debate highlighted the challenges the government faces in determining what constitutes domestic terrorism — and how to handle it.

Years before that, in 2010, the Obama administration quietly dismantled a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) office responsible for tracking non-Islamist domestic terror, after conservatives cried foul over a leaked paper documenting the rise of far-right extremism.

The Trump administration has also shifted the emphasis away from domestic extremism.

The White House recently cut funding for groups fighting right-wing violence under a DHS grant program that is aimed at supporting community efforts to stop violent extremism and recruitment efforts.

Government data on the number of white supremacist incidents compared to the number of Islamist attacks is scant, but some independent data suggests that the number could be as high as 2 to 1 — including both plots and attacks that were carried out.

The FBI and DHS in May warned of the threat posed by white supremacist groups in the United States.

In a joint intelligence bulletin issued May 10 and obtained by Foreign Policy, DHS and the bureau said white supremacist groups had carried out more violent attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years — and were likely to commit more.

The white supremacist movement “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year,” the bulletin said. 

Tags Cory Gardner Jeff Sessions Ted Cruz
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