07/10/2020 5:17 AM AEDT | Updated 07/10/2020 8:43 AM AEDT

Trump DOJ 'Technical Concerns' Help Block Bill Targeting White Supremacists

The block by Senate Republicans came in the same week the president refused to condemn white supremacists and told a neo-fascist gang to "stand by."

Shawn Thew/Pool via REUTERS
Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ron Johnson is seen on screen as he speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Sept. 23. 

The Justice Department won’t fully explain why it’s opposed to a bill that would enhance its ability to combat white supremacist violence, adding to concerns that the agency under President Donald Trump is continuing to downplay or ignore the threat of far-right terror. 

Senate Republicans prevented a vote on the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act late last week. The bill, which passed the House unanimously, would establish offices in the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI dedicated to combating the rising threat of far-right extremist violence.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) on Friday blocked an attempt by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the bill’s sponsor, to advance the measure by unanimous consent. Speaking on the Senate floor, Johnson claimed the DOJ told him the bill would “seriously impede their ability to work in the domestic terrorism space.”

A spokesman for Johnson — a close Trump ally who, like the president, recently tested positive for COVID-19 — would not elaborate on how specifically the bill would impede the Justice Department’s work. 

“We have technical concerns with the legislation and are reviewing it closely after its passage in the House,” Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi told HuffPost. “We appreciate Senator Johnson’s willingness to step in and object and relay those concerns. That being said, we always welcome Congress’s interest in our fight against domestic terrorism.”

Raimondi would not elaborate on what “technical concerns” the Justice Department had about the legislation. 

In addition to authorizing the agency offices dedicated to monitoring, investigating and prosecuting cases of domestic terrorism, the bill would require these offices to issue biannual reports to Congress analyzing the state of terror threats, with a particular focus on white supremacists and other far-right extremists.

These reports would include tallies of incidents in which neo-Nazis and other white supremacists infiltrated the ranks of law enforcement and the U.S. military.

The legislation would also have federal agencies train state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies on how to detect and deter white supremacist threats. 

The bill’s rejection in the Senate Friday comes amidst years of the Trump administration promoting white supremacist talking points, condoning right-wing extremist violence, and downplaying domestic terror threats.

Last month a DHS whistleblower complaint alleged that Kenneth Cuccinelli, the department’s second-highest-ranking official, ordered intelligence reports be revised to make white supremacist threats “appear less severe” and to add “information on the prominence of violent ‘left-wing’ groups” like antifa

And in the first presidential debate last week, Trump refused to condemn white supremacists and also told the neo-fascist group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” 

Democrats and civil rights groups have expressed anger over Senate Republicans’ rejection of the Domestic Terror Prevention Act. 

“The President’s own FBI Director called this ‘the top threat we face from domestic violent extremists,’ so there is no question we need to allocate resources toward specifically addressing the threat posed by the Proud Boys, Boogaloos, and other white nationalist thugs, whose stated means and goals are simply violence,” Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), the House sponsor of the bill, told HuffPost in a statement. 

“Senator [Mitch] McConnell and Attorney General [William] Barr’s positions represent a giveaway to terrorists in order to score political points with the President,” he added. 

Bill Clark via Getty Images
Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., sponsored the Domestic Terror Prevention Act in the House.

Durbin said in a statement that it was “a sad moment” to see the bill not come to a vote. 

“I do believe the Senator from Wisconsin and many others when they say that they are against extremists,” Durbin said. “They had a chance to prove it.  They objected.” 

And the Anti-Defamation League wrote in a tweet that the bill “cannot wait.”  

“It should be an uncontroversial priority to establish federal offices to address domestic terrorism and ensure federal employees are trained on the threat,” the ADL wrote. “We urge @SenRonJohnson to immediately explain and to reconsider.”

National security experts said DOJ should clarify their specific objections to the legislation, especially given the political environment and Trump’s opposition to legislation which might target white supremacists, a group he’s been hesitant to condemn.

“I am very skeptical and I think any pushback on domestic terrorism legislation by a Barr-run DOJ needs to be evaluated through the lens of the cult of personality driving executive branch decision-making,” said Jason Blazakis, the director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a former State Department official. 

Mary McCord, the former top national security official at DOJ, said that she wasn’t sure how the bill would “seriously impede” DOJ’s work in the domestic terrorism space. She said there could be legitimate objections to aspects of the legislation, even if she didn’t think it could impede any of DOJ’s domestic terrorism work.

“I can understand that the department might have concerns about providing an explanation about domestic terrorism-related investigations that remain open at the time of the required reporting, depending on what level of detail is expected in the ‘explanation.’ I don’t think this bill will fill the current gaps in our domestic terrorism statutes, but I also don’t think it seriously impedes DOJ’s existing ability to use existing authority to investigate domestic terrorism,” said McCord, who has pushed for an expanded federal criminal statute that would cover deadly acts of domestic terrorism.

McCord did say that the bill “fails to describe the categories for reporting statistics about domestic terrorism investigations, leaving it to the reporting agencies” which “leaves ambiguity in the legislation.”

DOJ, McCord said, “may have some concerns about viewpoint discrimination because some parts of the bill are focused on one particular ideology, though again, I’m not sure this is the basis for the complaint.”

As HuffPost first reported following the 2017 attack in Charlottesville, the Justice Department had internally discussed whether the to push Congress for a domestic terrorism law, but the effort fell off during the Trump administration.

There are limited circumstances when federal terrorism laws apply to domestic terrorists, like the armed white supremacist who took over an Amtrak train and three Trump supporters who plotted to bomb a community of Muslims in Kansas. 

A wider domestic terrorism law could raise major civil liberties concerns, an issue that may be on the minds of many Democrats given the Justice Department’s aggressive posture against protesters and Trump’s (largely empty) proclamation that antifa is a “terrorist organization.” 

Federal agents, generally speaking, have been hesitant about calling white mass killers domestic terrorists, in large part because there’s no broad federal domestic terrorism statute that allows them to charge many domestic terrorists with federal terrorism-related crimes.

Cathal McNaughton / Reuters
A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 31, 2018, after a white nationalist massacred worshippers there. 

The legislation cites a New York Times op-ed by former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Thomas Cullen, a Trump appointee, who called white supremacy and far-right extremism “among the greatest domestic-security threats facing the United States.” Cullen, who was confirmed as a federal judge last month, was outspoken about the rise of white supremacists and called for elected officials to consider a federal domestic terrorism statute “that would allow for the terrorism prosecution of people who commit acts of violence, threats and other criminal activities aimed at intimidating or coercing civilians.”

Wray, a Republican Trump appointed to head the FBI after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, has also spoken more clearly on the threat of domestic terrorism in ways that have aggravated the president. Last year, Wray said that arrests of FBI domestic terrorism targets were on the rise (although ― due to the lack of a domestic terrorism statute ― many of the targets are ultimately charged with other federal crimes or arrested by state authorities). A top FBI counterterrorism official has called domestic terrorism cases “challenging” for the bureau and that they would “use anything [in federal law] we can that fits, that’s appropriate” to go after domestic terrorists. In the case of former Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, that meant the feds charged a man they said was plotting a domestic terrorism attack with a variety of weapons charges. Hasson was sentenced to 13 years in prison back in January. 

Trump has expressed frustration with Wray, and hasn’t closed the door to firing yet another FBI director. Wray has also made factual statements about voter fraud that are politically inconvenient for a president hoping to sow discord and doubts about the integrity of the upcoming election, and has called antifa an ideology rather than an organization.

Most Americans, according to a HuffPost/YouGov survey in 2018, are not aware that there’s no broad federal statute that outlaws acts of domestic terrorism, although most think there should be. An organization for FBI agents has pushed Congress to pass domestic terrorism legislation that would cover a wider range of deadly attacks with politically motivated bases. 

While the FBI Agents Association has not taken a position on the new bill, FBIAA President Brian O’Hare said in a statement to HuffPost that lawmakers “must grapple with domestic terrorism directly, responsibly, and Constitutionally.”

“Domestic terrorism is a threat to the American people and our democracy, and acts of violence intended to intimidate civilian populations or to influence or affect government policy should be prosecuted as domestic terrorism regardless of the ideology behind them. FBIAA continues to urge Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime,” O’Hare said. “This would ensure that FBI Agents and prosecutors have the best tools to fight domestic terrorism. FBIAA agrees with FBI Director Christopher Wray that Congress should act quickly to unite the nation to fight against domestic terrorism and violent extremism.”