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Former DHS Official: Trump Pouring 'Fuel On The Fire' Of Domestic Extremism

Sep 2, 2020
Originally published on September 2, 2020 4:37 pm

Update at 4:30 p.m. ET: White House Communications Director Alyssa Farah responded to NPR's request for comment on Elizabeth Neumann's charges that the White House has not addressed the threat of domestic extremism, particularly what Neumann referred to as "right-wing extremism."

In an email, Farah dismissed Neumann's concerns as those of a "disgruntled employee."

"Our country is constantly facing dynamic threats ranging from domestic, to cyber, to international, to financial crimes. Our brave federal law enforcement, national security, and Intelligence officials work around the clock to monitor every range of threats facing our nation, including domestic terror," Farah said. "This sounds more like a case of this former disgruntled employee being ineffective at their job, than an indictment of the career professionals who swear an oath to work every day to protect our country from threats foreign and domestic."

Our original story:

A former top Department of Homeland Security official who resigned in April says the Trump administration is creating the conditions for domestic extremism to flourish in the United States.

Elizabeth Neumann left her position as assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention after three years at DHS. In an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, she offers a candid assessment of the counterterrorism community's failure to address the threat posed by domestic extremism.

She says the administration is paving the way for even more violence.

The lifelong Republican voted for Trump in 2016, albeit, she says, "very reluctantly." She shared some of the concerns that others in national security had expressed publicly about his fitness for office but decided to join DHS with her nearly 20 years of experience in homeland security issues to help the new administration.

Neumann saw signs of rising domestic extremism soon after she arrived at DHS in February 2017. At the time, she was serving as the deputy chief of staff for Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.

"We had a spate of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in a couple of places across the country that made national news, enough for us to go, 'This is interesting. What is this about?' " she says. "And then we started hearing from our law enforcement partners that they were seeing a rise in hate crimes, particularly anti-Semitic hate crimes. And we found that a little puzzling because there wasn't any one group claiming credit for it."

By July of that year, Kelly had moved to the White House to serve as Trump's own chief of staff. And by March of 2018, Neumann found herself stepping into the role of assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention. In that capacity, she was officially in charge of emerging threats — and had identified violence perpetrated by right-wing extremists as a major one.

Neumann saw the diffuse nature of right-wing extremist violence as a particular challenge. "It was hard for the counterterrorism community to put their finger on it, in large part because the movement is more of a movement than a group or an organization," she says.

That lack of official group cohesion reminded Neumann of the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). She watched domestic extremists use the same tactics as the terrorist group.

"They borrowed from ISIS's playbook and they learned how to radicalize people online," she says. In the post-Sept. 11 United States, domestic extremists also adopted an emphasis on smaller attacks that could be carried out quickly with limited planning. What Neumann saw was "the pivot to bring your own weapon to the fight, use whatever you have: a knife, a gun, a vehicle, vehicle ramming," she says. "We've seen a number of vehicle rammings this summer, in fact."

But unlike the urgent interagency response to ISIS, Neumann says there was no clear effort to combat violent extremists on the right.

"If you had a very clear voice at the top, from the president, from other senior leaders in the Republican Party, denouncing this and warning conservatives — warning Republicans — that these groups are trying to recruit you based on things that might sound like a typical conservative belief, but behind it is this insidious, ugly, evil thing, if we had more clear voices talking about it — it would somewhat inoculate people from that recruitment and that radicalization," she says. "But instead, we have the opposite effect. We have the president not only pretty much refusing to condemn, but throwing fuel on the fire, creating opportunities for more recruitment through his rhetoric."

The El Paso shooting

Neumann says she sees how that rhetoric has led to acts of violence. One example: the El Paso shooting in August of 2019, in which a 21-year-old gunman shot and killed 23 people and injured about two dozen others in the parking lot of a Walmart.

"When you see the El Paso attacker, his manifesto was citing language and rhetoric that comes from the president's campaign rallies about an invasion from Mexico and how we've got to protect our country," she says.

Neumann believes that unauthorized immigration across the Southern border is a security issue, but she sees Trump's way of speaking about that issue as dangerous because it sows fear.

"He uses rhetoric to scare people. This is a known psychological tactic that if you get people to fear, they tend to follow you to the solution of 'How are we going to save ourselves?' And his answer is, 'It's me. If you vote for me, I will save you,' " she says. "Well, for some people, the way that they think that they need to protect themselves, it's more than just a vote for a president. It's 'let me go kill people.' "

The El Paso shooting was a key moment in Neumann's efforts to secure funding to address domestic extremism. Her team was invited to the White House for a series of task force meetings to try to address the problem. She says they had already been working on a strategy to combat domestic extremism for a year and a half before the El Paso shooting, and they presented it at the White House.

They seem to understand that for whatever reason, if we use the term 'domestic terrorism' or we talk about the white supremacist language, that seems to derail things at the White House. - Elizabeth Neumann

And what that strategy needed in 2019 was money. "We [wanted] to make sure this [ended] up in the president's FY 2021 budget," she says.

'Preventing violence'

The White House seemed to support the strategy — but under one condition.

"They just asked for it to be couched in terms of 'preventing violence' and not 'domestic terrorism.' And my sense was they were doing that pragmatically," she says. "They seem to understand that for whatever reason, if we use the term 'domestic terrorism' or we talk about the white supremacist language, that seems to derail things at the White House."

When Trump finally started using the term "domestic extremism" himself in the summer of 2020, it was in reference to the violence and looting that occurred during the protests across the country against police brutality targeting Black Americans, which the president attributed to "antifa." For Neumann, this was an obvious red herring. She says that the numbers don't bear out the idea that left-wing violence is as much of a problem as right-wing violence, and arrests during the summer's protests demonstrate that.

"If you look at the people that have been arrested for that, by and large, I mean, it's the boogaloo movement or it's an association with QAnon. It's the right side of the spectrum. It is not antifa." She's unequivocal about this: "The threat of domestic terrorism is not from antifa. It is from these right-wing movements."

The threat of domestic terrorism is not from antifa. It is from these right-wing movements. - Elizabeth Neumann

'His style is chaos itself'

Neumann is perhaps even more worried about what's to come as the election elicits possibly even more inflammatory words out of the White House.

She's also concerned that people who served as "guardrails" around the president have left the administration. Those "adults in the room," she says, took the heat from the White House in order to allow people like her to keep carrying out their work. This fear is what prompted her to speak publicly, while many other senior administration officials have declined to do so.

"I am really concerned that in a second term, he will not have the ability to make wise decisions because there are no officials surrounding him anymore that have the experience and the gravitas to be able to tell him, 'No, you cannot do this, this is illegal.' Or: 'If you do this, it is likely that this other nation-state will respond in a drastic way that will lead us to war.' That's what's at stake here," she says.

Ultimately, Neumann says she decided last fall to step down when she realized she could not bring herself to vote for Trump again. She says she plans to vote for Joe Biden instead, her first vote for any Democrat.

Neumann hopes that the work she was able to accomplish at DHS will continue to serve the country well.

"We have bipartisan support in Congress with the work that the government needs to do to build out prevention capability across the country," she says.

But she believes that that work will have been in vain if Trump wins a second term.

"It's his style. His style is chaos itself. And when you have chaos at the top of the federal government, that creates chaos throughout every other level of government. That means we cannot perform our security functions well," she says. "The first and primary job of a president, the first and primary job of the federal government, is to protect us."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia is at it again trying to influence the 2020 election this time.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Facebook and Twitter provide this information. They announced a crackdown on an online operation tied to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency, a name we recall from the 2016 election. The IRA was targeting Democratic voters, spreading news from a fake left-leaning news site. For months, officials have warned about Russian attempts to interfere. But now we have some of the first publicly documented accounts of this happening.

MARTIN: We've got NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn with us this morning. Bobby, good morning. What exactly did Facebook and Twitter uncover here?

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Yeah. So it all started with a tip from the FBI. So federal authorities reached out to Facebook and said, hey, there's this site, peacedata.net, and it's calling itself an international news site, but it sure does look like a Russian propaganda tool. So Facebook looked into it and indeed discovered that it was pumping out hundreds of these bogus news articles about foreign affairs, racial injustice, about the Democratic campaign of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. And I talked to research firm Graphika. Facebook brought them in to help investigate this phony news site. And they told me that the Russian operatives behind this site would be pumping out stories to Facebook groups that are geared toward progressive causes. And those articles would say Biden and Harris are too far to the right.

MARTIN: So the idea, though, is to specifically target potential Democratic voters with information, when it comes to progressives at least, that would turn them off from their party's presidential ticket. How does this compare, Bobby, to what happened in 2016?

ALLYN: Yeah. So researchers say, you know, this operation both echoes the 2016 playbook and introduces some new elements here. So four years ago, Russian troll farms pushed, you know, false stories to suppress the progressive and minority vote to hurt Hillary Clinton. So that's a consistent theme. We're seeing that kind of attack happening here. What's new is they duped Americans into helping them. This Russian website posted writing gigs on hiring boards in the U.S. telling, you know, young and very novice journalists that they could make some bucks by writing for peacedata.net. Here's Nathaniel Gleicher. He heads cybersecurity policy at Facebook.

NATHANIEL GLEICHER: And they used that to reach out to unwitting freelancers to essentially trick them into writing for this fake organization and writing on topics that the Russian actors wanted them to write on.

ALLYN: The thing is it didn't work. So both Facebook and Twitter caught this before it could really take off. So the tech companies are saying, look, it's a success story.

MARTIN: Is it, though? I mean, presumably, these attacks are going to just keep happening from different accounts. I mean, how are they going to stop this kind of thing going forward?

ALLYN: Yeah. That's a really good question. You know, we know that Facebook and Twitter have trouble controlling their platforms. You know, on Facebook, whether it's, you know, violent militias who go there to organize, whether it's QAnon that uses Facebook to really spread its conspiracy theories far and wide, there's loads of troubling stuff on Facebook. And you could bet, you know, they're facing enormous pressure to self police ahead of the November election. But, look, it's always a game of cat and mouse. And, you know, while Facebook has new defenses to detect this stuff early, the Russian trolls are adapting, too. Here's Facebook's Gleicher again.

GLEICHER: Russian actors trying harder and harder to hide who they are and being more and more deceptive to conceal their operations.

ALLYN: And so one thing to keep in mind, this stuff lived on Facebook for three months. Some would say that's actually a very long time.

MARTIN: Right. Exactly. A lot of eyeballs saw that stuff over three months. Bobby, we appreciate your reporting on this. Thank you.

ALLYN: Hey, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. We have an inside story this morning of the Trump administration and right-wing extremism. A former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security says the president's rhetoric encouraged it. Elizabeth Neumann served in two DHS positions across more than three years during the administration. She says the actions of the White House staff gave her a definite impression of the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELIZABETH NEUMANN: He does not like talking about white supremacy.

MARTIN: Neumann resigned in April and has now done several interviews, including one with Steve. So tell us more about why Elizabeth Neumann is speaking out right now, Steve.

INSKEEP: Because she's lost confidence in the president, she says. Now, I want to emphasize Neumann says she voted for Trump in 2016, did this because she says she's conservative, she's Christian, her view of her faith leads her to agree with the president about abortion and about Israel, says she just never voted for a Democrat and thought Trump would grow into the job. But she now feels the president's dangerous tendencies - and those are her words - would get worse in a second term, and that includes his attitude about extremism.

MARTIN: So how does she describe that, his attitude towards extremism?

INSKEEP: Well, she describes a president who keeps speaking sympathetically about white supremacists. You think about his remarks after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., you think about him retweeting white supremacist accounts, the way he talks about immigrants. She describes a reluctance at the White House also to face a rising problem with extremist violence out in the country, which she saw throughout her time in the administration. She had some dealings with the White House staff. She says that she and other officials did try to focus attention on this and discovered - well, let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NEUMANN: They seem to understand that for whatever reason if we use the term domestic terrorism or we talk about the white supremacist language, that seems to derail things that the White House.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Neumann says the White House finally did support some funding to fight extremism as long as it wasn't called money for domestic terrorism. It had to be called something else. And she believes that officials did that because they were trying to avoid irritating the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NEUMANN: And the irony is that when he finally was comfortable with using the word domestic terrorism, it was in the context of antifa and trying to exploit or sell a story that the looting and the violence that we have seen somewhat associated with peaceful protests is antifa. And yet if you look at the arrests that have occurred in the protests of the summer, it's the boogaloo movement or it's an association with QAnon. It's the right side of the spectrum. It is not antifa.

INSKEEP: Now, we should mention, Rachel, we put some questions to the White House about Elizabeth Neumann's story. We have not yet heard back.

MARTIN: So here we are in the middle of an election season where the president talks constantly about left-wing violence. It's a central part of his reelection message. So what is - what Neumann is saying, what does that suggest about the fall?

INSKEEP: Elizabeth Neumann, this former DHS official in the Trump administration, doesn't have very much reassuring to say. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NEUMANN: As a security professional, you look at the environment that we're currently operating in and knowing that in the lead up to the election the rhetoric is just going to get more intense. So you worry that we're sitting on a tinderbox about to explode because more fuel keeps being added to the fire.

INSKEEP: She is now watching this election from the outside, having resigned in April, and she says one reason she is concerned is that a lot of officials who used to have the stature to say no to the president are gone.

MARTIN: Wow. Thanks so much, Steve. We appreciate that.

INSKEEP: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is making a dramatic move that's intended to help millions of people who are at risk of eviction during the pandemic.

INSKEEP: Yeah. They're ordering a halt on evictions nationwide through December to curb the spread of COVID-19. Under this moratorium, renters would be able to stay in their apartments if they can prove they're unable to pay their rent because of the pandemic.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Chris Arnold with us this morning. Good morning, Chris. So the first thing I thought when I read this headline was does the CDC have the power to do this? I mean, it seems sort of out of their lane.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel. Well, you know, you might think that, especially given that so far the CDC has been criticized for offering sort of voluntary guidance. You know, you can do this, you might want to do that, and that's been sort of mushy and left states and businesses doing whatever they want, but not this time. I mean, if that was the CDC and its soft kitty cat feet, this is the CDC stopping like Paul Bunyan. And the CDC says, look, you know, the coronavirus presents a historic threat to the public health. Under the Public Health Service Act of 1944, they are citing, the government as the power to do this. And the basic idea is that, look, forcing people out into homeless shelters that are crammed together, living with relatives, that's very likely to get a lot more people sick. And we are talking about a lot of people. One estimate from the National Low Income Housing Coalition is that 30 to 40 million people in 17 million households or families were at risk of losing their home by the end of the year if something like this didn't happen. Diane Yentel is the CEO of the group, and I spoke to her last night.

DIANE YENTEL: Well, my reaction is a feeling of tremendous relief. I mean, it's a pretty extraordinary and bold and unprecedented measure that the White House is taking that will save lives and prevent tens of millions of people from losing their homes in the middle of a pandemic.

ARNOLD: She also says, though, that Congress or the White House should have done this months ago. And instead, we've had this crazy patchwork of federal, state and local moratoriums, and lots of people were not covered, and thousands of people have already been evicted.

MARTIN: What does this mean, though, for the landlords who can't collect rent, right?

ARNOLD: Well, you know, the headline from them is like, OK, who's supposed to pay for this? You know, Congress had a plan to do something similar in the House, but there was $100 billion that was going to be spent on assistance to renters and landlords to pay for all of this rent that wasn't getting paid. That is not a part of this order. I spoke to Greg Brown with the National Apartment Association.

GREG BROWN: We're really concerned about this because the piece that's missing is the most important piece in this whole process, which is rental assistance because if the moratorium is put in place, rents are not paid, but the owners continue to have to meet their financial obligations. And how are they supposed to do that? Who's going to help them pay their bills?

ARNOLD: And we should say, Diane Yentel, who we heard from, she says much the same thing. Look, if you don't give the money, renters at the end of this thing are going to owe this huge pile of money that they can't pay, and they'll fall off a cliff, so both sides asking for the same thing here.

MARTIN: OK. So, Chris, what are some of the details on the rules here? Because I'm guessing, you know, everyone in America can't just stop paying rent immediately.

ARNOLD: Right. Right. People should not just stop paying rent. So what has to happen is if you've been affected by the pandemic and had a big loss of income, you have to sign a declaration that goes to your landlord and you have to say, look, I've tried to get unemployment benefits and other types of support. I've been trying and will continue to make partial payments as much as circumstances permit and that, you know, I can afford. And you also can't make more than about $100,000 a year or twice that for a joint tax return for, like, a married couple. And that you have to say, look, if I get evicted, I have no other option than being homeless or living with more people in close proximity, which would be more dangerous for the spread of the virus. And evictions for reasons other than non-payment of rent, we should say, are allowed. So if somebody is, like, creating a disturbance or lighting the dining room table on fire downstairs, like, a landlord can evict them for that. The government also says, though, that it will impose criminal penalties on landlords who violate the ban.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Chris Arnold with that news, the CDC saying that they are putting a halt - recommending a halt on all evictions during the pandemic to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Chris, thank you. We appreciate it.

ARNOLD: Yep. You're welcome.

MARTIN: And before we leave you today, a little news about an election. Last night, a member of the Kennedy family lost a congressional election in Massachusetts for the first time ever. In a high-profile Senate primary, incumbent Democrat Ed Markey held off a challenge from Congressman Joe Kennedy III. Kennedy had the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Markey was backed by the progressive wing of the party. You can learn more about this race at npr.org and by tuning in to your local NPR member station. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.