While much of the media this week has been focused (appropriately) on the revelations in Bob Woodward’s interviews with Donald Trump that deliberately downplayed the virulence and lethality of the COVID-19 pandemic, the second damning disclosure this week—a Department of Homeland Security whistleblower’s complaint that intelligence assessments had been altered or shelved in order to protect Trump politically—is horrifying for much of the same reason: It revealed that Trump will manipulate information to the public allowing a plague to be unleashed on the public for his own political gain.
The report, from demoted intelligence-division chief Brian Murphy, claims that DHS chief Chad Wolf and others in the department attempted to manipulate official DHS intelligence by downplaying concerns about Russian interference in the 2020 election—but even more disturbingly, by ordering threat assessments to dilute concerns about white nationalism while playing up the right’s concocted bogeyman, ‘antifa.’
The spread of toxic white nationalism and its always-attendant violence has become, as Renée Graham at the Boston Globe observes, another kind of pandemic that Trump has downplayed and allowed to spread. Predicated by his mutual embrace of the far right in the 2015-2016 campaign, Trump’s election to the presidency unleashed a Pandora’s box of white-nationalist demons, beginning with a remarkable surge in hate crimes during his first month, and then his first two years, in office. Its apotheosis has come in the form of a rising tide of far-right mass domestic terrorism and mass killings, as well the spread of armed right-wing “Boogaloo” radicals and militiamen creating mayhem amid civil unrest around the nation.
Trump’s response all along has been to dance a tango in which, after sending out a signal of encouragement (such as his “very fine people on both sides” comments after the white-nationalist violence in Charlottesville in August 2017), he follows up with an anodyne disavowal of far-right extremists that is believed by no one, least of all white nationalists. Whenever queried about whether white nationalists pose a threat—as he was after a right-wing terrorist’s lethal attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, answering: “I don’t really, I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems”—Trump has consistently downplayed the threat.
The whistleblower’s complaint reveals the depth of the rot that Trump has inflicted on the law-enforcement agencies tasked with dealing with the threat in his administration. It claims that Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, DHS’s second-highest-ranking official, ordered Murphy to modify intelligence assessments in order to make the white-supremacist threat “appear less severe.” He also wanted the assessments to include information on “left-wing” groups and antifa.
The complaint also claims that Cuccinelli and Wolf blocked the release of a March threat assessment of future dangers to the nation that highlighted white-supremacist violence and Russian election interference, saying it was blocked because of the way it might “reflect upon President Trump.”
“Mr. Cuccinelli stated that Mr. Murphy needed to specifically modify the section on white supremacy in a manner that made the threat appear less severe, as well as include information on the prominence of violent ‘left-wing’ groups,” the complaint says.
When Murphy made another push for the report’s release in early July, the complaint says, Wolf reiterated Cuccinelli’s complaints and asked for it to include “information on the unrest in Portland, Ore.” Murphy noted that he believed such information would undermine the gathered intelligence.
Michael German, a national-security analyst for the Brennan Center for Justice and an expert on domestic terrorism, noted that this kind of manipulation of intelligence at top federal levels has profound consequences for all levels of law enforcement nationally.
“The whistleblower's allegations document how explicit bias infects the top echelons of law enforcement and undermines the veracity and reliability of terrorism intelligence that goes out to state and local police,” German told Daily Kos in an email. “If police are misinformed about threats facing their communities from the top, we can't be surprised when those same biases affect their street-level work.”
Former DHS terrorism analyst Daryl Johnson noted that Murphy was later demoted within the agency after it emerged that he had overseen the collection of data on journalists involved in publishing leaked data about the Portland protests and the use of DHS agents against activists there. It seems likely that his complaint is at least partially a product of having been punished for following his superiors’ emphasis on leftist activists after having previously been asked to undermine intelligence assessments with specious information about them.
For Johnson—who authored the now-infamous 2009 DHS bulletin warning of increasing far-right organizing and recruitment, including returning war veterans, that set off a right-wing media reaction resulting in the gutting of the DHS section responsible for monitoring far-right terrorism—this is all too familiar. “It’s the same thing that was going on there ten years ago—just being overly sensitive to people’s civil rights and holding up something in which nobody’s rights are being violated or anything like that,” he told Daily Kos.
“This is a government bureaucracy,” he added. “It’s a department that is gunshy because of what’s happened in the past, and it’s also people in the department who I guess are reluctant to acknowledge that threat and do something about it. So they’re still dragging their feet.”
This recalcitrance manifests itself in the data on domestic terrorism during the Trump years, which shows that—while a misplaced emphasis on Islamist terrorism diluted and occluded the response of law enforcement to far-right violence during the Obama administration—a similarly wrongheaded focus on a virtually nonexistent antifa and leftist threat had taken its place in more recent years, even as far-right terrorism has both grown significantly in numbers and risen in lethality.
“The positive thing is that there are people higher in the department at higher levels who see that it’s a problem, that white supremacy is an issue and a national-security concern,” Johnson observed. “But they’re being offset by these people that don’t want that to happen.”
Some of those people, however, are also leaving the agency. Earlier this month, the former assistant secretary of DHS’ counterterrorism and threat-prevention unit who resigned in April, Elizabeth Neumann, gave a series of media interviews describing how Trump is “pouring fuel on the fire” of far-right extremism.
“A very common refrain that I was asked was, ‘Does the president’s rhetoric make your job harder?’ And the answer is yes,” she said in an ad for Republican Voters Against Trump. “The president’s actions and his language are, in fact, racist. … And I do think that the president’s divisive language is indirectly tied to some of the attacks that we have seen in the last two years.”
She told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that a responsible national leader would recognize the threat and speak up prominently about it:
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. 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.
Johnson noted that a central concern of responsible officials within the agency such as Neumann is that Trump is using the department for political purposes—namely, to come down on the left. “He used a DHS agency, Customs and Border Protection and their Border Patrol Tactical Unit, to go after the leftist protesters in Portland, and was quick to label them terrorists, but yet he doesn’t say anything about white supremacy or even the militias,” Johnson said. “And he just kind of encourages them.”
German said the whistleblower’s complaint “also highlights how willing law enforcement leaders are to punish internal dissent, which is deadly to objective analysis of intelligence. Everyone in the system learns to ‘go along and get along,’ which became a mantra in the FBI. Law enforcement intelligence becomes an echo-chamber of erroneous and biased information as a result,” he told Daily Kos.
The result, he says, is a police culture at all levels—federal, state, and local—that is innately biased and thus ill-equipped to serve diverse communities. “Training police to treat dissent as dangerous then alters their relationship with the communities they serve, opening a rift between law enforcement and the public, which we're now seeing play out in the streets every night,” he said.
“One of the reforms we recommended is to strengthen whistleblower protections in law enforcement because those on the inside can see the problem every day and need to be encouraged to root it out,” German added. “We also need to hire law enforcement leaders who welcome internal dissent and reward officials who report the racist behavior within the ranks.”
Neumann notes that this kind of culture actively misleads law enforcement during periods of civil unrest such as the current one. “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 told NPR. "The threat of domestic terrorism is not from antifa. It is from these right-wing movements."
Johnson believes that the ongoing blind spot within law enforcement leaves it ill-equipped to deal with the violence he believes is going to be unleashed in the coming year.
“I’m expecting things to escalate not just up to the election, but beyond the election and into next year, because I don’t think this election’s going to be finalized until weeks after because of mail-in ballots and everything, and I also think there are going to be lawsuits filed by each political party to prolong vote counts or contest them,” he said. “So that, plus the pandemic plus the civil unrest, suggests we’re going to have increasing confrontation and violence.”