News Roundup: The Administration’s Misleading Claims About Terrorists at the Southern Border

The partial government shutdown hit its third week on Friday, setting it up to be the longest shutdown in U.S. history. President Trump’s unabated demand for $5 billion in border-wall funding led him to deliver a televised Oval Office address on Tuesday night in which he returned to his familiar theme of portraying violent crime as a consequence of illegal immigration.

While the president avoided referring to terrorism in his speech, his administration has in recent days made misleading or false claims about the threat of terrorists crossing the southern border, including Trump’s use of inflated crime statistics and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s misleading claim that nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists were prevented from entering the country, incorrectly implying that these suspects were attempting to cross the border (most arrive at airports). White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tried to use this number on “Fox News Sunday,” and Vice President Mike Pence falsely said that 10 known or suspected terrorists attempted to cross the southern border every day.

On Thursday, American Oversight submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to DHS, seeking communications among staff and with the White House or congressional staff related to the number of known or suspected terrorists or “special interest aliens” apprehended at the country’s southern border, as well as information about the actual number of immigrants at the border whose names were on a federal terrorist watch list.

But while the administration focuses on ginning up fear of border-crossing terrorists, an actual danger is the past decade’s rise in violent right-wing domestic terrorism. In 2009, DHS reportedly dismantled the Extremism and Radicalization Branch of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis because of political pressure, and American Oversight this week submitted a FOIA request to DHS to learn more about how the number of intelligence analysts working on non-Islamist domestic terrorism has changed since 2009. In December, we also sent FOIAs to DHS and the Justice Department for information about the administration’s response to the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and to the news of pipe bombs being sent to multiple critics of the president.

And because oversight doesn’t stop even when parts of the government are closed, here’s what else we’ve been working on this week:

  • Rep. Jerry Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Matthew Whitaker, rejecting the acting attorney general’s proposed delay in appearing before the committee. Nadler is prepared to subpoena Whitaker, and American Oversight is continuing its investigation into Whitaker’s ethics recusals, including his questionable decision to continue overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation against the advice of ethics officials. This week, we also submitted FOIA requests for Whitaker’s travel expenses and itineraries, as well as his communications with former Attorney General Edwin Meese about investigations of Hillary Clinton and purported FBI misconduct.
  • American Oversight uncovered emails showing that the White House asked to meet with a Justice Department official who was working on litigation involving Steve Wynn, a casino magnate and Trump donor. The litigation was related to Obama-era rules about tip pooling, and while it’s unknown whether the meeting actually happened, the administration later revised those tip rules to be friendlier to employers like Wynn.
  • Other FOIAs: We’re looking for records of how much Treasury Chief of Staff Eli Miller or White House Liaison Baylor Myers spent at the Trump International Hotel in D.C., and for Assistant Interior Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash’s communications with outside energy groups.