After a weekend of carnage, President Trump said some things that sounded heartening. But current and former law enforcement officials say the president’s words aren’t enough—and they fear it’s all he has to offer.
Thirty-one people were killed between attacks on public places in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in the span of 12 hours this past weekend. While authorities say they have no motive yet for the Dayton attack, officials said the accused El Paso attacker wrote a manifesto justifying the mass murder of Hispanic people to stop their “invasion” of the U.S. Federal prosecutors said they’re considering domestic terrorism charges for the attacker. (Days earlier, a gunman expressing similar racist views killed three people at a food festival in California.)
“This is a clear manifestation of the political discourse that has taken place in the country over the past two years or so,” one Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told The Daily Beast. “It cannot be blamed on mental health. This is an ideology-driven hate crime. This is terrorism and the White House has trouble labeling it as such. It is very frustrating.”
In remarks Monday from the White House, the president blamed violent video games and mental health problems for the carnage. He called for the implementation of red flag laws, also known as risk protection orders, that let people petition a judge to have the guns of their friends and family taken away if they worry that person will harm others. He even went so far to say “our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy”—something he has shied away from in the past.
The DHS official called the remarks “demoralizing,” noting the president’s effort to spread the blame around.
Despite the president’s call for reforms, current and former law enforcement officials say they aren’t satisfied. Sources say white supremacy is a significant threat to U.S. national security, and one mention in a 10-minute presidential speech won’t cut it.
“It is a good step to recognize the threat of white supremacy, but words alone cannot solve the problem,” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who specialized in counterterrorism cases. “Action speaks louder than words. What kind of policy, legislations, designation, and funding is the administration willing to propose, support, and authorize in order to counter this emerging threat? This is where the rubber meets the road.”
Some officials said they put little stock in Trump’s words, worrying that the president would, as in the past, backtrack on his statements on white supremacy.
Others said Trump’s brief condemnation of the ideology meant little following his statements earlier in the day that linked the weekend’s shootings to the need for new immigration legislation—the accused El Paso shooter said immigration was destroying the country.
“I am concerned that white supremacist thought leaders will view his tweet linking immigration reform with background checks as a tacit signal that he still supports their agenda,” said John Cohen, the former deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS. “It is mind-boggling he would blend the two issues. I don’t think there is a thorough understanding of the issues at the White House.”
Despite the concern surrounding Trump’s rhetoric on white supremacy, the intelligence community appears to be taking a new, active step in addressing the threat. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) is hosting a conference on domestic terrorism with the FBI and DHS next month, according to a person familiar with the plans. An invitation to the event said the conference will scrutinize the federal government’s response to the threat in light of the recent deadly attacks by white supremacists on synagogues in Pennsylvania and California and mosques in New Zealand.
If Trump’s speech was any indication of where the White House plans to focus its efforts following the fatal shootings over the weekend, it seems white supremacy is an afterthought.
The president focused his speech on tracking individuals with mental illnesses.
“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” Trump said. “We must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people not only get treatment, but when necessary, involuntary confinement.”
Authorities have not offered evidence that the accused gunmen in El Paso and Dayton were mentally ill. The American Psychological Association said in response to Trump’s remarks: “Blaming mental illness for the gun violence in our country is simplistic and inaccurate and goes against the scientific evidence currently available.”
Trump went on to say that he directed the Department of Justice to work with other law enforcement agencies and social media companies to better detect people he said were mentally ill and liable to kill.
“We must do a better job of identifying and acting on early warning signs,” Trump said.
Federal law enforcement agencies have in the past worked with DHS as well as state and local law enforcement to track people who may endanger others, including veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and those with criminal pasts. National Security Agency software company Beware at one point let local police departments calculate individuals’ threat levels by collecting things like arrest reports, property records, and social media postings. Meanwhile, the FBI tracks potential terrorist attacks by opening official investigations. Many of those probes have focused on Muslim terrorist suspects following 9/11 and the rise of ISIS.
The only question now, law enforcement officials say, is whether the president will order a crackdown on white supremacist violence.
“The president did what presidents should do, which is condemn bigotry and hatred,” said George Selim, a former DHS official who now works at the Anti-Defamation League. “But what’s needed is resources, strategy, and policy. And the real measure of these horrible atrocities is if the resources, strategy, and policy of the federal government matches the president’s comments today.
“How many lives need to be lost before action is accelerated and the administration works with Congress? The time is now.”