Xenophobic lie exposed

Gratifying. Trump said a thing about DOJ records in an official “Listen up” to Congress. Benjamin Wittes sent a FOIA request to the DOJ seeking confirmation. DOJ a long time later sent a letter to Wittes saying we can’t find any such records. Conclusion: Trump told a whopper in an official “Listen up” to Congress.

To understand the significance of this letter, let’s go back to Trump’s first address to Congress in February 2017. The new president made the striking claim quoted above: “According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.”

I did not believe those words were true when Trump spoke them, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the Justice Department does not keep data at a systematic level on where criminal defendants were born. For another thing, there are a lot of domestic terrorism cases, and they are generally not committed by people born abroad. To the extent you exclude those cases—white supremacist violence, anti-abortion terrorism, and militia violence—you grossly bias the inquiry. To the extent you include such cases, you would have to analyze a raft of data that I didn’t know the department kept in a comprehensive fashion.

Responding to the speech, in a seriesofarticles published on Lawfare, Nora Ellingsen and Lisa Daniels carefully evaluated the president’s claims. Examining a public list of international terrorism cases released by the Justice Department’s National Security Division (NSD), Ellingsen and Daniels concluded that it simply wasn’t accurate to say that a “vast majority” of individuals on that list “came here from outside our country”—“unless, that is, you include individuals who were forcibly brought to the United States in order to be prosecuted and exclude all domestic terrorism cases.”

If you can make it true only by excluding all domestic terrorism cases when Trump didn’t specify non-domestic terrorism cases only…well you get the idea. That would be a huge cheat to make the lie Trump told true.

So in April of last year, I filed two FOIA requests. I asked for any records supporting the president’s claim before Congress, along with any records “relating to the nationality or country of origin of individuals convicted of terrorism-related offenses”; correspondence between the Justice Department and the White House related to that data; and correspondence related to preparation for and reaction to the February 2017 joint address. When the department did not respond, I filed a lawsuit.

In February of this year, I received 57 pages of material from the National Security Division in response to the request—specifically, the portion of the lawsuit concerning communications within and originating from NSD. From the documents, Ellingsen and I were able to reconstruct a partial picture of the origins of the president’s spurious claim. To boil it down, NSD had provided data on international terrorism prosecutions only, not domestic ones. Both NSD and the FBI emphasized the limitations of this data. The Justice Department explicitly warned the White House that the data did not “include convictions related solely to domestic terrorism.” And the FBI noted that “database checks are limited in their ability to accurately identify a date/place of birth.”

In other words they warned Trump and he did it anyway. The guy has a terrible case of Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

And he did it again this past January.

Recently Wittes and the DOJ agreed on a simplified search so as to conclude the whole thing.

The offices of the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, legislative affairs, and public affairs would each conduct a search “for records containing data of (i) all individuals convicted of all terrorism-related offenses (domestic and international) between 2001 and the date of the initial search, or (ii) all individuals convicted of all domestic terrorism-related offenses between 2001 and the date of the initial search.” Presumably, if the Justice Department had provided the White House with data to support the president’s claims, the request would have gone through the department’s top brass. If there was some data “provided by the Department of Justice” to the White House showing that “the vast majority of individuals convicted [in all] terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11”—including domestic terrorism cases—“came here from outside of our country,” there would be some record of it either in the attorney general’s office or the deputy attorney general’s office.

I was confident the search would produce no responsive documents. And it, in fact, produced none.

Because what the President of the United States said before a joint session of Congress was not true. It wasn’t true about immigrants and terrorism. And neither was it true about the Justice Department.

Lie confirmed.

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