In his first address before Congress in February 2017, President Donald Trump suggested that Justice Department research showed “the vast majority” of terrorism in the U.S. has been carried out by people from other countries.
“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,” Trump had declared.
But now, more than a year later, a recent statement from the Justice Department suggests Trump’s assertion was misleading.
Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of national security blog Lawfare, filed two Freedom of Information Act requests in April 2017 asking for any Justice Department records supporting Trump’s claim “relating to the nationality or country of origin of individuals convicted of terrorism-related offenses,” as well as correspondence between the department and the White House related to that data.
Wittes held nothing back in his blog post, boldly accusing Trump of dramatically mischaracterizing Justice Department research:
I’m going to be very blunt here: I not only believe that the White House made up “alternative facts” about the substance of this matter in a presidential address to a Joint Session of Congress, I don’t believe that the National Security Division of the Justice Department provided any data or analysis to the White House that could reasonably be read to support the president’s claim. In other words, I believe the president was lying not merely about the underlying facts but also about his own Justice Department.
When Wittes didn’t receive a response to his FOIA request from the Justice Department by August 2017, he filed a lawsuit against the DOJ. In February, he received 57 pages from the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
He discovered the National Security Division had explicitly noted that the data it provided to the White House did not “include convictions related solely to domestic terrorism.” That’s because no charge of domestic terrorism exists in the U.S., making it difficult to track.
For example, activists had demanded the government file terrorism charges against the 20-year-old man accused of killing Heather Heyer in August 2017 at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. But there’s no criminal law that would allow for such charges, leading the government to instead charge the suspect with federal hate crimes.
Trump didn’t mention the Justice Department’s explicit clarification during his February 2017 address before Congress and misled the public about the data again in a January tweet meant to garner to support for his administration’s crackdown on immigration.
Wittes and his lawyers agreed in June to allow the Justice Department to simplify the remaining FOIA searches to expedite them, limiting the scope of the search to the attorney general and deputy attorney general’s offices, as well as legislative and public affairs offices. On July 24, Wittes received a letter from the Justice Department with the results.
“Please be advised that searches have been conducted ... and no responsive records were located,” according to the letter.
Wittes’ original hunch about Trump’s claim appears to have been accurate.
“I was confident the search would produce no responsive documents,” Wittes wrote Tuesday on Lawfare. “And it, in fact, produced none.”
“Because what the president of the United States said before a joint session of Congress was not true,” he continued. “It wasn’t true about immigrants and terrorism. And neither was it true about the Justice Department.”
The White House did not immediately return HuffPost’s request for comment.
Read Wittes’ full analysis of the related Justice Department documents on Lawfare.
CORRECTION: This article has been amended to note that Trump did not specifically refer to domestic terrorism, but terrorism in general, and that Wittes accused the White House of mischaracterizing data in a blog, not in a FOIA request.