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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: So, back in the United States, American intelligence and security agencies say that white supremacist extremists are the deadliest domestic terror threat to the country. That shocking evidence, of course, was in full view last week, when the FBI said it had busted a plot to kidnap the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and overthrow the government. Elizabeth Neumann was assistant secretary for threat prevention at the Department for Homeland Security under President Trump. She says she repeatedly flagged the danger of these racist groups, but those warnings fell on deaf ears. Here she is explaining to our Hari Sreenivasan why, despite being a lifelong Republican, she is not voting for President Trump this time around.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Christiane, thanks. Elizabeth Neumann, thanks so much for joining us. I want to ask first, given the plot that was revealed against Governor Whitmer of Michigan, was that an escalation to you of what you had been studying when you were in the government?
ELIZABETH NEUMANN, FORMER U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY ASSISTANT SECRETARY: It certainly is the thing that we have been most concerned about the last few years. Militia movements, white supremacists that are violent have certainly been with our country for decades. We have seen a resurgence over the last 10 years. And, in particular, in the last two to three years, we have noticed an increase in recruitment, an increase in diverse groups forming and morphing and changing, but all with this common theme of wanting to either accelerate existing violence or cause violence for the purpose of leading to civil war and overturning the U.S. government.
SREENIVASAN: There was a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security that was just published that basically makes this point, that this is right now the threat that we need to be worried about.
NEUMANN: It’s right. The Homeland Threat Assessment was released last week. That document was something that was called for in a strategic framework that my team wrote about a year ago, recognizing that the threat was changing, and we needed to do a better job communicating to the country, to our state and local law enforcement partners what the nature of that threat was, and to make sure we’re constantly updating it. But, yes, it did find that what — now, the government can’t call it this, but, if you look at sources like ADL or CSIS, what they describe it as, violence from right-wing extremist groups are the most significant, in terms of both historical patterns, as well as in the current moment we’re in. The ADL did it an assessment that 76 percent of all terrorist attacks in the last 10 years come from this right-wing extremist perspective. So, that includes things like white supremacists, and it also includes what we saw in Michigan last week with the militia movement.
SREENIVASAN: Is there something about this time right now, in the time of COVID, that is making it easier for these groups to recruit? I mean, what are the kind of underlying conditions that are necessary to tap in to someone’s angst?
NEUMANN: That’s a great question. We have had numerous studies over the last decades about what causes somebody to go and commit a mass attack. Secret Service does these studies. The FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit does these studies. Private academics do these studies. And they come up with a profile of individuals that have usually risk factors in their background, as well as some sort of set of stressors that have occurred in their life. So, what we have all endured in the pandemic includes a number of stressors that are common to people that carry out attacks, things like loss of a job or financial stress, loss of a loved one. But one of the commonalities here is just this sense of uncertainty, this lack of belonging, social isolation. And, again, we have all experienced that this last year. So, one of the things that we were very concerned about, my team and I started looking at in March, are we going to see an increase in attacks because these stressors are increasing, and it’s going to create more vulnerable people that might be susceptible to radicalization, and eventually mobilization to violence? And the answer we — the conclusion we came to last spring was that, yes, this is highly likely. And so we wanted to get the word out and educate people, if you’re seeing somebody, a loved one that is — has concerning behavior or is — has changed in some way, that’s the time to reach out and get them help, well before they cross that criminal threshold. But it is a very tense time right now in our country. And we all need to be doing what we can to be kind to one another and to get people help that might be vulnerable to that radicalization.
SREENIVASAN: The president went out of his way earlier this year to say that he wants to brand Antifa domestic terrorists. Why not call the — why not call the white supremacist groups, the right- wing groups — they’re also engaged in terror.
NEUMANN: I was very concerned when I heard him say that, for two reasons. One, we don’t have a statute that allows us to label groups domestic terrorism organizations. We do have a statute for foreign terrorist organizations, but not one that labels domestic terrorist organizations. And that’s one of the things that, during my tenure at DHS, we were advocating to have the conversation about whether we needed a statute to be able to do that work. And there’s lots of pros and cons about whether or not that’s a good idea. But we felt like the moment that we were living in, with this increase in domestic terrorists, in domestic terrorism, that we needed to at least have that conversation. But the White House wouldn’t let us go there. So I found it odd that, a year after El Paso, all of a sudden, he’s willing to talk about domestic terrorism, but he’s doing it in the context of Antifa, which nobody in the counterterrorism community would was concerned about Antifa. What we were concerned about was what we saw in El Paso, or in Poway, or in San Diego. These are — these are — I’m sorry — I should have Pittsburgh and Poway and El Paso. Those are the places where we have seen extreme hate motivated by — and while they were supposedly lone individuals, these are people that were connected online to an ideological movement that promoted violence, incited violence for the purpose of their end goal of eventually overthrowing the United States and establishing a white nation. Those are pretty scary ideologies that I feel like the U.S. government should be taking very seriously. But, instead, we’re talking about Antifa, whose primary cause is just to oppose those that they perceive to be fascist. They don’t have an end aim of overthrowing the U.S. government, for example, so a very, very different set of threat actors.
SREENIVASAN: You were at the Department of Homeland Security when the march in Charlottesville happened. What went through your mind when you saw that video?
NEUMANN: That moment in 2017, I think we all were — I’m failing to think of the right word. It just — it was such a turning point for us. It was no longer polite to be racist, right? For basically my lifetime, it was not polite. You had to hide it. You had to cloak your language. All of a sudden, it’s right out in front. Like, people are not ashamed to show their face. They’re not ashamed to associate themselves with that level of hatred that I think we all thought was, for the most part, gone in our country. And so to see it just so blatant and in your face, it was rather frightening. And it was a clear moment for those of us in the counterterrorism community to say, we have a problem on our hands. This is — we thought the problems of the ’90s were gone and past us. It turns out they were here all along.
SREENIVASAN: You were also at the DHS, and you mentioned, after the El Paso shooting. And in that manifesto, what was kind of intriguing for reporters that were reading through it was there were phrases in there about fake news, about invasion, that had kind of filtered through. And what did you do, what did you say to the White House after that?
NEUMANN: It was really stunning to see how much what might be classified is alt-right ideology had filtered into this manifesto. And it was a moment where you were talking at the White House in hushed tones, like, hey, do we understand that we’re now contributing to this problem? The language that you’re using to probably help your reelection or to argue for why you need money for a wall is showing up in terrorist manifestos. So we need to change. Like, if you did not realize it was having this effect, OK, I can give you grace for that. But now we know. And you need to change your rhetoric. That was not — nobody was interested in having that conversation. So they were happy to talk about violence prevention. They were very supportive of the programming that my team was working on at the time to do more prevention work. Not interested in talking about the president’s rhetoric.
SREENIVASAN: Speaking of the rhetoric, you just saw the debate. Chris Wallace gave him an opportunity, a relatively easy one, to say, here’s your chance to denounce white supremacy. Watching that, did you expect he’d say what he did?
NEUMANN: I think I must be really naive, because every time that he gets one of those softballs, I’m like, all right, here’s the moment. And the reason I hope for that is not because I’m expecting the president to change. But, again, I’m a counterterrorism professional. I want the country to be safe. And if the president would clearly, consistently denounce this, it takes some of the air out of the balloon of recruitment and perhaps any plans that somebody might be making to commit acts of violence. So, you’re always hoping that your leadership does the right thing. And when he botched it yet again, seemingly intentionally, and then botched — the second time that he was asked to clarify, refused — he actually used the words. It was only on the third time that he — that he would actually say the words, I condemn white supremacy. That is — that plays into the mind-set of these extremists. They believe that the government is controlled by elites, by Jews, and that the president, even though he’s on their side, he has to follow their rules. And so they believe his first and second refusal to condemn, and only condemning on the third, is a wink and a nod, like, I’m really on your side, but I have to — I have to condemn you now, because that’s what the elites are making me do, but I’m really on your side. So, there’s — it actually plays into their conspiracy theories. And it makes it that much worse.
SREENIVASAN: There was a moment where the president went out of his way to criticize Governor Whitmer, not necessarily the people who were planning to do her harm.
NEUMANN: Maybe the fault is on his advisers. Maybe they do not realize that they need to be telling him these things, or they’re fearful of telling him these things. But if he does not realize that his language in April about “liberate Michigan” and very, very viciously attacking various governors that tended to be in Democratic states that were conducting pandemic mitigation measures that, politically speaking, those on the right might think were too much, too much government overreach, I can appreciate that there’s a political dialogue and good government dialogue about how you best handle pandemic mitigation measures. But he wasn’t entering into that dialogue. He wasn’t bringing people to the table and saying, hey, let’s have a conversation about what the best way to do this is. In fact, he actually said, the federal government’s not going to do this, states, you figure it out, which is not, by the way, what any of our pandemic plans suggest should happen. So he’s already thrown it on the states, the states are scrambling to figure it out, and in the midst of that, he’s adding this angry rhetoric to the conversation, which spools his supporters up.
NEUMANN: And then you saw people coming to the capitol with guns, protesting at their state capitol. So, he has this pattern of riling people up. And, in most cases, the action that occurs is not in fact violent. But there are those few instances where it does become violent. And that’s where I feel like he should be held accountable. If you don’t learn the lesson of El Paso or Kenosha or now Governor Whitmer’s impending kidnapping plot, like, when is he going to learn that his rhetoric matters and it influences very vulnerable people? And just a small portion of those people might actually move towards violence, but that small portion are affecting Americans. And he doesn’t seem to value his responsibility to keep us safe. That is what a president’s first job, is to protect us from all enemies, foreign and domestic. And he has neglected that responsibility.
SREENIVASAN: Now, you have not been shy about calling his words and actions racist. I mean, the R-word seems to be a third rail for so many people to use. Why do you, with the evidence that you have, see it that way?
NEUMANN: I can’t — I can’t see into a man’s heart. But what I can work out are the actions and the policies that he’s put into place. And for the first few years that I worked in the administration, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I believed that many of the things they were trying to do were for the sake of securing the country. And I was in the department where we were implementing many of those actions that did have security value. But, over time, I have now multiple examples where we would approach a situation and say, OK, we have addressed this security concern. The refugee ceiling is a great example. We have addressed the security concerns. We can now raise the ceiling and feel comfortable that the people coming in through the refugee program have been properly vetted, they are who they say they are, and they do not have ill intent towards the United States. Let’s let more people in. And what we have seen instead is, over the last three years, a steady lowering of the ceiling. So, at that point, you start to realize, this isn’t about security at all. This is about keeping people out of the country because they look differently than you. You also look at the president’s language, the people that he praises, the countries that he praise tend to be predominantly white. Sweden and Nordic countries, he thinks they’re great, and he wants more immigration from there. He wants less immigration from African countries. So, over time, that pattern and practice, whether he realizes it or not, his language and his policies are, in fact, racist.
SREENIVASAN: There’s people watching this interview, and they’re going to say, you know what, I have seen that lady before. She was in an ad. She’s a Biden supporter. Of course she thinks this way. But your political credibility or your political history a little bit, you voted for the president. You chose to work for his administration.
NEUMANN: I did. I am a lifelong Republican. I grew up in Texas, where it was kind of part of the way you’re raised is to be a conservative, be a Republican. I worked in the George W. Bush administration. I reluctantly voted for Trump in 2016. I don’t think he actually reflects many conservative values, but I was persuaded by some arguments that I now think were not great arguments, but I was persuaded. And I had not planned to come in, but somebody asked me to come and work at Department of Homeland Security, because they needed people with previous experience in government. And so I came in and served for three years. But it was not — part of the reason I’m speaking out is that I think many of the people that chose to come in and help the president — and we all kind of hoped he would rise to the occasion — he clearly has not — we did a lot to try to help him be successful as a president. We helped ensure bad decisions were not made. And I know that history will judge us, whether we were right or wrong to have gone in and try to help prevent what in our minds were potentially really bad policy decisions that in some cases may have led to war, or may have led to bad handling of natural disasters. But, as we have seen with the COVID response, there’s only so much that the good people can do inside the government. If the president wants to ignore something like COVID, the trickle-down effect is pretty significant. And it’s impeded the ability of the government to do what it’s supposed to do in a natural disaster like COVID. So, for me, it became clear that the American people deserve to make a decision based on the totality of the facts. And I don’t mean to say that the people that were working in the government for the last three years were covering things up, but that’s kind of what it was. A lot of the good policies that people point to from the Trump administration, it’s because not — it’s in spite of Trump, it’s not because of Trump. And I feel like the people, American people, deserve to know the facts and make a decision for themselves when they vote this November.
SREENIVASAN: Elizabeth Neumann, thanks so much for joining us.
NEUMANN: Thank you for having me.
About This Episode EXPAND
Christiane speaks with activist and author Angela Davis about the current political moment. She also speaks with Molly Dineen and Blacker Dread about the film “Being Blacker.” Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Elizabeth Neumann, former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, about why, despite being a lifelong Republican, she is not voting for the GOP this time around.LEARN MORE