Trump wants to designate antifa as a domestic terrorism organization — but that won't prevent violence, an expert with the Brennan Center for Justice said.
In the wake of days of protest against police violence and unrest across the nation, Donald Trump announced Sunday that he planned to label antifa, or anti-fascist activists, as a "terrorist organization."
The move came as cities across the country saw violent clashes between law enforcement and protesters upset about the death of George Floyd and other unarmed people of color who have been killed by police in recent years.
But a former FBI agent who has written extensively on domestic terrorism said Monday his "rhetorical bluster" could actually make things worse.
Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice's program on liberty and national security, and author of the book "Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy," said in an interview Monday that Trump's move is a legally meaningless one.
"There is no legal mechanism to designate any domestic organization as a terrorist organization. There would be no legal meaning behind it in the first place," he explained, noting that the federal law prohibiting "material support for terrorism" applies only to international groups.
"In the second place," he continued, "Antifa isn't an organization. It stands for 'Anti-fascism.' It's more of a description of anti-fascist activities."
Thus, even if the anti-terrorism law were applied to antifa, it would have little impact, German believes.
"The idea of that law is that there are organizations that have resources that you'd be depriving them of," he said. "Here, there's no such organization, there's nothing to deprive them of. We're gonna take away the building you don't have? Prevent banks from giving you a loan? It's not a realistic thing, just a rhetorical bluff."
Still, he believes Trump's tweet could be harmful. "It's dangerous because it's divisive, in taking the side of neo-fascists against anti-fascists, " he said, adding that it could put pressure on federal and local law enforcement "to target President Trump's political enemies, rather than those who promote white nationalism.
In a series of tweets on Sunday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) noted that she had pressed the FBI to take white nationalist terrorism more seriously and was told the law did not allow the federal government to treat domestic groups as terrorist organizations.
"I have questioned the @FBI in Congress as to why they don’t use domestic terror labels for white supremacist groups," she noted. "They testified that the law prevents labeling US groups as terrorists, [with] severe civil liberties concerns."
Unlike anything done by antifa activists, white supremacist violence is one of the largest threats to Americans, according to Trump's own Department of Homeland Security.
Last September, Jill Sanborn assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division, told Congress that "the greatest threat we face in the homeland today is that posed by lone actors radicalized online who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons."
She added that "the top threat we face from [domestic violent extremists] stems from those we identify as racially/ethnically motivated violent extremists."
Trump has not attempted to designate hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan as domestic terrorist organizations, even though they are real organizations that have historically been involved in deaths, German observed. Still, he said, doing so would also "fly in the face of the First Amendment" and be a "poor method of counterterrorism."
German said Trump's approach will not be effective in reducing violence, but that he does not "think it's designed to be."
"It's designed to demonize anti-fascists as the president's enemies so that his supporters can attack them — whether they're in law enforcement or other organizations."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.