Former DHS Official Discusses Trump's Violent Rhetoric And Domestic Extremism : Consider This from NPR President Trump has stoked tensions and repeatedly failed to condemn acts of violence from racially — and ethnically — motivated attackers, says Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security.

Neumann left her job in April and is now speaking publicly about her experience in the administration. She told NPR's Steve Inskeep why she no longer supports the president — and how his rhetoric has fueled unrest in Kenosha, Wis., and elsewhere across the country.

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President 'Heaping Fuel On The Fire' Of Unrest, Ex-Trump DHS Official Says

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President 'Heaping Fuel On The Fire' Of Unrest, Ex-Trump DHS Official Says

President 'Heaping Fuel On The Fire' Of Unrest, Ex-Trump DHS Official Says

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Last spring, Elizabeth Neumann went on a trip for work.

ELIZABETH NEUMANN: I had been overseas at a conference with counterparts.

MCEVERS: And something happened that changed the way she thought about her work.

NEUMANN: I was also there with my State Department colleague.

MCEVERS: Neumann worked on counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security, and this conference was in Spain.

NEUMANN: And the purpose was to talk about our progress in defeating ISIS and how we were going to handle returning foreign terrorist fighters.

MCEVERS: So as you can hear, the conference was supposed to be about defeating ISIS, which is why, when Elizabeth Neumann heard what her counterparts from other countries were talking about, she was surprised.

NEUMANN: As we're doing introductions, everybody goes around. It's, like, 80 countries are represented here. You're going around the table. Tell us what your top three issues are, challenges, threats are within your country. And I was stunned. Eighty percent said some form of racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism. They often talk about it in terms of right-wing extremism in other countries. And very few people were talking about ISIS. This is in March of 2019. And the very next day, Christchurch happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A gunman reportedly dressed in tactical gear opened fire inside a mosque.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Two different shooting locations, both believed to be at mosques...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: It's been more than 90 minutes now since the first reported shootings. And yet, there are still ambulances pulling out with a steady stream of victims.

MCEVERS: A shooter killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

NEUMANN: It was heartbreaking because the community was realizing this is a metastasizing threat. What do we do about it? And the very next day, we have that tragic event in Christchurch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: We all know it wasn't just Christchurch. The El Paso shooting happened later that year. The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting came before that, and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville before that. All this violence or violent rhetoric by people inside our own country, people motivated by racial and ethnic hatred, made Elizabeth Neumann start to realize if this had come from a group like ISIS, the president of the United States would have talked about it.

NEUMANN: But because it's coming from inside our country and it's on this - you know, the political spectrum side of the president's base, he is not talking about it.

MCEVERS: Coming up, the events in Kenosha, Wis., this past week fit a larger pattern of the president not just ignoring the threat of violence from the right but, some say, encouraging it. Elizabeth Neumann, a former official in his own administration, says she voted for the president in 2016 but won't do it again.

This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It is Wednesday, September 2.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. So before we hear more from Elizabeth Neumann about what the federal government is or isn't doing about domestic right-wing violence, let's talk about what's happening with local law enforcement in Kenosha, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL MISKINIS: So by now, everybody is aware that the Kenosha Police Department - one of our officers shot an individual here in the city of Kenosha.

MCEVERS: In a press conference last week, Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis said he understood why so many people were protesting the fact that a police officer shot Jacob Blake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MISKINIS: There's a lot of good people out there. And there are a lot of good people who want to draw attention to underlying issues, to draw attention for the need for change.

MCEVERS: Thing is, this was after a 17-year-old white man named Kyle Rittenhouse was arrested and charged with killing two people at protests. We should say right here, we don't know a ton about Kyle Rittenhouse. We do know he said in a video before the shooting that it was his job to protect businesses in Kenosha and that his online profile shows he is pro-law enforcement. Still, what Chief Miskinis said was basically, if everyone hadn't been out past curfew that night, those two people wouldn't have been killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MISKINIS: Everybody involved was out after the curfew. I'm not going to make a great deal of it. But the point is the curfew is in place to protect. Had persons not been out involved in violation of that, perhaps the situation that unfolded would not have happened.

MCEVERS: Miskinis later said he wasn't blaming the victims, but it's not like all the police discouraged these armed men in Kenosha that night either.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We appreciate you guys. We really do.

MCEVERS: In a cellphone video posted online, officers threw bottles of water to some of them from armored trucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We've got a couple. We've got to save a couple, but we'll give you a couple.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Turns out in a lot of American cities, relaxed gun laws mean that cops can't legally do much about people who just carry guns to a protest. Here's what Ronal Serpas, former police superintendent in New Orleans, told NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RONAL SERPAS: If the statutes allow for people to have them and they don't violate the statute in any other way, then the police just have to be observational about the weapons present.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And, of course, this isn't just about Kenosha. This past week, a caravan of Trump supporters drove pickup trucks into downtown Portland, where other people were protesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Hundreds of cars and trucks streamed across the Morrison Bridge, carrying American flags and Trump flags into downtown Portland.

MCEVERS: Trucks were recorded speeding through crowds...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

MCEVERS: ...Shooting pepper spray paintballs at protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I understand they had large numbers of people that were supporters, but that was a peaceful protest. And paint is not - and paint as a defensive mechanism - paint is not bullets.

MCEVERS: A man named Aaron J. Danielson, a right-wing demonstrator, was shot and killed in Portland that night. Officials are still investigating what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And I think it's disgraceful. These people - they protested peacefully.

MCEVERS: Then the president weighed in and suggested Kyle Rittenhouse, the alleged shooter in Kenosha, might have been defending himself when he allegedly killed two people and repeated his claim that so-called left-wing actors, like Antifa...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Those on the left are the problem, and Antifa is the problem. The rioters...

MCEVERS: ...Are the ones responsible for violence and unrest in American cities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: The left's war on police, faith, history and American values is tearing our country apart, which is what they want. They think it's good, but it's gotten out of control.

MCEVERS: And all this brings us back to Elizabeth Neumann, who, by the way, is a lifelong Republican. She's been in and out of government since after 9/11. She says left-wing violence is not the threat that the president is making it out to be. In fact, she says, the opposite is true.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NEUMANN: If you look at the arrests that have occurred in the protests of the summer, by and large, I mean, it's the boogaloo movement or it's an association with QAnon. It's right - the right side of the spectrum. It is not antifa. There is left-wing extremism. There is anti-fascism. But they historically have not killed as many people.

MCEVERS: Neumann's last day of work in the Trump administration was April 10 earlier this year. She'd been thinking about quitting since last fall. She was about to start her third year as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security, and she told her husband it would only be two. She says the decision came to her after she was asked if she would vote for Trump again like she did in 2016.

NEUMANN: Somebody asked me the question, and I just realized I can't vote for him. So made the plans - it takes a while to ensure an orderly transition.

MCEVERS: Now that she is no longer part of the administration, Elizabeth Neumann is talking about her experience. And she's in a new ad for a group called Republican Voters Against Trump, arguing that President Trump's own words actually encourage far-right groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEUMANN: Things like, there are good people on both sides, or send them back from where they came from - those words gave permission to white supremacists to think that what they were doing was permissible.

MCEVERS: Neumann talked to NPR's Steve Inskeep this week about what it was like to work in the Trump administration and why, in her opinion, the president's language could lead to even more violence.

NEUMANN: Clearly, we have problems within policing, and we need to address those. But instead, we're just issuing soundbites and accusations on, you know, it's the Democratic-run cities that are having these problems, or it is the fault of the mayor of Portland or the governor of Oregon for not being able to handle the protests that have been happening for the last three months.

And I just think that's an oversimplification. And by oversimplifying it, it sends messages to the right side of the political spectrum that they have to defend themselves - that rioting and looting and violence may come to their streets, and they need to defend themselves. And then you end up with an opportunity for individuals - what appears to be the situation with Kyle Rittenhouse - to take matters into their own hands. And it's just - it's so sad to watch. And it could be somewhat preventable. I think there would still be unrest and still be some violence. But if the president would not keep heaping fuel on the fire, some of the unrest, some of the death that we have seen would not be happening.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: How many people served under you when you were assistant secretary?

NEUMANN: Towards the end, we were up to about 70. We started with about 30. I want to say it was about 35 when we started.

INSKEEP: How much of a contrast was there between official government policy and the president's rhetoric?

NEUMANN: That's a great question. I think there's a lot of contrast, actually. And that's - in some ways, that's what makes it hard to explain to the American people why you think he's dangerous - because you can point to, well, you have this policy and this policy, and you made progress here. And the reason that you have good policies or progress is because, for me, personally, I had - count them - five secretaries in three years who all gave me the top cover to go and do what I needed to do in this issue space who all said, this is important. Don't worry about the tweets. I'll handle it. You go focus on figuring out how to address this threat.

INSKEEP: We should define for the layman. When you say top cover, you mean...

NEUMANN: By top cover, I mean, like, you're - you work for - in an agency, you work for a cabinet secretary and a deputy secretary, and then you have a layer of undersecretaries or assistant secretaries. Those were all politically appointed positions. And at the beginning of the administration in 2017, you had people that came in maybe aware that this man was going to be a very different type of president. Maybe we didn't like his language - has some character flaws. But you wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt that you could help him make wise decisions.

All of those people are gone. And who you are left with are people that either really, really buy into the Trump agenda and worship at the altar of Trump, or you have people that know that in order to keep their job, they just have to say yes. There's no protection left. There's nobody who's pushing back on the president anymore.

INSKEEP: Are the president's words to the public powerful enough in and of themselves that they undermine all the - what you felt was good work that you were doing?

NEUMANN: At times, yes. And what I mean by that is when you see the El Paso attacker, his manifesto was citing language and rhetoric that comes from the president's campaign rallies about an invasion from Mexico and how we got to protect our country. That's why we're building the wall - right? - is to protect our country from the invasion of people from down south coming into our country.

Like, you can have a debate about immigration. You can have a debate about the fact that we do need to secure our southern border. But you can do it in a way that's responsible and doesn't use rhetoric that leads people to fear. And the president does the opposite. He uses rhetoric to scare people. I don't think he is intending to cause people to act out in violence, but it's his inability to receive feedback or correction or adjustment that is what makes this so dangerous. He just - when faced with criticism, he doubles down.

INSKEEP: If we just look at your set of issues and look at this fall, how much danger do you feel the country is in this fall?

NEUMANN: I am concerned that the country's - the country is - we're feeling a lot of tension. We're feeling the - there's too much us versus them. There's too much anger to even have a calm conversation to try to solve some of the problems that we have in front of us. And so that - as a security professional, you look at the environment that we're currently operating in and knowing that in the lead-up to the election, the rhetoric is just going to get more intense. So you worry that we're sitting on a tinderbox about to explode because more fuel keeps being added to the fire. So I hope that calmer and cooler heads prevail. I hope that without the angry and divisive rhetoric, we would be healthier as a country.

MCEVERS: Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, talking to my colleague Steve Inskeep.

This is CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers.

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