Donald Trump has long championed the element of surprise in warfare, and often admonished President Barack Obama for allegedly telegraphing U.S. strategy. “I never talk about military moves,” Trump told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly in a recent interview. “I always criticized President Obama with having an announcement that they’re going into Mosul. They give the name, the date, the time. I don’t believe in that.” But when it comes to fighting his domestic enemies, Trump is as predictable as Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. During the presidential campaign, for instance, he essentially announced that he would use Bill Clinton’s sex scandals against Hillary Clinton. Trump has been similarly transparent since becoming president, as seen most recently in his attacks on federal judge James Robart, who on Friday blocked Trump’s executive order banning people from seven predominately Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
Over the weekend, on Twitter, Trump derided Robart as a “so-called judge” and preemptively blamed him for potential future terrorist attacks:
This is not just an attack on a single judge. Rather, it’s a broader attempt to intimidate the judiciary, the branch of government most likely to check his power and policies. But it’s also a candid admission about how he intends to play the politics of terrorism. If the U.S. is hit by a terrorist attack that can be connected to Islamic radicalism, Trump will blame his opponents, whether they be the courts, politicians, journalists, or whomever; the terrorist attack will be anyone’s fault but his own. Knowing this, Democrats must be ready to play politics in return.
Late last month, Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old white man who had expressed admiration for both Trump and French demagogue Marine Le Pen, gunned down six people in a mosque in Quebec City, Canada. Trump didn’t make any public comments about the massacre, only addressing it in private conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Several days later, in France, a man armed with knives attacked a group of soldiers, injuring one, while yelling “Allahu Akbar.” Trump tweeted almost immediately about it:
The disparate response to these two attacks—one downplayed even though six people were killed, the other elevated even though there was no loss of life—make clear that Trump intends to focus exclusively on “radical Islamic” terrorism, as suggested by the administration’s reported plans to exclude white supremacist extremism from a Department of Homeland Security counter-extremism program. It’s easy to imagine, then, how Trump will respond to future attacks. If the culprit is a white racist, as in Quebec or the Charleston church massacre, Trump will try to ignore it as much as possible and not present it as an act of political violence. Conversely, if an attack can be tied to Islamic radicalism, Trump will say “I told you so”—and argue that he was trying to protect the American people, but was hamstrung by the courts and other enemies. He will use Americans’ anger over terrorism to discredit the institutions that have a constitutional duty to check him, and he will push for more presidential power.
Since Trump is preemptively trying to insulate himself from blame for terrorist attacks, it’s up to the Democrats and the broader anti-Trump coalition to push a counter-narrative immediately. The opposition should harp on the fact that Trump narrowly defines terrorism to mean only Islamic terrorism, even though right-wing extremists pose a greater threat to Americans. So if there are future attacks like those in Quebec and Charleston, Trump’s critics will have primed the public about Trump’s turning a blind eye to white supremacist violence.
On the matter of Islamic terrorism, it’s incumbent on the opposition to argue that Trump is already increasing the likelihood of political violence. The rollout of the Muslim ban has thrown the immigration system into chaos. The order itself was so poorly worded, and not cleared by the relevant agencies and experts, that a court intervention was inevitable, furthering the turmoil. On Monday, John Kerry, Madeleine Albright, Janet Napolitano, Susan Rice, Leon Panetta and other former national security and intelligence officials filed a joint declaration in the case, arguing that Trump’s executive order...
...could do long-term damage to our national security and foreign policy interests, endangering U.S. troops in the field and disrupting counterterrorism and national security partnerships. It will aid ISIL’s propaganda effort and serve its recruitment message by feeding into the narrative that the United States is at war with Islam. It will hinder relationships with the very communities that law enforcement professionals need to address the threat. It will have a damaging humanitarian and economic impact on the lives and jobs of American citizens and residents. And apart from all of these concerns, the Order offends our nation’s laws and values.
By alienating the intelligence community, tuning out intelligence briefings, and elevating political advisor Steve Bannon to a key role on the National Security Council, Trump is creating a scattershot national security policy that sidelines professional expertise and could make the U.S. more vulnerable. Trump’s blustery “America First” foreign policy is also alienating longstanding allies like Germany and Australia, again weakening the international coordination needed to fight terrorism (or indeed other threats). Many have also noted that, as a Cato Institute study found, foreigners from the seven countries named in Trump’s executive order “have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.” Moreover, Trump’s obsession with Muslim immigration misses the greater threat: Homegrown, self-radicalized lone wolves are responsible for most of the deadly terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. Trump’s incendiary anti-Muslim rhetoric is likely to inflame the troubled people most inclined to commit terrorism in America.
If Trump is prepared to blame judges and his political opponents for terrorism, the opposition has to be clear that the buck stops with him. Keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks is one of the president’s primary responsibilities. If the executive orders he signs are overturned because they don’t meet constitutional mettle, that will be his fault, too, since it’s also the president’s responsibility to obey the Constitution. And if Trump’s policies—whether by ignoring white supremacist violence or inciting Islamic radicalism—lead to more terrorism, then he has to be held responsible for that as well.
While Trump is trying to use the fear of terrorism to shore up his own power, his opponents need to show that he is already mishandling national security, making America less safe. A major terrorist attack under his watch will be a fireable offense.