The FBI has arrested hundreds of right-wing extremists for their roles in the deadly insurrection at the Capitol. But the GOP only wants to talk about the one group that had no role at all: “antifa.”
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray was repeatedly forced to shut down the baseless conspiracy theory that “antifa” was somehow behind the attack.
“Certainly, while we are equal opportunity in looking for violent extremism of any ideology, we have not seen any evidence of anarchist violence or people subscribing to antifa ideology in connection with the 6th,” said Wray.
But that didn’t stop Republicans on the committee from attempting to bait Wray into putting left-wing violence on an even playing field with far-right violence—and demand the threats receive equal attention and resources.
The hearing was the first time that Wray has testified publicly since the Capitol riot, which left five dead and hundreds injured. Wray was unequivocal in his condemnation of the attack.
“That siege was criminal behavior, and behavior that we, the FBI, view as domestic terrorism,” he said.
Even though Tuesday’s hearing was intended to discuss domestic terror issues in light of the violence at the Capitol, and despite mounting evidence that Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were heavily involved in both the planning and the execution of the riots, those groups took a backseat to the discussion.
Proud Boys were mentioned a mere four times in the nearly four-hour long hearing. Oath Keepers were mentioned twice. “Antifa,” meanwhile, was name-checked nine times, and Portland was mentioned seven times. (In some cases, “Antifa” was brought up by Democrats who were apparently trying to make a point to their Republican colleagues)
Wray said the mob that stormed the Capitol included “militia violent extremists” like Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, as well as “racially motivated violent extremists” (specifically, white supremacists).
He also acknowledged recent analysis by George Washington University, which found that more than half of the 257 arrests fell into the category of “inspired believers,” individuals who were incited to violence despite having no direct relationship to extremist groups.
“More and more, the threat we face as a country is what we call the inspired attacks,” said Wray. “No formal membership in an organization. No clear command and control or direction. That’s much more challenging to pursue. There’s less time to connect whatever dots there are, and then there are also the First Amendment dimensions of people’s inspiration and ideology.”
The outsize role “antifa” played in Tuesday’s hearing is consistent with what seems to be a return by the GOP to familiar rhetorical tropes, now that the dust has settled from the Capitol riot.
In the last week, lawmakers from both the House and Senate have argued that “antifa” or left-wing violence be treated with the same moral repudiation as white supremacist violence. They’ve pointed to the standoff between federal agents and left-wing protesters in Portland, Oregon, last summer, for example, as a parallel to the mob violence that unfolded at the Capitol. Last week, House Republicans invited Andy Ngo, who has built an entire career on the threat of the “antifa” boogieman while secretly palling around with right-wing extremists, to testify on domestic terrorism. There, GOP members discussed at length the involvement of John Sullivan, a left-wing activist who has shown up to Black Lives Matter protests and is known as a troubled individual, in the Capitol riots.
Meanwhile, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, spoke at CPAC over the weekend and opined, “We’ve seen what happens when people lose the nerve to defend America. Last summer chaos and riots engulfed our streets.” Cotton didn’t make a single mention of the attempted insurrection at the Capitol. “We will never bend the knee to a politically correct mob, ever,” he said.
Wray acknowledged that there are ongoing investigations into some of the events that took place by the federal courthouse in Portland and at CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, last summer. He said that some of those domestic terror investigations, which he calls “anarchist violent extremism investigations,” was focusing on “some of the most dangerous individuals involved in conduct over the summer.”
But Wray stated repeatedly Tuesday that white supremacist extremism poses a “persistent evolving threat” and makes up the “biggest chunk of the [FBI’s] domestic terrorism portfolio.” He also added that white supremacist extremists were responsible for the most lethal attacks over the last decade.
Just one murder has been attributed to an antifascist in the last 25 years, according to the Guardian. A self-proclaimed antifascist protester shot and killed a far-right protester in Portland late last summer. While there have been other fatalities linked to broader left-wing activism (largely targeting police officers) in recent years, the vast majority of extremism-related deaths are attributed to right-wing violence. The Guardian counted at least 329 deaths at the hands of right-wing actors since 1994—and more than half of those have been since 2010.
From the outset of Tuesday’s hearing, it was clear that it would be once again an opportunity for lawmakers to treat domestic terrorism like a political football, rather than an opportunity to understand the very real and active networks of extremists who are currently recruiting, radicalizing, and plotting online and offline. Committee Chairman Dick Durbin fired warning shots across the aisle in his opening statement. “Let’s stop pretending that the threat of antifa is equivalent to the white supremacist threat,” said Durbin. “Vandalizing the federal courthouse in Portland is a crime, but it’s not equivalent to the violent attempt to overturn the election or mass shooting targeting minorities.” He added that the “false equivalence was an insult” to victims of far-right extremism over recent years.
Ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley countered, saying that “taking a narrow review of these matters would be intellectually dishonest.”
“We’re not serious about tackling domestic extremism if we only focus on white supremacy movements, which isn’t the only ideology that’s responsible for murders and violence,” said Grassley, adding later, “We did have an admitted antifa adherent in Portland murder a conservative protester.”