WASHINGTON — In the wake of the deadly mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, President Trump promised to give federal officials “whatever they need” to stop domestic terrorism.
He might want to start by looking at the $18 million the government spent last year uprooting marijuana plants, the same amount he cut from an Obama-era program aimed at preventing, you guessed it, domestic extremism.
That funding parallel highlights the Trump administration’s approach to the threat of far-right extremism, which experts say has ranged from indifferent to outright counterproductive, at times directly undermining initiatives that were already in place.
“This administration has shown that they are minimizing the issue of domestic terrorism,” said Daryl Johnson, a former DHS analyst who has been warning of home-grown extremism for a decade. “At a time when we have heightened activity and the body count keeps rising, training is being defunded and grant money taken back.”
Despite domestic extremists killing more Americans and launching more attacks than foreign terrorists in recent years, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security has cut funding and staff devoted to countering the threat. FBI agents and analysts, by a factor of 4-to-1, are focused on international terror over domestic groups or white supremacists. Federal grants for prevention, meanwhile, have dried up, and a two-decade-old program aimed at giving local cops domestic anti-terror training called SLATT has gone dormant.
“This administration has shown that they are minimizing the issue of domestic terrorism”
“The government in fact has reduced resources to counter domestic terrorism, leaving our communities vulnerable to the next inevitable tragedy,” George Selim, former head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Community Partnerships, told Congress back in May.
Critics point to Trump’s funding cuts for Selim’s old office, the OCP, in particular.
During the last year of the Obama administration, the OCP, dedicated to empowering communities to fight extremism, had a total budget of $21 million and a staff of 16 full-time employees and 25 contractors.
The office worked closely with local governments and community organizations, overseeing $10 million in grants to groups like Chicago’s Life After Hate, one of the only programs in America devoted to helping people leave neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, for example. A former government official told The New York Times that Life After Hate’s funding was cut after the group’s founder criticized Trump on Twitter.
The Trump administration left the OCP with less than $3 million a year and eight full-time employees, without clearly explaining its reasons for the change, and rebranded it “The Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships.”
“I think those grants are important,” said Mary McCord, a former national security official at the DOJ. “The federal government is never going to be truly successful in countering violent extremism without help, because anything with the words ‘U.S. government’ slapped on it is going to be suspect in the community.”
The OCP wasn’t just a victim of budget cuts at DHS, where Trump increased overall department spending by over 7 percent in his first budget and 4 percent a year later.
“There’s no question they’ve not put enough toward this in the past couple of years”
It was part of a trend away from funding programs that target right-wing radicals. Since Trump took office, at least 85 percent of grants for countering violent extremists “explicitly target minority groups, including Muslims,” immigrants and refugees, according to a study by The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Trump hasn’t shown the same rigor for cuts to other DHS or DOJ programs, however.
- Trump’s DOJ spent $21 million on furniture, last September alone.
- The DHS spent $51 million on public relations that same month.
- The DHS paid a consultancy $14 million to recruit just two border patrol agents in 2017.
- The DHS and Department of Defense spent $14 million on just four trips by Trump to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida between February and March 2017.
And then there’s the millions spent every year pulling cannabis out of the ground — even in states where it’s legal.
The DOJ still runs a 1970s-era program aimed at finding and eliminating pot farms, to the tune of $18 million last year, known as the “Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program.”
The single biggest recipient of those funds is California, where the money is spent uprooting and destroying millions of cannabis plants from national forests, and from private property that’s been trespassed on. Much of the money goes to renting helicopters, just to find the weed.
Embarrassingly, the DEA got scolded by a federal spending watchdog last year for not even knowing where all that money was going, due to sloppy record keeping.
Uncomfortable comparisons like these underscore why terrorism experts worry the Trump administration is failing to prioritize the fight against right-wing extremists, despite the rising threat from far-right and white supremacist groups.
“There’s no question they’ve not put enough toward this in the past couple of years,” said McCord.
Effectively combatting home-grown terrorism she said will “take an investment of resources comparable to what was put into preventing islamic extremist attacks here in the homeland.”
Cover: In this Oct. 4, 2016, file photo, farmworkers inside a drying barn take down newly-harvested marijuana plants after a drying period, at Los Suenos Farms, America's largest legal open air marijuana farm, in Avondale, southern Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)