Editor’s Note: Josh Campbell is a CNN analyst covering national security issues. He previously served as a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI, special assistant to the bureau’s director, and is currently writing a book on recent attempts by elected officials to undermine the rule of law. Follow him on Twitter at @joshscampbell. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The most important takeaway from President Donald Trump’s Oval Office address to the nation on Tuesday night came not from anything he said, but what went unsaid. What Trump didn’t say spoke volumes.
In recent days, his administration has sought to whip up fear by scaring people into believing our nation faced a major crisis involving known or suspected terrorists attempting to gain entry in the country. The goal appeared to be trying to manipulate the public’s emotions to persuade people that a border wall would stop dangerous terrorists from coming into the country to kill innocent Americans.
After persistent and repeated fact-checking by journalists and experts, all pointing out the administration’s lies and misleading statements, the White House seems to have retreated from the terror scare. In addressing the nation Tuesday, Trump never uttered the word terrorism.
Last week, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stood in the White House Rose Garden and caused jaws to drop by publicly indicating authorities had stopped over 3,000 known or suspected terrorists from entering the southern border. Vice President Michael Pence later echoed these same figures on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The problem is, this number was in part highly misleading and in part actually false, as it referred to a broad category of people, based in part on their country of origin, not necessarily their own individual actions, and mischaracterized where they entered the country.
In fact, CNN has learned that authorities encountered roughly one dozen individuals on the terror watchlist – not thousands – at the southern border over a one-year period.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told the biggest whopper of them all, insisting last weekend on Fox News that nearly 4,000 terrorists actually made their way into the country, adding “we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.” She was fact-checked in real-time by host Chris Wallace, who pointed out that although suspected terrorists have been prevented from entering the country, their method of transit was mainly airports, not just the southern border. He said, “They’re not coming across the southern border, Sarah, they’re coming and they’re being stopped at airports.”
The false Sanders narrative went uncorrected by anyone from the Trump administration until Tuesday, when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway finally shrugged it off as “an unfortunate misstatement,” adding, “Everyone makes mistakes.”
But the significant time lapse between the falsehood and the correction leaves many of us to wonder whether it was said mistakenly at all.
In the past, I have worked with White House communications teams from both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. I know those teams would have tripped over themselves trying to get to a camera to correct such a false assertion, if for no other reason than to prevent inciting public fear.
However, with the Trump team, whipping up fear seemed to be the goal.
To be sure, terrorism threats and immigration problems remain very real, and one terrorist crossing the border is too many. However, as a former FBI agent who worked many counterterrorism investigations, I was infuriated watching the Trump White House so blatantly attempting to manipulate public opinion by politicizing national security.
There is no national security crisis at the southern border. If, as the White House has indicated, thousands of terrorists entered the country, every FBI agent in the country would have dropped what they were doing to find them.
They did not. The entire “crisis” was a charade. As one intelligence official told CNN on Tuesday, “No one is saying this is a crisis except them. They’re playing the public for suckers.”
Although the terrorism excuse appears to have been dropped from rotation, we are not completely out of the woods. In his speech, the President instead opted to shift the scare tactics to exaggerate the flow of drugs, which mostly come through border security checkpoints, and dangerous criminals, who do come into our country but not in the ways Trump suggests – leaving many with the view that only bad things and bad people cross the southern border. This is manifestly untrue.
The politics of fear continue. So, too, must the fact-checking.