The federal government believes that the threat of violence and major civil disturbances around the 2024 U.S. presidential election is so great that it has quietly created a new category of extremists that it seeks to track and counter: Donald Trump‘s army of MAGA followers.
The challenge for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the primary federal agency charged with law enforcement, is to pursue and prevent what it calls domestic terrorism without direct reference to political parties or affiliations—even though the vast majority of its current “anti-government” investigations are of Trump supporters, according to classified data obtained by Newsweek.
“The FBI is in an almost impossible position,” says a current FBI official, who requested anonymity to discuss highly sensitive internal matters. The official said that the FBI is intent on stopping domestic terrorism and any repeat of the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. But the Bureau must also preserve the Constitutional right of all Americans to campaign, speak freely and protest the government. By focusing on former president Trump and his MAGA (Make America Great Again) supporters, the official said, the Bureau runs the risk of provoking the very anti-government activists that the terrorism agencies hope to counter.
“Especially at a time when the White House is facing Congressional Republican opposition claiming that the Biden administration has ‘weaponized’ the Bureau against the right wing, it has to tread very carefully,” says the official.
Newsweek spoke to over a dozen current or former government officials who specialize in terrorism in a three-month investigation to understand the current domestic-security landscape and to evaluate what President Joe Biden‘s administration is doing about what it calls domestic terrorism. Most requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly, were reluctant to stray into partisan politics or feared the repercussions of speaking frankly.
Newsweek has also reviewed secret FBI and Department of Homeland Security data that track incidents, threats, investigations and cases to try to build a better picture. While experts agree that the current partisan environment is charged and uniquely dangerous (with the threat not only of violence but, in the most extreme scenarios, possibly civil war), many also question whether “terrorism” is the most effective way to describe the problem, or that the methods of counterterrorism developed over the past decade in response to Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups constitute the most fruitful way to craft domestic solutions.
“The current political environment is not something that the FBI is necessarily responsible for, nor should it be,” says Brian Michael Jenkins, one of the world’s leading terrorism experts and senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation.
In a statement to Newsweek, the FBI said: “The threat posed by domestic violent extremists is persistent, evolving, and deadly. The FBI’s goal is to detect and stop terrorist attacks, and our focus is on potential criminal violations, violence and threats of violence. Anti-government or anti-authority violent extremism is one category of domestic terrorism, as well as one of the FBI’s top threat priorities.” The FBI further said, “We are committed to protecting the safety and constitutional rights of all Americans and will never open an investigation based solely on First Amendment protected activity, including a person’s political beliefs or affiliations.”
The White House declined to comment. The Trump campaign was given an opportunity to comment but did not do so.
What the FBI Data Shows
From the president down, the Biden administration has presented Trump and MAGA as an existential threat to American democracy and talked up the risk of domestic terrorism and violence associated with the 2024 election campaign.
“Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans are a threat to the very soul of this country,” President Biden tweeted last September, the first time that he explicitly singled out the former president. “MAGA Republicans aim to question not only the legitimacy of past elections but elections being held now and into the future,” Biden said.
Biden’s Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall said: “The use of violence to pursue political ends is a profound threat to our public safety and national security…it is a threat to our national identity, our values, our norms, our rule of law—our democracy.”
For Attorney General Merrick Garland: “Attacks by domestic terrorists are attacks on all of us collectively, aimed at rending the fabric of our democratic society and driving us apart.”
Though the FBI’s data shows a dip in the number of investigations since the slew of January 6 cases ended, FBI Director Christopher Wray still says that the breach of the Capitol building was “not an isolated event” and the threat is “not going away anytime soon.” In a joint report to Congress this June, the Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security say that “Threats from…DVEs [domestic violent extremists] have increased in the last two years, and any further increases in threats likely will correspond to potential flashpoints, such as high-profile elections and campaigns or contentious current events.”
The FBI and DHS report concludes: “Sociopolitical developments—such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence—will almost certainly spur some domestic terrorists to try to engage in violence.”…