President Donald Trump said Sunday that he will designate antifa as a terrorist organization after Democratic and Republican officials pointed to extremist groups and out of town demonstrators as responsible for violent episodes at protests in major cities across the country.
Trump and Attorney General William Barr had earlier pointed to anti-fascist organizers and anarchists as culprits behind the mayhem following the death of a 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police. Others said right-wing extremists such as Boogaloo followers, who hope to bring about a second Civil War, were pushing for such uprising in the protests.
In a Sunday statement, Barr said the Justice Department is taking aim at "apprehending and charging the violent radical agitators who have hijacked peaceful protest and are engaged in violations of federal law."
The attorney general said that "to identify criminal organizers and instigators," federal law enforcement officials are utilizing "our existing network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces."
"Preventing reconciliation and driving us apart is the goal of these radical groups, and we cannot let them succeed," Barr added. "The violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly."
There is no domestic terrorism statute and legal authority for the U.S. to designate any domestic organization as a terrorist group, as the Justice Department's domestic terrorism coordinator has said publicly on multiple occasions in recent years. A 2018 Congressional Review Service report on antifa said that "presumably" the FBI "would investigate antifa followers suspected of criminal activity as domestic terrorists, categorizing them as a type of anarchist extremist."
"As this tweet demonstrates, terrorism is an inherently political label, easily abused and misused," American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi said in response to Trump's post. "There is no legal authority for designating a domestic group. Any such designation would raise significant due process and First Amendment concerns."
The Trump administration also took aim at antifa during the Sunday political talk shows. Speaking with CNN's "State of the Union," national security adviser Robert O'Brien said violence "is being driven by antifa."
"And they did it in Seattle. They have done it in Portland. They have done it in Berkeley. This is a destructive force of radical — I don't even know if we want to call them leftists," O'Brien continued. "Whatever they are, they're — they're militants who are coming in and burning our cities, and we're going to get to the bottom of it."
Antifa, meaning "anti-fascist," is a coalition of protesters, left-wing activists and self-described anarchists who seek to physically confront and bring down what they deem as the far right. Trump and his administration have long targeted the loosely affiliated group, which has made its presence felt at protests throughout his presidency.
O'Brien called for the FBI to engage in surveillance of antifa and to prosecute its members.
"And if they haven't been doing that, we need a plan right away to make sure that happens," O'Brien told reporters after appearing in the Sunday shows. "I think the attorney general has already been in touch with (FBI) Director Wray, and I think the President wants to know what the FBI has been doing, and what their plan is going forward, and if they haven't been doing anything about antifa."
O'Brien said that while he condemns "all extremists," he pinned the violence on left-wing radicals.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted the "big story" being missed is that in "city after city we have a rogues gallery of terrorists from Antifa to 'Boogaloo' groups encouraging & committing violence."
"They may not be ideologically compatible but share a hatred of govt & police & are taking advantage of the protests," Rubio, acting chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, added, saying the demonstrators "don't fit a simple left vs. right identity."
These individuals want to "tear the whole system down even if it requires a new civil war, Rubio said.
The protests began last week after a video showed Minneapolis police officers pinning Floyd to the ground as he exclaimed that he could not breathe. One officer, Derek Chauvin, was seen holding his knee against Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes as he begged for mercy — with Chauvin continuing to pin Floyd down even after he became unresponsive.
Chauvin was arrested and charged Friday with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers were also involved in Floyd's detainment. They have not been charged with any crimes stemming from the incident.
The protests ratcheted up over the weekend after demonstrations became violent in Minnesota. Peaceful protests across the country became increasingly tense as night fell upon cities this weekend, with fires breaking out in many of them. Meanwhile, police at the protests have been recorded using harsh force against demonstrators and journalists.
Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, told "State of the Union" that some of the protesters are driven "by a passion for our community, by a love for our community, and by a deep desire to never see a loss of life like the killing on the video, the killing of George Floyd we all saw this week."
"Then there's folks in the street who are there to burn down our black-owned barbershops, to burn down our family-owned businesses, to burn down our immigrant-owned restaurants and it is very clear to me those people are not driven by a love for our community," Carter said. "And there is no way you can argue those actions are designed to produce a better future for our community, quite the opposite."
Carter had apologized Saturday after saying that "every person" arrested in the protests were from out of state, saying he was given inaccurate information during a police briefing. Local media examined local jail data that found nearly all of the people arrested at the protests live in Minneapolis or the surrounding metropolitan area.
Other top officials in Minnesota, like Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, had said out-of-staters were responsible for some of the looting and arson.
Speaking with NBC's "Meet the Press," Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a Democrat, said he's become aware of "very suspicious" people taking part in the demonstrations through video recordings made at the protests.
"The truth is, nobody really knows," he said of who is responsible for the more violent activity. "I talked to people who were demonstrating, they say they think some of those folks are from Minnesota. And they also say some people have come from out of town. What the exact political motivation is unclear at this point. We need to investigate it."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pointed to Walz's comments on out-of-towners in an interview with "This Week."
"Let’s have a look at what really is happening, who is making what, taking what actions," Pelosi said. "But we should not ignore the fact that there is a room for peaceful protests in all of this."
Also on "This Week," Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., said the large Floyd protests are happening because people "want bold and systematic change to take place, so that they can feel like their voices are heard."
"This is what happens when people are tired, just marching every single day, just to have their humanity be recognized," she said. "In Minneapolis, we have marched. We have protested. We have organized. And when we see people setting our buildings and our businesses ablaze, we know those are not people who are interested in protecting black lives."