Trump’s Efforts to Stoke Immigration Panic Are Right out of Dick Cheney’s Playbook

Trump is taking a page out of Dick Cheney's playbook, using false claims of terrorism to create panic over immigration.

[Photo: Split screen. To the left, President Donald Trump smirks in front of an American flag background. To the right, Dick Cheney grimaces in front of an American flag background.]
Donald Trump is taking a page from Cheney's playbook: Engage in fear-mongering based on lies to justify action toward a predetermined goal, no matter how corrupt the goal itself and no matter how many people are hurt. Jim Watson & Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

In March 2003, President George W. Bush officially launched a war against Iraq. For 18 months following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush and members of his administration—most notably Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—engaged in incessant fear-mongering based on ever-changing justifications as to why Iraq and Saddam Hussein posed grave danger to the United States and the international community.

Virtually every reason proffered to support the war with Iraq was a lie created for that very purpose. In fact, the Iraq War was premeditated. As CEO of Halliburton, a huge oil and defense contractor, Cheney had spent the better part of the 1990s looking for reasons to oust Hussein and take control of Iraq and its abundant oil reserves, at one point saying, “The good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected regimes friendly to the United States.” Cheney found his “rationale” in the 9/11 attacks, which were perpetrated by 19 men, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals in the United States on expired visas, and the rest from Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. Not one Iraqi was involved. We now know the Iraq war was sold through one of the most expensive and devastating con jobs in U.S. history, leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and costing trillions of dollars. Halliburton, along with its subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), ultimately reaped billions in profits from the war, some from no-bid contracts.

In his attacks on immigrants from Central America, Donald Trump is taking a page from Cheney’s playbook. He is fear-mongering based on outright lies in an effort to con us all into achieving a predetermined goal, no matter how corrupt the goal itself and no matter how many people are hurt. As did Cheney before him, Trump’s strategy is to create new “facts” as the old ones are disputed or disproven, use the full force of the U.S. government wherever possible to support his lies with cooked-up “data,” and try to rally the public by claiming we are in grave danger. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

In Trump’s iteration, immigrants are the new “WMDs.” Trump is hyping non-existent threats of terrorism, this time from Central American immigrants literally escaping terror and legally seeking asylum—in an attempt to build support for a 2,000-mile wall along our southern border (never mind cost or feasibility or environmental considerations or private property or … the fact that there is no problem such a wall would solve). And like Cheney before him, Trump’s effort is premeditated. From the day he announced his candidacy and on virtually every day of his campaign and his presidency so far, Trump and key members of his administration have promoted white nationalism and white supremacy. Like Cheney, Trump is using the full force of his administration to “prove” the lies he needs to justify what is effectively ethnic cleansing in the United States, by deporting and drastically reducing the number of immigrants of color. And he is using a combination of false-flag fear and hatred to stoke more fear and hatred. Moreover, Trump is taking hostages on U.S. soil, from the people he has dehumanized and locked away in cages to the babies and children he has ripped from their parents to the people who are now waiting in desperation in overcrowded shelters in Tijuana to claim asylum to the federal workers whose livelihoods are threatened by a government shutdown now in its third week. In his newest gambit, Trump is threatening to declare a national emergency to circumvent the congressional approval needed for the money to build a wall. Not coincidentally, private contractors are profiting mightily from all of this.

Trump’s claims of a terrorist threat on the southern border of the United States are where he most strongly echoes Cheney. The cries of terrorism started in earnest in the months leading up to the 2018 midterms, when it evidently became clear to Trump that he was about to lose the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, leaving him open to investigation by Democratic-led House committees. His election strategy was to target a migrant caravan of people fleeing violence in Central America, many of whom were women and children seeking to exercise their legal rights to claim asylum. Trump’s caravan fever abruptly broke the day after the election—did the urgent threat just vanish??—and we heard nothing more about the caravan or about immigrants for weeks until … Nancy Pelosi took charge and Trump decided it was time for more distractions.

Since then, the administration has dramatically increased its attacks on immigrants. In fact, it’s only January 8 and already in 2019 Trump and members of his cabinet have engaged in increasingly frantic, exaggerated, often contradictory, and easily disproven claims about criminals and terrorists crossing the southern border. There is a veritable flood of misinformation so great and so confusing that it’s hard to keep track, which may in fact be the point.

Virtually every word of their claims is patently, dangerously false. As NBC’s Julia Ainsley reported, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “encountered only six immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border in the first half of fiscal year 2018 whose names were on a federal government list of known or suspected terrorists, according to CBP data obtained by NBC News.” This does not mean the people interdicted were terrorists; the FBI watch list is known to be flawed and has been used to detain many innocent people. Ned Price, who served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, told Ainsley that many are stopped “simply because their name matches that of someone on a terrorist watch list, which have grown in recent years, and not because they pose a threat.”

Price continued to say: “So-called terrorist watchlists are an important tool in our national security arsenal, but they are far from fool-proof in large part because of their sheer size. That’s why false-positives, including in the case of crossings at our southern border, are commonplace. Even the late Ted Kennedy was registered on one such list when attempting to fly, presumably because of the commonality of his name.”

But in a January 2 White House meeting, Trump asserted, “In the last two years, ICE officers arrested 235,000 criminals who were able to come in over the years through the United States.” The word “criminals” is used to deceive and mislead. Trump is purposefully and falsely counting as “criminals” those who entered the United States without documentation, which is a misdemeanor, and those arrested solely for civil immigration violations, which are not crimes at all. In a Rose Garden press conference on January 4, Trump also claimed“We have terrorists coming through the southern border because they find that’s probably the easiest place to come through. They drive right in and they make a left.” Have you been at the southern border? I have. Last week. No one just “drives right in and makes a left.”

That same day, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders claimed that in 2018, Customs and Border Protection had picked up nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists “that came across our southern border.” Two days earlier, on January 2nd, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who last year lied numerous times, including to Congress, about Trump’s family separation policy, claimed  “the southern border is also the primary entry point for criminals and gang members. Just last year, we apprehended more than 17,000 criminals and 1,000 gang members along the southern border. We are also concerned about potential terrorists as well, as you know. In 2018 alone, we apprehended 3,000 special-interest aliens coming into our country along the southern border.”

235,000. 17,000. 3,000. 1,000. It’s enough to make your head spin. None of it is truthful.

Even Fox News’s Chris Wallace corrected Sanders, citing a recent State Department report, which said there has been no “credible evidence” of terrorists crossing the southern border from Mexico.

These claims also obscure a critical point: As the Washington Post‘s Christopher Ingraham wrote last June, data show that “undocumented immigrants are considerably less likely to commit crime than native-born citizens, with immigrants legally in the United States even less likely to do so.”

Trump, however, does not rely on our own government agencies or reliable data when they contradict his agenda, but on his “friends,” one of whom is Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol Council, the union of border patrol agents and an enthusiastic Trumpista who supports the federal government shutdown and the wall.

Tonight, major networks such as ABC, CBS, and NBC have decided to carry a national address by Trump, giving him yet another platform on which to spew lies and incite hatred. As George Zornick writes in The Nation, “Trump will bend the facts in service of a years-long racist and demagogic campaign against Latin American immigrants; he will assuredly dehumanize them as terrorists, criminals, and carriers of disease, as he has from the very first day of his campaign in 2015. This kind of rhetoric has led to violence from both vigilantes and the state, and meekly fact-checking his numbers is an insufficient remedy for airing Trump’s Fifteen-Minute Hate.”

Donald Trump and his closest advisors came in with a premeditated agenda that includes the promotion of white supremacy and white nationalism to be achieved in part through the criminalization and dehumanization of immigrants. Now he’s using the threat of terrorism to sell an ill-advised, wasteful policy, and, at the very least, to distract from the corruption and crimes rife within his administration. If we learned one thing from the Iraq War, from the constant coverage of false claims by Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, and from subsequent and past efforts to scapegoat and stigmatize people for political gain, we have learned it never turns out well. Apparently, however, few in the corporate media have learned how to act responsibly when we are in danger of allowing our own egregious history to repeat itself.