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Hate groups are about to find lawmakers eager to scrutinize them

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., speaks to reporters as Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., left, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., listen, regarding a resolution to remove the confederate flag at Park Service-run cemeteries on Thursday, July 9, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., speaks to reporters as Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., left, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., listen, regarding a resolution to remove the confederate flag at Park Service-run cemeteries on Thursday, July 9, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

For years, Republicans have watched white supremacists claim the GOP is on their side. And on Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers did little to clamp down on race-based hate groups.

But as of last week, Democrats are in charge of the House.

And that means Rep. Bennie Thompson, an African American lawmaker from Mississippi, is in charge of the House Homeland Security Committee.

He plans to act.

Thompson intends to hold hearings to spotlight what experts say is a growth of deadly right wing extremism in America, even if the hearings could feature members of white supremacist groups.

“There are some people, I understand, who have belonged to those groups in the past, so there might be an opportunity for dialogue there,” Thompson said.

After a woman was killed by a Nazi sympathizer who drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, Congress passed a resolution condemning the march. Though President Donald Trump signed the measure, and said he opposed hatred, bigotry and racism, he told reporters earlier the same day “You got some very bad people on the other side also.”

Hate crimes have spiked dramatically — incidents spiked 5.9 percent in 2017 over 2016, according to the FBI — but the House last year took no final action to help curb the trend. And the White House and Rep. Steve King, a veteran Republican lawmaker, have come under fire for indicating sympathy for white nationalists before clarifying they in fact were against hate and bigotry.

Several terrorism experts say attention to the issue is long overdue.

They say that the government has largely ignored the growth of a violent far right that exploded into the public consciousness with the deadly explosion of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. by Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government extremist.

“For all the intense focus on preventing terrorism, there’s a large blind spot about terrorism from the far right,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent and a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“The federal government doesn’t keep accurate records describing the nature and impact of this violence. So it’s impossible to develop good policy if you don’t have a factual concept of the threat,” he said.

Under Republican control from 2011 until last week, the House Homeland Security Committee repeatedly rejected calls by Thompson and Democrats for specific probes of domestic far right activities. Some Republicans now are wary that Thompson’s probe would be conducted with a partisan eye.

“I worry that it becomes completely political — a political cudgel and a political issue and we don’t focus on the violence and the problems we have in society and any potential solutions,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, a member of the Home Security Committee and the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

“I just think it would be better to characterize it as violent extremism and look at all of it (violent extremism),” he said.

For years, Congress and the White House has looked at terrorism through the lens of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. The House Homeland Security Committee, established after those attacks, largely has focused on the foreign threat or potential danger posed by U.S. residents becoming radicalized by foreign terrorist groups.

Rep. Peter King, R-New York, a former committee chair, who presided over a series of hearings on the threat of radicalization of American Muslims, said the panel is not the venue for Thompson to address his concern.

“To me, that was the function of the judiciary committee,” King said. “The purpose of the Homeland Security Committee was to fight basically overseas terrorists who have allies in the United States. If this was World War II, it would be the American Nazi Party. As far as I know, right wing groups don’t have foreign ties.”

Rep. Mark Walker, R-North Carolina, suggested that more of the nation’s attention and money still needs to be focused on combating the international terrorist threat.

“I have no problem call (white supremacy) out for what it is: Hateful, ignorant pride,” Walker said. “But I want to make sure that we don’t miss where a lot of the terrorist activity is coming from. We have a thousand terrorists we are monitoring right now. I don’t know if very many of them (domestic terrorists) are considered in that particular group, but actually more are international.

“So do we need to target some of these? Absolutely,” he said. “But let’s not let that overwhelm our resources for the smaller percentage to miss out on the larger groups.”

The committee has dealt with the subject sporadically, but did little legislatively.

And congressional Republicans found themselves dogged by comments such as those recently by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who last week told The New York Times. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

King later issued a statement saying “I reject those labels and the evil ideology that they define.”

But GOP leaders this week were quick to denounce King. His comments were “abhorrent and racist and should have no place in our national discourse,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, the House’s third-ranking Republican.

King has been under fire before. Two years ago, he told CNN “I’d like to see an America that’s just so homogeneous that we look a lot the same.” He narrowly won re-election last year.

Thompson said his aim is to change the dialogue and find a balance in a U.S. domestic terrorism strategy that he believes has focused too heavily on the threat of homegrown Muslim terrorism and too little the rise of far right, white nationalist, and anti-Semitic groups.

“We want to basically kind of change the conversation so that people understand that a bigger threat on the domestic side is the radical right wing folk in this country.,” he said.

A recent spate of deadly incidents — including the shooting deaths of 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, the February 2018 shooting deaths of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — have given Thompson and other congressional Democrats anecdotal evidence about the extreme right.

A study by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that violent extremism was responsible for 85 attacks and 225 deaths in the United States between September 12, 2001 and December 31, 2016.

Of those, 106 deaths were attributed to far right violence in 22 separate incidents and 119 were attributed to “radical Islamist violent extremists” in 23 separate incidents.

Between 2008 and 2017, domestic extremists were responsible for 387 murders. Of those, 274, or 71 percent, were committed by far right members of one group or another, according to a 2018 Anti-Defamation League study.

The rise of the far right has long been a sensitive subject in Congress.

A 2009 Department of Homeland Security report that warned the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president and a poor economy could lead to a resurgence of far right extremism and that military veterans could be prime recruits.

Several Republicans called for then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s firing. Veterans organizations demanded an apology.

Thompson, then homeland security committee chairman, said the report “appears to have blurred the line between violent belief, which is Constitutionally protected, and violent action, which is not.”

Napolitano apologized for the report. But the political backlash led DHS to halt work on tracking violent far right extremism, according to Daryl Johnson, the report’s author.

A decade later, Johnson calls the report prescient.

“When I wrote that report back in 2009, I thought it was going to be maybe a four, maximum eight-year cycle,” said Johnson, who now runs an analytics firm that focuses on domestic extremism in the United States. “And here we are at Year 10 and it’s thriving due to neglect at the federal level to recognize the threat and to do anything about it.”

McClatchy’s Emma Dumain contributed to this story.

William Douglas covers Congress and politics regionally for McClatchy. A University of South Carolina alum, he’s also covered the White House and State Department in his stint in Washington. He’s co-host of McClatchy’s Majority Minority podcast.