Trump says he'll designate antifa a terror organization, blames group for violence at George Floyd protests

William Cummings and Kristine Phillips, USA TODAY

President Donald Trump announced Sunday a left-wing group he thinks are leading the violence at anti-police brutality protests will be officially labeled as terrorists. 

"The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization," Trump said in a tweet. 

Antifa – short for "anti-fascists" – is the name for loosely affiliated, left-leaning anti-racist groups that have been involved in some violent clashes in recent years. The movement has no unified structure or national leadership. 

Trump has railed against the left-wing agitators at other times in his presidency, referring to the group as the "alt-left" in 2017 following violent confrontations between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

"The violence and vandalism is being led by antifa and other radical left-wing groups who are terrorizing the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses and burning down buildings," Trump said during remarks at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday. 

In his first tweet Sunday, Trump kept up his criticism of Minneapolis' Democratic Mayor Jacob Frey for not being tough enough on the protesters who turned violent. Frey's city was rocked by several nights of demonstrations last week after George Floyd, an African American man died in police custody. Before his death, video captured Floyd desperately telling a police officer with his knee in Floyd's neck that he couldn't breathe. 

"Congratulations to our National Guard for the great job they did immediately upon arriving in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last night," Trump tweeted. "Should have been done by Mayor on first night and there would have been no trouble!" 

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Trump said that thanks to the National Guard, the "ANTIFA led anarchists, among others, were shut down quickly." 

Attorney General William Barr on Sunday also blamed antifa and other similar groups over the violent protests around the country, calling the acts "domestic terrorism."

Barr did not say what specific groups may have been involved or where they came from, but he said the Justice Department and the FBI will work on identifying "criminal organizers and instigators" to be arrested and charged.

"With the rioting that is occurring in many of our cities around the country, the voices of peaceful and legitimate protests have been hijacked by violent radical elements. Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate, violent, and extremist agenda," Barr said.

"It is time to stop watching the violence and to confront and stop it," Barr said. "The continued violence and destruction of property endangers the lives and livelihoods of others, and interferes with the rights of peaceful protestors, as well as other citizens."

Barr said that in order to "coordinate federal resources with our state and local partners," he would use the "existing network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces." 

"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," Barr said. 

The American Civil Liberties Union said Trump did not have the power to label domestic terror groups. 

"Terrorism is an inherently political label, easily abused and misused," the organization said in a tweet. "Let’s be clear: There is no legal authority for designating a domestic group. Any such designation would raise significant due process and First Amendment concerns." 

"He can call it whatever he wants, but he has no authority to designate antifa as a terrorist organization," David Cole, the ACLU's national legal director, told USA TODAY. 

"The only authority that Congress has created for designating groups as terrorists is limited to international terrorist organizations and groups that are supporting international terrorist organizations," Cole said. "There is no authority to designate a wholly domestic organization as terrorists."

"You have a constitutional right to associate with and support all sorts of organizations whether Donald Trump likes them or not," he added. 

Cole said that Barr is "perfectly free to investigate the antifa movement and to prosecute individuals who engage in criminal conduct. But what he and President Trump cannot do is make the entire group or movement into a criminal enterprise." 

Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien told CNN Sunday that the administration planned to "get to the bottom" of antifa's role in the protests. And he said the president and Barr want to know what the FBI is doing to "to track and dismantle and surveil and prosecute antifa." 

O'Brien denounced "these antifa militant radicals who come into our cities and cross state lines.

"They're organized, and use Molotov cocktails and fireworks and gas to burn down our cities, especially businesses in minority neighborhoods. It's got to be stopped," he said on "State of the Union." 

But some have blamed right-wing provocateurs seeking to incite a race war for the violence. 

"The truth is nobody really knows," Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said Sunday on NBC News' "Meet the Press." 

"What the exact political motivation is is unclear at this point. We need to investigate it," Ellison said. 

He faulted Barr and Trump for focusing on antifa, rather than addressing the "systemic police abuses in America." 

"They have actually tried to walk back their involvement in key states where they existed under the Obama Administration. They have not moved forward when it comes to 21st century policing, which the Obama Administration started," Ellison said.

"So I think the federal government does have a role, but it needs to be constructing a better relationship between cities and the police departments that serve them. And making incendiary comments about who's to blame here as opposed to actually investigating it isn't helpful." 

But Trump is convinced the blame lies with antifa.

"It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left. Don’t lay the blame on others!" he tweeted late Saturday

Contributing: Doug Stanglin and Nicholas Wu, USA TODAY; The Associated Press 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George Floyd protests: Trump to label Antifa a terrorist organization