Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said his department needs to “do a better job communicating” its intentions in the wake of a deployment of federal law enforcement officers to Portland, Oregon, this summer.
“Lesson learned, is better communicating exactly who we are targeting. We are not targeting peaceful protesters, individuals exercising their First Amendment rights,” he told Axios on HBO in an interview that aired Monday night.
Tensions grew in Portland last month after federal officers arrived in the city, which has seen prolonged and at times violent protests over demands for racial justice and police accountability.
“I don’t subscribe to the fact that we inflamed the violence there in Portland,” Wolf said.
When asked if antifa activists are “domestic terrorists,” Wolf said, “I think they certainly can be in certain circumstances,” connecting the group to protests in Portland. It is “difficult to answer” whether antifa has been responsible for any deaths, said Wolf, when pressed on whether anyone had been killed by antifa. “Antifa is a very loose-knit organization.”
Antifa is short for anti-fascists. The term is used to define a broad group of people whose political beliefs lean toward the left – often the far left. The group doesn’t have an official leader or headquarters, although groups in certain states hold regular meetings.
Wolf sought to counter the belief that DHS was targeting and arresting protesters. “These individuals that we are targeting, we have seen them commit a criminal act,” he said.
In addition to better communications, he reiterated that DHS was looking into changing the uniforms of its officers from the camouflage used in Portland to more closely resemble other law enforcement officers.
Wolf denied there is a problem with systemic racism in policing in America, saying, “absolutely not.”
“This idea that we have systemic racism is not accurate in my view,” he said. “What people mean by systemic racism is that we have designed an institution, a law enforcement institution, to be racist from the get-go. And I just don’t subscribe to that.”
In response to Wolf’s interview, Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement it was “galling” for Wolf “to use a primetime television appearance to attempt to rewrite history about the Trump Administration’s attacks on protestors in Portland, mislead the American people on mail-in voting, and falsely characterize Antifa as a top threat.”
Wolf also told Axios that there is an ongoing concern about states that are doing “mass mail ballot voting.”
“The Department of Homeland Security’s national security mission is supposed to be non-partisan and should operate outside the realm of campaign politics. Instead, Mr. Wolf continues to politicize the Department, to the detriment of the agency and its mission,” Thompson said.
CNN”s Jessica Suerth contributed to this story.