On Thursday afternoon, with the Senate once again embroiled in a multi-day debate over health care, a top domestic priority for President Donald Trump, the White House held a press briefing. It focused not on Obamacare repeal plans or Republican whip counts or millions of people who might lose insurance, but, exclusively, on an El Salvadorian gang known as MS-13.
The briefing was conducted by two officials at the Department of Homeland Security. Its content and its timing gave every impression that the gang, whose members in the US are estimated to total roughly 6,000 to 10,000 individuals, is the most pressing issue in the country right now.
The press briefing started at 2:21 pm, more than half an hour after the scheduled start time of 1:45 pm, and within minutes of the beginning of a Senate vote on an amendment to create a single payer health care plan. By the time White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was done, administration officials had spent nearly a half-hour discussing the gang.
It was like a parallel universe.
Associate Deputy Attorney General Robert Hur spoke first, listing acts of violence that the gang has been accused of that support the group’s “chilling motto” which, he said, “is kill, rape, and control.”
Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan then took the podium, flanked on both sides by projected photos of gang tattoos. He spoke in graphic detail about victims of gang violence: “We rescued one man who was duct taped from head to toe.” Homan also railed against sanctuary cities, calling them “a criminal’s best friend.”
Both men discussed the Trump administration’s plans and commitment to eradicating the gang — though Homan stopped himself from divulging too much methodology at one point: “I'd rather not share the factors we consider to look at because, I don't want to share that with the criminal element who may be watching this program.”
His comment seemed to suggest a much larger presumed audience than one might expect given that a major health care vote was going on, and being covered by national media, simultaneously.
MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is an El Salvadorian street gang that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s. MS-13 has long been a Trump administration talking point as part of its justification for aggressive immigration and border security policies. And while MS-13 is certainly dangerous — the New York Times reported on the murders of four Latino men on Long Island by the gang in April — this concentration on MS-13 is almost certainly overblown.
According to nonpartisan FactCheck.org, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed in remarks to the Organized Crime Council in April that the National Gang Intelligence Center reported MS-13 has “more than 10,000 members in at least 40 states in this country — up significantly from just a few years ago.” However, the Justice Department was unable to provide FactCheck’s Lori Robertson with any historical numbers showing this “significant” increase.
Nevertheless, Hur announced that Trump will be traveling to Long Island to talk about the “fight to eradicate the violent threat of MS-13,” and Sessions boarded a plane to El Salvador on Thursday, NPR reported, where he plans to meet his Salvadorian counterpart, Attorney General Douglas Melendez, before touring a detention center and meeting former members of MS-13.
Trump, who tweeted broad encouragement to senators to pass something on health care Thursday morning, later tweeted his approval of the efforts to combat the gang.
Come on Republican Senators, you can do it on Healthcare. After 7 years, this is your chance to shine! Don't let the American people down!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 27, 2017
Big progress being made in ridding our country of MS-13 gang members and gang members in general. MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 27, 2017
Huckabee-Sanders used the last 18 minutes of the press briefing to, first, “get ahead of some of the personnel-related questions” — seemingly alluding to reported tensions between White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus — only to say she could not confirm rumors of Sean Spicer on Dancing with the Stars.
She then avoided answering questions about the health care vote. (Though she seemed to introduce, apparently out of nowhere, the name “freedom health care bill” to describe the skinny repeal bill the Senate will vote on.) She also described, while boasting several times about crowd size, how successful Trump’s politically charged speech to the Boy Scouts of America had been.
Elsewhere in America on Thursday, the Scouts issued a statement apologizing for Trump’s conduct in the speech.