In a rare correction for the Trump administration, the president’s top aide, Kellyanne Conway, said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ claim that 4,000 terrorists were apprehended at the country’s southern border was “an unfortunate misstatement.”
Conway’s comments came after NBC News dug up numbers from the Department of Homeland Security showing Sanders’ claim was nowhere close to reality. A congressional source confirmed to BuzzFeed News that six — not 4,000 — people encountered by southern border authorities in the first half of 2018 were on the US’s list of known or suspected terrorists.
That fact sent the administration scrambling after Trump said he would continue the government shutdown unless he gets funds for a wall along the southern border — which House Democrats have said is not on the table — to stop, as he claims, terrorists and criminals from entering the country. The overwhelming majority of migrants coming to the US through Mexico are fleeing dangerous home countries or extreme poverty.
Trump went so far as to say he will use emergency powers to build the wall, though it’s unclear if he can even do that.
The confusion began last Friday when Sanders appeared on Fox & Friends — where administration figures face little to no scrutiny — saying “nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists that CBP picked up that came across our southern border.”
The claim was reiterated two days later when Sanders appeared on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. Sanders addressed statements made last week by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, in which Nielsen said that Customs and Border Protection “stopped over 3,000 what we call ‘special-interest aliens’ trying to come into the country in the southern border,” CBS News reported.
When Fox News host Wallace pushed back on the validity of those numbers, Sanders again stated: “We know that roughly, nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.”
Wallace pushed back again, asking, “Do you know where those 4,000 people come [from], where they’re captured? Airports.”
NBC News published its report the following day, citing “CBP data provided to Congress in May 2018.” The outlet reported that CBP told Congress it “encountered only six immigrants at ports of entry 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.”
“Overall, 41 people on the Terrorist Screening Database were encountered at the southern border from Oct. 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, but 35 of them were U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents,” which means only “six were classified as non-U.S. persons,” the NBC News report said.
On Monday evening, Conway told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that the 4,000 figure mentioned by Sanders and the 3,000 figure mentioned by Nielsen arose from confusion via a Department of Homeland Security report, and was “unfortunately conflated by a colleague.”
“They want to be honest when citing facts and figures…that was an unfortunate misstatement,” Conway said.
Nielsen also walked back her comments on Twitter, saying she now couldn’t discuss the figures. “The threat is real. The number of terror-watchlisted encountered at our Southern Border has increased over the last two years,” she tweeted, calling the precise figures “extremely sensitive.”
Nielsen then went on to state that the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, “encountered 3,000 Special Interest Aliens — individuals with suspicious travel patterns who may pose a national security threat.”