The Trump administration has a blunt message: Be afraid. And if something goes wrong, blame the third branch of government and the fourth estate.
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That’s the message emanating from the White House, starting with President Trump, just three weeks into his hectic presidency. The president is arguing that the terrorism threat is far worse than most people imagine -– and that forces, including the judiciary and the news media, are potentially making the United States less safe.
"Believe me,” the president told a law enforcement gathering in Washington Wednesday morning, “I've learned a lot in the last two weeks, and terrorism is a far greater threat than people understand.”
And, as he’s done multiple times over the past week, he turned his attention to a federal judiciary, which has put the brakes on his executive order limiting migration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“Right now, we are at risk because of what happened,” Trump said.
As scrutiny has grown over his travel ban, Trump has cast it as central to his mission of keeping Americans safe. He’s lashed out at the federal judge who effectively put the policy on hold with a temporary restraining order, tweeting that “if something happens blame him,” and saying that even a “bad high-school student” would understand that the president's order is legal.
He also has taken his attack to the media. A “very, very dishonest press” is failing to report on terrorist attacks in Europe, the president said.
His White House put out a typo-ridden list of attacks the administration believes demonstrates that some were under-covered, which included several incidents with tenuous links to terrorists, as well as incidents that were widely covered: Orlando, San Bernardino, Paris.
Along the way, the warnings coming from his administration have become more urgent and ominous.
“What we can’t do is wait for the next attack to come,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday.
“Not until the boom," warned Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Tuesday, when pressed by a member of Congress on what proof the administration has that people are coming to the U.S. with the intent to harm Americans.
“The world is an angry place,” the president himself told ABC News' David Muir, in the first major television interview of his presidency.
It’s a rhetorical break with the main message coming from the last two presidents, one a Democrat and one a Republican. Their general stance even after 9/11 was to reassure Americans and urge them to go on about their daily business.
For Trump, the tone appears to have policy implications. A president who claims to know the public’s sentiments without polls is seeking to claim the mantle of public support for an agenda that aims to be more aggressive in combating threats.
If, to Trump and his allies, the ends justify those means, it’s instructive to game out how Trump might cast an attack on Americans under his watch. The president appears to see enemies everywhere, including inside the country he leads.