Officials spent 26 minutes on gang violence as a health care vote was unfolding.
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.