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Experts who track domestic terrorism and extremist groups said there’s no evidence that left-wing groups are organizing nationwide as “hit squads” and “being trained” to mount an armed opposition to President Donald Trump’s reelection.
Michael Caputo, the health aide who spoke of such “hit squads” on Facebook, has since apologized to colleagues for drawing negative attention and taken a leave of absence.
The top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services ran through a series of baseless conspiracy theories in a Facebook Live video, accusing government health officials of "sedition" and warning of a post-election insurrection by left-wing "hit squads."
The broadcast from Michael Caputo, who President Donald Trump appointed in April as the department’s assistant secretary of public affairs, was first reported by the New York Times.
Caputo, a former Trump campaign official, warned without evidence that "there are hit squads being trained all over this country" to violently oppose a second Trump term, according to the New York Times. He predicted that Trump would win a contested election, sparking chaos.
"And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin," he said, according to the report. "The drills that you’ve seen are nothing."
Caputo told gun owners to "buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get." He also leveled unsubstantiated accusations against scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said his own "mental health has definitely failed."
Caputo has since shut down his personal Facebook account, but he related what he said in the video to several news outlets, and Yahoo News released snippets of the livestream. Caputo apologized to colleagues for his remarks in an emergency staff meeting, according to reports.
On Sept. 16, HHS announced he would be taking a 60-day leave of absence.
Caputo already was facing criticism after Politico and others reported that he and an aide had pressured the CDC to let them review and revise weekly scientific reports in order to portray the Trump administration’s coronavirus response more positively.
As for his comment about left-wing hit squads? Experts who closely follow domestic terrorism and extremist groups said there’s no evidence that left-wing groups are "being trained" or organizing underground to stage the type of armed revolt that Caputo described.
"I would just file this under the latest outlandish, unproven argument about left-wing violence that is ultimately aimed to serve the Trump 2020 campaign," said Mark Bray, a historian and part-time lecturer at Rutgers University.
Caputo and HHS did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the FBI or the office of the director of national intelligence. It’s not clear which left-wing groups he was referring to.
Trump and his allies have lumped wide swaths of people protesting police brutality and racial injustice in with antifa. Antifa stands for "anti-fascist" and refers to a broad movement — including communists, anarchists and socialists — that has been around for decades.
In his Facebook monologue, Caputo said the suspected killing in August of a Trump supporter by a self-described anti-fascist in Portland, Ore., was a "drill" foreshadowing more violence.
Anti-fascist groups typically aren’t large in number, and their focus is often on counterprotesting, said Bray, who wrote a book on antifa.
"Most of the time when you see counter-demonstrations against far-right events, it’s the anti-racist, anti-fascist crowd that usually doesn’t have guns," Bray said.
Other left-wing groups such as Redneck Revolt, the Socialist Rifle Association and the Not F------ Around Coalition, have also been violent, experts said. Redneck Revolt, for example, will openly carry firearms while opposing far-right events and is known to conduct target practice.
A recent report from the Network Contagion Research Institute, a nonprofit organization, found that Redneck Revolt and other left-wing groups were growing their networks online and on some occasions circulating memes and messages with depictions of violence.
Members of Redneck Revolt and the John Brown Gun Club protest outside the Phoenix Convention Center on Aug. 22, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP)
Still, experts told PolitiFact that they have seen no evidence in their tracking of domestic terrorist and extremist groups that left-wing "hit squads" are getting ready to mount an armed insurrection after the election. Here’s a sampling of how they responded to Caputo’s claim:
"We have not seen in our review of online activity of the far-left the existence at this time of anything matching Mr. Caputo's reference of ‘hit squads,’ though there certainly is an intensity to the rhetoric," said Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
"I haven’t heard anything that would suggest there are organized groups that are plotting this type of violence," said Mary McCord, legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law and a former Justice Department attorney.
"I have not seen any evidence of hit squads being trained to violently oppose a second Trump term. What I have seen is the politicization of extremist threats," said Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
"Regardless of which side is declared the winner, there is absolutely no evidence to support Mr. Caputo’s claims," said Michael Jensen, senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
That doesn’t discount the possibility that some extremists could act on their own or in very small circles through the use of encrypted messages or private online forums, experts said. McCord noted that mass shootings have often been carried out by a single gunman.
"Now, if you were talking about coordinated attacks across the country all on the same day or something, then obviously that takes a big infrastructure," McCord said.
McCord also noted that Caputo’s HHS role wouldn’t necessarily make him privy to the same insight as intelligence, national security or law enforcement officials. "He really wouldn’t have access to the information that would support those claims," McCord said.
How various groups might react to a Trump election victory is an open question, although academics have run simulations to game out the possibilities, and experts PolitiFact consulted said some street-level violence could happen depending on the result.
But the type of coordinated political assassinations that Caputo evoked with his reference to "hit squads" are largely inconsistent with the way left-wing groups have operated, experts said.
"According to the propaganda that I’ve seen, they’re not advocating that type of hit-squad, offensive paramilitary tactics," McCord said.
"It doesn’t in my experience fit with what they have done, which is usually just essentially target practice and show up to oppose far-right events," Bray added.
Neil Shortland, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said that while groups such as Redneck Revolt could pose a threat of violence if Trump wins, there’s no open-source evidence to prove they’re currently organizing as hit squads.
The reference to hit squads is "overly dramatic and alarmist," said Jeffrey Bale, professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, because "it suggests that operational teams are being organized throughout the country to carry out political assassinations."
A June report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said the election "will likely be a significant source of anger and polarization that increases the possibility of terrorism" from either the right or the left.
The report noted that "far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators," which aligns with what experts told PolitiFact.
"While there is a smattering of left-wing militias and there is an upswing in extreme left-wing online and violent activity, including the movement's first homicide in years, the most mass casualty violence has emanated from the far-right," said Levin, the expert from California State University, San Bernardino.
Caputo said "there are hit squads being trained all over this country" to violently oppose a second term for Trump.
Post-election protests featuring violence are a real possibility, experts said, and there are some left-wing groups that believe in openly carrying firearms.
But experts who track domestic terrorism and extremist groups said there’s no basis to Caputo’s claim that these groups are organizing nationwide as "hit squads" and "being trained" to carry out widespread political assassinations should Trump win on Election Day.
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The New York Times, "Trump Health Aide Pushes Bizarre Conspiracies and Warns of Armed Revolt," Sept. 14, 2020
Kelly O’Donnell on Twitter, Sept. 16, 2020
The New York Times, "Trump health aide considering a leave of absence after accusing government scientists of traitorous acts," Sept. 15, 2020
Politico, "Caputo apologizes to HHS staff, signals desire for medical leave," Sept. 15, 2020
CBS News, "HHS spokesman Michael Caputo claims he received death threat during Facebook Live session," Sept. 15, 2020
Network Contagion Research Institute, "Network-Enabled Anarchy: How Militant Anarcho-Socialist Networks Use Social Media to Instigate Widespread Violence Against Political Opponents and Law Enforcement," Sept. 14, 2020
The Washington Post, "Top Trump health appointee Michael Caputo warns of armed insurrection after election," Sept. 14, 2020
The Washington Post, "Police shot Portland slaying suspect without warning or trying to arrest him first, witness says," Sept. 10, 2020
The Washington Post, "What’s the worst that could happen?" Sept. 3, 2020
Center for Strategic and International Studies, "The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States," June 2020
Center for Strategic and International Studies, "Who Are Antifa, and Are They a Threat?" June 4, 2020
The Guardian, "Redneck Revolt: the armed leftwing group that wants to stamp out fascism," July 11, 2017
PolitiFact, "Ask PolitiFact: What is antifa, and why is it all over my timeline?" July 2, 2020
PolitiFact, "Florida congressional candidate blames antifa for violence without evidence," June 26, 2020
Email interview with Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, Sept. 16, 2020
Email exchange with Nils Gilman, vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute, Sept. 15, 2020
Email exchange with Michael Jensen, senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, Sept. 15, 2020
Email interview with Jeffrey Bale, professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Sept. 15, 2020
Email interview with Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, Sept. 15, 2020
Email interview with Neil Shortland, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Sept. 15, 2020
Phone interview with Mark Bray, historian and part-time lecturer at Rutgers University, Sept. 15, 2020
Phone interview with Mary McCord, legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and visiting professor of law at Georgetown Law, and the former acting assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department, Sept. 15, 2020
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