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With talk of 'terrorist watch list,' McCarthy pushes his luck at border

McCarthy could've stuck to his usual talking points. Instead he mentioned terrorist-watch-list members trying to enter the US through the southern border.
Image: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy addresses reporters during the congressional border delegation visit to El Paso
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy addresses reporters during the congressional border delegation visit to El Paso, Texas on March 15, 2021.Justin Hamel / AFP - Getty Images

For a few weeks, many congressional Republicans and their allies seemed to enjoy having a culture-war toy to play with. Americans were treated, for example, to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's (R-Calif.) brief preoccupation with Dr. Seuss, which coincided with the right's interest in Potato Head dolls, a Muppets disclaimer, and even the legal guardianship of a former teen pop star.

All of this, of course, unfolded while Democratic lawmakers and the Biden White House focused on writing and passing a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package.

GOP officials and conservative media are now starting to shift their focus away from Dr. Seuss and toward the U.S./Mexico border, where there are legitimate challenges facing policymakers.

With this in mind, Kevin McCarthy and a group of Republican lawmakers were at the border yesterday, blaming President Biden for rising apprehensions. At face value, this was hardly surprising: after failing to gain traction with a focus on children's entertainment and "cancel culture," GOP officials have predictably turned to border fears as a go-to political winner.

But the House minority leader may have gotten ahead of his talking points yesterday with one specific claim. The Washington Post noted overnight:

Speaking outside El Paso on Monday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said border agents he had met earlier that day issued dire warnings that suspected terrorists are trying to cross into the United States via Mexico. "You saw it in their eyes," McCarthy said, referring to the agents. "They talked about, 'They're on the list.' ... The terrorist watch list."

To be sure, this is no small claim. If a congressional leader spoke to border agents who have evidence of terrorist-watch-list members trying to enter the United States, that would certainly be a significant development.

What's less clear is whether McCarthy's claim was true. There's reason for skepticism.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), for example, chairs a House Armed Services Committee panel on intelligence and special operations. The Arizona Democrat -- who also happens to be a Marine who served in the war in Iraq -- noted last night that he considers it "weird" that he hasn't "heard anything about" terrorist-watch-list members trying to enter the country through the southern border.

Gallego added that he believes McCarthy is "either wrong or lying."

Similarly, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) said that in her recent meetings with border agents, she also didn't hear any references to terrorist suspects getting caught at the border. The Post's report added, "Customs and Border Protection has not issued any public notices about terrorist suspects at the southern border in recent days."

In fairness, it's probably worth noting that McCarthy is a member of the Gang of Eight, giving him special access to intelligence briefings that very few members of Congress receive. That said, the Republican leader wasn't referencing a briefing or classified intelligence; he said he'd spoken to border agents who allegedly told him about apprehended members of the terrorist watch list.

That would be a rather extraordinary thing to lie about. We probably haven't heard the last of this one.