WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said an investigation was under way into alleged “thugs” who boarded a plane seeking to cause damage last week during his Republican Party convention, but U.S. security officials said they could not confirm such an incident.
Officials familiar with law enforcement investigations also expressed puzzlement at assertions by acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf about political movements playing a role. They stressed that law enforcement agencies had not charged any political groups or operatives with fomenting violent protests.
In a Fox News interview late on Monday, Trump made cryptic claims about armed thugs he said had boarded an airplane seeking trouble. Asked for details, Trump said: “I’ll tell you sometime, but it’s under investigation right now.”
On Tuesday, Trump told reporters that it was something told to him by an individual on the flight. Trump would not identify the person.
Asked to comment, White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews did not address Trump’s specific assertions but said he was referring to an investigation into possible financial backers of “organized riots.”
The president, seeking re-election on a promise to restore “law and order,” told Fox News the plane was “completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear and this and that” adding: “Here were like seven people on the plane like this person and then a lot of people were on the plane to do big damage.”
Trump, who trails Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in national opinion polls, first told Fox News the flight involved someone “coming to the Republican National Convention,” and later told reporters the plane departed from Washington. The Republicans last week held convention events in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Washington.
The president also did not specify a date for such an incident, detail what gear the individuals were carrying or say whether anyone was arrested or charged.
His assertion was similar to rumors posted on Facebook that NBC reported nbcnews.to/2YQUPHN began circulating in June about men dressed in black disembarking on planes in Idaho. Local officials at the time said the rumors were untrue.
Law enforcement, intelligence and Congressional officials familiar with official reporting on weeks of protests and related arrests said on Tuesday they were aware of no incidents or reports that would confirm Trump’s anecdote.
In a separate Fox News interview on Monday, Acting Homeland Security chief Wolf said the U.S. Justice Department was investigating individuals who were paying others to travel around the country to take part in protests.
Wolf suggested the probe extended to leaders of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and antifa, a largely unstructured, far-left movement whose followers broadly aim to confront those they view as authoritarian or racist.
“We have seen groups and individuals move from Portland to other parts of the country,” Wolf told Fox News on Monday. “The Department of Justice is also targeting and investigating the head of these organizations, the individuals that are paying for these individuals to move across the country,” Wolf added.
But the Justice Department did not specifically confirm BLM and antifa leaders were being investigated. Instead, spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the department was investigating violence, including against law enforcement and government property. She said it was not looking into any First Amendment activity, a reference to free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Two federal law enforcement officials said the FBI was pursuing numerous criminal investigations related to the protests but not looking at any specific organization’s role in allegedly stoking violence.
Reporting by Jeff Mason, Mark Hosenball and Sarah Lynch; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Howard Goller
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