U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry isn’t jumping to conclusions about the FBI’s handling of a tip related to the former student suspected of fatally shooting 17 people with a legally bought AR-15 on Feb. 14 in a Florida school shooting.
Wichita Falls’ congressman supports tightening the background-check system designed to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
“I don’t think anybody can say that would have prevented this incident, but perhaps a flaw has been revealed where things could have been done better,” the Republican from Clarendon said.
Thornberry, a major voice in defense policy, gave a wide-ranging press conference Tuesday in Wichita Falls. He spoke on gun measures, the outlook for Sheppard Air Force Base and the military, Russian trolls, Dreamers and border security, and what working with President Trump has been like.
Thornberry said lawmakers should look at each shooting incident to see if it could have been prevented and how.
In the wake of the Florida shooting, the FBI drew criticism after revealing the agency couldn’t track down the identity of a YouTube commenter last year. He said he wanted to be “professional school shooter.” The man charged in the Florida shooting, Nikolas Cruz, 19, is believed to have made the comment.
“I’m not one that would instantly blame the FBI for not having prevented it because they get tons of tips all the time,” Thornberry said. “But should they have reasonably have been expected to do more?”
Congress is also considering further tightening the background -heck system, especially ensuring convictions are conveyed to it.
Outside San Antonio, Devin Kelly, 26, fatally shot 25 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in November. Kelly’s military conviction for domestic violence should have kept guns out of his hands, but the Air Force didn’t report it to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Thornberry is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which has oversight of the Air Force.
“We are making sure that they do better, and they are doing better,” Thornberry said.
He was a cosponsor of a bill approved in the House late last year to tighten up reporting to the database. Another provision in the bill drew controversy. It would make a concealed-carry permit legal across state lines in much the same way a driver’s license is.
SHEPPARD AFB AND THE MILITARY
Thornberry saw good things happening for the base and the military in general – including no upcoming round of Base Realignment and Closure.
He met with the Sheppard Military Affairs Committee Tuesday morning in Wichita Falls. He had high praise for the nonprofit organization.
“I think the community support and community leadership for Sheppard in our region really stands out and is one of the strongest assets that we’ve got as far as this base going forward,” Thornberry said.
In a press conference, SMAC Chairwoman Kay Yeager said the group’s goal is to support Sheppard however they can and make service members feel at home.
“That in our opinion helps improve the quality of life at Sheppard Air Force Base and makes them maybe retire and want to stay here,” she said.
Yeager said SMAC President Glenn Barham worked with state lawmakers for the passage of a windfarm measure to protect airspace around Sheppard.
Barham said it was a huge fight to win passage of the law in May 2017 seeking to protect a 25-mile radius around any military installation in Texas with a flying mission. Within that radius, tax abatements aren’t available for windfarm development.
“But whether that development will continue is up to the company,” Barham said.
Thornberry said for the first time in several years the Pentagon didn’t request a round of BRAC. He and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis agree Pentagon officials haven’t done their homework to justify it.
“But I’ll say we will always look for ways to help the military be more efficient and get more value for the taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Recently passed laws will relieve the burden of budget caps on military spending and help rebuild defense, Thornberry said. For seven years, he’s been fighting the caps that cut funding for the military and eroded readiness.
Defense – 15 percent of the budget – has had to absorb about 50 percent of the cuts from the Budget Control Act of 2011. It was supposed to curb deficits.
“The 70 percent of the budget, which is really driving the debt and deficit, have been untouched,” Thornberry said.
The Budget Control Act obviously failed since the deficit has been climbing, he said.
For 2018, the caps would allow $550 billion for defense, but the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act called for $700 billion.
“There’s been a remarkable turnaround when it comes to the situation with our military,” Thornberry said.
President Trump still signed it into law in December 2017. This month, lawmakers approved a budget agreement earmarking the dollars to fund the defense budget, busting through caps for the next two years.
“We ensure that the military will finally begin to get the resources it needs to do the job the country asks them to do,” Thornberry said.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed 13 indictments of Russians last week on charges related to interfering online in U.S. elections.
“I’m impressed by the sophistication of the Russian attack on our country,” Thornberry said. “We knew that they were involved in this, but I certainly didn’t know the depth of it.”
Trolls had been hatching online influence since 2014, for instance, as well as fostering both pro-Trump and anti-Trump rallies, Thornberry said. Much of their efforts was focused on Texas.
“There was a Facebook page called the ‘Heart of Texas,’ which was pushing Texas’ secession from the Union and other things,” Thornberry said. “It was all a Russian front.”
The House Armed Services Committee is having hearings to examine how to combat cyber attacks.
“We have to be able to defend our country from this sort of attack, just like we have to defend against bombs being dropped or missiles coming in,” he said. “The whole purpose is to weaken our country. It’s, I think, deeper and more sophisticated than we realize.”
But lawmakers also have to consider the role of the government in defending the “country against these psychological warfare attacks,” Thornberry said.
It’s difficult because Americans are used to free and open speech, he said. But it’s promising that Facebook and Twitter are trying to police their content more.
Thornberry thinks Congress needs to take action on Dreamers, as well as border security.
“The country will not be going house to house deporting individuals who were brought here as children even though they were brought here illegally,” the congressman said. “I think that there is a reasonable compromise to be struck to allow those people who fit into that category to stay in the country legally.”
But at the same time, there should be a substantial increase in border security to head off another wave of dreamers or others coming into the United States illegally.
“I just think that’s a huge percentage of the American people who support that,” he said.
Physical barriers such as a wall are a part of border security but not the only answer, Thornberry said. Interior enforcement of laws is also important.
“Doing those two things — border security and then some way to be fair to the kids who were brought here as kids — seem to be possible,” the congressman said.
WORKING WITH TRUMP
Thornberry said he has had two interactions with the president.
“He had me down to lunch, maybe back last spring, to talk about military funding,” Thornberry said.
He said Trump was “very personable, had done his homework about me.”
“The strongest impression I have is he’s really committed to rebuilding the military, and so am I,” Thornberry said. “So that gives us something in common.”
The second interaction was at the nationally televised signing of the 2018 Defense Authorization Act in December, Thornberry said.
The congressman stood by the president’s desk at the signing.