Amid a flurry of headlines about the government shutdown and Michael Cohen on January 18 2019, President Donald Trump tweeted a highly dubious claim that ranchers on the southern United States border had found “prayer rugs” as part of a plea to fund his plan to build a wall to separate the U.S. from Mexico:
Border rancher: “We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal.” Washington Examiner People coming across the Southern Border from many countries, some of which would be a big surprise.
The tweets appeared about twelve hours after BuzzFeed published a widely-read investigative piece headlined “President Trump Directed His Attorney Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress About The Moscow Tower Project,” reporting:
President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.
Trump also supported a plan, set up by Cohen, to visit Russia during the presidential campaign, in order to personally meet President Vladimir Putin and jump-start the tower negotiations. “Make it happen,” the sources said Trump told Cohen.
And even as Trump told the public he had no business deals with Russia, the sources said Trump and his children Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. received regular, detailed updates about the real estate development from Cohen, whom they put in charge of the project.
Trump referenced (but did not link to) a January 16 2019 Washington Examiner piece titled “Border rancher: ‘We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal.'” That article quoted an unnamed rancher who — without evidence — insinuated that “suspected terrorists” were entering the United States via its border with Mexico:
Ranchers and farmers near the U.S.-Mexico border have been finding prayer rugs on their properties in recent months, according to one rancher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by cartels who move the individuals.
The mats are pieces of carpet that those of the Muslim faith kneel on as they worship.
“There’s a lot of people coming in not just from Mexico,” the rancher said. “People, the general public, just don’t get the terrorist threats of that. That’s what’s really scary. You don’t know what’s coming across. We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal. It’s not just Mexican nationals that are coming across.”
The site included a video of an anonymous woman, purportedly a rancher, reiterating rumors she had heard. Neither Border Patrol nor Customs and Border Protection confirmed the rumors when the Examiner contacted them for comment:
Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, did not respond to multiple interview requests. But CBP’s Arizona region issued a statement on Twitter Wednesday that said agents had arrested people from across the world over the past five days.
The rancher, who lives with her family in a remote, southwestern part of the state, said the discoveries raise questions about how many people who illegally entered the U.S. in Hidalgo County, N.M., traveled thousands of miles from overseas to sneak across the southern border … The rancher and six other residents of Animas told Washington Examiner this week that migrants from places other than Mexico and Central America are arriving.
“I’ve talked to several agents that I trust. There’s not a lot that I do trust, but the ones I do trust, I talk to them,” she said during a tour of her property. “What Border Patrol classifies as OTMs [other than Mexicans] has really increased in the last couple years, but drastically within the last six months. Chinese, Germans, Russians, a lot of Middle Easterners, those Czechoslovakians they caught over on our neighbor’s just last summer.”
Government data indicates six known or suspected terrorists were caught trying to enter the U.S. from Mexico from Oct. 1, 2017, through March 31, 2018. However, the Trump administration has stated on several occasions that 3,700 people who were identified as coming from countries with terrorism problems have also been apprehended at that border.
In the video, the anonymous woman begins by saying “I obviously don’t have any proof” that “prayer rugs” were discarded near the border. A woman off-camera asks if she has seen any “OTMs,” to which she replies she has not. She does claim she has seen “prayer rugs,” but she does not describe the item or items she believes were prayer rugs or elaborate on how that conclusion was reached.
The Atlantic rightly described the claim as an “urban legend,” adding that the Examiner report was thinly sourced:
”There’s a lot of people coming in not just from Mexico … People, the general public, just don’t get the terrorist threats of that,” the story quotes the rancher as saying “That’s what’s really scary. You don’t know what’s coming across. We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal. It’s not just Mexican nationals that are coming across.”
That is the entirety of the evidence provided for the discovery of “prayer rugs” at the border. The Examiner provides no photographs, no press accounts, no confirmation from government documents or sources, just the word of a single anonymous rancher. The same rancher also warns that the Border Patrol has caught migrants of other nationalities, including “Czechoslovakians.” Czechoslovakia hasn’t existed since George H.W. Bush was president. It’s one thing to use anonymous sources; it’s another to print whatever they say without a cursory attempt at verification.
In 2014, PolitiFact rated an identical claim “Pants on Fire,” noting that upon digging it was revealed that the border prayer rugs claim was based on a cascade of unverified rumors:
To our inquiry, Andrew Barlow, a state spokesman for Dewhurst, who lost his re-election bid this spring, emailed us two URLs and said, “Lt. Governor Dewhurst based his statement on this report: …and this article.”
The latest provided account was a Sept. 11, 2014, online news report by KTRH, 740 AM in Houston, quoting Ed Turzanski, a former U.S. intelligence officer and professor of political science and government at La Salle University in Philadelphia, saying: “We’ve seen Muslim prayer rugs and other items that have been left behind by people entering the country illegally.”
By phone, Turzanski told us Border Patrol agents, in numerous private conversations over the past decade, told him prayer rugs were found at the border, but it’s been “a number of years” since the last report. He also offered to try to put knowledgeable sources in touch with us; we heard no more … The other news story Barlow noted, posted June 30, 2014, on Breitbart.com, a conservative news and commentary website, quoted an unidentified “source who works among independent American security contractors along the southern border in Arizona and Texas” saying six Middle Easterners had been picked up in Laredo, Texas, “right along (the area) with the ranchers in Texas finding prayer rugs in their ranches.”
After we tried to contact the Breitbart reporter, Kerry Picket, Kurt Bardella, president of Endeavor Strategic Communications, the firm that runs public relations for Breitbart, said by phone Breitbart could not reveal the source who described the prayer rug discoveries. He also said the organization could not tell us what group the source belongs to, where the source lives or why the source believed the ranchers’ findings were prayer rugs.
Sound familiar? And 2014 was not the first appearance of the prayer rugs on the border claim, either. The Daily Beast reported that the claim goes back to at least 2005:
Even the original reports of prayer rugs were thinly sourced. In 2005, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) claimed in a speech on the Senate floor that prayer rugs and notebooks filled with Arabic writing were being discovered in border regions. But Hutchison didn’t offer any proof of the rugs, saying that she had heard of them only as “stories of suspicious items picked up by local residents.”
In 2014, Breitbart published a story touting the discovery of a “Muslim prayer rug” in Arizona. But a picture of the “prayer rug” showed that it was just a torn Adidas jersey.
Asked about whether the shirt was a prayer rug, one Middle East expert replied: “Is this a joke?”
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the claim that prayer rugs have been discovered on the southern border is its age — if these purported discoveries truly had dated back to 2005 or earlier, they had amounted to nothing. Yet every few years the story returns in true urban legend fashion, most recently in January 2019 via Trump’s Twitter feed. Myriad identical claims over the years have turned out to be thinly sourced, dubious, or outright false.