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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As Trump prosecutions move forward, threats and concerns increase

A mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump storm the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. As criminal cases proceed against Trump, heated rhetoric and anger among his supporters has authorities worried about the risk of political differences becoming deadly.

By Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman, Alan Feuer, Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush

At the federal courthouse in Washington, a woman called the chambers of the judge assigned to the election interference case against former President Donald Trump and said that if Trump were not reelected next year, “we are coming to kill you.”

At the Federal Bureau of Investigation, agents have reported concerns about harassment and threats being directed at their families amid intensifying anger among Trump supporters about what they consider to be the weaponization of the Justice Department. “Their children didn’t sign up for this,” a senior FBI supervisor recently testified to Congress.

And the top prosecutors on the four criminal cases against Trump — two brought by the Justice Department and one each in Georgia and New York — now require round-the-clock protection.

As the prosecutions of Trump have accelerated, so too have threats against law enforcement officials, judges, elected officials and others. The threats, in turn, are prompting protective measures, a legal effort to curb Trump’s angry and sometimes incendiary public statements, and renewed concern about the potential for an election campaign in which he has promised “retribution” to produce violence.

Given the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, scholars, security experts, law enforcement officials and others are increasingly warning about the potential for lone-wolf attacks or riots by angry or troubled Americans who have taken in the heated rhetoric.

In April, before federal prosecutors indicted Trump, one survey showed that 4.5% of American adults agreed with the idea that the use of force was “justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.” Just two months later, after the first federal indictment of Trump, that figure surged to 7%.

The indictments of Trump “are the most important current drivers of political violence we now have,” said the author of the study, Robert Pape, a political scientist who studies political violence at the University of Chicago.

Other studies have found that any effects from the indictments dissipated quickly, and that there is little evidence of any increase in the numbers of Americans supportive of a violent response. And the leaders of the far-right groups that helped cause the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 are now serving long prison terms.

But the threats have been steady and credible enough to prompt intense concern among law enforcement officials. Attorney General Merrick Garland addressed the climate in testimony to Congress on Wednesday, saying that while he recognized that the department’s work came with scrutiny, the demonization of career prosecutors and FBI agents was menacing not only his employees but also the rule of law.

The FBI, which has seen the number of threats against its personnel and facilities surge since its agents carried out the court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club and residence in Florida, in August 2022, subsequently created a special unit to deal with the threats. A U.S. official said threats since then have risen more than 300%, in part because the identities of employees, and information about them, are being spread online.

“We’re seeing that all too often,” said Christopher Wray, the bureau’s director, in congressional testimony this summer.

The threats are sometimes too vague to rise to the level of pursuing a criminal investigation, and hate speech enjoys some First Amendment protections, often making prosecutions difficult. But the Justice Department has charged more than a half-dozen people with making threats.

This has had its own consequences: In the past 13 months, FBI agents confronting individuals suspected of making threats have shot and fatally wounded two people, including one in Utah who was armed and had threatened to kill President Joe Biden, who was planning to visit the area.

In a brief filed in Washington federal court this month, Jack Smith, the special counsel overseeing the Justice Department’s prosecutions of Trump, took the extraordinary step of requesting a gag order against Trump. He linked threats against prosecutors and the judge presiding in the case accusing Trump of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election to the rhetoric Trump had used before Jan. 6.

“The defendant continues these attacks on individuals precisely because he knows that in doing so, he is able to roil the public and marshal and prompt his supporters,” the special counsel’s office said in a court filing.

Trump has denied promoting violence. He says that his comments are protected by the First Amendment right to free speech, and that the proposed gag order is part of a far-ranging Democratic effort to destroy him personally and politically.

“Joe Biden has weaponized his Justice Department to go after his main political opponent — President Trump,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for the former president.

But Trump’s language has often been, at a minimum, aggressive and confrontational toward his perceived foes, and sometimes has at least bordered on incitement.

On Friday, Trump baselessly suggested in a social media post that Gen. Mark Milley, the departing chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, might have engaged in treason, “an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the penalty would have been DEATH.” (Milley has been interviewed by the special counsel’s office.)

The day before the threatening call last month to Judge Tanya Chutkan’s chambers in U.S. District Court in Washington, Trump posted on his social media site: “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING FOR YOU!” (A Texas woman was later charged with making the call.)

On Friday, a judge presiding over a case in Colorado about whether Trump can be disqualified from the ballot there for his role in promoting the Jan. 6 attack issued a protective order barring threats or intimidation against anyone connected to the case. The judge cited the types of potential dangers laid out by Smith in seeking the gag order on Trump in the federal election case.

There have been recent acts of political violence against Republicans, most notably the 2017 shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Last year an armed man arrested outside the home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh said he had traveled from California to kill the conservative Supreme Court jurist.

But many scholars and experts who study political violence place the blame for the current atmosphere most squarely on Trump — abetted by the unwillingness of many Republican politicians to object to or tamp down the violent and apocalyptic language on social media and in the conservative media.

In one example of how Trump’s sway over his followers can have real-world effects, a man who had been charged with storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 was arrested in June looking for ways to get near former President Barack Obama’s Washington home. The man — who was armed with two guns and 400 rounds of ammunition and had a machete in the van he was living in — had hours earlier reposted on social media an item Trump had posted that same day, which claimed to show Obama’s home address.

Pape, of the University of Chicago, said that while the numbers of people who felt violence was justified to support Trump were concerning, he would rather focus on a different group identified in his survey: the 80% of American adults who said they supported a bipartisan effort to reduce the possibility of political violence.

“This indicates a vast, if untapped, potential to mobilize widespread opposition to political violence against democratic institutions,” he said, “and to unify Americans around the commitment to a peaceful democracy.”

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