As they did before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the former president and his allies are fueling anger among supporters.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
This article is part of our Midterms 2022 Daily Briefing
Alan Feuer and
One week after a team of F.B.I. agents descended on his private club and residence in Florida, former President Donald J. Trump warned that his followers were enraged by the search — and that things could get out of hand if the Justice Department kept the heat on him.
“People are so angry at what is taking place,” Mr. Trump told Fox News. “Whatever we can do to help because the temperature has to be brought down in the country. If it isn’t, terrible things are going to happen.”
This week, one of Mr. Trump’s closest allies, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, issued a similar warning that Mr. Trump quickly reposted on his social media platform. Mr. Graham, in a Fox News appearance on Sunday, predicted that if the search of Mar-a-Lago led to a prosecution of the former president, there would be “riots in the streets.”
The assessments by both men were worded carefully enough that they could be defended as efforts to spare the nation unnecessary strife, and on Monday, Mr. Graham tried to walk back his remarks, saying, “I reject violence.”
But the statements could also be perceived as fanning the same flames of outrage they claimed to be trying to avert. They carried a distinct echo of Mr. Trump’s calls after the 2020 election to do what was needed to keep him in office, signals that contributed to the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol soon after he urged his supporters to “fight like hell.”
In a broader sense, the F.B.I.’s search of Mar-a-Lago has emerged as the latest rallying cry for those on the right who have long been suspicious that the powers of the federal government could be turned against them. It has prompted calls to dismantle or defund the F.B.I. and furious denunciations of what far-right supporters of Mr. Trump increasingly portray as an overreaching national security apparatus.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump spent much of the morning reposting messages from known purveyors of the QAnon conspiracy theory and from 4chan, an anonymous message platform where threats of violence often blossom. Some were outright provocations, such as a photograph of President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi with their faces obscured by the words, “Your enemy is not in Russia.”
Over the past several years, intimations of violence have become more common in the Republican Party, a trend fueled in large part by Mr. Trump’s lies about his election loss. Threats of violent responses from the right have also shown up around policy changes such as the recent gun legislation signed into law by Mr. Biden and surrounding hot-button social issues like transgender rights and the teaching of antiracism themes in schools.
Now the response by Mr. Trump and some of his allies to the search at Mar-a-Lago — including statements laced with fury at the Justice Department and the F.B.I. — is underscoring yet again the degree to which threatening undertones are creeping into Republican political speech, raising concern about words spilling over into violent action.
After the search, the F.B.I. reported a spike in threats against its agents, and a Trump supporter who was reported to have been in Washington on Jan. 6 tried to break into the bureau’s Cincinnati field office, subsequently dying in a shootout with the local police. Within days of that attack, another man, who mentioned it in social media posts, was arrested on charges of making a round of threats against agents.
The threats are not limited to the F.B.I. or the Justice Department. Bruce E. Reinhart, the federal magistrate judge who approved the warrant to search Mar-a-Lago, has been the target of online attacks, with some people posting messages threatening him and his family.
Shortly after the search, Judge Reinhart’s synagogue in Florida, citing the threats, canceled its Friday evening services. Similarly, officials at the National Archives, in an internal email first reported by The Washington Post, described a surge of angry rhetoric directed at its staff.
At least so far, extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, both of which are being prosecuted for the roles they played in the Capitol attack, have not publicly echoed Mr. Trump’s rants about the F.B.I. in any significant way. But pro-Trump websites are regularly filled with violent posts about doing harm to employees of the bureau.
In an appearance in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Mr. Biden condemned “friends on the other team” who have predicted political violence in the wake of the search. “It’s never appropriate,” he said. “Never. Period. Never, never, never.”
From the Russia investigation to two impeachment trials, Mr. Trump has often tried to demonize his adversaries, portraying their efforts to hold him accountable for his behavior — or even to examine it — as outrageous attempts directed by political foes to deprive him of power.
“The Raid on my home, Mar-a-Lago, is one of the most egregious assaults on democracy in the history of our Country,” Mr. Trump wrote this weekend on his social media platform, Truth Social. He went on to say that the nation was “going to places, in a very bad way, it has never seen before!”
How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.
The former president’s response to the Mar-a-Lago search, which prompted a tidal wave of anger on the right, is just one example of how he has portrayed those who are investigating him as malicious and warned of the consequences of their actions.
“If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protests we have ever had in Washington, D.C.; in New York; in Atlanta; and elsewhere,” Mr. Trump said in January at a rally, “because our country and our elections are corrupt.”
He was referring to the three Black law enforcement officials who are leading separate inquiries into him, including possible fraud at his company in New York and his actions in Georgia to subvert the results of the 2020 election.
The consequences of provocative statements by Mr. Trump and his allies were placed into sharp relief by the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. In the months that preceded the riot, Mr. Trump used tactics similar to those that he employed after the Mar-a-Lago search, incessantly whipping up his followers by telling them that he — and they — had been wronged, and that they could not let the situation stand.
He used a Twitter post to summon his supporters to Washington on Jan. 6 and made clear that blocking or delaying congressional certification of the Electoral College outcome was the last opportunity to keep him in office. At midday on Jan. 6, he directed them to the Capitol and focused his ire on Vice President Mike Pence, leading to calls by the mob to hang Mr. Pence.
“Trump said things in advance, and in the aftermath, of Jan. 6 that look a lot like what we heard after the search at Mar-a-Lago — that people were and should be angry,” said Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies political violence. “He told people that their power had been taken from them illegitimately, the exact sort of thing that would make them angry. But he erased the fact that he had any role in nudging the anger along.”
On Jan. 6, the nation watched as thousands of Trump supporters responded to his words by traveling to Washington and storming the seat of Congress. Many of them, according to hundreds of criminal cases stemming from the riot, went to the Capitol believing they could rectify the supposed wrongs that had been done to Mr. Trump.
When asked, the former president’s spokesman, Taylor Budowich, did not address the question of whether Mr. Trump was concerned that his words could be, or were being, interpreted by his supporters as calls to action. He said instead that Mr. Trump was “disgusted by how the Democrats are destroying once great institutions, like the F.B.I., in their never-ending quest for absolute power,” adding that he “recognizes that the only way to save these institutions is to encourage the good people within them to speak out and restore truth!”
Experts in political violence say that while there is evidence that violent rhetoric, especially online, is running high, it is difficult to know how often — and precisely when — such language will lead to attacks.
Still, the recent surge of fury toward the F.B.I. is another palpable example of anger on the right seen in both public appearances by high-profile Republicans and in posts by Trump supporters on the internet. The outbursts have come after years of Mr. Trump and allies casting the bureau’s repeated investigations of him as baseless political attacks, a tactic that has served to defend Mr. Trump from blame while stoking fear and anger in his base.
The attacks against the F.B.I. from Mr. Trump and his supporters began in earnest in 2018 after agents searched the office of his personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, for evidence of campaign finance violations. After the search, Rudolph W. Giuliani, another lawyer close to Mr. Trump, went on a warpath, declaring that the F.B.I.’s office in New York — with which he had worked closely during his time as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan — had behaved like “storm troopers” in conducting the raid.
Since then, Mr. Trump and his allies have attacked the F.B.I. for its role in investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia; for purportedly failing to thoroughly investigate issues surrounding Hunter Biden’s laptop; for using federal informants to infiltrate a group of militiamen charged with — and partly acquitted in — a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan; and for supposedly instigating the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Just this week, Mr. Trump included several of these F.B.I. attacks in a single post on Truth Social, repeating a claim by some of his favored media sources that a top agent in the Washington field office who had worked on the Hunter Biden laptop case and had tried to open an election-related inquiry into Mr. Trump had lost his job.
In the post, Mr. Trump sought, without evidence, to hold the former agent responsible for the search at Mar-a-Lago, too, calling it an event that had “created anger and hostility toward the FBI and DOJ.”
The F.B.I. declined to comment on a personnel matter, but the former agent retired after more than 20 years at the bureau. He had previously worked on high-profile public corruption investigations involving a former Democratic congressman convicted of bribery and the Clinton Foundation.
In a statement on Tuesday, the former agent, Timothy Thibault, said he voluntarily retired from the F.B.I., adding, “Claims to the contrary are false.”
Mr. Trump has managed to create a dynamic among many of his followers where the F.B.I.’s actions are, by necessity, regarded as nefarious, yet another crime in a litany of grievances. That is why, after so many examples, this latest instance of targeting the F.B.I. could present a danger, experts in political violence said.
Shannon Hiller, the executive director of the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University, which tracks political violence in the United States, said she had hoped, after the attack on the F.B.I. field office in Cincinnati, that Republicans in particular would have “sobered up” and been reminded that violent rhetoric can have often real consequences.
But that has not happened, and Ms. Hiller remains concerned that unrest could continue and even increase if a prosecution of Mr. Trump were to come.
“There are credible reasons why a country might want to investigate a former leader and that can increase tensions in the short term,” she explained. “But it is important to do so to gain accountability and create credibility in the long term.”
“Unfortunately,” Ms. Hiller added, “in this country, it’s looking like it might be a long road.”
Adam Goldman contributed reporting.