Trump admin. told officials to note Kyle Rittenhouse sought to “defend small business owners”: memo

The memo urged Homeland Security officials to argue in favor of Rittenhouse's self-defense claim amid ongoing probe

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published October 1, 2020 11:28AM (EDT)

Kenosha gunman, Kyle Rittenhouse (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Kenosha gunman, Kyle Rittenhouse (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Trump administration directed federal law enforcement officials to note that Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teen charged with killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wis., sought "to help defend small business owners," according to a leaked memo obtained by NBC News.

The internal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) talking points reportedly instructed law enforcement officials to make comments "sympathetic" to Rittenhouse, who was charged with first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, reckless endangerment and illegal possession of a dangerous weapon.

The leaked DHS talking points urged officials to make public comments noting that Rittenhouse "took his rifle to the scene of the rioting to help defend small business owners."

"Kyle was seen being chased and attacked by rioters before allegedly shooting three of them, killing two," the memo said. "Subsequent video has emerged reportedly showing that there were 'multiple gunmen' involved, which would lend more credence to the self-defense claims."

The document proceded to urge officials to say they would not comment on an ongoing probe. But it provided the following language: "What I will say is that Rittenhouse, just like everyone else in America, is innocent until proven guilty and deserves a fair trial based on all the facts, not just the ones that support a certain narrative. This is why we try the accused in the court of law, not the star chamber of public opinion."

The memo also echoed talking points from the Trump campaign.

"This is also why we need to stop the violence in our cities. Chaotic and violent situations lead to chaotic, violent and tragic outcomes," the memo says. "Everyone needs law and order."

Another set of DHS talking points said the media was "incorrectly labeling the group Patriot Prayer as racists after clashes erupted between the group and protesters in Portland," according to the report. It is unclear whether the talking points originated within DHS or the White House.

Former DHS officials, including those who worked in Republican administrations, told NBC News that it was "unusual" for department officials to publicly make comments regarding people and groups under ongoing investigations.

"It is as unprecedented as it is wrong," Peter Boogaard, a former DHS spokesman under President Barack Obama, told the outlet.

Rittenhouse, who attended a Trump rally and posted social media messages praising the president and police, traveled to Kenosha from Illinois in August with an assault rifle. There is "immense" video footage of his interactions with protesters. Attorneys for the 17 year old claim that he acted in self-defense.

Trump defended Rittenhouse after the shooting, arguing that video showed "he was trying to get away" from protesters, who allegedly "very violently attacked him."

"He probably would have been killed," the president said.

But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that by the time of the moment in the video to which Trump was referring, "the teen had already shot and killed one protester."

Trump's Republican allies have likewise made "misleading" claims defending Rittenhouse. Fox News host Tucker Carlson openly praised Rittenhouse for deciding to "maintain order when no one else would." A Christian fundraising site raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his legal defense.

Trump has repeatedly refused to denounce right-wing violence while hyping dubious claims about violence by antifa, which is not an organized group. On Tuesday, Trump was asked at his first presidential debate against Joe Biden to condemn white supremacists and far-right groups, like the Proud Boys, involved in violence at protests.

"The Proud Boys: Stand back, and stand by," Trump said. "But I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

MORE FROM Igor Derysh

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Aggregate Black Lives Matter Donald Trump Kenosha Kyle Rittenhouse Politics Wisconsin