Experts: "Increased violence" possible as Trump's criminal cases move forward

Legal expert warns that "fervent loyalty to Trump won't excuse anyone" who resorts to violence on his behalf

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published September 26, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump walks offstage after his remarks at the Georgia state GOP convention at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center on June 10, 2023 in Columbus, Georgia. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump walks offstage after his remarks at the Georgia state GOP convention at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center on June 10, 2023 in Columbus, Georgia. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Threats against law enforcement, judges and elected officials are on the rise as Donald Trump's prosecutions gain momentum, The New York Times reported on Monday.

FBI agents have raised alarms about harassment and threats targeting their families. These concerns have amplified amid complaints by Trump supporters and many Republicans that the Justice Department has been "weaponized" — a narrative the former president has extensively promoted on social media. 

"Trump's pattern of lashing out at anyone who opposes him has been dangerously emulated by his supporters," V. James DeSimone, a California civil rights attorney, told Salon. "Now that he is facing four indictments, his most dangerous supporters view law enforcement and our judicial system as the enemy. So the risk is there for increased violence."

The FBI has witnessed a substantial surge in threats against its personnel and facilities following the August 2022 search of Mar-a-Lago Trump's Florida residence and private club, according to the Times. This led the agency to establish a dedicated unit to address these threats. 

One federal official told the Times that threats have increased by more than 300 percent since then, partly because FBI agents' identities and personal information has been spread on social media by Trump supporters. 

"Trump's comments about the FBI, the special counsel and the judge are beyond reckless," Barb McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor and former U.S. attorney, told Salon. "He knows that people listen to his words, and sometimes take action on them. From the pipe bomber Cesar Sayoc to the rioters on Jan. 6, some people hear Trump's words as a call to action."

None of this has deterred the former president from attacking prosecutors and judges involved in the various criminal cases brought against him.

Trump has taken to his social media website Truth Social to call federal Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing his election subversion case in Washington, D.C., "very biased & unfair." 

Trump also described Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith as a "thug prosecutor" and a "deranged guy," just days after Smith's team asked a judge to approve an order limiting Trump from publicly disclosing evidence in the 2020 election case.

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Last month, a Texas woman was charged with threatening to kill Judge Chutkan if Trump is not elected to a second term as president next year.

The ex-president's targeting of specific witnesses against him offer blatant examples of speech that crosses the line into potential criminal liability, DeSimone said. If Trump's supporters words turn from angry rhetoric to violent actions against public official, they will be "aggressively investigated and criminally prosecuted," he added.

"The personal safety of public officials and their families doesn't yet divide along party lines," DeSimone said. "Just as many of those who crossed the line on Jan. 6, 2021, find themselves inside a prison cell, people who plan or commit violence against witnesses or public officials will be fully prosecuted."

As a result of these threats, lead prosecutors handling the four criminal cases against the ex-president — in New York, Florida and Georgia as well as Washington, D.C. — have added round-the-clock personal protection, The Times reported. 

These threats have raised significant alarm among law enforcement officials. Attorney General Merrick Garland highlighted this during his congressional testimony last Wednesday, acknowledging that while the Justice Department's activities inevitably invite scrutiny, the vilification of career prosecutors and FBI agents poses a new and serious threat not merely to those individuals but also to the integrity of the rule of law.

"Singling out individual career public servants who are just doing their jobs is dangerous, particularly at a time of increased threats to the safety of public servants and their families," Garland said. "We will not be intimidated. We will do our jobs free from outside influence and we will not back down from defending our democracy."

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Trump has not limited his attempts to intimidate prosecutors to just verbal attacks; on a number of infamous occasions he has also shared threatening images.

Earlier this year, Trump shared a right-wing outlet's article that included an image of himself apparently threatening Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg with a baseball bat. At the time, Bragg was about to announce the first criminal indictment of Trump in a campaign finance case relating to Trump's alleged 2016 hush-money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. 

In another post, Trump warned of "potential death & destruction" if he was charged in the New York case. Hours later, Bragg's office received a threatening letter containing white powder, which was later determined to be non-hazardous. 

Trump has denied promoting violence, saying that his angry comments are protected by the First Amendment. Some of his supporters, including right-wing media influencers, have continued to warn of civil unrest if Trump is not elected in 2024. 

"These people are playing with fire," DeSimone said. "While they may believe in a twisted way that threatening physical harm or death is legally protected speech, they cross another line when the target is a judge, jurors, law enforcement officers or elected officials. Fervent loyalty to Trump won't excuse anyone from severe legal consequences."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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Alvin Bragg Donald Trump Elections Furthering Indictment Law Political Violence