Trump is providing alarming evidence of his intentions
Donald Trump at MAGA rally in support of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in 2018. (mark reinstein / Shutterstock.com)

Donald Trump has expressed many emotions about his actions inciting an insurrection on the Capitol on January 6, but as witnesses, both public and private, can attest, not a single one of them was remorse. Mostly, he appears to feel pride in the power he has over his followers. His former press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, described Trump on the day of the riot as "gleefully watching on his TV as he often did, 'look at all of the people fighting for me,' hitting rewind, watching it again." During her public testimony about January 6, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson said Trump was so amped up that he demanded the Secret Service take him to the Capitol to lead the mob. A now-retired police officer who was part of Trump's motorcade that day confirmed the report. Even video footage from the day after the riot shows Trump reluctantly suppressing his pride, no doubt at the advice of legal counsel.

Since then, Trump has toggled between feigned disapproval and open gloating about January 6, even though it did not accomplish his goal of blocking Joe Biden from the White House. He's flirted with pardoning the rioters if he ever regains the White House. He's tried to make a martyr of Ashli Babbitt, the Trump supporter who was shot during the riot when she tried to lead a mob toward fleeing members of Congress. When asked about the "hang Mike Pence" chants at the riot, which were a direct reaction to his provocations, Trump defended the rioters as "very angry."

Because of this, no one should be surprised that Trump is now reacting to a man attacking the FBI offices in Cincinnati by doubling down on his inciting rhetoric. After FBI agents searched Trump's Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago, for classified documents, Trump has been using every avenue possible to send a message to the Department of Justice: Stop the investigation or my supporters could become even more dangerous.

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Trump "reached out to a Justice Department official to pass along a message" to Attorney General Merrick Garland. "The message Mr. Trump wanted conveyed, according to a person familiar with the exchange, was: 'The country is on fire. What can I do to reduce the heat?'"

The message is disguised as helpful, but it's obviously meant to be threatening. It's a variation on the cliched mobster threat: "Nice place you've got there. Shame if something happened to it." Both Trump and the intended target understand that Trump is the one who lit the fire with his repeated claims of being "persecuted" and the flat-out lies he uses to bolster those claims. So his "question" is really more a form of blackmail. He's not actually offering assistance, so much as trying to remind Garland of his continued power over his followers.

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The threatening nature of this rhetoric was underscored by Trump's game-playing with the warrant release. First, he pretended not to have the warrant and demanded that it be released, even though he did have a copy and could release it whenever he wished. Then his team released the warrant to Breitbart before the DOJ had a chance to release it. By doing so, Trump made sure the version of the warrant that spread most rapidly was one featuring the unredacted names of the individual FBI agents involved in the search, putting them and their families in danger.

In case there was any doubt that this was intentional, Trump is playing the same game with the affidavit that led to the warrant.

The DOJ is resisting the public release of the affidavit underlying the search warrant, which has much more detailed information about what crimes Trump is suspected of and the evidence the FBI has to support their suspicions. Its release would not only be highly unusual, but it would also "likely chill future cooperation by witnesses," authorities argued. Trump responded with a rant on Truth Social, his far-right alternative to Twitter, in which he demanded "the immediate release of the completely Unredacted Affidavit." As with the warrant release, the only purpose of releasing an unredacted affidavit would be to expose the identities of people who have provided evidence against Trump.

Monday morning, Trump made his veiled threats to Garland public, going to Fox News to engage in faux-handwringing over how the "country is in a very dangerous position," as if he weren't the person who made it that way.

"There is tremendous anger, like I've never seen before, over all of the scams, and this new one—years of scams and witch hunts, and now this," he said. "If there is anything we can do to help, I, and my people, would certainly be willing to do that."

Trump, of course, is actually the one turning up the heat. By making false accusations of "scams," Trump reframes his threatening behavior as reluctant self-defense. In reality, however, he is not the victim here, there is no scam, and he is under no obligation to rile up his most violent supporters with conspiracy theories and lies. In other words, his comment was another spin on the same insinuations: Nice country you've got there. Shame if something would happen to it.

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As Eric Kleefeld of Media Matters reported Monday, Fox News has been heavily hyping "Trump's veiled threats that his supporters will carry out more political violence against federal law enforcement." As Kleefeld notes, Trump is using the passive language of faux "predictions" to package his threat, by saying things like, "the temperature has to be brought down in the country. If it isn't, terrible things are going to happen." But, of course, he and his targets both know things aren't just "happening." They are being provoked by Trump's hyperbolic language and hint-dropping to his followers.

January 6 committee member Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., called Trump out Monday on CNN, calling Trump's messaging to supporters "creepy."

Trump has not abandoned his violence-centric approach to getting what he wants, regardless of what it costs the country or his followers.

"It does strike me as something like, you know, what you hear from the mafia. 'If you want your store to be secure, give us money,'" he added.

Everyone saw on January 6 how Trump's rhetoric works. He doesn't need to explicitly call for violence. He insinuates. He winks. He nudges. His audience understands exactly what he's getting at, and, all too often they act. On January 6, when Trump said to "march" on the Capitol, the crowd knew exactly what he was insinuating. What he's hinting at now, with his "predictions" of "terrible things," is even less subtle. Coupled with his insistence on making public the names of any FBI agents who are investigating him or people who have testified against him, his implications of violence are undeniable.

While the veiled threats are certainly affecting some pundits, who are publicly entertaining the idea that the FBI should give in to intimidation, it's unlikely that it's going to work. It didn't on January 6, even though Trump was quite effective that day at unleashing a mob on the Capitol to stop the election certification. As media researchers Jared Holt and Emmi Conley explained on Holt's podcast this week, it's even more unlikely to work now. There's a lack of a concrete target for Trump's minions to focus their rage on, they point out, plus some of the most effective far-right ringleaders are too busy being prosecuted to organize another attack.

The pathos of the attack from Ricky Shiffer — who shot at a Cincinnati FBI office with a nail gun, before dying in a cornfield after a lengthy standoff with police — illustrates the current logistical problems with Trump's threatening approach. Still, that Trump continues to work this strategy is alarming evidence that January 6 is not firmly ensconced in the past. Trump has not abandoned his violence-centric approach to getting what he wants, regardless of what it costs the country or his followers.