How Trump fanned the flames of his followers ahead of historic indictment

The former president’s dark visions of a looming civil war colour his response to his indictment and depict the aftermath of an election if he loses, Alex Woodward reports

Wednesday 05 April 2023 12:24 BST

Former president Donald Trump has roundly rejected any investigations involving him, his campaign or business empire as a hoax, a fraud or a politically motivated hit job against him or his agenda.

In January, his company was fined $1.6m after two of its entities were convicted of 17 felonies, marking the first time that the former president and his empire – bolstered by a “culture of fraud and deception,” according to prosecutors – faced criminal consequences after he spent decades trying to avoid them.

Now at the centre of separate investigations from the US Department of Justice and from prosecutors in his hometown of New York and in Georgia, a state he lost to Joe Biden but where he pressed election officials to overturn the results, the leading 2024 Republican candidate for president has suggested that his supporters could respond to his election loss or potentially imminent indictments with violence.

On 18 March, he demanded that his supporters “protest” his imminent “arrest” in New York in a furious all-caps social media post typical of his violent visions of America in chaos: a “dying” and “third world” country where “leftist thugs” are “killing and burning with no retribution”.

A Manhattan grand jury voted to indict Mr Trump on 30 March on 34 counts of falsifying business records, allegedly to conceal what prosecutors described as a wide-ranging scheme to illegally influence the 2016 presidential election by suppressing negative stories about him.

He appeared in Manhattan Criminal Court for his arraignment on the afternoon of Tuesday 4 April, where he pleaded not guilty to all charges. As part of the booking process, his fingerprints and personal details were taken, but he was not placed in handcuffs and there was no mugshot.

In several of his posts leading up to the indictment, he specifically singled out the man who could bring about his downfall – Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

In one late-night post on his Truth Social account on 23 March, he suggested “death and destruction” awaited the US if Mr Bragg brought criminal charges against him.

“What kind of person can charge another person, in this case a former President of the United States, who got more votes than any sitting President in history, and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a Crime, when it is known by all that NO Crime has been committed, & also known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country?” Trump wrote.

“Why & who would do such a thing? Only a degenerate psychopath that truely [sic] hates the USA!”

His comment echoes his calls to supporters that fuelled the attack on the US Capitol and his apocalyptic visions of America from his time in office and on the campaign trail, depicting his us-versus-them political stakes and a brewing civil war with grim conclusions – rhetoric that has gripped the GOP in the wake of Mr Trump’s candidacy.

Another post showed an image of Mr Trump wielding a baseball bat at Mr Bragg’s head.

Following an uproar, the image was later taken down.

“It’s authoritarian purity,” according to Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist and adviser to anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project, speaking to The Washington Post. “It’s what happens when you have to intensify the rhetoric to get the same response, and so it’s a downward spiral.”

Mr Trump has called other Americans “our enemies” (who are “lunatics and maniacs,” he told this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference) and repeatedly suggested that the country is on the brink of World War III without his leadership.

In August, the former president told right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt that a criminal indictment would not stop him from seeking office and that Americans “would not stand” for his prosecution.

“If a thing like that happened, I would have no prohibition against running,” he said. “I think if it happened, I think you’d have problems in this country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before. I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it.”

Asked what he meant by “problems,” the former president said: “I think they’d have big problems. Big problems. I just don’t think they’d stand for it. They will not sit still and stand for this ultimate of hoaxes.”

“That’s not inciting. I’m just saying what my opinion is,” he said. “I don’t think the people of this country would stand for it.”

One month earlier, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Fox News that if Mr Trump is prosecuted for mishandling classified documents at his Florida compound, “there’ll be riot in the streets.” Mr Trump shared a clip of that interview on his Truth Social profile.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, without naming the senator, said such comments from “extreme Republicans” were “dangerous.”

Mr Trump’s comments follow a legacy of statements that have fanned the flames of outrage among his supporters, from his depiction of “American carnage” in his 2017 inaugural address to months of baseless claims alleging a “stolen” 2020 presidential election before he called on supporters to “fight like hell” on 6 January, 2021 before a mob stormed the US Capitol.

Within a 25-hour period in 2020, he wrote of protests against police violence “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and promoted a video from an ally claiming that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” In a dark speech at the foot of Mount Rushmore on the Fourth of July that year, he declared that his political opponents want to “end America.” In campaign speeches, to applause from his supporters, he has repeatedly threatened to imprison journalists and endorsed executing people convicted of drug crimes.

Following a federal law enforcement search of his Mar-a-Lago property in August of 2022, Mr Trump’s enraged response and criticisms of the FBI and US Department of Justice echoed among his supporters and in threats that resulted in real-world violence.

“People are so angry at what is taking place,” Mr Trump told Fox News at the time. “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.”

Mr Trump’s business was convicted of criminal charges less than three weeks after the November announcement of his 2024 campaign, fuelled by grievances and his failure to overturn the election he lost just two years ago, and seen by his opponents as an attempt to shield himself from looming criminal prosecutions.

In the weeks that followed, Mr Trump has repeatedly invoked a darkly pessimistic view of America, warning his followers that the country will enter World War III if he is not elected, and vowing “retribution” against their political opponents if he is.

In February, he shared a post on his Truth Social to his millions of followers from a supporter who pledged to “physically fight” for the former president’s election.

“What we got to lose? I’ll donate the rest of my time here on this planet to do it. And I know many many others who feel the same. They got my 6 and we Are Locked and LOADED,” the user wrote.

During his headlining appearance at CPAC, Mr Trump pledged to be “your warrior” and “your justice,” vowing to his supporters: “And to those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

“You’re going to have World War III, if something doesn’t happen fast,” he said during his speech on 5 March. “This is the final battle. They know it. I know it. You know it. Everybody knows that this is it … Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”

In a statement on his Truth Social and a video from his campaign, he said “this is the most dangerous time in the history of our country” and that “World War III is looming like never before in the very dark and murky background.”

“Hopeless Joe Biden is leading us into oblivion,” he added. “We cannot let it happen. We have to take back the White House, or our country is doomed.”

In recent weeks, ahead of his indictment in New York and the investigation in Georgia, he said in posts on his Truth Social that “our country is in big trouble” and, in an all-caps rejection of the investigations, called them “nothing other than election interference into the politics of a failing nation.”

On Mr Bragg’s part, he remained defiant in the face of Mr Trump’s violent rhetric.

In a memo to staff ahead of the indictment, he wrote: “We do not tolerate attempts to intimidate our office or threaten the rule of law in New York.”

But the rhetoric didn’t end after Mr Trump’s arrest and arraignment on 4 April.

As soon as the arraignment was over, he hopped back to Mar-a-Lago, Florida, where he delivered a primetime TV address, railing against the charges, Mr Bragg and Judge Merchan.

“The criminal is the district attorney because he illegally leaked massive amounts of grand jury information,” he said to loud applause.

“For which he should be prosecuted, or at a minimum he should resign.”

He also targeted Mr Bragg’s wife and the “Trump hating-judge with a Trump-hating wife and family whose daughter work for Kamala Harris”.

It remains to be seen how long such rhetoric will last.

While he didn’t hand down a gag order, Judge Merchan warned Mr Trump to stop making threatening posts on social media that could inflame tensions or incite violence. Fail to follow that court order, and he may find himself muzzled.

This story was first published on 16 March and has been updated with developments

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