Trump’s attacks on political adversaries are often followed by threats to their safety

One thing I REALLY hate is a bully . . . . .

From the front page of Thursday’s Post

National Security
Trump’s attacks on political adversaries are often followed by threats to their safety

President Trump speaks at a campaign rally Oct. 27 in Lansing, Mich.

President Trump speaks at a campaign rally Oct. 27 in Lansing, Mich. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

By Greg Miller and Isaac Stanley-Becker
Oct. 28, 2020 at 7:00 a.m. EDT

The CIA’s most endangered employee for much of the past year was not an operative on a mission abroad, but an analyst who faced a torrent of threats after filing a whistleblower report that led to the impeachment of President Trump.

The analyst spent months living in no-frills hotels under surveillance by CIA security, current and former U.S. officials said. He was driven to work by armed officers in an unmarked sedan. On the few occasions he was allowed to reenter his home to retrieve belongings, a security team had to sweep the apartment first to make sure it was safe.

The measures were imposed by the CIA’s Security Protective Service, which monitored thousands of threats across social media and Internet chat rooms. Over time, a pattern emerged: Violent messages surged each time the analyst was targeted in tweets or public remarks by the president.

“The president was tweeting, ‘Where’s the whistleblower? Where’s the whistleblower?’” said a former senior U.S. official involved in overseeing the protection of the analyst, whose name has not been disclosed by the government. The analyst was never in direct danger, the official said, but some threats were so serious that without security, “there is a strong possibility that grave harm would have come to him.”

The CIA declined to comment.

Trump amps up attacks on whistleblower as some Republicans call for more strategic response to impeachment

Over the past year, public servants across the country have faced similar ordeals. The targets encompass nearly every category of government service: mayors, governors and members of Congress, as well as officials Trump has turned against within his own administration.

The dynamic appears to be without precedent: government agencies taking extraordinary measures to protect their people from strains of seething hostility stoked by a sitting president.

In recent weeks, the danger has become more alarming and visible. The FBI disrupted an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). Days later, Anthony S. Fauci, the U.S. immunologist leading the response to the coronavirus pandemic, revealed in an interview on “60 Minutes” that he requires near-constant security because of threats against him and his family.

It’s “sad,” Fauci said, that “a public health message to save lives triggers such venom and animosity that it results in real and credible threats to my life and my safety.”

A White House spokeswoman disputed that Trump has encouraged such threats with his verbal attacks on Fauci, Whitmer and others. “President Trump has never advocated for violence against those he disagrees with — unlike Democrats,” said spokeswoman Sarah Matthews.

She cited an instance in 2018 when Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) urged supporters to respond to the administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families by confronting Trump officials in public. “You push back on them,” Waters said, “and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

The rise in such cases is part of a broader escalation in tension and violence across the United States, with clashes in major cities, shootings that have killed or wounded protesters and law enforcement officials, and dark murmurings of possible uprisings depending on the outcome of next week’s election.

The degree to which Trump is responsible for the spate of threats against public officials is difficult to determine. Politicians, including presidents, have always faced the worry of violence by angry constituents. The Internet and the country’s increasingly partisan climate are often cited as factors in the spread of threats and hateful rhetoric against officials across the political spectrum.

But more than any predecessor, Trump has fomented mob-like anger at perceived adversaries throughout his presidency. Though his exhortations generally stop short of explicitly promoting violence, his words have been echoed in hundreds of menacing online messages. And he has consistently resisted entreaties to disavow or discourage violence.

Elizabeth Neumann, a Trump appointee who left her post in April as the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention, said the president continues to use inflammatory rhetoric despite warnings about dangerous repercussions.

“A healthy leader, when confronted with such facts, would say, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea and that was not my intent. Let me clear the air to make it clear I do not support these causes,’ ” Neumann said in an interview. “He does the opposite. He doubles down. He cannot admit that his language is having this horrible effect, because he knows it’s motivating to his supporters.”

In the most striking recent case, Trump lashed out at Whitmer and her pandemic policies at an Oct. 17 campaign rally just days after the plot against her was exposed. As the president’s supporters broke out in “Lock her up!” chants, he responded approvingly.

“Lock them all up,” he said.

Within hours, new ripples of hostility on social media reached Whitmer and her subordinates.

“I am the Governor’s Deputy Digital Director,” Tori Saylor said in a plaintive posting to Twitter. “I see everything that is said about and to her online. Every single time the president does this at a rally, the violent rhetoric towards her immediately escalates on social media.”

“It has to stop,” Saylor said. “It just has to.”

Nine days earlier, unsealed FBI documents revealed that a group of men had spent months planning to abduct the governor in retaliation for restrictions she had imposed on state residents to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The FBI picked up on online discussions about the scheme soon after those restrictions were implemented, according to an Oct. 6 criminal complaint. But the plotting appears to have accelerated after Trump began publicly taunting Whitmer and tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” in mid-April.

The FBI complaint does not name Trump or indicate that he inspired the conspiracy. An FBI agent who testified in the case said he was unaware whether Trump’s tweets were discussed among the alleged plotters.

But there are other indications that those arrested were reacting to Trump’s rhetoric. The president had issued a similar call to “liberate” Virginia, whose governor, Ralph Northam (D), was also considered a possible target by the alleged plotters.

Whitmer said when the arrests were announced that she saw Trump as “complicit” because of how he has encouraged hate groups. “When our leaders speak, their words matter,” she said. “They carry weight.”

Self-identified members of extremist groups often repeat Trump’s rhetoric, down to “the same pieces of wording” in online channels, said Kevin Grisham, associate director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.

Criticism and conspiracy theories aimed by Trump at Fauci, philanthropist George Soros and other frequent targets course through messaging apps, including Telegram, as well as Parler, a relatively new platform that members of Trump’s campaign have promoted as unfettered by the constraints increasingly imposed by Facebook and other mainstream services.

Regardless of whether the president “really intends to incite violence,” Gri­sham said, “the evidence points to a strong correlation.”

The volatility in the country’s political life has put enormous pressure on federal, state and local government entities responsible for officials’ security. The FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police, which is responsible for protecting members of Congress, are now routinely engaged in investigations of threats against public officials attacked publicly by the president, according to U.S. officials.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who presented the impeachment case against Trump in the Senate, faced so many threats during that trial that he required round-the-clock security, officials said. The attacks from Trump have yet to stop.

“When Trump suggests darkly that ‘something should happen’ to his political opponents, as he did to me last week at a rally, or calls someone a traitor or urges that they be locked up, it goes beyond political rhetoric and borders on incitement,” Schiff said in a written statement to The Washington Post. “The truth is Donald Trump knows exactly what he’s doing with these statements and that some of his supporters will take him seriously and literally. We must not ignore the danger he is creating.”

Those who testified at impeachment hearings faced an almost immediate avalanche of online attacks. Among them was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Army officer who worked at the White House. At one point, Vindman was urged by Army officials to move his family to a military base for better security, Vindman said in an interview. He opted against doing so only after other measures were adopted, including regular police patrols past his house.

Lawmakers from both parties have endured increased threats to their safety. In 2017, a left-wing activist from Illinois opened fire on Republican House members at a baseball practice, gravely injuring House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

But only Democrats have faced cycles of threats that surge and subside in sync with the president’s rhetoric. Among the most frequent targets is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of four female minority members Trump declared should “go back” to their countries last year, even though all four are U.S. citizens, and three — including Ocasio-Cortez — were born in the United States.

Trump’s attacks on Ocasio-Cortez are part of a broader campaign of criticism fueled by right-wing media. Lauren Hitt, communications director for Ocasio-Cortez, said the congresswoman’s office routinely fields between two and eight “serious threats” each week, meaning communications that mention violence.

These are only the most worrisome messages among dozens more that come in each week that are deemed merely “harassing” because they don’t mention physical harm to the congresswoman. “We had one harassing caller last week leave 40 voice mails overnight,” Hitt said.

The threatening calls create burdens for staff and law enforcement agencies. Because of long-standing House rules, security resources are distributed largely based on seniority, meaning new arrivals to Capitol Hill have less to spend on protection even when they face more threats than higher-ranking counterparts.

Ocasio-Cortez has “had to make very expensive upgrades to our district office to ensure security,” Hitt said. That money, she said, “is coming out of a very limited freshman budget” that might otherwise be used to serve constituents.

Officials at the FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police declined to discuss security issues in detail, citing concern with disclosing measures they use to ensure officials’ safety. Only a small percentage of threats lead to arrests, and there is little if any available data on how often investigations connect threats to the words of the president.

Asked whether the number of threats to Ocasio-Cortez has risen after attacks by Trump or his surrogates in politics or in right-wing media, Hitt said, “We have seen spikes in all of those scenarios.”

Even mayors of cities far from Washington have experienced similar threats. As Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler became the target of hostile Trump tweets this summer, his office received a series of unnerving messages. One, from a sender using an email address identifying himself as a Trump supporter, said: “You guys should be dragged out of your offices and hung by your necks and left there till dead.”

In early September, after Trump launched 15 tweets in a single day assailing Wheeler, more messages arrived. “I was hoping someone would crack your skull open,” one said, according to communications reviewed by The Post. “I hope someone assassinates mayor Wheeler,” said another.

Wheeler also came under attack from the left. In September, he moved out of his condo after protesters broke windows and hurled burning items into the building.

U.S. officials said threats against the CIA whistleblower soared not only when Trump lashed out against him on Twitter but when the president’s allies sought to expose the analyst’s identity to the public.

The analyst’s name and details about his position have been withheld under laws designed to protect whistleblowers. But right-wing news organizations have repeatedly speculated about his identity.

Threats against the whistleblower subsided after Trump’s Senate acquittal, officials said. And although some security measures have been scaled back, officials said that the analyst continues to be a target of online attacks, and that some protective measures are likely to remain in place indefinitely.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.
Greg Miller
Greg Miller is a national security correspondent for The Washington Post and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of “The Apprentice,” a book on Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race and the fallout under the Trump administration.
Isaac Stanley-Becker
Isaac Stanley-Becker is a national political reporter.

Bruce Potter

About Bruce

Work for sustainable development of small islands and the Chesapeake Bay; ex-Peace Corps (Volunteer and staff) in LA & Caribbean; cruised Caribbean on S/Y Meander for three years; like small tropical islands, French canals, Umbria, Tasmania, and NZ. Married 52 years to the late Kincey Burdett Potter (see President of the now-sunsetting Island Resources Foundation.
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