AUGUST 15, 2022
Brandon Bell—Getty Images
In the week since the FBI executed a search warrant on former President Donald Trump’s home, many of his supporters have continued to grow angrier, prompting a surge in threats against federal agents including an attempted attack on the FBI field office in Cincinnati that left the attacker dead.
In such a fraught moment, Trump returned on Monday to a playbook he previously used on Jan. 6, 2021: seemingly offering to help calm his supporters while actually feeding their anger by describing that anger as justified.
Trump told Fox News Digital in an interview on Monday that “the country is in a very dangerous position.” He said, “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.”
He then added: “The people of this country are not going to stand for another scam.”
Trump’s public offer of an olive branch, while continuing to stoke the rage of his supporters, echoed his handling of the mob that attacked the Capitol as Congress met to certify Joe Biden’s victory over him in the 2020 election. Ahead of that deadly riot, Trump’s statements helped whip up his supporters to action, according to evidence the Jan. 6 committee presented during dramatic hearings this summer.
Once his supporters had marched to the Capitol and began engaging in hand-to-hand combat with law enforcement, Trump refused multiple pleas from those in his inner circle to help put an end to the violence. Finally, he sent out a tweet that both urged the mob to leave and suggested that he supported their behavior.
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump wrote on Twitter at 6:01 pm that day. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
In the week since the court-authorized search of his Mar-a-Lago Club on Aug. 8 to retrieve classified papers, Trump has decried the move as politically motivated and strongly suggested that it represented something bigger and darker in the works by the federal government. “It’s important that you know that it wasn’t just my home that was violated – it was the home of every patriotic American,” he wrote in one fundraising email to supporters. Other fundraising pleas include the often apocalyptic language used by the former President and his allies, but now focused largely on the FBI search. “These are dark times for our Nation,” read the subject line of an email sent to supporters on Aug. 10 in Trump’s name from his Save America PAC. “I need every single red-blooded American Patriot to step up during this time.”
Trump is “trying to parse the language and create plausible deniability,” says David Gomez, a former FBI assistant special agent in charge in the FBI Seattle field office who spent 28 years investigating national security cases including domestic extremism. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what he’s doing, that he’s trying to get people to do what they did on [Jan. 6],” adds Gomez. “He’s trying to rouse people up to take his side without overtly saying ‘Let’s do x, y, and z.’”
On popular pro-Trump forums and far-right channels, Trump supporters have been dissecting his statements, including those he posts to his social media startup, Truth Social. In the days after the FBI search, many of his supporters made it clear they were waiting for the kind of a signal from him that some believed they received through his incendiary statements leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“When Trump says at a rally or other highly public venue: ‘now is the time’, it will be time. Not before then,” one supporter posted on Aug. 9, a day after the FBI search, on a forum that previously served as the staging ground for the Jan. 6 attack. The language mirrored similar calls on the same forum 19 months earlier: “We have been waiting for Trump to say the word,” one user posted in December 2020 in response to Trump’s call to supporters to come to Washington. “There is not enough cops in DC to stop what is coming.”
Last Thursday, three days after the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, a man who regularly posted on Truth Social was killed in a standoff at an FBI field office in Cincinnati, after attacking the office armed with an AR-15-style rifle and a nail gun. An account with the same name as the attacker had posted more than 374 times in the previous eight days, many of the messages calling for action after the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago and repeating Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 election. In April, the account had posted a message to Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr: “I’m just waiting for your Dad.”
On the day that FBI agents searched Trump’s residence, the attacker posted, “People, this is it…This is your call to arms from me. Leave work tomorrow as soon as the gun shop…opens, get whatever you need to be ready for combat.” The following day he called it a “damn straight insurrection against the people who usurped our government…I won’t be unarmed this time.” Trump Media & Technology Group, the parent company of Truth Social, did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.
Former national security officials and political violence experts told TIME that such attacks are likely to escalate in the coming months as Trump faces a host of ongoing investigations against him, while at the same time stoking speculation about a 2024 presidential run.
Prosecutors on Monday charged a man in Pennsylvania with posting online threats against the FBI on the website Gab in the wake of the Mar-a-Lago search warrant being executed. “I sincerely believe that if you work for the FBI, then you deserve to die,” prosecutors allege the man wrote. “I am going to f**cking slaughter you.”
Trump has described the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago as a “break in” and implied repeatedly, without evidence, that the FBI may have planted incriminating material during the search. In the interview on Monday, he was even more explicit about it, saying that the FBI “could have planted anything they wanted” during the search.
Posts from supporters make it clear they’re taking such messages to heart. “They aren’t after me, they’re after you,” one supporter on a rightwing Trump forum wrote as a summary of the former President’s posts. “If the FBI continues to act in such a partisan way, we will be next.”