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With Trump indictment possible, officials on watch for protests

New York court officers stand outside Manhattan criminal court on Monday. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)
8 min

Law enforcement officials said Monday they were preparing for possible unrest related to the potential indictment of former president Donald Trump, who could face criminal charges in Manhattan as soon as this week.

In places including New York, Atlanta and Palm Beach, Fla., authorities reviewed their options to respond to demonstrations after Trump over the weekend called for protests to oppose what he called his looming arrest. Trump’s language echoed his rhetoric before his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Prosecutors in Manhattan are believed to be considering charging Trump with falsifying business records in connection with a hush-money payment his lawyer made to an adult-film actress in 2016. Trump, who would become the first former president charged with a crime, has denied any wrongdoing and assailed the probe as politically motivated.

A grand jury is examining the issue, but no decision has been announced and it remains unknown when or if the panel will indict Trump.

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The case has emerged as an unlikely inflection point for both Trump, who has announced his candidacy in the 2024 presidential race, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who finds himself as perhaps the most prominent prosecutor in the country.

In New York, law enforcement and court officials have sought to plot out security measures and logistics for a former president’s possible first court appearance on criminal charges.

They are also expected to try to figure out how to manage a potential throng of demonstrators who might surround the Lower Manhattan courthouse where he could appear. Signs of preparation were visible outside the building, as metal barricades were seen being unloaded and erected nearby.

New York authorities were not aware of any credible threats on Monday night, according to an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings. Local authorities had a meeting Monday afternoon to discuss planning, but were not given any specific information about when the charges could possibly come, the official said.

A person with knowledge of security discussions said there is expected to be an increased New York police presence around the courthouse beginning Tuesday.

“They’re worried about the demonstrators both pro-Trump and anti-Trump, and just wackos on the street,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to convey parts of a confidential discussion. “They see this as an opportunity to attack somebody.”

But a Trump arrest would also reverberate across the country, raising the potential of other demonstrations. Trump supporters have called for rallies and events to support him, including in New York and Palm Beach on Monday and in Phoenix and near Detroit on Tuesday.

Trump’s demand for protests has circulated online, with users on some extremist forums eagerly echoing his call. Some users called for violence against Bragg, the first Black person elected Manhattan district attorney, and others in law enforcement. They also proposed ways to block authorities from arresting Trump.

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Much of the exchange unfolded on a popular pro-Trump site that hosted planning for the Capitol siege on Jan. 6, 2021, with some commenters explicitly invoking that attack. Some of the messages included lurid descriptions of destruction and political retribution, including the need to “burn the GOVERNMENT to the ground” and ransack “blue” parts of the country.

But they appeared not to include “specific plans to engage in large-scale violence,” according to Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy, a nonprofit group that tracks extremism. Jones said Trump’s calls for protest “have led to threats of violence against government officials and law enforcement.”

Some far-right groups appear to be urging caution based on what happened on and after Jan. 6. In some postings on far-right Telegram chats, people were urging others not to protest, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online extremism. In one post, a user called the situation a trap and referred to Jan. 6 by saying: “Remember what happened the last time Trump called for a protest? He threw everyone under the bus.”

Bragg, in a message to his office over the weekend, seemingly alluded to Trump’s calls for protests and told staffers that “your safety is our top priority.” Law enforcement officials would make sure “that any specific or credible threats against the office will be fully investigated,” Bragg wrote in the message, which was first reported by Politico.

Court documents revealed July 18, 2019, showed Michael Cohen repeatedly spoke with former president Donald Trump amid the effort to pay Stormy Daniels. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

The response to Trump’s online calls for protests have been scattered, rather than unified, according to extremism researchers. The response is “a wide range of conspiracies, mixed in with efforts to plan, mixed in with calls for violence, mixed in with ‘don’t do anything,’” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League.

But, Segal said, Trump’s comments could still lead to individual people uninterested in any protests “to engage in possible violence or other harmful activity.”

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Federal officials have acknowledged the potentially fraught situation. Asked about Trump’s call for protests, John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said officials were “always monitoring the situation here.”

“We obviously don’t want to see any activity grow violent, certainly nothing to the extent that we saw on January 6th,” Kirby told Fox News over the weekend. “But we’re watching this, we’ll watch it of course closely.”

Outside New York, other officials have effectively said the same, including in places with connections to Trump or ongoing investigations into him.

In Atlanta, Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) has conducted a long-running probe into whether Trump and his allies broke the law trying to overturn Georgia’s election results in 2020 and is expected to announce in the coming weeks whether any charges will result. Willis also said last year she and her office had received threats related to the Trump investigation and other high-profile cases.

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This probe has already spurred heightened security around the courthouse there. A special grand jury heard testimony from 75 witnesses last year as part of that investigation, prompting increased security measures around the building at times including law enforcement officers armed with AR-15 style rifles and bomb-sniffing dogs.

State and local law enforcement officials have been planning security protocols around the courthouse ahead of any announcements on potential charging decisions, in part because of ongoing threats, but also given the building’s proximity to the Georgia Capitol, which is across the street, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private security matters.

The person said agencies were monitoring the developments in New York following Trump’s social media message calling for protests.

A spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department declined to comment on security planning, but said the department is “aware of possible protests” and would “continue to monitor them.” A spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol similarly said they were “monitoring” the situation as well.

Trump’s message on Saturday predicting his arrest was written from Mar-a-Lago, his residence and private club in Palm Beach. His lawyer said that the remark about the timing of his arrest was drawn from media reports, and a spokesman said there had not been any notification of an indictment.

Police in Palm Beach acknowledged Monday that they were watching for problems in the area Tuesday, the day Trump said he would be arrested.

“We’re seeing the same things on social media, so we’re aware of the possibilities,” said Maj. John Scanlon of the Palm Beach Police Department. “But as far as definite plans, we’re under the same impression as anybody else that there may or may not be things going on tomorrow. We’ll monitor as much as we can. We’re always prepared for possible things that may come up.”

Last summer, the FBI searched for classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, and hundreds of Trump supporters gathered nearby with no unusual incidents, Scanlon said.

Because there is no public parking near Mar-a-Lago, people supporting and opposing Trump typically park in West Palm Beach and walk across a bridge connecting it to Palm Beach. A spokesman for the West Palm Beach police force said they were “hearing a lot of social media chatter,” saying the department was “ready if anything comes our way.”

Trump has denied any wrongdoing in the Manhattan case, assailing Bragg in a series of all-caps messages on social media and accusing him of “prosecutorial misconduct.” And he has sought to lump the hush-money probe in with others scrutinizing him, including ongoing investigations into his handling of classified material and efforts to overturn the 2020 election he lost, dismissing them as a system out to weaken his campaign.

In New York, prosecutors are believed to be looking at charges related to a $130,000 payment that Trump’s former lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, made before the 2016 election to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actress whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

Daniels had told people she had an affair with Trump, which he has long denied. Cohen has acknowledged making the payment and said it was aimed at influencing the 2016 election.

Jacobs reported from New York. Holly Bailey, Lori Rozsa, Josh Dawsey, Isaac Stanley-Becker, Emily Davies, Ellie Silverman and Patrick Marley contributed to this report.