The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump toys with the mob — again

In Texas, Trump encouraged people to hold protests over his legal jeopardy and suggested he would pardon Jan. 6 rioters who took such a message to its extreme

Former president Donald Trump speaks at the Save America Rally in Conroe, Tex., on Saturday night. (Michael Stravato/For The Washington Post)

What’s the worst that could happen?

Former president Donald Trump on Saturday night sent his strongest signal to date that he will fight his legal problems outside of a court of law. He encouraged people to engage in massive demonstrations in jurisdictions pursuing criminal investigations against him over Jan. 6 and tax-related issues. Then, minutes later, he said that if he’s reinstalled as president, he would consider pardoning some of the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters.

Both Trump comments were, as with many earlier ones about ongoing legal matters, carefully tailored. (Trump seemed to be reading them off a teleprompter rather than speaking extemporaneously.) The combination of the two comments, though, can’t help but conjure a repeat — or at least the suggestive prospect of a repeat — of the kind of lawlessness we saw just over a year ago.

“If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protests we have ever had in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere,” Trump said, “because our country and our elections are corrupt.”

Shortly afterward, he floated pardons for people who had acted on a previous call to action and taken it to its extreme.

“If I run and I win, we will treat those people from January 6 fairly — we will treat them fairly,” Trump said in a speech in Texas. “And if it requires pardons, then we will give them pardons because they are being treated so unfairly.”

In other words: I might use my extraordinary potential power to free those who broke the law to support me, and I would like you to consider assembling en masse to again rise up against another injustice that has befallen me.

The comments carried the necessary caveats. He said he might pardon people who were treated “unfairly” — his go-to justification for pardoning political allies — rather than everyone involved. He also encouraged people to protest in those three cities, rather than go beyond protesting.

But we need not look too far in the rearview mirror to see how his supporters can view this as a wink and a nod. Trump’s main defense with regard to incitement on Jan. 6 was that, yes, he told people to march to the Capitol, but he told them to “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” Nonetheless, numerous Capitol rioters have said they believed they were acting on the wishes of a president who had often toyed with the utility and suggestions of justified violence by his supporters.

Similarly, there’s a very relevant Trump backstory when it comes to the suggestion of pardons. Although he has claimed the Mueller report constituted “total exoneration,” the report in fact laid out evidence suggesting that Trump might well have obstructed justice in many instances. (Robert S. Mueller III merely decided it wasn’t his place to directly accuse a president of crimes.) One of the things it cited: his dangling of a pardon in the Paul Manafort case, which was used to discourage Manafort’s cooperation with investigators — and seemed to work.

Mueller even laid out how the corrupt promise of a pardon could be a chargeable crime. He said that even as the dangling of pardons “took place in public view,” “no principle of law excludes public acts from the reach of the obstruction laws. If the likely effect of public acts is to influence witnesses or alter their testimony, the harm to the justice system’s integrity is the same.”

At another point, Mueller said specifically that while a president’s pardon power is broad, the “promise of a pardon to corruptly influence testimony would not be a constitutionally immunized act.”

The situation today is somewhat different, in that — at least for now — Trump’s goal doesn’t seem to be preventing people from testifying against him. Instead, it’s meant to rally his supporters behind a sense that he and they are being persecuted.

But that’s just the most innocuous strategic reading. Another would be that he’s suggesting that those who rise up in support of him will earn his protection, even while urging them to rise up again (in peaceful protest, of course!). If past is predicate, that’s a virtually inescapable conclusion that at least some of them will draw, whether it was stated so directly or not.

And after what happened a little more than a year ago and all of the relevant history described above, it’d be pretty silly to pretend otherwise — or that Trump didn’t intend to plant that seed. One of the best legal protections he has right now is the fear that criminally charging a former president would inflame our divided country. And he served notice Saturday that he will happily stand by such a situation with a blowtorch in hand.