The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What if Trump hadn’t spent the week directing fury at the FBI?

President Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to supporters as he departs after playing golf at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Va., on Nov. 8, 2020. (Steve Helber/AP)

Ricky Shiffer appears to have been all-in on Donald Trump. When Trump called for his supporters to come to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, it appears that Shiffer came. When Trump was booted from Twitter and started his own platform in response, Shiffer signed up. At one point, he mentioned the former president’s son in a post, telling Donald Trump Jr. that he was “just waiting for your dad.” Eventually, Donald Trump Jr.'s father showed up.

Shiffer ended up as one of Truth Social’s most voluminous contributors, according to Washington Post analysis of his account. When Shiffer showed up at an FBI office near Cincinnati on Thursday apparently ready to strike out against FBI employees — this week’s target of Trump’s anger — Shiffer posted an update to his 23 followers on the platform.

“If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I.,” he wrote. A few hours later, he was dead, shot by police in a field in rural Ohio.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

We must be deliberate and careful in considering Shiffer’s fate. It is possible that, no matter what happened this week, he would have shown up at that FBI office, armed with a rifle. We cannot say that Shiffer read Donald Trump’s posts on Truth Social and decided to take action as a direct result. Causality is rarely so clean, particularly when you’re picking through the ashes.

But we can say that Shiffer knew about the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago that triggered Trump’s anti-FBI commentary. We can say that, in the wake of the news of the search becoming public, Shiffer wrote a “call to arms” on Trump’s bespoke social media site and endorsed killing federal agents — sentiments he appears to have meant. Denying that Shiffer acted as he did because of the Mar-a-Lago search simply defies credulity.

In 2018, the question of how violence was linked to Trump’s rhetoric emerged under less-direct circumstances. A fervent Trump supporter named Cesar Sayoc sent nonworking explosive devices to a number of Democratic elected officials and members of the media who had been excoriated by the then-president. At the time, I spoke to a professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College, Cheryl Paradis, who’s written about the overlap of psychology and criminal actions.

“Whenever people are identified as targets,” Paradis told me at the time, “it increases the likelihood that someone might act against them.”

Trump made those legislators targets in Sayoc’s eyes. This week, Trump also made the FBI targets.

But why? When news of the search broke, Trump wasted no time in suggesting that he was being targeted unfairly, tapping into the deep reservoir of distrust toward federal law enforcement that he’d slowly filled for years. Republicans rushed to stand at Trump’s back. They could certainly have reserved judgment, waiting to see what new information emerged, but most chose not to. They joined Trump in asserting without qualification that the FBI was out of bounds. There was no loud moderating force on the right calling for caution, suggesting that — even if Trump supporters weren’t willing to grant the FBI the benefit of the doubt — they might be well served in giving things a day or two to become more clear.

The picture has in fact sharpened quite a bit in the past four days. We now know, with the release of the warrant Friday afternoon, what the FBI was looking for, what it did and what it took. We know it wasn’t a “raid,” but a warranted search for specific material. We know that Trump’s hyperventilations about the FBI perhaps having planted evidence are even less likely than they were earlier in the week; the FBI gave Trump’s team a list of what they took from the estate, signed off on by one of his attorneys. We know what laws the FBI thinks Trump might have violated, ones that depend on his possession of material that even Trump doesn’t seem to dispute that he had.

No public figure who is a target of federal investigation should be expected to embrace the situation or to champion law enforcement. But most, it seems safe to say, would have responded to the situation with more caution than did Trump. Few would have had the motivation to cast the FBI as inherently corrupt, particularly while holding the uncomplicated explanation for the search. And no other public figure would have known from years of experience that it didn’t matter how easily debunked or shaky his claims were that he himself would be shielded from any repercussions.

He himself — but not everyone else. His allies, once again, find themselves scrambling: How did their immediate condemnations of the FBI look in this new light? What was the right spin to apply here, now that it’s clear that the FBI had both authority and reason to search Trump’s estate, however inconvenient to the former president? Follow Trump in a rush into the shadows if you want, but it’s up to you to find your own way back out.

They’ll live. Shiffer, who rushed in too, didn’t.

Maybe he was fated to die in some confrontation with law enforcement somewhere, some time, but he died this week, in that confrontation. Maybe if Trump’s response to the search of Mar-a-Lago had been different, Shiffer would still have been infuriated due to his own volition or because he was caught up in the furious tornado of right-wing conversation that always follows Trump around. Maybe he still would have gone to that FBI office.

Or maybe if Trump and his allies had been cautious, maybe if Trump had quickly detailed what happened and outlined the dispute with the government, or maybe if — as the Justice Department is tacitly alleging — he had actually turned over the material the government sought, maybe Shiffer would still be alive. Maybe then that tornado wouldn’t have formed around Trump and those elected officials wouldn’t have jogged along behind him.

Maybe if the central driver of Trump’s actions wasn’t solely what was useful in the moment for Trump, one of his biggest fans wouldn’t have been shot to death by Ohio police.