The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s ploy about lowering the temperature

Then-President-elect Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., in December 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

When a guy who has spent his entire political career lodging vast conspiracy theories and strategically toying with the prospect of violence by his supporters offers to help dial back the tensions in this country, skepticism is warranted. And plenty applied such skepticism when news broke in recent days that former president Donald Trump was at least facially making such an offer in the aftermath of the search at Mar-a-Lago and amid threats against federal law enforcement.

What has transpired since then should erase any doubt about how sincere Trump’s entreaty was — and how seriously Trump’s top supporters have taken it.

The New York Times reported Saturday that a close Trump ally reached out to Attorney General Merrick Garland to ask what Trump could do to “reduce the heat.” The offer was treated with the requisite skepticism by the Times, which noted in the very next paragraph that Trump soon re-upped his completely baseless and inflammatory claim that the FBI might have planted evidence during the search.

Seeking a more credulous audience, Trump soon went to Fox News. His first interview since the search registered the kind of headline Trump would hope for: “Trump ‘will do whatever’ he can to ‘help the country’ after FBI raid: ‘Temperature has to be brought down.’” (Later, he and his allies complained that the Justice Department did not respond to this offer.)

Fox News host Tucker Carlson professed to be impressed.

“Maybe for the first time in his life, Donald Trump seems sincerely interested in lowering the temperature — not just for his own sake, but for the country’s,” Carlson said Monday night. “He said that. He’s never said anything like that.”

Just as quickly, though, Carlson allowed: “Maybe he doesn’t mean it. But when has he ever said that?”

If there’s one person who knows the utility of riling people up, it’s undoubtedly Carlson. And in the same show, he demonstrated the utility of Trump’s ploy. Rather than pitch the temperature as having been raised by Trump and his baseless conspiracy theories about planted evidence and the like — the kind of rhetoric that has now led to documented and very real threats against FBI personnel — Carlson blamed the Biden administration for having “explicitly declared war on his own population.” It bears emphasizing: Carlson said this and then, just minutes later, praised Trump for at least professing to want to lower the temperature.

But it’s not just Carlson speaking in these terms.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) took to Rumble to offer his own war comparison: “Is the IRS gearing up for war in our country? … Is there an effort by the national security state to stoke violence and a civil war here at home? We certainly hope not.” (For more on what this rhetoric about the IRS is about, see here.)

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani appeared on Newsmax and agreed that Trump should be concerned about the “deepest of the deep state” assassinating him. This followed a week after another Trump ally who held office in New York City, Bernard Kerik, tweeted much the same thing:

Numerous other Trump allies are also still on the baseless planted-evidence train, including Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.).

Donald Trump Jr. is still comparing the FBI to the “Gestapo” and speaking in terms of “overthrowing” the government.

And Trump himself is still casting recent events in some of the most inflammatory terms possible, including that the FBI “stole” his passports (despite evidence they were seized and returned).

In his social media post about the passport, Trump went on to decry the search as “an assault on a political opponent at a level never seen before in our Country.”

These are not the words of a political entity who feels truly concerned about how inflamed the country’s emotions are.

The benefit of Trump professing to want to turn down the temperature is self-evident. It earns coverage on Fox, where many of his supporters will swallow it whole. Those people largely believe the government is conspiring against Trump, so Trump’s rhetoric won’t seem as overheated to them in the first place. And from there, Trump’s claim that Garland’s office didn’t take him up on his offer to help out will make it look to plenty of people as if Garland is the one uninterested in de-escalation. (This works because Garland isn’t in a position to publicly comment on the matter in detail.)

But there is, of course, no real reason that Trump needs Garland’s guidance on this issue. Lowering the temperature might begin, for example, with looking at the death threats against the FBI and deciding not to baselessly suggest that it planted evidence. It might also begin with suggesting that his allies should stop comparing the situation to Nazi Germany, invoking numerous war metaphors and floating the idea that Trump might be assassinated by his own government. At a bare minimum, it would seem to involve dealing with the facts as we know them rather than offering them a series of bogus but politically expedient conspiracy theories like the ones that led to Jan. 6.

You can believe that searching a former president is a fraught exercise — and one worthy of scrutiny when the details come out — without going to these extremes.

The reason Trump’s most high-profile supporters are still saying these things, though, is because they know precisely how unserious Trump’s offer was. They’ve seen how he’s kept up the same kind of rhetoric that raised the temperature in the first place.

And Carlson isn’t the only one who seems to know better. After his show aired Monday night, Fox News host Laura Ingraham pressed Trump lawyer Christina Bobb on precisely what Trump could do to lower the temperature. Ingraham even seemed to allow that Trump’s comment — that “terrible things are going to happen” if the situation isn’t de-escalated — might have been an implied threat, rather than an expression of earnest concern.

“What did the president mean by terrible things are going to happen?” Ingraham asked.

She pressed later for details: “What specifically was President Trump suggesting? I mean, everyone wants to bring the temperature down. I think that’s a noble desire, of course. But what specifically does he propose that he can do at this point?”

But Bobb offered no specifics. She merely talked about how people don’t trust the federal government and assured that Trump was offering a “genuine olive branch.”

“He had a big platform, he had a big following,” she said. “And so, I think it was a genuine olive branch to say, I’m trying to help this country. They don’t trust you, but they trust me. What can we do? And they ignored it.”

One would think if this was a real initiative Trump was so interested in, she might’ve had some ideas, and Trump might’ve offered some kind of a different message on his “big platform.” Apparently they’re still waiting for Garland to tell them what to do.