The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump warns of ‘potential death & destruction’ if he’s charged in hush-money case

Former president Donald Trump arrives at an airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., to board his plane last week. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Former president Donald Trump warned early Friday of “potential death & destruction” if he is charged in Manhattan in a criminal case related to alleged hush-money payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels to conceal an affair.

The posting after midnight on Truth Social, Trump’s social media platform, was his latest — and most explicit — allusion to violence that could follow an indictment stemming from an investigation led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D), whom Trump called a “degenerate psychopath.”

Trump wrote: “What kind of person can charge another person, in this case a former President of the United States, who got more votes than any sitting President in history, and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a Crime, when it is known by all that NO Crime has been committed, & also known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country?”

In a post on Thursday, Trump criticized those who have called for his supporters to remain peaceful. Over the weekend, Trump urged a “PROTEST” over his potential arrest in the case, which he wrongly predicted would happen Tuesday.

Analysis: Republicans voice fear of Jan. 6 repeat after Trump’s ‘PROTEST’ call

The messages have all had echoes of the days leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. Trump had urged his followers to assemble in Washington that day, saying “Be there, will be wild!” as he pushed to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s win.

The attack resulted in five deaths, and 140 police officers were injured. The House impeached Trump on a charge of inciting an insurrection; the Senate acquitted him.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) castigated Trump on Friday for his latest comments, echoing criticism from other Democrats.

“The twice-impeached former president’s rhetoric is reckless, reprehensible and irresponsible,” Jeffries said at a news conference. “It’s dangerous. And if he keeps it up, he’s going to get someone killed.”

“We’ve already seen the consequences of incitement from the former president,” Jeffries added. “He is principally responsible for inciting the violent insurrection that happened on Jan. 6, but clearly he has not learned his lesson.”

Trump has been commenting frequently on the hush-money case as a Manhattan grand jury weighs evidence against him. The panel is not scheduled to meet again until at least Monday, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss proceedings that are secret.

Prosecutors from Bragg’s office have been presenting grand jurors with evidence related to hush-money payments to Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. The payments were aimed at keeping her from airing her claim that she had a sexual relationship with Trump years earlier, prosecutors say.

According to prosecutors, Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, was paid $130,000 by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer. Trump reimbursed him after becoming president, in installments that were designated as legal fees.

Hours after Trump’s tweet, Bragg said an envelope with a white substance was sent to the district attorney’s office, according to an email to staff Friday afternoon. The material was determined not to be dangerous.

“Your safety is our top priority,” Bragg wrote in the email, in which he also described the staff receiving “offensive or threatening phone calls or emails.”

As he did in a message to staff this past week, Bragg indicated that the office would press ahead. “We will continue to apply the law evenly and fairly, which is what each of you does every single day,” he said.

The New York Daily News first reported on the Bragg message to staff.

During his social media barrage of the past two days, Trump shared a right-wing publication’s image of him holding a baseball bat alongside a picture of Bragg’s head. Almost instantly, extremism trackers say, supporters were cracking jokes about physically attacking Bragg. “Batter up!” one post said.

“You take the image of him with the bat and now the next day it’s followed with actual words: violence, destruction. His base of supporters are connecting the dots,” said Pete Simi, an extremism scholar who studies threats to public officials with the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center, or NCITE, a Homeland Security research outpost in Omaha.

Several Republicans rejected political violence but were careful not to specifically criticize Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

On Friday, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said he had not heard Trump’s comments, but he said, “There’s no place in America for political violence of any kind.”

“I’ve been saying that for years, and I think everybody ought to take that position,” said Scalise, who was seriously injured in a politically motivated shooting in 2017 at a practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game.

Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), chairman of the Republican Main Street caucus, said, “In our system of government … you should never call for violence. So, you know, we need to do better.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “I’m all for peaceful protests, but peaceful protests. No violence.”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), when asked about Trump’s latest comments Friday, said he had spoken about the issue already previously, and proceeded to talk about an upcoming House vote on education legislation.

McCarthy has slammed Bragg’s investigation, but he said Sunday that supporters of Trump should not protest if the former president is indicted.

“Nobody should harm one another,” McCarthy said, following Trump’s call for protests. “We want calmness out there.”

Republicans decried a possible indictment of former president Donald Trump on March 19 and 20, at times relying on false theories to undercut the probe. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

For his part, Trump resumed commentary on the case on Truth Social about eight hours after his overnight post.

“PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT!” he wrote in all caps shortly after 9 a.m. Eastern time.

Trump will have another opportunity to criticize Bragg and other state and federal prosecutors investigating his conduct on Saturday when he appears at a rally scheduled in Waco, Tex.

Nearly 30 years ago, a lengthy standoff between a religious cult and federal agents in Waco ended on April 19, 1993, when the group’s compound near the city was destroyed in a fire. Nearly 80 people were killed.

Extremism monitors said the attacks on Bragg are alarming even against Trump’s long record of whipping up outrage among supporters and then directing that fury toward his enemies. Together with the “apocalyptic” symbolism of choosing Waco as a rally site, analysts said, Trump’s already thin veneer of plausible deniability is vanishing into unmistakable calls for violence.

Steven Windisch, assistant professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, is co-author of another NCITE research project that aims to pinpoint where political speech crosses into threats of violence. He tracked Google searches for Bragg before and after he landed in Trump’s crosshairs and found sharp increases timed to the publication of Trump’s most incendiary posts.

“The fact that (Bragg) is trending is not surprising,” Windisch said. “What’s surprising is the combination of what’s being searched: his address, his home and his phone, and general contact information. We even saw one spike where it was his family.”

Shayna Jacobs and Camila DeChalus contributed to this report.