The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

FBI attacker was prolific contributor to Trump’s Truth Social website

Civil war and violence in support of the former president were frequent topics on an account opened in April and bearing the gunman’s name and photo

The FBI field office in Cincinnati on Aug 11. An armed man wearing body armor tried to breach a security screening area there, authorities said. (FOX19 Cincinnati/AP)
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In the minutes after an armed man in body armor tried to breach an FBI field office in Cincinnati, an account with the suspect’s name, Ricky Shiffer, posted to former president Donald Trump’s social network, Truth Social: “If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I.”

The Shiffer account appeared to be one of Truth Social’s most prolific posters, writing 374 messages there in the past eight days — mostly to echo Trump’s false claims about election fraud and, in the hours after FBI agents searched Trump’s Florida home, call for all-out war. “Be ready to kill the enemy,” Shiffer had posted on Tuesday. “Kill [the FBI] on sight.”

Shiffer was killed Thursday in a shootout, police said, and the Truth Social account has since been taken down. But the calls for pro-Trump violence are still a common presence online — including on Truth Social, where the top “trending topics” Friday morning were “#FBIcorruption” and “DefundTheFBI.”

Truth Social’s parent company, Trump Media & Technology Group, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Cincinnati shooting offers a glimpse at the real-world dangers of constant attacks from Trump and allied Republicans against federal officials in the days since FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., estate and the center of his post-presidential operations.

It also showcased how such violent anger could be encouraged in plain sight in loosely moderated online refuges such as Truth Social, where Trump supporters frequently tear down perceived enemies and call for civil war.

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Trump has repeatedly attacked the FBI and Justice Department officials in public messages, including on Truth Social, where he told his more than 3 million followers Thursday that the Mar-a-Lago search was “a surprise attack, POLITICS, and all the while our Country is going to HELL!”

People familiar with the investigation told The Washington Post that the FBI had searched the home while seeking classified documents relating to nuclear weapons that could pose a grave harm to national security.

A Twitter account with Shiffer’s name included many messages mimicking Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. But a review of his social media accounts shows Shiffer was most active recently on Truth Social, the Twitter clone Trump created after most social networks blocked him in the aftermath of the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. In April, Shiffer tweeted at Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., that he had just opened his account there, adding, “I’m just waiting for your Dad.”

Authorities declined to comment on whether Shiffer was connected to Truth Social and Twitter accounts, but both featured his name, photo and general location and had been active before the shooting.

A law enforcement official familiar with the investigation told The Post that agents are investigating Shiffer’s possible ties to extremist groups, including the Proud Boys — a far-right group whose leaders are accused of helping launch the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

FBI searched Trump’s home to look for nuclear documents and other items, sources say

A review of the Shiffer account’s Truth Social activity showed he had posted dozens of times a day to the site, replying to pro-Trump influencers, attacking the government and suggesting violence was the most important way true Trump believers could defend the former president.

Similar messages are common on the site, including from Trump himself. In May, Trump reposted — or, in Truth Social terminology, “ReTruthed” — a message from another user that read, “Civil war.”

But Shiffer’s Truth Social account, which had 23 followers, showed him not just voicing anger but also calling for direct action to bring on armed conflict, urging Trump followers to stock up on bullets and “have your heart, mind, and body ready to jump into civil war.”

On Aug. 5, he posted, “This country has never had a worse enemy. 1776 was for far less, even World War II was for less.” That day, he also wrote, “Save ammunition and be ready and willing to hit the road as soon as you hear it has started. Someone who wanted to be a hero could not have lived in a better time period.” The post was ‘liked’ 24 times.

Shiffer’s posts appeared to regard the Mar-a-Lago search as a triggering event. On Aug. 8, the day of the search, he posted, “People, this is it. … This is your call to arms from me. Leave work tomorrow as soon as the gun shop … opens, get whatever you need to be ready for combat. We must not tolerate this once.”

On Aug. 9, he posted that “patriots are heading to Palm Beach” and that, if “the feds” try to break it up, “kill them.” “Damn straight insurrection against the people who usurped our government,” he wrote in a separate post that day. “I hope to see you there (I won’t be unarmed this time).”

His second-most-recent public post was a meme image showing Trump in the White House: “Retruth To If You Want President Donald Trump Back In Office!” His last post on Aug. 11, the day police said he tried to breach the FBI office, said, “Well, I thought I had a way through bullet proof glass, and I didn’t. If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I., and it’ll mean either I was taken off the internet, the F.B.I. got me, or they sent the regular cops while,” before ending abruptly.

All of the posts were visible Thursday night, and there’s no indication Truth Social had ever sought to remove them before their vanishing.

Simmering threat of violence comes to fore with search of Trump property

Shiffer’s profile said he was a construction electrician in Columbus, Ohio, who previously had accounts on Twitter, the video site Rumble and other sites blocked or deleted. In his biography, he wrote, “I am ready to handle this like an American.”

The FBI said Thursday that Shiffer had tried to break into the field office’s visitor-screening area before fleeing onto an interstate. He stopped and raised a gun at police before officers shot and killed him, the authorities said.

Since the attempted breach of the FBI office, some Truth Social users — including a verified account with 74,000 followers who said he was a designer for the site — have also shared baseless claims suggesting the attack was a “false flag” staged to make Trump look bad.

After months of weak user activity and technical snags, Truth Social remains a minor player on the internet with fewer than 4 million users — a small fraction of the 88 million Twitter followers Trump had before his ban.

Since Jan. 6, Trump’s online audience has fractured between a number of right-wing sites competing for the same limited following, including Gab, Gettr and Parler, where follower counts this year have stalled.

But David Thiel, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory who has studied the site, said Truth Social has specialized as a never-ending Trump rally that functions almost like a fan message board, full of devotees eager to reaffirm other members of Trump’s base.

“It’s incredibly dull in most respects. It’s not where content producers are putting their efforts. They’re just syndicating content from right-wing news outlets and other places,” Thiel said. “But it is a place where you would expect to see this kind of single person presenting signs that they’re potentially going to act on something more radicalized.”

Truth Social’s online traffic jumped on Tuesday, the day after the FBI search, to nearly 700,000 visits worldwide, according to estimates from the online analytics firm Similarweb. The site averaged about 300,000 visits a day last month. Twitter says it has about 37 million active users in the United States every day.

Trump’s Truth Social’s disastrous launch raises doubts about its long-term viability

Gina Ligon, the head of the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center, a federally funded research center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Shiffer’s online calls to violence showed similarities to previous attackers’ messages and offered a warning sign for potential future attacks.

Shiffer’s “call to arms,” Ligon said, was reminiscent of similar online posts from a suspect who allegedly shot and killed 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo in May. She also compared Shiffer’s anti-government slant to that of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, whose attack in 1995 killed 168 people.

“The rhetoric that is so loud on the right now online should be taken very seriously by people because it mobilized [McVeigh] to an incredibly violent event,” she said.

Truth Social’s connection to the FBI attack draws a similarity with Parler, another social media site once popular with Trump supporters that prided itself on free speech. Before Jan. 6, Trump supporters shared false theories of election fraud and plans of descending on the Capitol to confront members of Congress voting to finalize the former president’s loss. Groups organized on the platform, and then users documented themselves on it participating in the riot. Amazon Web Services, which ran the cloud-computing system the site depended on, suspended it shortly after.

Domestic terrorism incidents have ramped up in recent years, fueled in part by intensifying white-supremacist propaganda.

Extremists have used social media to share incendiary political rhetoric, as planners for the Jan. 6 violence spread election misinformation and plans to stop the election. During the coronavirus pandemic, government restrictions energized attacks on public health officials and Democrats, such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the target of a kidnapping plot by members of an extremist group.

Recent altercations reflect a trend in the country’s psyche: One in 3 Americans say they believe violence against the government can at times be justified, the largest share to feel that way in more than two decades, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.