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WASHINGTON ― America can have peace and tranquility. Or it can have a criminal prosecution of Donald Trump. It cannot have both.
Presenting this mob-like ultimatum appears to have become the former president’s strategy as the FBI and the Department of Justice close in on Trump’s possession of and refusal to return top secret documents he took with him to his Florida social club when he left the White House following his failed coup attempt.
“Nice store you got here. Be a shame if something happened to it,” said Glenn Kirschner, a federal prosecutor who spent more than two decades in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., comparing it to “protection rackets” used by organized crime. “Nice country you got here. Be a shame if a civil war destroyed it.”
In near daily statements on his social media platform, in fundraising emails and in interviews, Trump has called law enforcement officials corrupt, illegitimate and reminiscent of Soviet Russia as he demands that prosecutors drop their investigations.
Even more ominously, Trump, via his legal team, delivered a message to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Aug. 11, three days after the search of his Mar-a-Lago residence, that might have been lifted from the film “The Untouchables”:
“President Trump wants the attorney general to know that he has been hearing from people all over the country about the raid. If there was one word to describe their mood, it is ‘angry,’” Trump’s lawyers revealed in a lawsuit trying to block release of the seized documents to prosecutors. “The heat is building up. The pressure is building up. Whatever I can do to take the heat down, to bring the pressure down, just let us know.”
“It’s the language he uses,” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime GOP consultant who left the party after it fell under Trump’s sway. “Trump is a gangster.”
Trump’s inflammatory language has already forced the FBI and prosecutors to guard against violence from Trump followers. One Trump supporter is dead after a shootout with police following his attempt to attack the FBI field office in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Trump’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s queries for this story.
Danya Perry, a former prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, a center for mob investigations, called Trump’s message “a lightly veiled threat” delivered only after he had first stoked rage among his followers.
“It also lays bare that he knows he easily could calm down his supporters but actively chooses not to, just as the 187 minutes of purposeful inaction during the insurrection,” she said, referring to the three hours that Trump allowed the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol to continue before asking his people to leave. “His message to AG Garland is that he can do it the easy way or the hard way. And that does sound like a scene out of an old mob movie.”
A Long History Of Stoking Violence
Neither Trump’s connections to actual organized crime figures nor his glorification and support of violence on his behalf is new. As a New York City developer, Trump boasted about working with mob-connected businesses in his construction projects. One of his early mentors was Roy Cohn, an actual mob lawyer.
Trump during his 2016 campaign frequently encouraged his supporters to physically attack protesters at his rallies. As president, he encouraged police officers to rough up criminal suspects as they arrested them.
At his Jan. 6, 2021, pre-insurrection rally, he told his followers to march on the Capitol to intimidate his own vice president and Congress into letting him remain in office ― even though he knew many in the crowd he had assembled in Washington that day were armed.
Donald Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Even after leaving office, Trump was priming his followers to respond aggressively if prosecutors charged him. (Photo: John Minchillo via Associated Press)
And not long after his departure from office, Trump was already priming his followers to respond aggressively if prosecutors charged him.
“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, because our country and our elections are corrupt,” he said at a Texas rally in January.
Trump has never explained what he meant by “racist,” but Fani Willis and Alvin Bragg, the district attorneys of Fulton County, Georgia, and Manhattan, respectively, are both Black.
His attacks on law enforcement only increased as the scope of the investigations against him became clearer and reached a fever pitch after the Aug. 8 search of his tennis and croquet club in Palm Beach.
On Aug. 11, Trump posted the message: “STOP COMMUNISM IN OUR COUNTRY!” The next day, he accused the FBI of “planting information” during the search. On Aug. 14, he wrote: “The FBI has a long and unrelenting history of being corrupt.”
On Aug. 16, he claimed the FBI agents had “opened their arms and grabbed everything in sight, much as a common criminal would do.”
And on Aug. 19, he posted on his Truth Social site a series of statements that edged close to advocating revolt: “The law enforcement of our Country has become that of a Third World Nation, and I do not believe the people will stand for it ― between Fraudulent Elections, Open Borders, Inflation, giving our Military to the Enemy, and so much more ― how much are we all expected to take?”
“Trump continues to use a wink-wink, nod-nod approach to political violence, attacking his target as being corrupt and treating him viciously and unfairly,” said Mary McCord, a former top official at the Justice Department. “We’ve seen for years now that Trump’s followers interpret this as a call to action, and many respond, as they did on Jan. 6. Now his targets are the FBI and DOJ. It’s reasonable to ask whether Trump is attempting to wield his own ‘mob,’ the supposedly angry people all over the country, to influence law enforcement action and, potentially, the courts.”
GOP Eager To Join In The FBI-Bashing
Former Republicans, meanwhile, said that even more worrisome than Trump’s statements attacking law enforcement are all the Republicans who are siding with him against the FBI and Justice Department.
Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, called the Mar-a-Lago search “corrupt and an abuse of power,” comparing it to actions by President Richard Nixon, who resigned rather than face impeachment over the Watergate scandal. “What Nixon tried to do, Biden has now implemented: The Biden Admin has fully weaponized DOJ & FBI to target their political enemies,” the Texas Republican wrote.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel also compared the search to Nixon’s behavior in a Fox News interview: “President Trump is right when he compared this to Watergate. This is the government using an agency to spy on a potential opponent’s campaign. And this is truly frightening. It is not what our democracy stands for.”
David Jolly, a former GOP congressman from Florida, said the party’s transformation has been depressing. “It’s just an awful moment. Would have been unbelievable 10 years ago,” he said, adding that the comparison to organized crime falls short. “I think ‘mob behavior’ fails in its description of an individual willing to burn down the republic for his own vanities.”
Stevens, a top aide in the George W. Bush presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004 and the Mitt Romney campaign in 2012, said Republicans’ willingness to repeat Trump’s attacks on law enforcement no longer surprises him.
“The reality is we’re a democracy sliding into autocracy. And it’s what the Republican Party, the vast majority of it, really wants,” he said. “It’s a systematic effort to degrade and discredit every institution of a civil society. You attack the voting systems. You attack law enforcement. You attack the judiciary…. That is how you destroy a democracy. That is their goal. And the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can deal with it and try to stop them.”
In addition to the probe into his mishandling of classified documents, Trump is also under investigation by the Justice Department for his attempted coup to remain in power, including the plan to create fraudulent slates of electoral votes from states he had lost. A Georgia prosecutor is separately investigating his and his allies’ attempts to coerce state officials into falsely declaring Trump the winner there.
Trump, despite losing the election by 7 million votes nationally and 306-232 in the Electoral College, became the first president in more than two centuries of elections to refuse to hand over power peacefully. His incitement of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol ― his last-ditch attempt to remain in office ― led to the deaths of five people, including one police officer; the injury of an additional 140 officers; and four police suicides.
Nevertheless, Trump remains the dominant figure in the Republican Party and is openly speaking about running for the presidency again in 2024.
And that, to authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat, remains baffling.
“I don’t know of another case where a coup leader who got together a bespoke thug army to overthrow the democratic order is at liberty and thinking of running for president again,” the New York University history professor said. “Sitting authoritarian leaders do stage ‘shock events’ if their power is threatened, but it is specific to the U.S. that an individual in private life could have so many extremists who possess private arsenals and are ready to do his bidding.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.