How Trump Encourages Death Threats To Judges -- Including Republicans

How Trump Encourages Death Threats To Judges -- Including Republicans

Judge Royce Lamberth

Former President Donald Trump

When attorney Michael Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee in 2019, he delivered a key insight into his former boss Donald Trump. “He doesn’t give you questions,” said Cohen. “He doesn’t give you orders. He speaks in code, and I understand the code because I’ve been around him for a decade.”

Since Trump launched his run for office in 2015, millions of his fanatic supporters have learned to parse that code as well. Trump is counting on it. And when he tells them that a prosecutor is a racist or that a judge is “crazy, totally unhinged, and dangerous,” or when he falsely accuses the judge’s wife of running an anti-Trump social media account and sows conspiracy theories about a law clerk, his followers read Trump’s desires loud and clear.

Judges, prosecutors, and others who earn the ire of Trump are experiencing an “unprecedented wave of threats,” according to a Reuters report published on Thursday. So many that it has exploded the number of threats across the whole judicial system.

Trump’s social media attacks frequently include the names of prosecutors and judges. These attacks are so frequent that for most of the first half of 2023, Trump’s attacks on the legal system exceeded the number of posts for his presidential campaign.

He frequently claims that all of the charges against him are part of a single scheme controlled by President Joe Biden, and accuses judges of being part of a system that has been directed against him for political purposes. He also presents his indictments not as the result of crimes he has committed, but as something he suffers for all his followers.

“Joe Biden has weaponized law enforcement to interfere in our elections,” Trump told the audience at a conservative conference last June. “I’m being indicted for you.”

That theme has been repeated over and over on both his social media and at his rallies. Trump presents himself to his followers as the Christ-like victim of unwarranted persecution, suffering bravely against forces that, if they weren’t busy with him, would come after the humble people paying his legal bills. That helps to explain, though certainly not excuse, why threats against judges, prosecutors, and their staffs have more than tripled since Trump rode down the golden escalator.

It’s not just judges and prosecutors in Trump’s current civil and criminal cases who have come under threat. Well before the current round of cases, Trump was attacking judges, prosecutors, and even members of the jury.

As Trump and his allies were losing over 60 cases in his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, judges came under intense pressure.

“I could not believe how many death threats I got,” U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth told Reuters. When Lamberth’s home phone number reached the public, one man reportedly called his home repeatedly and graphically promised to kill him.

The U.S. Marshals Service is responsible for tracking and responding to threats against the judiciary. In the decade before Trump’s 2016 campaign, they fielded an average of 1,180 incidents a year. Over the seven years following his candidacy, that number rose to 3,810.

Retired Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor told Reuters that, “Donald Trump set the stage.” The former Republican justice said that Trump “gave permission by his actions and words for others to come forward and talk about judges in terms not just criticizing their decisions, but disparaging them and the entire judiciary.”

Most of those making threats against judges are reportedly not found. Others, like the man who made repeated death threats against Lamberth, get off with a warning from the Marshals Service. In the past four years, Reuters identified 57 federal prosecutions for threats to judges. It’s hard to know how this compares to past periods because no one appears to be keeping a public database of these prosecutions. However, based on the rising volume of threats, it would be frightening if this number were not higher than in the past.

Halfway through his trial for fraudulently overvaluing his real estate holdings, Trump was well aware that his social media posts attacking Judge Arthur Engoron and law clerk Allison Greenfield had received hundreds of credible threats. But when his gag order was briefly lifted, Trump used that time to go back on the attack. And when the order stopped him from attacking Greenfield, Trump leveled his false accusations at Engoron’s wife.

As Cohen said in his 2019 testimony, Trump “doesn’t give you orders.” But his meaning is clear. Trump no doubt knows the kind of violent threats that his social media posts and statements inspire. It’s hard to believe this isn’t exactly why he does it.

Direct threats are a crime, but incitement to violence is very difficult to prove. As the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University explains, “The First Amendment does not protect speech that incites imminent violence.” But the bar for committing incitement is set very high, high enough that simply telling your followers that someone is a terrible racist who is unfairly prosecuting you out of hate is still protected … even if you have a very good idea of what your followers might do in response.

When Trump includes people like staffers and family members, who have no say in his case but whose safety is concerning to the judges and prosecutors working the case, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s sending a signal to his followers, and to everyone in the judiciary.

Trump’s words are the lever. The threats are the result. The fear is what he wants.

And if someone acts on those threats … Well, it’s not like Trump gave them any orders.

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos.

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