A Republican former U.S. attorney general is pleading with his fellow Americans: cool down the ill-informed speculation threatening to engulf the country’s politics.
The police search at Donald Trump’s Florida residence has prompted a surge in inflammatory rhetoric reminiscent of the volatile weeks after the last election.
It’s included violent threats against officials, vows of political retaliation against the FBI, comparisons to Nazi rule, and social-media musings about civil war.
Alberto Gonzales is urging people to withhold judgment until we learn more about what actually prompted Tuesday’s hours-long search for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
The attorney general under George W. Bush told CBC News he feels sympathy for his former department: the Justice Department avoids, as a general rule, discussing investigations, in part to protect the reputation of their target.
Since there is no guarantee charges will be laid following a search, he said, it’s unfair to a suspect to rush out and describe what you were investigating.
This, he concedes, puts his former department at a disadvantage by creating an information vacuum that in this case is being quickly filled with speculation.
“There’s a lot here we don’t know yet … People need to wait. People need to be patient. I have a great deal of confidence and faith in the department. I’m not saying it doesn’t make mistakes from time to time. It does, it may. Nonetheless I would give the benefit of the doubt to the department. Let the department move forward and do its job.”
Such calls for patience are falling flat.
Heated rhetoric, threats increase
The nation is awash in furious speculation from every strata of American society, from anonymous accounts to high-ranking members of Congress.
Why did FBI agents scour the former president’s home for classified documents? How sensitive were they? Did Trump show them to anyone? Did any non-Americans see them? Is it connected to a broader investigation? Is it a smear job to stop Trump from running for president again?
Is this all about mishandled documents? Authorities aren’t talking and Trump has refused to release the search warrant which could offer clues.
Republican politicians have largely closed ranks around the former president and threatened everything from defunding the FBI to grilling law-enforcement at committee hearings.
They channeled the rage of the grassroots supporters who idolize Trump like one protester outside Mar-a-Lago who told Reuters on Tuesday: “You feel like you might be in Venezuela or China or Russia or even in Hitler’s Germany.”
Researchers of online chatter say the intensity of anger has spiked to levels resembling the environment before the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
It includes talk of murdering the judge who reportedly authorized the search warrant, along with the heads of the FBI and the attorney general.
Online calls for civil war
Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, said regular citizens are hearing from conservative opinion-makers that America is slipping into tyranny and they’ll be targeted next.
And the response, he said, has been an instant surge in violent rhetoric across multiple online platforms, especially smaller websites without teams of content moderators.
“It’s large amounts of people openly fantasizing about using violence to target their perceived enemies,” Friedfeld said in an interview.
“People are saying they’re fed up, that it’s time for a civil war, that they have to fight back now otherwise they’ll live in tyranny.”
One difference from January 6, he said, is there’s no physical rallying point, no place for a mob to gather right now.
That will change if Trump ever gets charged.
A police lieutenant in one U.S. city told CBC News colleagues are already having informal discussions about how to secure the courthouse if there’s a Trump-related case there.
‘Lock and load’
Friedfeld said it’s an obvious risk. He predicted that prosecutors would have their personal information leaked on the internet and would face a deluge of threats.
“Everyone on the prosecution will need to be protected,” he said.
“Physical security is going to be paramount. … There will be people advocating for violence against the people trying to prosecute Trump.”
Another researcher, Daniel Jones, said the inflammatory rhetoric comes from three groups.
One he describes as entertainers — media personalities who crave attention. In that category he includes Fox News prime-time shows excoriating “Biden’s FBI.”
“We’re seeing things like, ‘Lock and load.’ … ‘This is a civil war,'” said Jones, the lead investigator in the U.S. Senate’s report on torture in the CIA, and a researcher with the non-profit, non-partisan group Advance Democracy.
“[We’re seeing] direct threats against that judge [who reportedly signed the warrant]… [And stuff like], ‘Attorney General Merrick Garland should be executed and assassinated.'”
Republican calls for defunding FBI
The third and final group he identifies, the one he calls most disappointing, comprises mainstream politicians who should know better.
Some Republicans have been repeating Trump’s line that perhaps police planted evidence at his home.
That includes the Georgia Q-Anon peddling firebrand, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who told One America News Network she’s thrilled by how many of her lawmaker colleagues are siding with her.
“I usually fight with my Republican colleagues because I don’t think they’re strong enough,” she said.
“But I am hearing things that I am so happy to finally hear come out of their mouths. Because when we take back the majority and we are in control in the House of Representatives we are going after the Department of Justice; we’re going after the FBI. We’ll control the budget that funds everybody’s program and everybody’s pay cheques.”
‘A federal judge authorized this search’
Republicans on Capitol Hill say the outrage is not merely performative, as a public declaration of fealty to Trump in order to placate their grassroots.
They say they truly believe authorities, and the media, aggressively target conservatives while ignoring transgressions from Hunter Biden and Hillary Clinton.
The most senior Republican in the House of Representatives had a message about what his party will do if it wins a majority in this year’s midterm elections and gains power over congressional committees.
Party leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy said in a statement that he would call Garland to committee hearings and demanded he preserve all documents about the case.
Another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, told Fox News that his party will scrutinize the actions of law enforcement.
“You better have explanations ready,” he said.
“Because you cannot weaponize our institutions for political gain. That is the destruction of democracy.”
The eruption of outrage underscored the extent to which the Republicans are truly, deeply, Donald Trump’s party now.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s attorney general, was offering his faint plea for people to trust law enforcement.
“A federal judge authorized this search,” Gonzales told the CBC. “That means something as far as I’m concerned.”