Trump Attacks on Prosecutors and Judges Heighten Security Concerns

7 minute read

As an Atlanta grand jury met Monday to hear evidence about Donald Trump’s alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, law-enforcement officials and police imposed a dramatic set of security measures. Armed officers patrolled the orange barricades around the courthouse. Police walked the perimeter with bomb-sniffing dogs. And security officials kept a wary eye on the flood of intimidating messages and violent threats targeting Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

In posts on Truth Social, Trump blasted Willis as “phoney [sic],” attacked her record, and said she “wants desperately to indict me on ridiculous grounds.” The previous week, Trump had attacked Willis at a campaign rally in New Hampshire, referring to the 52-year-old Black prosecutor as “a young racist in Atlanta” and claiming, without evidence, that she had engaged in an affair with the head of a gang. “She’s got a lot of problems,” Trump told the crowd. A few days later, he released a 60-second ad blasting Willis and other prosecutors as the “fraud squad.”

Trump has repeatedly been warned by federal officials to refrain from rhetoric that could "incite violence or civil unrest.” Yet as he faces a fourth criminal indictment within a matter of months, he is only stepping up his attacks on prosecutors and judges. And within minutes of his attacks, his acolytes respond.

A brief review of pro-Trump forums, right-wing messaging groups, and social-media platforms immediately turned up dozens of potentially violent threats directed at Willis and her family. Some encouraged others to find Willis’ home address and post personal information about her family if she doesn’t “back down.”

Read More: The United States of Political Violence.

Sources familiar with Atlanta law-enforcement preparations told local media that Willis has been assigned additional protection near her office and her residence. (Fulton County District Attorney's Office spokeswoman Pallavi Bailey declined to comment to TIME on changes to Willis’ security.) Willis has previously said that she received violent threats from Trump supporters due to the probe. Earlier this month, she emailed county leaders warning them to “stay alert,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and shared one of the racist threats she had received. “I am sending to you in case you are unclear on what I and my staff have come accustomed to over the last 2½ years,” she wrote.

The heightened security around Willis is becoming a familiar story. Prosecutors and judges across the country have faced threats emanating from Trump or his followers. In Washington, security has reportedly been tightened around U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the case involving Trump's alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election. "There is no way I can get a fair trial with the judge 'assigned' to the ridiculous freedom of speech/fair elections case," Trump posted. NBC News reported that Chutkan was observed under the protection of the U.S. Marshals Service. A spokesman for the Marshals Service said it does not discuss specific security measures. “Ensuring that judges can rule independently and free from harm or intimidation is paramount to the rule of law,” Drew Wade said in a statement to TIME.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is pressing a civil suit against Trump, has also reported receiving death threats. “I have more law enforcement around me these days,” she said on a podcast in June. “Individuals have threatened my life.” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who filed felony charges against Trump in a case related to hush-money payments made to an adult-film actress, has received threats as well, including some considered to “directly threaten serious harm.” In March, Bragg was threatened with assassination in a letter containing a white powder that was later found to be non-hazardous.

While it's not unusual for prosecutors or judges to receive the occasional threat, Trump’s broadsides raise the prospect that one of his fervent followers will take violent action, says Rachel Kleinfeld, who studies polarization and political violence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“These threats look more like those in gang cases or organized criminal cases,” Kleinfeld says. “In organized criminal conspiracy, the person at the top rarely is a trigger-puller…It seems to me that what's going on here is [Trump] calling on a much larger network that perpetrates violence, and our justice system isn't very well equipped to handle it.”

Read More: Analysts Warn Violent Rhetoric After FBI Mar-a-Lago Search Is a Preview of What's to Come.

Willis, who's been investigating the Georgia election interference case since 2021, has alerted law enforcement to security concerns before. Last year, Trump denounced Willis and other prosecutors as “radical, vicious [and] racist” and called on supporters to hold “the biggest protests we’ve ever had," prompting Willis to ask the FBI for additional security.

Since then, Trump has become even more reckless in his language, according to political-violence analysts. He has posted personally identifiable information about officials, including a photo of a judge’s daughter; warned ​​of "potential death and destruction" if he is charged; and vowed "IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I'M COMING AFTER YOU."

Trump’s lawyers say he is a political candidate exercising his First Amendment rights. But there is precedent for his supporters taking troubling action in response. In June, he posted what he claimed was former President Barack Obama’s home address on Truth Social. A 37-year-old man reposted it, with the message “We got these losers surrounded! See you in hell.” That same day, Taylor Taranto, who was also involved in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, was arrested in a van containing firearms, near Obama's home in Washington. In a YouTube live stream, Taranto told viewers that he was trying to get a “good angle on a shot,” according to prosecutors.

A few weeks later, on Aug. 9, a Utah man named Craig Deleeuw Robertson was fatally shot by FBI agents as they attempted to arrest him after he repeatedly threatened to kill Bragg and President Joe Biden. The FBI had been tipped off by someone at Truth Social, Trump’s own social media site, after Robertson, 75, posted a threat to kill Bragg, senior law enforcement officials told NBC News.

For many civil servants, the flood of online threats has become a disturbing fixture of the job, affecting everyone from court workers to local election officials. Threats against federal judges have spiked 400% in the past six years, to more than 3,700 in 2022, according to the U.S. Marshals Service. ​​There was a jump in violent threats against the FBI and Justice officials after agents searched the former President’s residence at Mar-a-Lago last summer. Soon after, a man wearing body armor and carrying an AR-15 rifle allegedly tried to break into an FBI office in Cincinnati after posting online that he wanted to kill FBI agents. He was killed in a standoff with police.

At the time, former national security officials told TIME that violent rhetoric online was increasingly crossing over into the real world. “There's enough precedent now of having those threats become real that they have to take them seriously, which takes a huge amount of federal resources,” says Kleinfeld. “This is the tip of an iceberg. We're going to need as a democracy to spend more to protect the rest of our servants if we refuse to take down the temperature.”

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