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Trump’s attacks on his trial judges trigger calls for violence

REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON/POOL/FILE PHOTO
                                Judge Arthur Engoron attends the closing arguments in the Trump Organization civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, on January 11.
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REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON/POOL/FILE PHOTO

Judge Arthur Engoron attends the closing arguments in the Trump Organization civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, on January 11.

On a recent Tuesday morning, a visibly frustrated Donald Trump sat through a tense hearing in the first-ever criminal trial of a former American president. During a break, he let rip on his social media platform.

New York Justice Juan Merchan, Trump declared on Truth Social, is a “highly conflicted” overseer of a “kangaroo court.” Trump supporters swiftly replied to his post with a blitz of attacks on Merchan. The comments soon turned ugly. Some called for Merchan and other judges hearing cases against Trump to be killed.

“Treason is a hangable offense,” one wrote.

“They should all be executed,” added another.

The April 23 post by Trump and the menacing responses from his followers illustrate the incendiary impact of his angry and incessant broadsides against the judges handling the criminal and civil suits against him. As his presidential campaign intensifies, Trump has baselessly cast the judges and prosecutors in his trials as corrupt puppets of the Biden administration, bent on torpedoing his White House bid.

The rhetoric is inspiring widespread calls for violence. In a review of commenters’ posts on three pro-Trump websites, including the former president’s own Truth Social platform, Reuters documented more than 150 posts since March 1 that called for physical violence against the judges handling three of his highest-profile cases – two state judges in Manhattan and one in Georgia overseeing a criminal case in which Trump is accused of illegally seeking to overturn the state’s 2020 election results.

Those posts were part of a larger pool of hundreds identified by Reuters that used hostile, menacing and, in some cases, racist or sexualized language to attack the judges, but stopped short of explicitly calling for violence against them.

Experts on extremism say the constant repetition of threatening or menacing language can normalize the idea of violence – and increase the risk of someone carrying it out. Mitch Silber, a former New York City Police Department director of intelligence analysis, compared the Trump supporters now calling for violence against judges to the U.S. Capitol rioters who believed they were following Trump’s “marching orders” on Jan. 6, 2021.

“This is just the 2023-2024 iteration of that phenomenon,” Silber said. “Articulating these ideas is the first step along the pathway of mobilizing to violence.”

Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung did not respond to specific questions about the posts. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has a right to criticize what he called “un-Constitutional witch hunts,” Cheung said. He also asserted, without citing examples, that Trump has been the target of calls for “despicable violence” from “Democrats and crazed lunatics.”

On Patriots, Win, an online forum that describes itself as Trump’s “community of choice,” Trump’s attacks on courts and judges regularly spur calls for violence. Merchan “needs to be strangled with piano wire,” one poster wrote. He “deserves garroting in the street,” wrote another.

The Gateway Pundit, a website influential in the pro-Trump community, is also a frequent venue for Trump-inspired violent rhetoric against judges hearing his cases. “These judges and lawyers should HANG for perpetuating these fraud cases,” a commenter wrote on April 16, suggesting the executions would be “an example for future generations of judges and lawyers.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department declined to comment on whether any threatening posts directed at the New York judges were under federal or local investigation.

While Trump himself hasn’t called for violence on judges, his language can signal to followers that judges are no different from partisan rivals worthy of scorn, derision and attack, threatening the legitimacy of the independent judiciary, said experts on political violence.

“Trump is constantly riling up his supporters to be angry on his behalf,” said Lilliana Mason, a John Hopkins University political scientist. “He takes that large group of angry people, he points them in a particular direction, and then the judges get all these death threats.” Cheung had no response to that analysis.

The posts also illustrate a shift in the way violent language is being expressed online by Trump’s followers. In 2021, Reuters documented a wave of threats by Trump supporters targeting U.S. election workers. Legal experts found that many had met the legal standard for prosecutable threats, which typically requires language or context that reflects a clear intent to act or instill fear, rather than simply suggesting a frightening outcome.

In contrast, the current barrage of pro-Trump threats generally stop short of that red line. Posters often call for violence – without explicitly stating they intend to commit it themselves. Such language is usually defensible as constitutionally protected free speech. But experts say it can have the same effect as a direct threat: to intimidate and sow fear.

On Feb. 29, Reuters published an investigation into death threats targeting mostly federal judges involved in Trump-related cases, including threats those judges received personally. For this story, Reuters examined three prominent pro-Trump websites to assess the prevalence of violent online posts directed at the state judges handling some of the highest-profile cases against Trump.

The judges in both of Trump’s New York cases issued gag orders barring him from attacking judicial staff and, in Merchan’s court, witnesses, jurors and family members of the judge and prosecutors. On April 30, Merchan held Trump in criminal contempt for violating one of those gag orders, fined him $9,000 and warned him that he could be jailed for further infractions. On May 6, Merchan fined Trump an additional $1,000 for a subsequent violation.

His April order noted the “singular power” that Trump’s derisive statements and social media posts have to inspire his followers, instill fear in his targets and endanger the rule of law. The judge has warned that he could impose jail time for any additional violations by the former president, who calls the gag orders “election interference.”

“CROOKED” AND “CONFLICTED”

Reuters examined more than 1,800 posts by Trump on Truth Social from March 1 to April 30. In at least 129 of them, he attacked judges handling his cases in New York, Georgia and other jurisdictions, either in his own words or by re-posting critical comments or videos from supporters or others.

Much of his anger is focused on Merchan, who is presiding over Trump’s criminal prosecution on charges that he violated New York law by falsifying business records to conceal a sex scandal during his 2016 campaign. Trump also frequently attacks New York Justice Arthur Engoron, who ruled in February during a separate civil trial that Trump committed fraud by inflating his properties’ values on financial documents. Trump has appealed the verdict.

Trump often labels both judges “corrupt” and “conflicted,” and falsely accuses them of taking orders from President Joe Biden, his Democratic rival for the White House. As state judges, they weren’t appointed by the president, who has no authority over them.

Trump’s comments and re-posts on Truth Social often trigger a furious response from his supporters. At least 152 posts on the three pro-Trump websites in March and April urged the beating or killing of Merchan or Engoron in New York or Judge Scott McAfee in Georgia, Reuters found. At least 65 of those were on Truth Social, about half in replies to the former president’s posts. The rest were split about evenly between Gateway Pundit and Patriots.Win.

All three sites have comment policies discouraging threatening or violent rhetoric. Truth Social’s terms of service forbids users from writing posts that are “filthy, violent, harassing, libelous, slanderous” or “advocate, incite, encourage, or threaten physical harm against another.” A Truth Social spokesperson said the company “works expeditiously to remove posts that violate” those standards. The Gateway Pundit and Patriots. Win did not respond to requests for comment.

There was evidence on each site that at least some comments had been removed. However, most of the posts advocating violence stayed up on the sites for days or weeks.

Three experts in violent political speech reviewed the posts documented by Reuters, including Jonathan Leader Maynard, a London-based political extremism expert who said many of them echo the “quasi-fascist language” language used by “lone wolf terrorists” to justify their bloodshed.

Politically motivated harassment of judges is not exclusive to the political right. Left-wing activists have protested at the homes of judges who have restricted abortion rights. A California man was accused of traveling to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home intending to kill him. Nicholas John Roske has pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted assassination. Plea negotiations are ongoing, court records show. Roske’s lawyer didn’t reply to a request for comment.

A Reuters examination of websites catering to the left revealed dozens of hostile comments attacking the competence and credibility of conservative jurists. The targets include U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee who has issued a number of rulings favorable to the former president in his ongoing federal prosecution in Florida for misappropriating classified documents after leaving office. On Democratic Underground, a liberal site, posters have attacked Cannon as “corrupt” and suggested she be tried for espionage.

But a review of comments on those sites did not reveal the sort of violent language that Trump supporters use in their online posts, including suggestions that judges be beaten or killed.

Calls to execute judges picked up in April on pro-Trump sites, when Merchan began hearing Trump’s prosecution for allegedly trying to hide a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election, the first of four criminal prosecutions Trump faces.

“He should be recused from living,” one Trump supporter wrote of Merchan in an April 14 post on Truth Social. That comment and other calls for violence cited in this story were posted anonymously.

Merchan, 61, has served on the criminal bench since 2009. He grew up in the New York City borough of Queens, also Trump’s boyhood home, and began his career as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, the office now prosecuting Trump.

In 2022, Merchan presided over a tax fraud conviction for Trump’s business, ordering his company to pay a $1.6 million fine. Last year he sentenced Trump’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, to five months in prison after Weisselberg’s conviction on tax fraud.

Trump also has directed vitriol at Merchan’s daughter, Loren Merchan, an executive at Authentic, a digital marketing agency that works with Democratic candidates. Trump has said the judge is “conflicted” because of his daughter’s work and should recuse himself.

Pictures of Merchan’s daughter have featured regularly in broadsides by Trump supporters on Truth Social. Some mocked her physical appearance and called for her arrest. On one website, an avowed white supremacist published personal information about both Merchan and his daughter, including home addresses and the judge’s phone number. Last June, the New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics ruled that Merchan’s “impartiality cannot reasonably be questioned” based on his daughter’s work for Democratic campaigns.

A spokesperson for the New York courts, Al Baker, said both Merchan and Engoron have “been subjected to threats as have many other judges” and their safety is “the utmost priority.” He declined to elaborate on security arrangements. Loren Merchan did not respond to a request for comment.

“TREASONOUS PIECE OF TRASH”

Engoron, 74, has been bombarded with invective from Trump and threats from his supporters.

A New York court security officer reported in a sworn statement last year that Engoron and his staff had received hundreds of threatening and harassing messages, including some laced with profanity and anti-Semitic insults against the judge, who is Jewish.

The hostile communications spiked after Trump attacked the credibility of Engoron and his clerk on Truth Social, the statement said. “Resign now, you dirty, treasonous piece of trash snake,” said one voicemail left at his chambers and included among a half-dozen quoted in the security officer’s statement. “We are coming to remove you permanently.”

A Democrat, Engoron was elected in 2015 to the state Supreme Court and has been a judge for two decades. He has drawn the former president’s rage after repeatedly ruling against him in a civil business fraud suit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James. Engoron ultimately ordered Trump to pay a $454 million fine in that case.

The judge issued a gag order last October after Trump shared on social media a photo of Engoron’s law clerk posing with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, and falsely described her as “Schumer’s girlfriend.” Engoron barred Trump from making any statements disparaging court staff.

The judge fined Trump twice for violating the order. “The threat of, and actual, violence resulting from heated political rhetoric is well-documented,” Engoron wrote in a November court filing.

Engoron received a fake bomb threat at his home in January, and an unknown threatener sent an envelope containing white powder to his chambers the following month, said court and law enforcement officials.

In a March 22 post on Truth Social, Trump labeled him a “Corrupt, Radical Left Judge in New York, a Trump hater the highest level.” Calls by his supporters for the judge’s death came quick. One poster on Truth Social said Engoron should be hanged. Another wanted him executed. Online rage thundered for days, accompanied by appeals for violence. “He should be skinned alive, bobbed in a vat of alcohol, then dipped in honey before being staked to an anthill,” read a March 25 post about Engoron on Patriots.Win.

“ROGUE JUDGES”

The threats aren’t limited to New York. As state courts in Colorado, Illinois and Georgia have taken up Trump-related cases, at least four judges in those states have faced threats or harassment, according to interviews with court and law enforcement and officials and a review of social media posts. State courts typically provide judges with far less protection than their counterparts receive on the federal bench, where some Trump-related cases have also landed.

Georgia Judge McAfee, presiding in an election interference case against Trump, is among the targets. Fulton County prosecutors charged Trump with illegally pressuring officials to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election.

McAfee has received less attention from Trump than the New York judges. Trump has repeatedly denounced Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who brought the case, but has refrained from criticizing McAfee by name.

But after the judge denied his motion to dismiss Willis over her romantic relationship with a fellow prosecutor, Trump posted two Fox News videos from one of his spokespeople and a legal analyst assailing the decision.

Trump backers quickly turned on McAfee.

“Judge McAfee should be hanged,” one commented in response to a Gateway Pundit post about the ruling.

After a subsequent decision again denying Trump’s request for a dismissal, more violent comments followed. “These people need gutting like we do fish,” one unidentified commenter wrote beneath another Gateway Pundit post about McAfee’s decision.

McAfee and Willis did not respond to requests for comment. Even when Trump himself does not single out judges for criticism, supporters often threaten and harass judges who rule against the former president’s interests.

In late February, an Illinois circuit court judge in Chicago, Tracie Porter, ruled that Trump should be unable to stand on the state’s primary ballot because of his role in the 2021 Capitol attack. Furious at the decision, Trump supporters targeted Porter with violent online messages and menacing calls to her office, said Illinois Supreme Court Marshal Jim Cimarossa.

As head of the state marshal program, Cimarossa oversees security for Illinois’ highest-ranking judges and maintains a statewide database on threats against the local judiciary and courts. The threats against Porter haven’t been previously reported.

In the days after Porter’s ruling, the Illinois Marshals program saw a rise in threats against other state judges, Cimarossa said, describing it as a “copycat bump.” Threats against the judiciary often climb when another judge is attacked in a high-profile case, he said. Porter’s ruling was later nullified by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Trump didn’t mention Porter by name. But in a March 4 speech, he criticized states that “didn’t want” him and “rogue judges.” A Cook County Circuit Court spokesperson said Porter could not comment due to aspects of the case that continue to be litigated. He said the judiciary and law enforcement “give high priority to protecting judges.”

“We have a lot, a lot of threats,” Cimarossa said, citing a nearly 18% increase in threats to his state’s courts so far in 2024. “It’s escalating.”

At least 25 states have state-run court security programs that provide services such as threat assessment and physical protection for high-ranking judges. But most state and local judges across the country rely on sheriffs or police to respond to requests for protection, Cimarossa said.

In a survey of nearly 400 mostly state judges by the National Judicial College, an education group, nearly eight out of 10 agreed that it is becoming more dangerous to be a judge. The survey, completed in 2022 and made available to Reuters in advance of publication later this year, also found that more than 70% of respondents had received harassing or menacing communications.

New Mexico Judge Francis Mathew told Reuters he received dozens of threatening messages after ruling that Couy Griffin, an Otero County commissioner who founded Cowboys for Trump, a political advocacy group, was ineligible to hold public office because he participated in the 2021 Capitol riot.

On the day of his ruling in September 2022, Mathew received one email calling for his execution and another that included his home address, according to communications shared with Reuters.

Griffin said in an interview that he and his family also have received threats and that he never called for violence against Mathew. “As far as threats and stuff goes, that’s something that’s out of my control,” he said.

Although Trump has not criticized him on social media, Mathew blames Trump for “orchestrating” the deluge of threats targeting judges. “Trump’s behavior is teaching people that they can do these things,” Mathew said in an interview.

Cheung, Trump’s spokesperson, did not respond to that claim.

“A FACE ONLY A FIST COULD LOVE”

Much of the violent rhetoric documented by Reuters illustrates a phenomenon identified by social scientists: Online communities catering to specific political views can create an echo chamber, where participants spur each other to increasingly extreme posts.

In pro-Trump forums, when someone “pushes the norm of what is considered acceptable speech” by posting a call to execute judges or other public officials, “and no one questions it, then the norm of what is acceptable may shift,” said Cathy Buerger, who studies inflammatory rhetoric at the nonpartisan Dangerous Speech Project in Washington. Buerger reviewed the violent posts identified by Reuters.

That pattern emerged in a series of Gateway Pundit comments posted on April 2. In response to an article criticizing “far-left judge Juan Merchan,” one reader referred to a photo of the jurist by saying, “A face only a fist could love.”

“Or a steel toed boot,” another reader replied.

“Or an aluminum bat,” a third wrote.

Another poster upped the ante: “Colt Combat Commander 45” – a popular semi-automatic handgun.

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