An uptick in threats to the FBI after it executed a search warrant at former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate is unsettling the political right, with some calling on allies of the former president to tone down their rhetoric.
Barriers have been erected outside the perimeter of the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., while the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reportedly issued a joint bulletin Friday warning about spikes in threats that included a bomb threat at FBI headquarters and calls for “civil war” and “armed rebellion.”
Fox News host Steve Doocy on Monday urged the former president and others to “tamp down the rhetoric against the FBI” in light of the threats, while Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Trump’s language was “inflammatory.”
“I don’t want to put any law enforcement in the bull’s-eye of a potential threat,” McCaul said.
The bulletin issued by DHS and the FBI cited an incident in which a man armed with an AR-15-style rifle allegedly fired a nail gun into an FBI office in Cincinnati last week, according to NBC News. He was fatally shot by police after a chase and standoff, according to Ohio State Highway Patrol.
Trump on Monday in an interview with Fox News did say the temperature on the issue needed to come down, adding that he’d told aides to reach out to the Department of Justice to help.
But in the same interview, Trump directed his wrath at the Justice Department and suggested that his supporters’ anger was justified. Trump said that Americans are “not going to stand for another scam,” said that the FBI can “break into a president’s house” in a “sneak attack” and suggested that the FBI “could have planted anything they wanted” during the search.
In another post on Truth Social, his social media platform, he claimed that his passports had been taken during the search. Passports were not included on a list of items mentioned as part of a warrant released on Friday, though some of the descriptions of what was seized were broad in nature.
The president’s account on the platform his own business launched is one of his most direct ways to reach supporters online now, since he lost access to his Twitter and Facebook accounts after his posts the day of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a former FBI agent, told Margaret Brennan of “Face the Nation” on Sunday that he was concerned about the safety of FBI agents.
“Violence is never the answer to anything,” Fitzpatrick said. “We live in a democracy that's 246 years old, Margaret. That's not long, that's just a few generations, and yet we're the world's only democracy. And the only way that can come unraveled is if we have disrespect for our institutions that lead to Americans turning on Americans and the whole system becomes unraveled. And a lot of that starts with the words we're using.”
“I'm also urging all my colleagues to understand the weight of your words and support law enforcement no matter what,” he added.
Republicans have sought to differentiate between Biden appointees and rank-and-file FBI agents when raising concerns about potential politicization of the department.
“I won't smear the FBI, like the career FBI agents,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said Friday. “But the political appointees running this stuff are very worrisome.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray was appointed by Trump in 2017.
Some Republicans have continued to use incendiary rhetoric to speak to their massive online bases.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), using her official congressional account since her personal Twitter was suspended in January over COVID-19 misinformation, told her 1 million followers Monday that “Republicans must force” the “political persecution” to stop. Greene filed articles of impeachment against Attorney General Merrick Garland last week.
Katherine Keneally, a senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), said she is most concerned about the potential for extremist groups to capitalize on this moment to mobilize for future membership.
“Specifically, any accelerationist groups that are seeing an uptick in people being upset at the FBI, a government agency, works very well for recruitment for an organization that wants to collapse the US government. So I think that's where my concern is, that these even more nefarious groups are going to use this as a catalyst moment for recruitment,” she said.
According to a report compiled by ISD analysts, social media accounts believed to belong to the alleged Cincinnati gunman, Ricky Shiffer, suggest he was “motivated by a combination of conspiratorial beliefs related to former President Trump and the 2020 election (among others), interest in killing federal law enforcement, and the recent search warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago earlier this week.”
ISD researchers found that Shiffer was likely prepping for the attack for at least two days, based on posts from a since-removed Truth Social account believed to belong to him.
The researchers also found posts and photographs placing Shiffer at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, although it is not confirmed if he was present during the insurrection, and posts on the right-wing video site Rumble that show Shiffer encouraging users to “get in touch with the Proud Boys,” a far-right group.
Keneally said the Ohio incident hasn’t been mentioned widely by other far-right users of online platforms, likely because it wasn’t successful. But researchers are still seeing general calls for violence targeting the FBI.
Those monitoring the online vitriol, across mainstream platforms and fringe sites that cater to conservative users, warned that the posts from lawmakers and influencers online could incite their followers to take real-world action.
“It certainly plays a role in the radicalization process,” Keneally said.
“While they might not be directly calling for violence, the conspiratorial allegations certainly play a role in how these people are radicalized, and how they go down that path, regardless of whether it's an official stating, ‘kill the FBI,’ that's not what needs to be said to help radicalize. You just accused the FBI of ‘overstepping their boundaries,’ or like ‘taking away your constitutional rights,’ and that's what that's what people are mobilizing around,” Keneally said.