Trump’s Call for Protests of Pending Arrest Splits G.O.P.
Donald J. Trump’s call over the weekend for his supporters to protest his expected indictment has divided his allies on the right, as some fear mass gatherings could devolve into violence and lead to the prosecution of his supporters just as the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol did two years ago.
While some Republicans have echoed Mr. Trump’s call to take to the streets, other prominent voices on the right are urging caution and for people to stay away, particularly from New York, where they note that any potential unrest would invite prosecution from the same official who is expected to charge Mr. Trump — the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg.
“Better to stay home,” advised Jeffrey Clark, the former Justice Department official who was nearly named acting attorney general by Mr. Trump in late 2020 as the president sought to overturn his election loss. “Think, rethink, and triple think before you physically go to protest anywhere in the Big Apple.”
The Republican speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, who owes his post in part to Mr. Trump’s support, was among those urging Trump supporters to stay away on Sunday. “I don’t think people should protest this, no,” he said during a news conference in Florida, adding, “And I think President Trump, if you talk to him, he doesn’t believe that, either.”
Mr. Trump, though, has long measured the strength of his standing by the blunt metric of the size of the crowds that show up for him, in good times and in bad ones.
When the “Access Hollywood” video first broke in 2016, Mr. Trump found comfort in the small band of supporters who stood in solidarity with Trump signs outside Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, visiting them briefly with a fist pump. And, once he became president, the first mini-drama of his White House tenure was related to his insistent exaggerations about the crowd size at his inauguration.
“WE MUST SAVE AMERICA!” Mr. Trump wrote on Truth Social, his social media site, on Saturday. “PROTEST, PROTEST, PROTEST!!!”
The Looming Indictment of Donald Trump
In some fund-raising messages, Mr. Trump has explicitly called for nonviolence. “I ask that you peacefully show your support for our America First movement,” he wrote in one over the weekend.
But even Mr. Trump’s more fervent backers are stung from the legal fallout after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. The Justice Department has said more than 1,000 people have been arrested on charges related to that day’s events. And prosecutors have suggested that another 1,000 could eventually face charges.
One person close to Mr. Trump, who asked not to be identified out of a desire not to anger him, said the former president was likely to be disappointed by the actual result of his call to protest. Most people, the person said, felt “bitten” by the arrests after the Jan. 6 riot, and Mr. Trump’s lack of assistance with financial aid.
Jesse Kelly, a syndicated right-wing radio host, said on Monday that “what’s happening to Trump is beyond injustice” but still urged Trump supporters to stay away from any protests.
In one tweet, Mr. Kelly complained that Mr. Trump had not helped with the legal bills of those involved in Jan. 6 and in another, he included a screenshot of Mr. Trump urging people to protest and captioned it, “This is abuse of his followers and I despise it.”
Ali Alexander, who was an organizer of “Stop the Steal” rallies in 2020 that preceded the Jan. 6 riot, was among those urging people to stay away from New York. “Prudence is a virtue,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Alexander also noted on his Telegram channel that another organizer of “Stop the Steal” rallies, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, was not going to rally in support of Mr. Trump.
“Spoke to Alex Jones,” Mr. Alexander wrote this weekend. “He’s not protesting either.”
Some have indulged in unfounded conspiracy theories about entrapment, claiming that the federal government would somehow infiltrate any protest to encourage violence, or that left-wing agitators would initiate violence or spur crowds toward it. On Sunday, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, warned people against taking part in protests out of a fear that agitators might be in the crowd.
“How many Feds/Fed assets are in place to turn protest against the political arrest of Pres Trump into violence?” Ms. Greene, one of Mr. Trump’s close allies, asked on Twitter.
Separate from any arrest-related protests, Mr. Trump has scheduled his first large rally of the 2024 campaign on Saturday in Waco, Texas, a chance for his supporters to gather far from any courthouse. The event will coincide with the 30th anniversary of the federal government’s deadly siege in Waco of a compound run by the Branch Davidian religious sect — an iconic event in right-wing, antigovernment lore.
The first notable organized protest in New York is on Monday, put together on short notice by the New York Young Republican Club. Gavin Wax, the group’s president, said in an interview that it was frustrating to watch prominent voices on the right — “Twitter warriors,” he sneered — urge people to avoid the streets.
“It’s a strange, cowardly and impotent position to take — that is basically surrendering,” Mr. Wax said. “I get that there are some fears and concerns based on what happened on Jan. 6. But it’s ridiculous and pathetic and nihilistic to say that a conservative can’t peacefully protest.”
Mr. Wax said his group was taking extra precautions, vetting those who responded that they planned to attend and not releasing the location until people had been vetted. He called it a “deliberate decision to sacrifice” size for safety.
On Monday, the New York Police Department had begun installing barricades outside the Criminal Courts Building in Manhattan.
It remains an open question whether the circumstances exist for Mr. Trump to summon a critical mass of protesters to his side as he did after the 2020 election. His message in the postelection period that voting across the country had been marred by widespread fraud was a narrative he had honed and obsessively repeated for months. The stolen-election story line — despite being a lie — appealed to his supporters who felt cheated by the results; it’s not clear if Mr. Trump’s indictment will have the same resonance.
Mr. Trump was also aided after the election by a large cabal of outside organizers — including Mr. Alexander — who amplified his message at mass “Stop the Steal” protests in cities across the country in November and December 2020. Those events, attended by tens of thousands of people, created momentum for Mr. Trump’s rally on Jan. 6 near the White House, which preceded the storming of the Capitol.
Protests in Washington before Jan. 6 also gave extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers militia what amounted to rehearsals for operating in the city’s complex security environment. But there has been no sign so far that far-right groups have mobilized this time in response to Mr. Trump’s calls for protest.
Mr. Clark, the former top Justice Department official, was among those to indulge in theorizing that left-wing agitators could infiltrate pro-Trump crowds to stir up violence, warning of “rootless Antifa agitators who cross state lines to advance their Marxist agenda with violence and intimidation.”
Alex Bruesewitz, a Republican strategist allied with Mr. Trump, said in an interview that any protest attendee should be constantly filming: “People need to be alert. People need to be smart. People need to be recording.” And he expressed frustration with those urging people to stay away.
“They’re basically pushing Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney talking points,” Mr. Bruesewitz said, that “the last time Trump called you to protest, he got you arrested and didn’t help get you out of jail. That is a fabrication.”
Mr. Bruesewitz, who was subpoenaed by the House’s Jan. 6 committee last year, said he spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal costs and still endorsed mass gatherings.
“If we don’t have the ability to protest our government,” he said, “we don’t have a country anymore.”
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.
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