How Trump Twisted Routine Legal Language Into an FBI Death Threat

How Trump Twisted Routine Legal Language Into an FBI Death Threat

On the day before the F.B.I. obtained a search warrant almost two years ago to look for classified materials at former President Donald J. Trump’s private club and residence in Florida, one of the agents on the case sent a reassuring email to his bosses.

“The F.B.I. intends for the execution of the warrant to be handled in a professional, low key manner,” he wrote, “and to be mindful of the optics of the search.”

And that’s more or less what happened when 30 agents and two federal prosecutors entered the grounds of Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s Palm Beach estate, at 8:59 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2022. Over the next 10 hours, according to court papers, there was little drama as they hauled away a trove of boxes containing highly sensitive state secrets in three vans and a rented Ryder box truck.

Two years later, Mr. Trump has tried to flip the facts about that search entirely on their head, in particular by twisting the meaning of boilerplate instructions to the agents about limits on their use of lethal force.

Even though the court-authorized warrant was executed while he was more than 1,000 miles away in the New York area, the former president in recent weeks has repeatedly promoted the blatantly false narrative that the agents had shown up that day prepared to kill him, when the instructions in fact laid out strict conditions intended to minimize any use of deadly force.

“It’s just been revealed that Biden’s DOJ was authorized to use DEADLY FORCE for their DESPICABLE raid in Mar-a-Lago,” Mr. Trump wrote in a fund-raising email last month.

“Joe Biden was locked & loaded ready to take me out & put my family in danger,” the email said.

Mr. Trump’s baseless statements about the search are among the starkest examples of the ways in which he has sought to gain political advantage by attacking the criminal justice system and the rule of law itself.

They also reflect his escalating use of incendiary language on the campaign trail. Over the past several months, Mr. Trump has gone from accusing President Biden and his administration of weaponizing the justice system to undermine his campaign to asserting that Democrats are out to put him in prison. Now he is portraying himself as a political martyr whose very life could be in danger.

In addition to playing into his strategy of painting himself as a victim of a Deep State conspiracy, Mr. Trump’s warped version of the Mar-a-Lago search has also triggered a new legal battle between his lawyers and prosecutors in the office of the special counsel, Jack Smith. Mr. Smith’s team has charged him with illegally removing dozens of classified documents from the White House after he left office and obstructing the government’s repeated efforts to get them back.

Outraged by Mr. Trump’s remarks, Mr. Smith’s deputies asked late last month for Aileen M. Cannon, the judge overseeing the documents prosecution, to revise Mr. Trump’s conditions of release to include a measure barring him from making public statements that might endanger agents working on the case. The prosecutors want to be sure that the former president does nothing further to threaten or intimidate the agents and have asked Judge Cannon to put his liberty at stake.

The heated fight is the first time in the documents case that Mr. Smith has sought to limit comments by Mr. Trump, who has already faced gag orders in two of his other criminal cases. The dispute will require Judge Cannon to undertake a balancing act: She will have to weigh shielding the agents from potential harm against protecting Mr. Trump’s free speech rights to criticize the F.B.I., even with baldfaced lies.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers have seemed happy to engage in the spat, if only because it could easily create additional delays even as it provides the former president with potent political talking points. The proceeding has already been severely slowed down by a morass of legal battles, often over secondary issues, and a trial on the charges appears increasingly unlikely before Election Day.

The former president’s lawyers have assailed the government’s request to limit Mr. Trump’s remarks as an “unprecedented and unconstitutional censorship application.” And they have gone after Mr. Smith and his aides in extremely personal fashion, tarring them as the “Thought Police” and asking the judge to penalize them.

The conflict started a little more than two weeks ago when Judge Cannon, who sits in Federal District Court in Fort Pierce, Fla., unsealed a motion by Mr. Trump’s lawyers to suppress the evidence the F.B.I. collected during its search of Mar-a-Lago. Accompanying the motion were dozens of pages of underlying investigative documents providing new details on how the search had been planned and conducted.

The documents suggested that the bureau had gone out of its way to ensure that the first search of a former president’s home in U.S. history did not turn into a danger or a spectacle.

They showed, for instance, how the F.B.I. chose to execute the search on a day when Mr. Trump was not at his estate and how agents alerted one of his lawyers nearly an hour before they started to go through the property, room by room. Members of the search team arrived wearing unmarked “business casual” clothing instead of their usual garb emblazoned with the bureau’s familiar logo.

The agents had a plan in place to deal with the media if reporters caught wind of the event, and they intended to rely on “existing liaison relationships” with the Secret Service if for some reason Mr. Trump’s protective detail decided to interfere.

One of the unsealed documents was an internal operations order, which contained boilerplate language limiting the use of deadly force during the search. In this case, the order said, lethal force could be employed only if there was “imminent danger of death or serious physical injury” to the agents themselves or to any others who were on the ground that day.

But even though the same stock phrases are used in most of the searches the F.B.I. conducts, Mr. Trump homed in on and twisted them. In a social media message posted on the same day the order was unsealed, he falsely accused Mr. Biden of having “authorized the FBI to use deadly (lethal) force” during the search.

Within days of Mr. Trump making those false claims, prominent right-wing figures — including the former president’s longtime political adviser Stephen K. Bannon — repeated them and in some cases blew them even further out of proportion.

“Predictably and as he certainly intended,” prosecutors wrote to Judge Cannon, “others have amplified Trump’s misleading statements, falsely characterizing the inclusion of the entirely standard use-of-force policy as an effort to ‘assassinate’ Trump.”

The mischaracterizations provoked the ire of Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who rarely inserts himself into the cases filed by Mr. Smith, who as a special counsel enjoys day-to-day independence from the Justice Department. But on Tuesday, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, the normally mild-mannered Mr. Garland flatly contradicted Mr. Trump, saying his claims were based on a distortion of a standard Justice Department use-of-force policy.

“This is dangerous,” Mr. Garland said. “It raises the threats of violence against prosecutors and career agents.”

Mr. Garland noted that the same policy was in place when F.B.I. agents searched Mr. Biden’s home in Delaware for classified documents.

Mr. Smith’s deputies have not yet pointed to any current threats inspired by the lies. But in their filing to Judge Cannon, they noted that there were serious consequences after the former president went on social media two years ago and decried the search at Mar-a-Lago as a personal attack against him.

Three days later, an armed man in Ohio tried to shoot his way into an F.B.I. field office near Cincinnati. The man, Ricky W. Shiffer, had said at the time that “patriots” should head to Florida to defend Mr. Trump and kill F.B.I. agents. Mr. Shiffer was subsequently killed in a shootout with the local police.

It remains unclear how Judge Cannon will rule on Mr. Smith’s request. In a prickly preliminary ruling, she temporarily rejected the move on procedural grounds last week.

Mr. Smith then refiled his request to her after going through the necessary procedural steps. He repeated his assertion that Mr. Trump had lied and that “the F.B.I. took extraordinary care to execute the search warrant unobtrusively and without needless confrontation.”

That is certainly how bureau officials felt at the time of the operation.

One of the recently unsealed documents was an email from an unnamed F.B.I. official to the various teams that took part in the search, a day after it occurred.

“I just wanted to extend my thanks again for everyone’s help yesterday,” it read. “We could not have asked for anything more. Well done by all of you and your teams.”

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