WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former President Donald Trump’s call to supporters to protest what he said was his imminent arrest provoked conspiracy-fueled debate on far-right social media platforms on Monday, with some supporters fearing an elaborate government trap to arrest them.
Trump said on his Truth Social platform on Saturday he expected to be arrested this week for alleged hush money payments to a porn star during the 2016 presidential campaign and urged supporters to “protest, take our nation back!”
Critics worried his comments could provoke a repeat of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, when his supporters tried to overturn his 2020 presidential election defeat.
Security analysts who monitor far-right chatter on social media, said initially the impulse of Trump’s followers was to heed his call and hit the streets. But by Monday, the tone had shifted, according to the analysts and messages on several social media platforms examined by Reuters.
Many far-right grassroots activists appeared to see Trump’s possible arrest in the coming days as part of a trap set by Democrats to lure supporters into a riot that will ultimately hurt the Republican former president’s chances of winning back the White House in 2024 from Democratic President Joe Biden.
“We obviously are tracking various discussions both in extremist spaces and more broadly, and not surprisingly there’s a variety of reactions,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish American organization which promotes civil rights.
“QAnon-related folks and some MAGA adherents are talking about how this is one big trap in some cases, that this is an operation intended to get (Trump’s) supporters in trouble,” Segal said.
QAnon is a conspiracy theory that holds, among other beliefs, that Trump is secretly fighting a cabal of child-sex predators that includes prominent Democrats, Hollywood elites and “deep state” allies. Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement is a core element of his support base.
The risk of an attack from a lone wolf remains serious, and some form of collective violence is possible, the analysts said. Any violence that results from Trump’s arrest is more likely to emanate from an individual or small cell rather than an action resembling the Jan. 6 attack, they added.
THREE WAVES, THE THIRD IN WACO, TEXAS
“A catalyst like (Trump’s) arrest would be something that would put people who are on the edge over the edge into plotting and carrying out violence,” said Daryl Johnson, a former intelligence official, who served as a senior domestic terrorism analyst at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
He pointed to an August attack on an FBI office in Ohio following a federal raid at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property as the type of violence that could recur. In that instance, an armed man tried to breach an FBI building in Cincinnati and was later shot dead by police following a gun battle.
“Following Trump’s call for protest, we’ve documented three fairly distinct waves of responses on far-right social media,” said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which researches anti-democratic and discriminatory groups.
“Wave one was a call to attention for Trump loyalty rallies. Almost immediately thereafter there was a second wave of, ‘Don’t protest, it’s a trap just like January 6th,’ that really overtook the first,” Burghart said.
Some right-wing activists have claimed falsely that the Jan. 6 attack was instigated by undercover FBI agents and by antifa, an extreme left-wing movement.
“Most have moved to a third position where they have moved to supporting the Trump rally in Waco next weekend as a sort of compromise,” Burghart added.
Trump is holding his first 2024 campaign rally on Saturday in Waco, Texas.
Activist Laura Loomer, a prominent Trump supporter in Florida, called on Saturday for a “peaceful” Tuesday protest outside Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. But she walked that back later in the day, writing in a Twitter thread that it is “best people don’t show up to rally in front of Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday,” as she did not “want there to be any issues.”
She called on supporters to promote Trump’s rally in Waco instead.
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