The FBI’s search this week of former President Donald Trump’s Florida resort has led to a sharp spike in online extremist rhetoric, raising concerns about a fresh wave of political violence.
As FBI agents executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, the former president took to his Truth Social platform to announce that “my beautiful home, Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents.”
“Nothing like this has ever happened to a President of the United States before,” Trump wrote. “The lawlessness, political persecution, and Witch Hunt must be exposed and stopped.”
The backlash among his fans was swift.
“Lock and load,” a user named HughJasske penned on patriots.win, a popular pro-Trump forum, in response to Trump’s comment.
The widely reported comment was soon removed, but other users on the site continued to echo the sentiment.
“Locked and loaded … still no targets in sight but in full-on condition red,” a user named Cutter wrote.
As Trump tore into the FBI for the “horrible thing” that took place at Mar-a-Lago, his supporters ratcheted up their vitriol, much of their ire directed at law enforcement.
“Kill all feds,” user monkeylovebanana wrote.
Referring to Attorney General Merrick Garland, another commenter wrote, “I’m just going to say it. Garland needs to be assassinated. Simple as that.”
Also targeted was the federal judge who signed the search warrant.
“I see a rope around his neck,” Dckman, a known user on the site, wrote on a post showing a photo of the judge.
Some of the commenters on patriots.win are well-known users, according to Advance Democracy, a nonprofit research group that has studied them.
One has been identified as Tyler Welsh Slaeker, a Trump supporter who has pleaded guilty to breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
In response to the “lock and load” comment, Slaeker, using the online persona bananaguard62, wrote, “Are we not in a cold civil war at this point?”
The administrators of patriots.win say they do not allow users to post violent threats and that no “violent incident” has been attributed to a poster on the site.
But extremism researchers say the site, previously known as TheDonald.win, served as a planning and mobilization platform for the attack of Jan. 6, 2021, on the U.S. Capitol.
Daniel Jones, president of Advance Democracy, noted that users on the TheDonald.win floated the idea of building a gallows outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and targeting former Vice President Mike Pence for refusing to certify Trump winner of the 2020 election.
“There is no doubt that the users have been involved in January 6 and are involved in making threats related to Mar-A-Lago,” Jones told VOA.
Patriots.win is not the only fringe platform that has seen a spike in violent rhetoric. Many Trump supporters have turned to Telegram, Rumble, Gabb, Gettr, TikTok and Twitter to vent their anger, said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
“From my own monitoring, it’s been a deluge, and the only real discussion that’s going on in a lot of these sites is about the FBI raid,” Beirich said. “There are definitely explicit calls for violence.”
What is more alarming, extremism experts say, is that the attack on law enforcement is coming from influential mainstream supporters of the former president.
“These people are attacking the FBI, calling the Department of Justice corrupt, saying this entire thing was political, and that is filtering out into the ecosystem where people support Trump,” Beirich said.
In an attempt to calm the furor, the Justice Department on Thursday asked a federal judge to unseal the Trump search warrant and related documents.
Top law enforcement officials pushed back against the Republican criticism that the Justice Department and the FBI have become “weaponized.”
Garland, a former federal judge and Supreme Court nominee, called the attacks unfounded.
“I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked,” Garland said in a televised statement. “The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants.”
In a written statement, FBI Director Christopher Wray said violence and threats of violence against the FBI are “dangerous and should be deeply concerning to all Americans.”
“Every day I see the men and women of the FBI doing their jobs professionally and with rigor, objectivity, and a fierce commitment to our mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution,” Wray said.