Police have set up barricades outside the Manhattan Criminal Court after Donald Trump called for his supporters to protest ahead of an expected indictment over the hush payments to Stormy Daniels made just before the 2016 election. Trump claimed the indictment would come down Tuesday, which it did not, but his explicit call for unrest has left New York bracing for a potential mass protest.
Does the city need to be worried? Trump’s call for action sounded similar to his rhetoric before the Jan. 6 attack, but the response this time seems to be a lot more muted. At one “major protest” in Manhattan, more journalists showed up than supporters. Ahead of the indictment, the timing of which remains unclear, I asked Colin P. Clarke, the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, a security consultancy, about what he’s seeing in the bowels of the Trump online universe and how he expects the presumptive indictments to play out during Trump’s run for president. What’s clear is that the former president may have more than legal troubles on his hands. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Aymann Ismail: Trump obviously senses the New York indictment is near and lashed out this weekend, asking his supporters to protest and “take the country back.” What are they saying on the message boards and Discords that you monitor?
Colin Clarke: Compared to last August when you had the Mar-a-Lago raid? There’s definitely a more muted reaction. There are far fewer threats of violence. And I just don’t know what to make of that. Honestly, it’s just the usual grievances, redirection, repeating a lot of the same phrases that Trump uses: “witch hunt,” “this is the deep state.” There’s a lot of “What about Hunter Biden?” and going after Alvin Bragg, the D.A., saying things like, “Well, why is the D.A. pursuing something so insignificant when there’s immigrants flooding over the border?” It’s hard to defend Trump and say “he didn’t do this,” because it’s clear that he did sleep with Stormy Daniels and pay hush money. I think maybe among his followers, it’s deemed to be kind of his least offensive thing. They see this as politically motivated, both in terms of the charges and the timing.
I have also seen a lot of fake posts online showing large crowds and things like that, basically saying, “Look, people are coming out in numbers.” It’s hard to say who’s posting them—if it’s Trump supporters or Trump detractors—but there’s been a lot of what we call MDM, or mis-, dis-, and mal-information, already flooding the internet. And I would expect to see a lot more in the coming days.
It doesn’t sound like you’re seeing any chatter about organizing a real rally for him.
When he calls for his followers to congregate, it’s hard not to think of Jan. 6. These are people who very much see themselves as victims because Trump sees himself as a victim, even though all of these things are self-inflicted wounds. I mean, no one forced him to cheat on his wife, lie about it, and then pay hush money to cover it up. It’s just a lot of the same old. It’s tiring. There’s nothing really new here. Maybe that’s why you don’t see the same level of enthusiasm amongst the supporters. Maybe some have moved on to DeSantis. They kind of see Trump’s chances as severely diminished, and they want to move on to who they see as a winner. Another possibility is that his followers actually receive kind of a shot in the arm from all this stuff that ends up making him more popular among his base again because they feel like he’s a martyr, that he’s being persecuted.
Is there worry in your circles about that?
I think extremism researchers like myself are always concerned whenever you have something like this pop up, because of past events, like Jan. 6. After the Mar-a-Lago raid, an individual attacked the Cincinnati FBI field office. So it only takes one person out of a smaller radicalized minority to act. But right now, the national security community’s attention is captured by Ukraine. There’s just so much going on—other really big world events, the economy, the concerns over SVB and a potential repeat of 2008—so that’s some of the oxygen out of what would’ve otherwise been a story that dominated the headlines.
We previously discussed how the FBI’s clamping down on insurrectionists after Jan. 6 pushed some of these groups further into the margins. Is that still the case? Will it affect Trump’s ability to draw crowds this time?
That’s related to it, too. I think they’re quite a bit more paranoid because there’s already been more than 1,000 charges levied against Jan. 6 participants. So the smart people are not saying anything on social media because they don’t want to be charged. That doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their fervor in terms of supporting him. They’re just being a bit more surreptitious about how they operate online. This could be much ado about nothing, or this could be something sizeable, or it could be something in the middle, which is a small but fairly angry crowd out there protesting Trump’s potential indictment if that indeed does go through. But I think the fact that it’s happening in New York City means that people would have to travel from out of state; it’s not Trump country. So there’s also the potential for counterprotestors showing up, and then incidents occurring between protestors and counterprotestors. There’s also very, very strict gun laws there. And so if people are thinking about coming from out of state and packing heat, there’s some real penalties there for carrying weapons in New York City.
How do you see the various potential Trump prosecutions play out down the line, headed into 2024? Do you think they will ultimately help or hurt him?
Short term, I think it actually may benefit him because he’ll point to all of these charges as further “proof” that he’s being persecuted, that this is a witch hunt, the way that his supporters will frame it. They’ll look at the timing of these charges and say, “Well, why now? Would these charges have been brought if he didn’t decide to run again?” The MAGA folks are a highly conspiratorial lot, so any lens that they look through, they’re going to see a conspiracy. And if Trump breathes air into that, then we could have some problems.
From a national security standpoint, what do you hope for? Prosecuting Trump and potentially giving him oxygen? Or not prosecuting him?
Strictly from a national security standpoint, I think it’s clearly not prosecuting him. But do we uphold the rule of law equally for everybody? I don’t think we ever have in this country, so this wouldn’t be anomalous to me. I think politicians, celebrities, the wealthy have always gotten away easy. But I would say on balance, I have my own questions of the timing of this. Is this something serious enough to warrant a prosecution? And you think of all the kind of unintended consequences. Think back to Hillary Clinton’s server. Had James Comey not come out and announced it at that time, did that tip the election? So you think of just all these kind of little wrinkles in the timing of things, and it does give you pause. Is this worth it for the D.A. to bring charges if it’s going to cause such a shitstorm?
But at the end of the day, the more charges that pile on, at some point he’s going to be losing supporters, those kind of fence-sitters, the people that want a much cleaner candidate and that have been looking for an excuse to move on from Trump. With the hardcore of the hardcore, as he said, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and they won’t leave him. But I think that that hardcore is being whittled away day by day. And the more drama you have that makes him seem less and less like a serious person, I think the worse off it is for the man.