WASHINGTON — National leaders are warning of the potential for political violence as campaign rhetoric heats up, fueled by an FBI investigation into Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents that has generated a furious backlash from him and his supporters.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and loyal Trump ally, faced criticism this week after claiming that there would be “riots in the streets” if the Justice Department prosecutes Trump. His comments come after Trump himself warned that “the temperature has to be brought down in the country. If it isn’t, terrible things are going to happen.”
With less than 10 weeks to go before the midterm elections, the political climate is increasingly volatile, experts who study extremism say. Federal agencies like the IRS, FBI and National Archives are beefing up security as they become targets of the right. Lawmakers are disclosing threats and openly predicting violence; one even says that it has become too dangerous to hold public events and that she feels the need to shield her family from harm.
On Tuesday, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a vocal Trump critic and frequent GOP target, said a man called his office, repeating homophobic slurs and threatening to shoot and kill the congressman.
Swalwell, who has previously tweeted about threats to his office, wrote: “Bloodshed is coming.”
The fresh warnings of violence come as Trump and his allies ramp up their rhetorical attacks on federal law enforcement following the Aug. 8 search of the former president’s Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, for classified materials that were stored there.
Republicans have criticized the Justice Department and the FBI, with some calling to defund the bureau; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., labeled Attorney General Merrick Garland a “radical communist.”
“It’s legitimizing violence. It’s a very dangerous thing,” said Daryl Johnson, a former analyst at the Department of Homeland Security who wrote a report in 2009 warning of rising right-wing extremism and said after Jan. 6 that it would get worse. “The politicians themselves — if they’re just doing this as a publicity stunt, they need to stop it. Because in the end, are lives worth the cost of winning an election?”
He said the recent rhetoric from Republicans — baseless claims about the FBI “retaliating against the former president,” warnings of a militarized IRS and claims that the 2020 election was stolen — fits a pattern. “This rhetoric is a form of radicalization,” he said.
Lawmakers are taking precautions. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and other members of the special House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack have security details due to violent threats. This month, the House sergeant at arms began paying for lawmakers’ home security equipment and installation costs, up to $10,000.
Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar told NBC News she won’t hold public events without law enforcement in attendance, and she doesn’t let family members answer the door anymore.
“They are sending signals to people who already have hate in their heart, who already are on the verge of violence. They absolutely are putting a match on the gasoline,” Escobar said in a phone interview.
As President Joe Biden and the Democrats sharpen their campaign message for the fall election, they’re putting Republican rhetoric front and center — arguing that Trump and extremists in his party are a direct threat to democracy, freedom and the rule of law.
On Tuesday, Biden placed the blame for violent rhetoric on Republicans, saying his “friends in the other team” are “talking about political violence and how it’s necessary” and defending those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“Political violence in America — it’s never appropriate. Never. Period. Never, never, never,” Biden told a crowd in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “No one should be encouraged to use political violence. None whatsoever.”
He appeared to take a jab at Graham, his former Senate colleague whom he once considered a friend before Graham aligned with Trump.
“No one expects politics to be patty-cake — sometimes it’s mean as hell,” Biden said. “But the idea you turn on a television and see senior senators and congressmen saying, ‘If such and such happens, there’ll be blood on the street?’ Where the hell are we?”
On Thursday, Biden is set to deliver a prime-time address in Philadelphia on how America is waging a “battle for the soul of the nation” — a nod to his successful 2020 campaign that he said was inspired by the horror of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and Trump’s dismissive reaction.
Trump, meanwhile, has called the FBI’s investigation a politically motivated witch hunt, baselessly accusing agents of planting evidence. The 45th president went on a posting spree this week on his Truth Social website, sharing posts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory and reposting an image of Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with the phrase “Your enemy is not in Russia” written in black bars over their eyes.
Johnson said Trump’s reposts of QAnon content are “pouring fuel onto a burning fire and making it more destructive,” noting that multiple people “have either plotted things or actually carried out violent things because of their QAnon beliefs.”
One Trump supporter, Ricky Shiffer, was killed by police earlier this month after he attacked the FBI field office in Cincinnati just days after the search of Trump’s home. Shiffer, who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, had called for violence and appeared to have posted on Truth Social that users should be prepared to kill FBI agents “on sight.”
Since that deadly altercation, the Mar-a-Lago investigation has only deepened. In a filing Tuesday night, the DOJ said it had evidence that classified documents at Trump’s estate were “likely concealed and removed” before the FBI could retrieve them and that “efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation.”
Appearing on Fox News over the weekend, Graham, a former Air Force JAG and former Judiciary Committee chairman, twice said there will be “riots in the street” if the DOJ prosecutes Trump in connection with mishandling classified information. The Washington Post editorial board called his comments “dangerous” and “reckless” since he did not condemn the possibility of violence.
In a later Fox interview, Graham said he rejected violence.
Escobar, a former local judge, said she personally has seen how inflammatory rhetoric by Trump and his loyalists have led to violence. She blames Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric for the mass shooting that killed 23 people in a Walmart in her hometown of El Paso in 2019. Escobar was also trapped in the House chamber during the Jan. 6 attack that stemmed from Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.
“He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is a dangerous man. He’s a very sick human being, and the people around him who are enabling him, they know what they are doing as well. And that means Lindsey Graham included,” Escobar said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and other Republicans have knocked Biden for using incendiary rhetoric too while preaching unity; at a Democratic reception in Maryland, the president equated Trump and his acolytes to “semi-fascists.”
Recent Congresses have seen horrific violence. In January 2011, then-Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., was nearly assassinated by a gunman outside a Safeway in Tucson. Eighteen others were shot at her constituent meeting, including six who died. In 2017, a gunman opened fire during a GOP congressional baseball practice in Virginia, nearly taking the life of Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., then the majority whip.
On Twitter, Swalwell shared a memo sent by his aide — who has spent just one month on the job — that detailed the expletive-filled death threat made by the recent caller. “Mentioned he has guns and wants to ‘F— him up,’” the aide wrote. “Also made a statement saying that he will come to the office, or to wherever he is at to hurt him. He will bring guns (AR-15s) to the office to kill him and f— him up.”
A U.S. Capitol Police spokesperson had no comment on the Swalwell incident: “For safety reasons, the USCP does not discuss potential security measures for Members or any potential investigations.”
But the U.S. Capitol Police have seen a dramatic spike in incidents during the past five years. In 2017, Trump’s first year in office, police said they investigated 3,939 cases, including direct threats to lawmakers and “directions of interest,” which are characterized as concerning statements or actions. That number has grown every year, and in 2021, it stood at 9,625.