File photo: Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2023, March 4, 2023, at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland. AP
The ambivalence raises questions about whether Trump, though a leading Republican contender in the 2024 presidential race who retains a devoted following, still has the power to mobilize far-right supporters the way he did more than two years ago before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It also suggests that the hundreds of arrests that followed the Capitol riot, not to mention the convictions and long prison sentences, may have dampened the desire for repeat mass unrest.
Still, law enforcement in New York is continuing to closely monitor online chatter warning of protests and violence if Trump is arrested, with threats varying in specificity and credibility, four officials told The Associated Press. Mainly posted online and in chat groups, the messages have included calls for armed protesters to block law enforcement officers and attempt to stop any potential arrest, the officials said.
The New York Young Republican Club has announced plans for a protest at an undisclosed location in Manhattan on Monday, and incendiary but isolated posts surfaced on fringe social media platforms from supporters calling for an armed confrontation with law enforcement at Trump's Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago.
But nearly two days after Trump claimed on his Truth Social platform that he expected to be arrested on Tuesday and exhorted followers to protest, there were few signs his appeal had inspired his supporters to organize and rally around an event like the Jan. 6 gathering. In fact, a prominent organizer of rallies that preceded the Capitol riot posted on Twitter that he intended to remain on the sidelines.
Ali Alexander, who as an organizer of the “Stop the Steal” movement staged rallies to promote Trump’s baseless claims that Democrats stole the 2020 election from him, warned Trump supporters that they would be "jailed or worse” if they protested in New York City.
“You have no liberty or rights there,” he tweeted.
One of Alexander’s allies in the “Stop the Steal” campaign was conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who amplified the election fraud claims on his Infowars show. Alexander posted that he had spoken to Jones and said that neither of them would be protesting this time around.
“We’ve both got enough going on fighting the government,” Alexander wrote. “No billionaire is covering our bills.”
That stands in contrast to the days before the Capitol riot when Trump stoked up supporters when he invited them to Washington for a “big protest” on a Jan. 6, tweeting, “Be there, will be wild!” Thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol that day, busting through windows and violently clashing with officers in an ultimately failed effort to stop the congressional certification of Democrat Joe Biden's victory.
Since then, about 1,000 participants have been arrested, many racking up steep legal bills and expressing regret and contrition in court for their actions. Some have complained of feeling abandoned by Trump. And conspiracy theories that the riot was fueled or even set up by undercover law enforcement informants in the crowd have continued to flourish online, with Trump supporters citing that angst as a basis for steering clear of a new large-scale protest.
“How many Feds/Fed assets are in place to turn protest against the political arrest of Pres Trump into violence?” tweeted Rep. Marjorie-Taylor Greene. The Georgia Republican also invoked a conspiracy theory that an FBI informant had instigated the Jan. 6 riot.
“Has Ray Epps booked his flight to NY yet?” she tweeted on Sunday.
Epps, an Arizona man, was filmed encouraging others to enter the Capitol. Conspiracy theorists believe Epps was an FBI informant because he was removed from a Jan. 6 “wanted” list without being charged. In January, the House committee that investigated the Capitol attack said the claims about Epps were “unsupported.”
John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab who has tracked the “Stop the Steal” movement online, said anxiety over being entrapped by so-called agent provocateurs feeds a “paranoia that if they go and do violence, they may get caught and there may be consequences.”
“It seems to reduce a lot of people's willingness to make big statements about being willing to go out” and engage in violence, he said.
A grand jury is investigating hush money payments to women who alleged sexual encounters with Trump. Prosecutors have not said when their work might conclude or when charges could come.
The conflicted feelings over how far to support Trump in his fight against prosecution extends into the political realm. His own vice president, Mike Pence, who's expected to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination, castigated Trump in an ABC News interview this weekend as “reckless” for his actions on Jan. 6 and said history would hold him accountable — even as he echoed the former president's rhetoric that an indictment would be a “politically charged prosecution.”
“I have no doubt that President Trump knows how to take care of himself. And he will. But that doesn’t make it right to have a politically charged prosecution of a former president of the United States of America,” Pence said.
The opening day of the House Republican conference in Orlando, Florida, was quickly overshadowed with the news of a potential indictment. Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other House Republicans called the possibility outrageous and criticized District Attorney Alvin Bragg for what they called “reckless crime” in New York City.
McCarthy said he has assembled congressional investigators to probe if Bragg used Justice Department grants to pursue the Trump case. But despite the heated rhetoric toward Bragg, Republican leaders stopped short of Trump’s calls for protesters to “take our nation back.”
“I don’t think people should protest this. I think President Trump, when you talk to him, he doesn’t think that, either,” McCarthy said.