In Days Before Trump Appears in Court, Few Signs Point to a Jan. 6 Repeat
WASHINGTON — Former President Donald J. Trump’s expected appearance on Tuesday in a Manhattan court is a volatile moment for the country with an unpredictable outcome, but law enforcement officials have not yet seen indications of a disruptive, organized backlash akin to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
The New York City Police Department, state law enforcement agencies, the Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals Service have all been coordinating efforts, while increasing intelligence gathering and mobilization. The police, for instance, sent a stand-ready order to about 35,000 officers, a force larger and better trained than some national armies.
Even as Mr. Trump’s coming arraignment reflects a different set of circumstances, the response is informed by lessons learned from the Capitol riot and from the challenges posed by the nationwide protests against police violence in 2020. They include the need to deploy forces quickly when threats pop up on social media, and the importance of sharing intelligence among agencies in real time, officials have said.
“At the moment, they are not seeing those threats, and the department has a lot of experience coordinating with the Secret Service and the court system, so that effort is not terribly concerning,” said Kenneth Corey, who retired late last year as chief of department, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the department.
“But there are still big unknowns — mainly the protesters,” he added. “Who shows up? How many show up? What kind of mood are they in?”
There is no guarantee law enforcement will detect every threat, even if the agencies involved work seamlessly. There could be concealed efforts or lone wolves motivated by incendiary messaging who will lash out, as was the case shortly before the Capitol was breached, when a pair of pipe bombs were found outside the nearby headquarters of the Republican and Democratic national committees.
But the F.B.I. has not identified any specific threats, two officials with knowledge of the situation said. Because of that, the bureau, which was criticized for not publishing a bulletin before the Jan. 6 riot, has not distributed an intelligence bulletin to law enforcement, one of the officials said.
As of Sunday, neither law enforcement officials nor outside experts have picked up evidence that Mr. Trump’s defenders or detractors are gearing up for a major event on a day when a man elected to the nation’s highest office will be booked in Lower Manhattan.
The city’s police department, which has a sprawling, sophisticated intelligence operation that developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has tracked isolated threats on social media, but it has yet to detect larger plans that might spur violence or mass disruption.
“The N.Y.P.D. continues to monitor all activity, but there are no credible threats to the city at this time,” Fabien Levy, the press secretary for Mayor Eric Adams, said in an email.
It is not clear whether Mr. Trump plans to make a statement in New York after he is indicted, which could change that dynamic. But even if he does, the circumstances leading up to his court appearance on Tuesday are markedly different from those in the run-up to the Capitol attack.
For starters, there are few, if any, signs that the overt coordination of mass protests that characterized the weeks and months before Jan. 6 have taken place.
Justice Department officials believe part of the reason is that the prosecutions of Jan. 6 suspects has helped deter those most likely to instigate violence.
More than 1,000 people who entered the Capitol or breached its grounds on Jan. 6 have been already charged with crimes, and hundreds more remain under investigation. Moreover, some of the chief organizers of the pro-Trump rallies that preceded the attack were swept up in the Justice Department’s vast criminal inquiry, and some like Ali Alexander have said they have little interest in rallying on Mr. Trump’s behalf this time.
Thus far, Mr. Trump himself has not made any specific call to action for Tuesday. Doing so could be problematic for him: One of the possible crimes the Justice Department’s special counsel, Jack Smith, is investigating is Mr. Trump’s role in egging on protesters to disrupt congressional certification of President Biden’s victory.
While Mr. Trump encouraged protests last month to “TAKE OUR NATION BACK” in announcing that he expected to be arrested, he has yet to issue a demand comparable to his Dec. 19, 2020, post on Twitter explicitly summoning supporters to a rally in Washington on Jan. 6. “Be there, will be wild!” he said at the time.
Efforts to muster big crowds to support the president’s false claim that he won the election were hardly hidden.
In the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, Trump supporters staged two rallies that brought thousands of people into the streets and created momentum. Those events — one in November 2020 and the second in December — were planned by a large crew of organizers, including Mr. Alexander, who were skilled at mobilizing crowds and promoting Mr. Trump’s central message to “Stop the Steal” of the election.
Those events included large contingents from the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, many of whom organizers had brought in to serve as bodyguards or to perform event security. Several members of those groups, including some of their top leaders, have either been convicted of — or are now standing trial for — serious crimes connected to Jan. 6, among them, seditious conspiracy.
There was no sign that either group had any plans to rally in support of Mr. Trump when he appears in court.
Before Jan. 6, pro-Trump chat boards like the TheDonald.win quickly filled up with comments by posters discussing plans about building gallows, occupying the Capitol, chasing lawmakers through the tunnels of the building and committing other forms of violence.
Advance Democracy Inc., a nonprofit that conducts public interest research, issued a report this weekend that determined that Mr. Trump’s supporters had not used the successor to the TheDonald.win — a website called Patriots.win — to make any clear-cut plans to engage in violence or even to discuss organizing large-scale activities surrounding his indictment in Manhattan.
Instead, the report found scattered comments both in pro-Trump chat boards and on wider social media sites calling for violence against Manhattan’s district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, and the members of the New York City Police Department.
“This cannot go unpunished,” one commenter wrote shortly after the news of Mr. Trump’s indictment emerged. “The DA needs to pay dearly.”
New York City Police, despite a reputation as one of the world’s premier departments, has had problems with responding to mass protests in the past. Officials were forced to revamp their training procedures after the chaotic and violent demonstrations spurred by the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
But the department has more experience in dealing with crises and mass demonstrations than its counterparts across the country, with ample personnel to respond to the kind of scenario that the Trump indictment might pose.
The Capitol Police, by contrast, is significantly smaller, with about 2,000 officers who have limited resources and experience. Moreover, the force had to rely on the F.B.I. for intelligence — and the bureau failed to alert their partners of the threat of mass violence or the seditious conspiracies, blinded by a narrow focus on lone actors and a misguided belief that the threat from the far left was as great as that from the far right. Even the Capitol Police, which had correctly identified Congress as the target on Jan. 6, failed to prepare for that day adequately, deploying too few officers and failing to erect the physical barriers that would have helped protect Congress.
“There’s a difference in scale with the N.Y.P.D. — they can push a button and get 1,000 officers,” said John Miller, the department’s former deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, who served as a senior official at the F.B.I.
“Then if that isn’t enough, they can push the button again, and get another 1,000 without too much trouble,” he added.
Some of Mr. Trump’s most extreme supporters seem to recognize this fact.
“NYPD won’t fall as easily as Capitol police did,” one person wrote in a March 20 post on Patriots.win. “There needs to be multiple events to scatter and distract them. Be careful though. NYPD are brutal and even more so when protecting one of their own. They have militarized units that are trained to round up and kill.”
Robert Reilly, a former F.B.I. agent in New Jersey who handled domestic terrorism cases, said the city itself is not as fertile a protest ground for conservative activists who were able to mobilize easily in Washington and during the violent neo-Nazi protests in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.
“This is New York City,” he said. “You’re not going get the protests you would in Charlottesville or the Capitol. It is too far and too many tolls and nowhere to park,”
The F.B.I. is acutely aware of what unfolded on Jan. 6 as the federal agency charged with stopping terrorism. The bureau is capable of deploying tactical teams, as it did on the day of the Capitol attack, and arresting those intent on committing violence. And agents and analysts alike on the bureau’s terrorism task forces are tracking the longer-term reaction of extremists on the right who may be mobilized to commit violence by the Manhattan indictment. Those extremists could become increasingly agitated by investigations into Mr. Trump by Mr. Smith and the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., who could file charges stemming from the president’s efforts to overturn Mr. Biden’s narrow victory in the state.
Even as he acknowledged the irony, Mr. Reilly said the F.B.I. should have better insights into right-wing threats thanks to Jan. 6.
“The F.B.I. should be monitoring the human intelligence that agents have developed in far-right extremist groups,” he said. “The fringe benefit of the investigations and arrests of Jan. 6 have given the bureau the opportunity to interview thousands of the people the F.B.I. otherwise would not have contacted. You’ve now developed a vast amount of intelligence and informants from those interviews.”
Yet if Jan. 6 is not an accurate template for the potential threats surrounding Mr. Trump’s court appearance, a better one is what unfolded in August after the F.B.I. descended on Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence in Florida, and hauled away hundreds of classified documents.
After the search, top Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that violence could ensue. Mr. Trump himself told Fox News that “people are so angry at what is taking place,” adding that “terrible things” might happen.
Almost immediately, they did.
Three days after the search, an armed man from Ohio tried to breach the F.B.I.’s field office outside Cincinnati. Later, after the man was killed in a standoff with the local police, investigators found social media posts he had written encouraging people to go to Mar-a-Lago and, if needed, murder federal agents.
“I recommend going, and being Florida, I think the feds won’t break it up,” one of the messages read. “IF they do, kill them.”
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