Trump-returns fringe theory puts FBI on guard for risk of mayhem

Officials are on alert for the risk that the former president's most ardent supporters might again resort to violence. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - It's the latest baseless prediction from conspiracy theorists on the fringes of social media: Mr Donald Trump will somehow be reinstated as president as soon as next month.

Yet the claims - pushed by QAnon adherents and MyPillow CEO and pitchman Mike Lindell - are enough to put Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray and other top national security officials on alert for the risk that the former president's most ardent supporters might again resort to violence.

Mr Wray and colleagues, stung by criticism that they failed to raise sufficient alarms before the deadly Jan 6 attack on the US Capitol, are in a bind: Unlike January, when Mr Trump summoned supporters to Washington as part of his effort to block Mr Joe Biden's certification as president, the threats circulating online are amorphous as to time and place.

Without a good sense of what is credible and what is just online bravado, law enforcement agencies have to stay on alert across the country, according to Mr John Demers, the recently departed head of the Justice Department's national security division.

"The challenge is like that of the security guard who has to stay vigilant when nothing is happening, then something could happen in an instant," Mr Demers said in an interview. "So you have to be prepared."

But there's also an upside, as there's no large gathering point of people that can turn violent like there was on Jan 6, when Congress was counting the Electoral College votes to officially confirm Biden's victory, Mr Demers said.

It reflects a longer-term challenge for the FBI and Mr Wray, who will enter the fifth year of a 10-year term in August: How to better develop sources and conduct data analytics "to separate the wheat from the chaff" in the daily torrent of chatter on social media and other platforms, as Mr Wray told the Senate Appropriations Committee in June.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been providing information to federal, state and local officials about the potential for domestic terrorism over the summer.

In June, DHS issued a document saying followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory may turn to violence because their expectations that Mr Trump should have been inaugurated in January haven't been fulfilled. Some are likely to believe "they have an obligation to change from serving as digital soldiers toward engaging in real world violence," according to the document.

The Justice Department and the FBI have charged more than 530 individuals for violence during the Jan 6 insurrection, including about 40 charged with conspiracy, according to the latest statistics.

Last week, Justice Department prosecutors opposed a request from an accused Jan. 6 rioter to remove his ankle monitor and GPS tracking, saying in a court filing that "Trump continues to make false claims about the election, insinuate that he may be reinstalled in the near future as president without another election and minimise the violent attack on the Capitol. Television networks continue to carry and report on those claims, with some actually giving credence to the false reporting."

Mr Lindell, the founder of a company that markets pillows, said in a phone interview that he will present what he says is evidence to show that Mr Trump won the election during a "cyber symposium" Aug 10-12. He said he expects some US states to then take that evidence to the Supreme Court. He hasn't personally suggested violence to put Mr Trump back in the White House.

Sounding alarms

Whether the threats appear credible or not, Mr Wray is under pressure not to miss warning signs again, as critics suggest the FBI's top leadership did in January.

In congressional testimony, Mr Wray cited a report produced by the FBI's Norfolk, Virginia, field office the day before the insurrection at the Capitol outlining the threat from violent protesters who were gathering in Washington. He described it as "one piece of information that was raw and unverified and unattributed" but said the FBI communicated it to law enforcement agencies in three different ways, including to the Capitol Police.

But Mr Wray hasn't claimed that he or other top FBI officials personally sounded alarms at high levels.

"We still lack a clear picture of the FBI's understanding of the threat in the days leading up to the attack," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "There was no question when you really had pictures of who was there and what they were doing, that people came with an intent to do what they did."

The FBI said in a statement Monday that the bureau "continuously works with our federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement partners to detect and disrupt any potential threats to the communities we serve. The men and women of the FBI remain vigilant in our duties to counter violent extremism and ensure the safety and security of our country and our citizens."

Mr Wray, 54, has said the FBI is learning from the cases that have been brought and from ongoing investigations.

The Justice Department and the FBI have charged more than 530 individuals for violence during the Jan 6 insurrection. PHOTO: REUTERS

"This is far from over, and with each arrest and each case we bring not only are we driving towards accountability for the attack, but we're also learning more about what was out there beforehand so that we can use that to get better going forward," Wray said at the hearing in June.

"We are absolutely determined to make sure that we do our part to make sure it never happens again, so I want to be crystal clear on that."

Encrypted platforms

Mr Wray said the agency is looking at encryption because many communications between domestic terrorists "are happening through encrypted platforms that we don't have a ready-made, lawful access solution to. And, of course, we're going to be looking at how we review and evaluate open-source information, social media, that kind of thing."

The Homeland Security Department issued a bulletin at the end of June assessing the possibility that domestic terrorists may seek to exploit the easing of coronavirus restrictions to conduct attacks, including concern that conspiracy theorists are promoting the idea Mr Trump will be reinstated in August.

The department is "focused on the nexus between violence and extremist ideologies" and "is enhancing its ability to prevent acts of domestic terrorism inspired by disinformation, conspiracy theories and false narratives spread through social media and other online platforms," according to a DHS statement.

US officials face a balancing act, however, in trying to distinguish between chatter and actual plots in order to avoid infringing on the constitutional rights of citizens.

"The Department of Homeland Security's experts from the offices of civil rights and civil liberties, privacy, and general counsel are closely involved to ensure every initiative is consistent with privacy protections, civil rights and civil liberties, First Amendment rights, and other applicable laws," DHS said in its statement.

The biggest potential threat for an attack in the coming weeks most likely comes from lone actors or small groups of individuals rather than larger groups, Mr Demers said.

He also noted that other dates with significance to some Trump supporters have already come and gone without violence, particularly a conspiracy theory that Trump would be inaugurated on March 4.

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