Startled critics on Friday denounced President Donald Trump's blatant encouragement of attacks on his opponents by "tough people"—specifically soldiers, police, and biker gang members—who support him.
The comments made during an interview with the right-wing outlet Breitbartappeared to stir enough controversy that by Friday morning the president had deleted a link to it that he had posted to Twitter the night before.
Speaking to Amanda House, Breitbart's deputy political editor, Trump said he was planning to issue an executive order next week regarding free speech on college campuses, an issue conservatives have latched onto in recent years as students have protested at events featuring right-wing commentators like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer.
"Musing about this kind of thing is a great way to plant a seed in certain people's minds, and the fact that Trump keeps fertilizing that seed shouldn't escape notice." —Aaron Blake, Washington Post
The president accused left-wing activists who have demonstrated against the white supremacist views espoused by Yiannopoulos and Spencer of playing a "tougher game" than conservatives and called them "vicious" before appearing to warn that his supporters were prepared to fight back against the left.
"I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad," Trump said.
The remarks were widely interpreted as Trump's latest call for violence against those he disagrees with or people whose actions he objects to, with Vox journalist Aaron Rupar noting that the comments carried echoes of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's ominous warning that the president will never allow a "peaceful transition" if he loses the 2020 election.
COHEN: “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 there will never be a peaceful transition”
TRUMP DAYS LATER: “I have the support of the police, military, bikers – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point” https://t.co/spioacipsr pic.twitter.com/7pjrfFPY0j
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 14, 2019
"I think it sounds very much to me like he's encouraging them to engage in something that's probably illegal such as assaulting people," Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told MSNBC. "I think it's appalling."
This is dangerous and our President is stirring his base and inciting future violence. THIS IS NOT OK. To the members of this administration who I met with today, this is exactly what I was talking about.
— Fred Guttenberg (@fred_guttenberg) March 14, 2019
There are a lot of disturbing implications here, but perhaps the most disturbing part is that Trump is throwing the military and police in the same group as "Bikers for Trump" — all part of his personal gang, charged with carrying out violence on his behalf. https://t.co/hBdT1sBH9a
— Caroline Orr (@RVAwonk) March 14, 2019
Seriously, though, this is a threat of violence. This is a call to arms. He's delusional, of course, but in his mind he believes that if he doesn't get his way, he'll declare martial law and send the "police, military and Bikers for Trump" to ... what? Kill us? cc @SpeakerPelosi https://t.co/rOX8htZEou
— Carter Gaddis (@DadScribe) March 14, 2019
Against the backdrop of what’s happening in New Zealand, it’s an important moment to note that we have a US president who deliberately flirts with inciting mass violence, and who constantly lies. It’s growing easier to imagine how dangerous that really is. https://t.co/qSg8wxz5Lx
— Mark Follman (@markfollman) March 15, 2019
During the 2016 campaign and since taking office, Trump has frequently made public calls for violence. He suggested that so-called "Second Amendment people" could stop Hillary Clinton from appointing liberal judges if she won the presidency and told supporters at a rally in Iowa that he would "pay for the legal fees" if they assaulted anti-Trump attendees.
In July 2017, Trump drew shocked reactions at a law enforcement event on Long Island, New York, where he encouraged police officers to treat suspected members of the gang M-13 violently.
"I think it sounds very much to me like he's encouraging them to engage in something that's probably illegal such as assaulting people. I think it's appalling." —Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii)
Washington Post journalist David Nakamura noted that Trump's comments to Breitbart were the second time he has invoked the image of police officers, military members, and the national group Bikers for Trump going head-to-head with left-wing anti-Trump movements.
"Law enforcement, military, construction workers, Bikers for Trump—how about Bikers for Trump?" he said last September in Missouri. "But these are tough people. These are great people. But they're peaceful people, and Antifa and all—they'd better hope they stay that way. I hope they stay that way. I hope they stay that way."
"It's clear from these comments, and the repetition of this formula, that he’s suggesting his supporters from the military, law enforcement, and even bikers could be tempted to rise up if things don't go Trump's way," wrote Aaron Blake at the Post.
"The idea that anything like the scenes Trump is describing would ever happen is difficult to believe," Blake added. "But that's not really the point. Musing about this kind of thing is a great way to plant a seed in certain people's minds, and the fact that Trump keeps fertilizing that seed shouldn't escape notice."