WASHINGTON – The last throes of Donald Trump’s presidency have turned ugly — even dangerous.
Death threats are on the rise. Local and state election officials are being hounded into hiding. A Trump campaign lawyer is declaring publicly that a federal official who defended the integrity of the election should be “drawn and quartered" or simply shot.
Neutral public servants, Democrats and a growing number of Republicans who won’t do what Trump wants are being caught in a menacing postelection undertow stirred by Trump’s grievances about the election he lost.
“Death threats, physical threats, intimidation — it’s too much, it’s not right,” said Gabriel Sterling, a Republican elections official in Georgia who implored Trump to “stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence.” Trump in response only pressed his groundless case that he lost unfairly, neither discouraging trouble nor explicitly calling for it.
The triggering of emotions has always been a Trump staple. His political movement was born in arenas that echoed with chants of “lock her up.” His support has been animated over the past four years by his relentlessly mocking ways, his slams against the “enemy of the people,” and his raw talent for belittling political foes with insulting nicknames like “Sleepy Joe” Biden. That’s one of the nicer ones.
But in the final weeks of Trump’s presidency, the tenor has taken on an even more toxic edge as state after state has affirmed Biden’s victory, judge after judge has dismissed Trump's legal challenges and his cadre of loyalists has played to his frustrations. As Biden builds the foundation of his new administration, Trump is commanding attention for the agitations he is likely to carry forward when he is gone from office.
“I do not think this goes away on January 20,” Eric Coomer, security director for Dominion Voting Systems, said from the secret location where he is hiding out from death threats. "I think it will continue for a long time."
Tough beans, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said of the state officials who are fearing for their safety.
“They’re the one who should have the courage to step up,” Giuliani said Wednesday in Michigan. ”You have got to get them to remember that their oath to the Constitution sometimes requires being criticized. Sometimes it even requires being threatened.”
For Coomer, the trouble began around the time Trump campaign lawyers falsely claimed his company rigged the election.
Far-right chat rooms posted his photo, details about his family and address. “The first death threats followed almost immediately,” he told The Associated Press. "For the first couple days it was your standard online Twitter threats, ‘hang him, he’s a traitor.’”
But then came targeted phone calls, text messages and a handwritten letter to his father, an Army veteran, from a presumed militia group saying, “How does it feel to have a traitor for a son?" Even now, weeks later and relocated to a secret locale, Coomer is getting messages from people saying they know what town he has fled to and vowing to find him.
“It’s terrifying,” he said. “I've worked in international elections in all sorts of post-conflict countries where election violence is real and people end up getting killed over it. And I feel that we’re on the verge of that.”
This week Joe diGenova, a Trump campaign lawyer, told a radio show that a federal election official who was fired for disputing Trump’s claims of fraud “should be drawn and quartered. Taken out at dawn and shot.” This, as election officials and voting-system contractors in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan and elsewhere have been subjected to sinister threats for doing their jobs.
“Threats like these trigger an avalanche of them,” said Louis Clark, executive director and CEO of the Government Accountability Project, an organization to protect whistleblowers. Of diGenova, Clark said, “It’s behavior befitting a mob attorney.”
DiGenova later said he was joking. The fired official, Christopher Krebs, told The Washington Post, “My lawyers will do the talking, they’ll do it in court.”
As “Anonymous,” former Homeland Security official Miles Taylor wrote a searing insider account of the Trump administration, prompting Trump to tell rallies that “very bad things” would happen to this “traitor.” Now Taylor's identity is known and he's been assigned a security detail as the Secret Service recommended because of the nature of the threats against him.
“This is unprecedented in America,” Taylor said. “This is not who we are. This is not what an open society is supposed to look like.”
Taylor said intimidation has proved an effective tool to quash dissent. “I spoke to very senior former officials who wanted to come out to tell the truth during the presidential campaign, and many were afraid that it would put their families in harm’s way.”
But such pressure has not silenced some Republicans in Georgia, with telling results.
Intruders have been found on the property of GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has defended the integrity of his state's election, which resulted in a narrow Biden victory. And a young Dominion systems contractor has been harassed with death threats. Dominion is the sole voting system provider in Georgia, so the company has been a lightning rod.
“There’s a noose out there with his name on it,” Sterling said of the contractor, in a broadside against the rhetoric and threats in the election's aftermath.
Election security expert Matt Blaze tweeted angrily about the threats.
“This is just sickening," he said. “Every conversation I have with election folks, we start with death threats we’ve gotten. There’s no excuse for this no matter who the target is, but going after the on-the-ground technicians and other staff is a new low. Have you no shame?”
Said Sterling, the Republican Georgia election official: “Someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed. And it’s not right.”
Trump last week called Raffensperger an “enemy of the people,” Sterling noted, adding, “That helped open the floodgates to this kind of crap.” In addition to seeing people drive by and come onto his property, Raffensperger's wife has been getting obscene threats on her cellphone, Sterling said.
In Arizona, Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said she’s faced threats of violence directed at her family and her office.
Trump spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said the White House condemns any violence. “What I will say though, too, is that the president’s lawyers (had) their private information put out," she said, blaming "leftist organizations.”
“So we’re seeing that happen to people on both sides of the argument and there’s no place for that ever anywhere,” she said. Indeed, GOP poll watchers said in affidavits in election litigation that they felt threatened and were jeered by Democrats.
A key difference, though, is that intimidation against Republican poll workers or officials by Trump's opponents did not come from the top. Biden has largely stayed out of the fray even as Trump systematically maligns the process, the election workers, the state officials who resist his pressure and some of the judges.
He's gone repeatedly after Dominion Voting Systems, falsely branding it a “radical left company" responsible for a “stolen” election — in contrast to the assurances of state and federal officials that the election was run fairly and remarkably smoothly in the midst of a pandemic, with none of the massive fraud alleged by the president.
Members of Trump’s administration have affirmed the legitimacy of the election, though at least one, Krebs, got fired for it. Even Trump’s trusted ally, Attorney General William Barr, told the AP he’d seen no widespread fraud.
For Coomer, Dominion's director of product strategy and security, "this election was incredibly smooth across the board.”
But sometime around Eric Trump’s post-election tweets about Coomer and a bizarre news conference where Trump lawyers Giuliani and Sidney Powell spun fabrications about Dominion and called him out by name, the real trouble started for him.
Dominion hired third-party security for him, and he was told not to go back to his house.
A few nights ago, he said, he was told in texts that people were watching him, and that he’d better run. Others had already said they’d rented a house in the town where he was hiding and would find him.
“It’s a daily thing," he said, "and no, I have not had a decent night’s sleep since all of this.”
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta, David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, and Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix contributed to this report.