National Security

Planned protests spark fears of more violence in Trump’s final days

Trump supporters and right-wing extremist groups are planning demonstrations that experts warn could escalate into the kind of violence seen during last week’s deadly riots at the Capitol.

Two days in particular are considered at high risk of coordinated and potentially violent activity: Jan. 17 and Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.

Trump supporters are expected to gather in Washington, D.C., and state capitals across the country on Sunday and then again three days later for the inauguration, according to law enforcement officials and experts monitoring online posts about the upcoming events. One flyer associated with Sunday’s gatherings tells participants to “come armed at your personal discretion.”

Similar to Wednesday’s mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, the demonstrations are fueled by election disinformation amplified by President Trump and his allies.

But neither day is expected to draw the same crowd levels that stormed the Capitol.

One reason, experts say, is because unlike last week’s events, the upcoming rallies aren’t being promoted by Trump or any of his high-profile allies.

“The demonstrations on the sixth of January had a lot of political elites backing [them],” Alex Newhouse, digital research lead at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute, said. “The risks of another massive protest happening are relatively low unless those big conservatives start throwing their weight behind it again.”

Another reason experts are expecting lower attendance is the recent crackdown by social media platforms.

In addition to banning Trump, Twitter booted influential right-wing figures like “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander, pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell and former 8kun administrator Ron Watkins.

Facebook on Monday announced it would be purging all content referencing “Stop the Steal.”

And Parler, an app popular on the right for its lax content moderation, was functionally taken down over the weekend after being dropped by the Apple App Store, Google Play Store and Amazon Web Services, due in large part to its posts encouraging last week’s violence.

The lack of clear leadership and the crackdown on platforms appears to have translated to less organization for the expected upcoming demonstrations.

But the composition of the upcoming protests might be more dangerous than last week’s at the Capitol, Newhouse warned, because the groups that have been hyping them include armed militias and white nationalists.

And although there has been less logistical planning out in the open this time around, Jared Holt, a visiting research fellow at Digital Forensic Research Lab, said it’s not necessarily an indication that the demonstrations are “going to be a dud.”

“The logistical planning element is a really good indicator of attendance before events, but the absence of logistical conversations is also not an indication that nobody is going to attend the event,” he said, adding that since some participants may be demonstrating locally, it limits the need to plan hotel stays and caravans.

The recent deplatforming by social media giants may also have had the side effect of shepherding users to right-wing fringe sites where extremist movements prosper.

“What happens when millions of people who believe disinformation and lies that the democratic system has [been] totally corrupted get into these social media circles that are just brimming with people who already want to destroy the government and hurt people?” Holt said.

He added that there have been posts about a call for armed protests on Jan. 17 dating back as far as November, while in the last week or so the message has shifted to appeal more broadly to Trump supporters.

Posts pertaining to the upcoming demonstrations are appearing on platforms with limited content moderation like Telegram, MeWe and various chat rooms, researchers told The Hill.

Federal and local law enforcement have indicated they will be on high alert leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

The National Guard has been authorized to deploy up 15,000 members, bureau chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson announced Monday.

Later that day, Trump declared an emergency in Washington, D.C., and ordered federal assistance to supplement efforts to prepare for Biden’s inauguration. The move came after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) asked Trump to issue an emergency declaration amid concerns about potential threats on Jan. 20.

The FBI is also monitoring the protests, ABC News reported Monday, citing an internal agency bulletin.

“The FBI received information about an identified armed group intending to travel to Washington, DC on 16 January,” the bulletin read. “They have warned that if Congress attempts to remove POTUS via the 25th Amendment, a huge uprising will occur.”

A spokesperson for the FBI did not confirm the contents of the bulletin but said the agency is supporting state, local and federal law enforcement partners with maintaining public safety.

With mounting concerns over the potential for more violence, as well as continued concerns over the spread of COVID-19, Bowser is discouraging Americans from traveling to the nation’s capital for the inauguration.

Bowser has also asked the Interior Department to cancel public gathering permits and deny further permit applications for the same time period.

Special security operations surrounding the inauguration are also starting on Wednesday, earlier than previously scheduled. The decision was made “in light of events of the past week and the evolving security landscape,” Chad Wolf said, just hours before he stepped down as acting Homeland Security secretary.

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are still set to be sworn in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. 

A presidential inaugural committee official said the committee is “confident in our security partners who have spent months planning and preparing for the inauguration, and we are continuing to work with them to ensure the utmost safety and security” of Biden, Harris and other inauguration participants.

Biden told reporters Monday he is “not afraid to take the oath outside.”

Despite that confidence, the potential for more extremist-driven violence persists, experts warned.

“A lot of these groups view what happened on Jan. 6 as a clear triumph of their cause,” Holt said.

Tags armed protesters Capitol breach Chad Wolf Donald Trump Inauguration day Joe Biden mob Muriel Bowser riot violent demonstrations

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