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GOP backs Trump, escalates rhetoric after FBI search

Some Republicans are demanding that federal agency be defunded

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House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, second from right, joined by other Republicans on the committee, calls on a reporter during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, on the FBI serving a search warrant at former President Donald Trump's home in Florida.
House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, second from right, joined by other Republicans on the committee, calls on a reporter during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, on the FBI serving a search warrant at former President Donald Trump's home in Florida. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress who are relying on Donald Trump to excite voters in the fall elections are not only defending the former president against the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago home but also politically capitalizing on it with potentially dangerous rhetoric against the nation’s justice system.

The party that once stood staunchly for law and order has dramatically reversed course, stirring up opposition to the FBI and tapping into political grievances and far-right conspiracies that fed the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

It’s part of the GOP’s election-year strategy to harness voter outrage over the unprecedented search, quickly and unequivocally set in motion as Trump hosted a dozen Republicans for dinner of steak and scallops at his private Bedminster club the day after the FBI action.

One Republican at the table — Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas, a former sheriff — said he told the former president “loud and clear” that it’s time to protect himself politically by declaring his 2024 campaign for the presidency.

“Mr. President, I said, the American people, your supporters, are concerned with this corrupt DOJ and the FBI. If I were you, sir, announce you’re running for president,” Nehls recalled telling Trump. “Take that doubt, take that anxiety away from the people that want you to be our 47th president.”

The escalating rhetoric comes amid stark warnings of violence against law enforcement, including the Ohio police shooting Thursday of an armed man clad in body armor who tried to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati office and engaged in an hours-long standoff. The day before, FBI Director Christopher Wray had called the threats to agents and the Department of Justice “deplorable.” The FBI has warned its agents to take precautions, citing an increase in social media threats to bureau personnel and facilities. In some extreme cases, GOP lawmakers and others are demanding the FBI be dismantled and defunded.

It’s all coming at a time of blistering attacks on the nation’s civic institutions that experts say is worrisome, if not dangerous, for the future of U.S. democracy. With no branch of government unscathed, the discord risks sowing distrust in the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court. It has kept security tight in Washington, limiting public access to the government.

“All of this rhetoric is being thrown around without any consideration for possible consequences,” said Frank Montoya Jr., a retired FBI special agent who led the bureau’s field offices in Seattle and Honolulu. “All that does is stir up that minority within the base that aren’t satisfied with just words; they actually want to act it out.”

Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said, “The vitriol coming from extremists, white supremacists and others, has been overwhelming,” pointing to rhetoric from Trump’s former campaign manager Steve Bannon and others warning of assassinations or calling for civil war.

“We usually expect that from these quarters, but the same kind of rhetoric is coming from prominent Republicans and Trump allies,” she said by email.

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