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Trump ramps up violent rhetoric

NBC News’ analysis of all of the former president’s public remarks shows that his recent statements and social media posts have taken a dark and aggressive turn.
Former President Donald Trump talks to members of the media outside the court room at the New York State Supreme Court on Oct. 2, 2023.
Former President Donald Trump talks to members of the media Monday outside state Supreme Court in New York City.Kena Betancur / AFP - Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump is lashing out at political and legal foes in increasingly violent terms as his campaign to return to office accelerates.

In the past week, Trump suggested in an online post that Gen. Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, deserved to face the death penalty. In California, he called for shoplifters to be shot on sight. Criticizing former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., during the same speech, he mockingly asked how Pelosi’s husband was doing, referring to the violent attack on Paul Pelosi last year during a home invasion by an assailant authorities say was steeped in Trump’s election conspiracy theories.

Trump also made a series of incendiary statements about New York Attorney General Letitia James ahead of and during the start Monday of his New York civil trial on charges of business fraud. Hours before he headed into court Monday morning, Trump called James “corrupt and racist,” “rogue” and “out of control.” And he posted criticism of the judge in the case, too, saying he should no longer sit on the bench.

They are the type of statements that could get another defendant held in contempt of court — and might see embarrassed supporters back away from any other presidential candidate. But many of Trump’s followers latch onto and celebrate his rhetoric — and even act on it, as the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and other violent incidents in recent years have shown. 

The past week has been the busiest yet on Trump’s 2024 campaign schedule, which has hit both coasts, as well as first-in-the-nation Iowa and battleground Michigan. But the stepped-up campaign was marked more by the unruly and aggressive insults he hurled in campaign speeches and posts on social media with the first of many trials in the next year approaching.

The aggressive turn began a week ago on Truth Social, where Trump alluded to the execution of his former top military official.

“This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH,” Trump said on Truth Social, referring to Milley’s past communication with Chinese military leaders.

In California on Saturday, Trump berated the state over its crime rates and said he would stop crime immediately by making sure shoplifters were met with gunshots. “Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store, shot,” Trump said at the California GOP Fall Convention as the crowd reacted with approval.

That’s when he went on to mock the Pelosis — with the crowded room responding with gales of laughter and shouts of affirmation.

Later, as he was walking into the New York courtroom, Trump had words for James, urging reporters, “You ought to go after this attorney general.” Inside the courtroom, Trump appeared to glare angrily at James, looking down at her as he passed by.

And Trump said on Truth Social that the judge presiding over his fraud case, Arthur Engoron, “should resign from the ‘Bench’ and be sanctioned by the Courts for his abuse of power.” (Supreme Court is the name of New York state’s top trial court.)

Trump, who was visibly frustrated and defiant speaking to reporters outside the New York courtroom Monday where he and the Trump Organization went on trial, was there again Tuesday.

The statements catch the eye on their own. But what’s more, it’s clear that some Trump supporters are hanging on his every word as his language takes a combustible turn. Many supporters on the campaign trail with Trump this week admire what he has to say and reflect the same sentiments.

Speaking about Milley days after Trump’s Truth Social post, Cynthia Yockey, a Trump supporter at his event in Ottumwa, Iowa, asked, “Why was he not in there before a firing squad within a month?”

Vicky Entseminger, another Trump supporter, said: “Treason is treason. There’s only one cure for treason: being put to death.”

Not everyone there was on board with Trump’s comments.

“It’s way too far. It’s way too far,” said Barbara Hadener, who supported Trump in 2016 and 2020 and said she plans to back him again.

Still, most Trump supporters who spoke with NBC News excused or supported Trump’s statement about Milley.

“We used to execute or imprison people for all the treasonous actions I see,” said Rob Dannels, a registered Republican from Oskaloosa, Iowa. “Now, in this day and age, it’s just throw it underneath the rug.”