Meet the Trump Surrogates and Supporters Going After His Judges and Prosecutors

Backed by Republicans in Congress, opposition researchers and online influencers, former President Donald Trump has a wide-ranging network of support in his campaign to discredit and delegitimize the civil and criminal cases surrounding him.

While judges in New York and Washington, D.C., have attempted to place guardrails around the former president’s speech in an effort to safeguard the judicial process and participants, but they’ve been stymied in both cases by appellate courts by one stubborn fact: There is no way to keep a national army of surrogates, both official and self-appointed, from speaking and acting on Trump’s behalf.

Trump’s collision course with the criminal justice system comes at a time when concerns about safety of judges, prosecutors, courtroom staff, and witnesses are at an all-time high. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, overseeing the D.C. proceedings, and District Attorney Alvin Bragg, prosecuting Trump in New York, have both received death threats. So has Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, and Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat leading to the arrest of an Alabama man last month. Special Counsel Jack Smith, whose office is prosecuting Trump in Florida and Washington, D.C., has spent millions on security.

“The threat of, and actual, violence resulting from heated political rhetoric is well-documented,” New York County Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron wrote early this month as he supplemented a gag order in the civil fraud trial against Trump and others. The judge’s chambers, he wrote, “have been inundated with hundreds of harassing and threatening phone calls, voicemails, emails, letters, and packages.”

The former president’s pattern of fiery rhetoric follows a playbook Trump has followed since he got into politics, and even before: Responding to perceived threats with counter attacks that serve as rallying cries to his supporters, but are vague enough to be plausibly deniable. That strategy has proven effective, with polls showing a large majority of Republicans — and many Democrats — think the prosecutions are politically motivated.

Trump’s surrogates were crucial in taking swings at former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the 2016 election, often echoing Trump’s “witch hunt” mantra still in use today. Likewise in Trump’s two impeachment trials, which involved tapping into a number of House members as unofficial surrogates including future House Speaker Mike Johnson. Several of Trump’s surrogates surrounding the 2020 election, including Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, later became his co-defendants in the Georgia election-racketeering case.

Against the backdrop set by sharp-elbowed political rhetoric across the political spectrum, there have been outbreaks of political violence at the fringes of society. A man clad in body armor was killed by authorities after he attempted to attack the FBI’s Cincinnati field office in retaliation for the execution of a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last year, and a Utah man was killed in an FBI raid after making online threats against Bragg and President Joe Biden.

“IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I”M COMING AFTER YOU!” Trump said in an Aug 4 social media post, three days after he was indicted on federal election-subversion charges in Washington.

The day after that post, as prosecutors have repeatedly noted, Chutkan received a death threat via voicemail from a Texas woman. Trump’s lawyers noted the post makes no reference to the case, and his presidential campaign said the post referred to “special interest groups and Super PACs.”

Trump’s congressional allies attack his cases

Some of the most obvious ties between Trump’s surrogates and attacks on trial participants have come to the foreground in Manhattan Supreme Court, where the former president recently testified in an effort to keep his businesses alive in New York

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., has led the attack against former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, a state witness whose congressional testimony sparked the investigation behind a lawsuit that threatens the former president’s business empire. 

A Trump loyalist, Stefanik lobbed an ethics complaint against Engoron earlier this month — and followed that up by referring perjury charges against Cohen to Attorney General Merrick Garland. House Permanent Intelligence Committee Chairman Michael Turner, R-Ohio, co-signed the letter.

Stefanik backed Trump’s efforts to try to overturn the 2020 election, refusing to certify Joe Biden’s victories in key battleground states and supporting failed lawsuits challenging those results, and though Turner voted against Trump’s impeachment, the Ohio Republican did not join in efforts to topple Biden’s victory. A Stefanik spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Congress cannot perform its oversight function if witnesses who appear before its committees do not provide truthful testimony,” the two lawmakers wrote, urging Garland to prosecute Cohen. “Perjury and false statements before Congress are crimes that undermine the integrity of the Constitutional duty to conduct oversight and inquiries.”

Cohen appeared unconcerned about the referral, which he said selectively quoted from his testimony. He told Fox News that Turner and Stefanik “continue to do Donald’s bidding in witness tampering and obstructing justice.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the criminal realm, the House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, opened congressional inquiries seeking to discredit two of the local prosecutors pursuing Trump: Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the man behind the hush-money case, and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who brought the election racketeering case. Both are elected Democrats, and both accused Jordan of playing politics with criminal justice. 

Jordan, who was also deeply involved in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, portrayed their cases as political persecution. 

The Trump-tied opposition research firm attacking Hunter Biden and Engoron

Some of the former president’s most pugnacious surrogates have lent their efforts to his cause from outside the halls of power. 

As Trump and his allies ramp up attacks on Engoron, opposition research firm Marco Polo disseminated what they described as Engoron’s shirtless selfies posted on an alumni newsletter for the Wheatley School, a prestigious high school in Long Island, New York. 

The images have no apparent relevance to Engoron’s findings that Trump fraudulently inflated his assets by billions a year in order to land favorable terms on loans and insurance. But the organization’s attack on Engoron has led to headlines across right-leaning media, and also has clear ties to the former president’s orbit. 

Trump’s former White House staffer Garrett Zeigler serves as a director of the non-profit organization, which is incorporated as ICU LLC and received $195,888 in contributions last year, according to public records. Zeigler did not comment for this report.

Since springing into existence in 2021, ICU LLC has been a reliable backer of Trump-related causes — and antagonist of the former president’s perceived enemies. The group touts itself on its website as “THE OPPOSITION RESEARCH GROUP FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE,” where its disseminates materials purportedly found in Hunter Biden’s laptop. Hunter Biden’s attorney Abbe Lowell has challenged the group’s non-profit status on the basis of their political activities. 

Though Trump’s attorneys have not brought up the photographs in court, they clearly have been scrutinizing Engoron’s postings in Wheatley’s alumni newsletter. Trump’s mistrial motion cited nine times that Engoron shared news stories related to the case in the newsletter as evidence of judicial bias.

NYU School of Law Professor Stephen Gillers, who specializes in legal ethics, told The Messenger that it would have been “wiser” for Engoron not to have allegedly shared the links. But Gillers added that the controversy is “not a basis for recusal based on judicial bias or violation of provisions of the code of conduct for judges.”

Trump’s allies and his gag orders

In New York, Trump and his attorneys have been prohibited from attacking his principal law clerk Allison Greenfield, and the judge made clear that he cannot “evade” that order by relying on “employees or agents.” Engoron also warned that violations of the order could lead to “imprisoning” the former president. 

But whether or not they were acting as “employees” and “agents,” the former president’s allies have continued to attack Greenfield.

Breitbart, a pro-Trump media outlet once chaired by Bannon, ran a story earlier this month about a Twitter user from Wisconsin filing a bar complaint against the law clerk. The article accused Greenfield of exceeding campaign contribution limits imposed on court staff, and the allegations eventually migrated from conservative social media into the courtroom. 

In open court, Trump’s lead attorney Christopher Kise cited the report in complaining about Greenberg, and his mistrial motion accused Greenfield of skirting ethics rules by financing causes antagonistic to his client.

For Gillers, the legal ethics scholar, the applicable rules are more complex than Trump’s attorneys would have it. Greenfield spent well over the $500 annual limits on contributions generally, but the language specifically refers to donations to “political campaigns” and “other political activity.” The professor noted that most of Greenfield’s donations went to clubs, and whether that falls into the latter category depends on how the money was used. 

“Perhaps MOST important, Greenfield’s contributions, if that’s what they were, would not support disqualifying Engoron even if he failed to ‘prohibit’ them, which we don’t know,” Gillers said. “The contributions are to persons or organizations that have nothing to do with the case.”

Though Bannon co-founded Breitbart, the ex-Trump strategist left the company in 2018, and there is no evidence that the former president played any role in the outlet’s recent attack on Greenfield. 

The former president’s oldest son Donald Trump Jr. said in an interview that his father should elevate far-right influencer Laura Loomer to the position of White House press secretary if she wins another term in office. Loomer baselessly accused Greenfield twice of being Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer’s “girlfriend,” echoing the same false rumor that landed Trump a gag order. Loomer also claimed, without evidence, that Engoron’s wife had attacked Trump on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. 

Engoron’s wife told Newsweek the account wasn’t hers.

Trump’s legal team and a campaign spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Engoron has not yet ruled on Trump’s mistrial motion, which focuses in large part on attacking the clerk, an issue likely to play out in appellate court.

‘A patina of plausible deniability’

The first president in the nation’s history to face criminal charges, Trump has been indicted since April on 91 state and federal felony counts in four jurisdictions and has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

In the Washington, D.C., election-subversion case where Trump faces four federal felonies, an on-again, off-again gag order imposed Oct. 17–which prohibits Trump or any other party to the case from making public statements that “target” prosecutors, potential witnesses and others–has been the subject of fierce litigation between prosecutors and the former president’s defense team.

Trump’s legal team responded to the gag order by filing an immediate appeal with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which culminated in heated oral arguments on Nov. 20 before a three-judge panel.

Prosecutors highlighted Trump’s “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I”M COMING AFTER YOU!” post and ensuing death threat in a 67-page legal briefing in the appellate case, saying it was illustrative of what happens after Trump speaks.

“That episode was part of a pattern, stretching back years, in which people publicly targeted by the defendant are, as a result of the targeting, subject to harassment, threats, and intimidation,” prosecutors said, citing Trump’s “long history of using his social media accounts and public statements to target perceived adversaries.”

Trump “does not need to explicitly incite threats or violence in his public statements, because he well knows that, by publicly targeting perceived adversaries with inflammatory language, he can maintain a patina of plausible deniability while ensuring the desired results,” Smith’s office wrote.

A spokesperson for Smith’s office declined to comment for this report.

Trump’s allies in his fight over the gag order include the America First Legal Foundation, led by former White House Advisor Stephen Miller, which filed one amicus brief, and a coalition of Republican state attorneys general who filed another.

In their own legal brief, Trump’s appellate lawyers argued that the former president did not begin making statements specifically about Chutkan until after she received the death threat.

“President Trump did not cause a threat,” they wrote, “by speaking after the threat occurred.”

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