While he is notoriously stubborn and self-assured, President Donald Trump is also famous for being susceptible to the power of suggestion.
Trump demonstrates how easily persuadable he is by responding via Twitter to “Fox & Friends" almost every day. His campaign and White House staffers have admitted to this several times, albeit not on the record. But their actions have made clear they believe this: White House chief of staff John Kelly has reportedly prohibited staff members from giving Trump reading materials. More recently, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer asked that presidential aide and immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller be kept out of an immigration meeting, lest he shape the president's thinking too much. Even Russian-controlled Twitter accounts have apparently been set to tweet at Trump during times he’s habitually online.
But the relationship between Trump and his admirers goes both ways. It has been observed that the people who have worked closely with the president, either in private or public life, eventually start behaving like him, even when he’s not around. Longtime lawyer Marc Kasowitz certainly demonstrated that when he threatened to stalk a "bitch" emailer. Trump’s personal physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, has also waxed Trumpian at times, describing his patient’s health as “extraordinary” and “astonishingly excellent.”
Given how the president and his close admirers tend to bring out the worst in each other, it’s particularly concerning how the most vehemently pro-Trump media outlets are going far beyond the sycophantic blather of “Fox & Friends” to outright calls for the president to jail or even execute people he doesn’t like -- particularly if they happen to be investigating connections between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia.
In December, Fox News pundit and Trump ally Jeanine Pirro called on the president to implement a massive purge of officials who are not totally loyal.
“There is a cleansing needed in our FBI and Department of Justice — it needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired, but who need to be taken out in cuffs!” Pirro ranted.
The alleged need for large-scale firings and arrests within America’s intelligence agencies is a subject on which Pirro and her fellow Fox News Trump commentators Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson have opined for many months now.
But Trump did not need months of persuasion to respond, however. As the New York Times reported on Thursday, the president ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller in June, just a few weeks after he had been appointed. Luckily for Trump, White House counsel Don McGahn and other staffers reportedly declined to carry out the order.
But the president’s Fox fans not have been the only right-wing media figures urging Trump to jail various Democrats and government investigators.
On Tuesday, John Guandolo, a disgraced former FBI agent who has made a second career as an anti-Muslim and pro-Trump commentator, repeatedly told viewers of the Christian television station theDove that anyone who had allegedly promoted the famous “Steele dossier” as a justification for wiretapping Trump campaign officials was guilty of “sedition and treason” and must be given the death penalty.
“People need to be tried, convicted and executed for treason,” Guandolo said, in remarks that were first reported by the blog Right Wing Watch. “They are conspiring to overthrow the government … they need to be charged, sent to jail, executed, etc., if the republic is to survive.”
Though Guandolo is a relatively obscure pundit, he is apparently respected by a number of federal law enforcement agencies who have repeatedly paid for his anti-Muslim training programs.
Fox News viewers have also been introduced to the idea of capital punishment for Trump's critics. In October, Sebastian Gorka, the former White House adviser who is now a “national security strategist” at Fox News, invoked a conspiracy theory about former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's supposed approved of a deal for a Canadian uranium company that was working with a Russian firm.
According to Gorka, American officials who approved the sale are the equivalent of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple executed for selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.
“If this had happened in the 1950s, there would be people up on treason charges right now. The Rosenbergs, OK?” Gorka told a rapturous Sean Hannity. “This is equivalent to what the Rosenbergs did, and those people got the chair. Think about it. Giving away nuclear capability to our enemies, that’s what we’re talking about.”
As the Russia investigation has continued to heat up, Alex Jones — the conspiracy radio host who shifted from commentary about gay frogs, Ron Paul, and space aliens to spittle-flecked pro-Trump bombast — has begun increasing his own rhetorical vehemence against law enforcement officials.
Even before he became devoted to Trump, Jones had a long history of proclaiming violent fantasies on the air, such as warning actor Robert DeNiro that he wanted to “tear his nose completely off his face” and threatening to break the jaws of various other people he dislikes.
(While some observers of his program have argued Jones is just acting, during an April episode, he denied that his harangues are purely theatrical. “We’re the most bona fide, hard-core, real McCoy thing there is,” he told listeners.)
As the Mueller investigation has gotten two guilty pleas and numerous indictments against former Trump associates, Jones’ violent outbursts have only increased. He has apparently absorbed every unhinged conspiracy theory about treasonous “Deep State” elites and the ways they are using their supposedly limitless power to overthrow the president.
During the Jan. 19 episode of his program, Jones went on an extended-length rant, saying that Clinton, former president Barack Obama, former FBI director James Comey and a host of others were accusing Trump of acting like a dictator. Jones' suggested remedy: Trump should start doing just that.
“Mr. President, they’re not going to stop, they’ve already started a civil war! They’ve all got to go to prison!” Jones raged in a segment discussing CNN host Anderson Cooper and New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg. “They’re saying you’re a dictator, we all need to be shut down, take our free speech, and then say you’re doing that. They’ve already launched their operations!"
The Infowars founder then alluded to Phil Mudd, a former FBI and CIA official who now is a commentator at CNN who said last August that Trump’s antagonistic remarks about career intelligence officials could result in them wanting to “kill this guy.” It was clearly a metaphor, as host Jake Tapper and Mudd were quick to point out, for the idea that Trump might be inspiring government officials to leak disparaging information about the president.
According to Jones, however, Mudd had instead publicly stated that American intelligence agencies are planning to assassinate Trump. Because of that, Jones suggested, the president needs to begin physically rounding up his political opponents and treating them like violent traitors:
“Phil Mudd is on TV saying he’s going to kill you! All you need to do is go after them now! Turn the dogs loose! They started it! They did it! They’re the foreign power! They’re the enemy! They’re the traitors!”
“Get ’em! Get ’em!” Jones screamed as he pointed at an image of Cooper and Rosenberg on his studio screen.
Later on in the episode, Jones revisited the topic of the Trump-Russia investigation, claiming that Obama “needs to go to prison” because “these people aren’t above the law.”
“These aren’t Americans,” Jones continued. “They’re globalists.”
He then tried to answer listeners and viewers who might believe that Trump imprisoning Clinton and Obama could lead to civil war.
“They’re already trying to cause one,” Jones replied. “Justice be done, may the heavens fall,” he said, alluding to the famous Latin phrase that is also a line in Oliver Stone's conspiracy film “JFK.”
The Infowars chief then compared government officials and liberal political figures to the Japanese and German armies America fought in World War II.
“We have to attack them legally and lawfully. ...We have to defeat them all. They’re not going to stop,” Jones continued. “Like World War II, you don’t just kick Hitler back into Germany, he’s going to reconstitute and attack again. You don’t just kick the Japanese out of the Pacific Islands, you’ve gotta go all the way to Tokyo. They started it!”
As he continued, Jones suggested that because of their “treason,” Trump needs to “go all the way” against his opponents.
“Whatever has to happen is going to happen. We’re going all the way against these people, period. We have to do it. There’s no other choice. They’ve all got to politically hang for their crimes,” he said.
“Incidentally,” Jones said as he looked deep into the camera and drummed his fingers to accentuate the dramatic pause. “You know what the punishment for treason is.”
He continued: “These are the foreign individuals that took our country over. They’re the ones who corrupted everything almost to the point of the country’s death. And they’re still trying to strangle the country today. We must stand against them.”
Before the rise of Trump, Jones was an irrelevant conspiracy radio host whose ravings were listened to by a small number of deranged core fans and hipsters with eccentric senses of humor. All of that changed after Jones latched on to Trump during his campaign.
Trump returned the favor, saying publicly that Jones has an “amazing” reputation during his campaign. As president, he has given Jones and his Infowars colleagues prime access to White House officials. According to Jones, Trump has called him multiple times at home during the past few months. The host has also claimed that he knows several personal phone numbers for Trump, including the president’s private suite at Mar-a-Lago.
Nor Jones is the only person associated with Infowars who has deep connections inside the administration.
Trump’s longtime friend and unofficial political adviser Roger Stone is now the host of an Infowars show of his own. Donald Trump Jr., the president's oldest son, posted on Twitter last April that Infowars correspondent and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich deserved a Pulitzer Prize after an administration source fed him a scoop days before the mainstream press. It was one of several important stories the two have broken ahead of legitimate news outlets. Cernovich has also boasted that Donald Jr. and other Trump family members personally give the president printouts of stories from Infowars and other dubious websites.
Given the many strictures on the commander in chief's authority, it is unlikely that Trump could start imprisoning his political opponents even if he wanted to. But the president is far from the only person exposed to a constant diet of violent rhetoric against Democrats, journalists and law enforcement officers. Many disturbed people who voted for him are as well.
Last week, a Michigan man named Brandon Griesemer was arrested for threatening to kill CNN’s “fake news” anchors. In December of 2016, North Carolina resident Edgar Maddison Welch burst into a pizza restaurant near Washington with a rifle and fired off three rounds, in part because Jones and his staff had spent hours telling their followers the place was the center of a global child-sex ring.
Following Welch’s guilty plea last March, Jones begrudgingly and partially retracted his support for the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory. His actions since, however, suggest he has no legitimate intention of cleaning up his act.
People have mocked the idea that Trump could become a dictator. What's clear is that many people he likes are telling him to become one.