'The President Radicalized Me' Now A Legal Defense For Terrorists

Cesar Sayoc at a Trump rally

We already knew that Trump and Fox News were radicalizing people and spurring them to violence. Now, it has actually become a legal defense. Lawyers for Cesar Sayoc, widely known as the "MAGA bomber" after mailing improvised bombs to CNN and prominent Democrats, have argued in a court filing that Sayoc was radicalized by Trump and Fox News propaganda. But Sayoc is far from the only person to be spurred to violence by the President's bigotry and hate. Let's meet all the president's terrorists.

"Trump and Fox News made me do it"

In a sentencing memo filed this week, Sayoc's lawyers argued that "a series of traumatic events" led to his marginalization and later his radicalization. It details Sayoc's troubled childhood, cognitive limitations, and learning disabilities. He was sexually abused by a teacher at his Catholic school and abandoned by his father. By the time he terrorized the country with mailed explosive devices in 2018, Sayoc had been living in a van for more than a decade and was hooked on steroids.

According to Sayoc's lawyers:

In this darkness, Mr. Sayoc found light in Donald J. Trump. His infatuation with the President began as something personal, not political. When he was most down, Mr. Sayoc relied on self-help books on tape to keep going. Donald Trump's books on success and business were his favorites. Mr. Sayoc was an ardent Trump fan and, when Trump announced he was running for President, Mr. Sayoc enthusiastically supported him. He began watching Fox News religiously at the gym, planning his morning workout to coincide with Fox and Friends and his evenings to dovetail with Hannity ...
Mr. Sayoc was enthusiastic and credulous. Because of his cognitive limitations and mental illness, he believed outlandish reports in the news and on social media, which increasingly made him unhinged. He became obsessed with "attacks" from those he perceived as Trump's enemies. He believed stories shared on Facebook that Trump supporters were being beaten in the streets. He came to believe that he was being personally targeted for supporting Trump: Mr. Sayoc thought that anti-Trump forces were trying to hurt him and they were to blame when his van was vandalized.

Sayoc's life is tragic, but some of these descriptions sound a lot like people I encounter every day on Twitter.

In the lead up to the 2018 mid-term elections, Mr. Sayoc became increasingly obsessive, paranoid, and angry. He conflated his personal situation with the perceived struggles of Trump supporters across the country, and even the President himself. His paranoia bled into delusion and Mr. Sayoc came to believe that prominent Democrats were actively working to hurt him, other Trump supporters, and the country as a whole. Mr. Sayoc became obsessed with this idea and found himself unable to think of anything else.

The memo details that Sayoc relied on Trump's books for personal inspiration, and by 2013, had begun to think of Trump as a type of "father figure." Even before Trump decided to run for President, Sayoc "was a Donald Trump super-fan." Prior to Trump running for office, Sayoc had been apolitical. But during the election,

Mr. Sayoc came to view Trump as a personal champion—someone who had helped him through the most difficult periods of his life and who could do the same for other people across the country. He threw himself into the campaign by attending rallies, passing out flyers, and covering his van in pro-Trump stickers, including some that he had custom printed.

Sayoc's truck looked not dissimilar from cars that I see around West Virginia (albeit without the matching stickers of the Confederate flag).

The sentencing memo goes on to describe how Fox News and Trump himself furthered Sayoc's delusions:

Mr. Sayoc began watching Fox News religiously and following Trump supporters on social media. He became a vocal political participant on Facebook, something he had not done previously. He was not discerning of the pro-Trump information he received, and by the time of his arrest, he was "connected" to hundreds of right-wing Facebook groups. Many of these groups promoted various conspiracy theories and, more generally, the idea that Trump's critics were dangerous, unpatriotic, and evil ... They deployed provocative language to depict Democrats as murderous, terroristic, and violent. Fox News furthered these arguments. For example, just days before Mr. Sayoc mailed his packages, Sean Hannity said on his program that a large "number of Democratic leaders [were] encouraging mob violence against their political opponents."

Mr. Sayoc was also an avid follower of @RealDonaldTrump, Donald Trump's Twitter page, where Trump posted prolifically about his political enemies, including all of the recipients of Mr. Sayoc's mailings. In his tweets, Trump portrayed these individuals as dangerous, corrupt, and un-American. For example, he suggested that anti-Trump protestors were paid agents of billionaire George Soros and that Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted for corruption and put in jail.


Kansas anti-Somali terrorists also radicalized by Trump

Sayoc is certainly not the first or only person radicalized to violence by Trump and pro-Trump propaganda.

In October 2016, Patrick Eugene Stein, Curtis Allen, and Gavin Wright were arrested for planning a series of terrorist attacks against Somali-American refugees in Garden City, Kansas. If successful, it could have been "the deadliest domestic terror attack since the Oklahoma bombing in 1995."

After being convicted, the terrorists' attorneys argued that they were patriots who had been misled by the President. In a sentencing memo, Allen, a former Marine and Officer in the Army National Guard, said that he "perceived himself as a patriot who needed to protect his community." Lawyers argued that Allen's "misguided patriotism was inflamed by the rhetoric of the 2016 political climate and the influence of the Russian information warfare campaign against the American people." It also details how the three interacted with Russian propaganda on Facebook prior to plotting their terrorist hate crime.

Judge Melgren didn't buy it, saying at sentencing, "I did a lot of eye rolling, candidly, when reading that in the briefs[.]"

Is this really a legal defense?

Yes and no.

At sentencing, criminal defendants present something called "mitigating evidence" or "mitigating factors" to the court. Mitigating factors include information about the defendant or the crime itself that tend to show the defendant should get some lenience in sentencing. Most of the arguments presented in Sayoc's care are based on fairly traditional mitigating factors -- mental illness, cognitive deficiencies, childhood trauma, and his difficult life. Mitigating evidence can't change a guilty verdict, but it can lessen the amount of time a person spends in prison, or change a death sentence to a life sentence.

What is actually done with the mitigating evidence is highly discretionary and up to the trial judge. In the case of the would-be Kansas bombers, Judge Melgren clearly didn't find the arguments persuasive. But another judge might. And when you consider the fact that we have a president who tacitly encourages violence at every turn, it's not the most ridiculous argument in the world.

Can Trump be held liable for inciting violence?

It's a good question, but probably not.

In the early 1900s, anti-war protesters and Communists were thrown in prison for incitement for things like passing out fliers encouraging people to resist the draft. But in 1969, the Supreme Court remembered the First Amendment is a thing, and made the standard for incitement pretty high. Now, for someone to be held liable for incitement, their speech has to be both likely to cause imminent illegal action and intended to cause imminent illegal action.

Although Trump's rhetoric is hateful and disgusting, it usually (usually) stops short of actually telling people to go out and commit crimes. And although it would be gratifying to see Trump actually held responsible for the verbal vomit he spews, it's important that we have these strict limits on criminalizing speech. After all, before we had this established standard, it wasn't prominent Republicans or Democrats who were being hauled into court -- it was anti-war activists and people trying to set up small political parties that challenged the status quo.

It isn't just Sayoc and the Kansas terrorists

Sayoc and the Kansas trio are far from the only people to be radicalized by the hateful rhetoric and propaganda spewed by Trump and Fox News on a daily basis. It can be seen in every facet of life, from customers screaming at Spanish speakers at Mexican restaurants to "get the fuck out of my country" to neo-Nazis feeling safe to come out of the closet.

Others include:

  • Scott Leader and Steve Leader, the brothers who brutally beat a homeless man who they incorrectly believed to be an undocumented immigrant.
  • Alexandre Bissonnette, who murdered six people and injured 19 after opening fire at the Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec City, Canada.
  • Michael Hari, Michael McWhorter, and Joe Morris, militia members who bombed the the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota.
  • James Alex Fields Jr., who was been sentenced to life in prison for murdering Heather Heyer.
  • Brandon Griesemer, who has been charged with threatening to bomb CNN.
  • Nikolas Cruz, who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
  • Jeremy Christian, who has been charged with stabbing two people to death on a train in Portland, Oregon.
  • James Jackson, who murdered a homeless black man in New York.
  • Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who is about to stand trial for killing 10 in a Santa Fe high school shooting.
These are far from the only terrorists and violent criminals to be inspired by Trump's particular brand of bigotry and the white nationalist propagandists who prop him up. Trump's recent racists tweets singling out four congresswomen of color have already resulted in an untold number of threats on their lives -- including at least one from a (now former) police officer. And lest they feel left out of the racism and xenophobia, other Republicans have been quick to hump on the bandwagon of hate.

Obviously, people who commit violent crimes should not be absolved of responsibility simply because the President is a piece of shit. But it's important to recognize the danger evoked by Trump's disgusting rhetoric and actions. The president's job is to work for the people, not to place them in imminent danger. At the same time people on the right are ranting about "civility" when a milkshake is thrown or Sarah Huckabee Sanders is politely asked to leave a restaurant, they are actively propping up a terrible, hateful little man who puts people in danger every day. Today, it's four non-white congresswomen. Who it will be tomorrow remains to be seen.

You know what's not "civil"? A sitting president fucking inciting violence.

[ Sayoc Memo / Allen Memo / The Intercept ]

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Jamie Lynn Crofts
Jamie Lynn Crofts is sick of your bullshit. When she’s not wrangling cats, she’s probably writing about nerdy legal stuff, rocking out at karaoke, or tweeting about god knows what. Jamie would kindly like to remind everyone that it’s perfectly legal to tell Bob Murray to eat shit.

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