Arrests for violent threats against high-profile US politicians spiked in 2018.
There were 23 prosecutions for threats against Donald Trump or those in the presidential line of succession last year, a 130% increase over 2017, when there were 10, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). The uptick came after five years of steady decline.
The number of prosecutions, which don’t necessarily correspond with actual threats, can represent the government’s willingness to press cases at any given time. Researchers say the vast majority of threats overall in the US tend to come from white men who support right-wing causes.
Three cases of defendants who threatened the life of political figures came to various stages of resolution in federal courtrooms last week.
In one, an upstate New York man was convicted of threatening to kill former president Barack Obama and congresswoman Maxine Waters, the California Democrat. In another, a California man was sentenced for threatening the lives of Obama, former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and Trump. In the third, Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man charged with mailing 16 package bombs to more than a dozen political figures and media outlets seen as critical of Trump—including Obama, Waters, Hillary Clinton, and CNN—pleaded guilty to 65 counts. (On March 22, Waters issued a statement noting that four men have been convicted of threatening to kill her since Trump took office in 2017.)
Anyone who “knowingly and willfully threatens to kill, kidnap, or inflict bodily harm” upon the president, vice president, ex-presidents and ex-vice presidents, members of their families, presidential and vice presidential candidates, or members of their families (within 120 days of the general election) faces up to five years in prison on each count and a $250,000 fine. Threatening to kill a member of Congress carries a sentence of up to 10 years; six for threatening an assault.
A Secret Service spokesman declined to say how many open threats they are investigating against the president and the other individuals the agency protects. Past estimates have varied from as few as six per day to as many as 30 during the Obama era.
Threats in recent decades
Here is a look at prosecutions for threats against sitting presidents, as gathered by the Syracuse team:
In 2010, Democratic lawmakers reported receiving at least 10 death threats over their support of the Affordable Care Act. Republican congressman Eric Cantor also got death threats at the time for his opposition to Obamacare and a window was shot out at his office in Richmond, Virginia.
Michael Loadenthal, director of the Prosecution Project (tPP), a statistical modeling lab at Miami University of Ohio, says federal decision-making dictates how prosecutorial focus and strategy fluctuate with administrations and the prevailing political climate. He noted that in the weeks, months and years following the 9/11 attacks of 2001, there was a surge in prosecutions of defendants with links to Muslim-majority countries.
“These arrests subsided in the Obama years as US strategy changed focus, and Obama shifted focus to extrajudicial assassinations overseas,” Loadenthal tells Quartz. “We can expect these patterns to wax and wane as administrations determine and refocus their attention, determining for themselves what constitutes a notable threat to the lives of elected officials.”
Prosecutions for threats against federal officials in general were up 41%, with 45 in 2018. It’s the highest rate in the past two years, but down 8% as compared to 2013. The level was highest in 2011, during…