After walking out of a Manhattan courtroom Tuesday, former President Donald Trump  amplified MAGA’s latest anti-government conspiracy theory – that the Biden administration planned to assassinate him. Trump claimed on Truth Social that “Crooked Joe Biden’s DOJ, in their Illegal and Unconstitutional Raid of Mar-a-Lago, AUTHORIZED THE FBI TO USE DEADLY (LETHAL FORCE).” The Trump campaign followed up in a fundraising email with the all-caps headline: “BIDEN’S DOJ WAS AUTHORIZED TO SHOOT ME!”  Trump’s loyalist network amplified the conspiracy theory on social media and across rightwing media. Steve Bannon, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, claimed the Biden administration had carried out an “assassination attempt.” On “X” (formerly known as Twitter), Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote: “The Biden DOJ and FBI were planning to assassinate Pres Trump and gave the green light.”

 Of course, none of this is true. The Department of Justice and FBI were not planning to assassinate Trump during the Aug. 2022 search of his residence in Mar-a-Lago for classified documents. In fact, the FBI reportedly took steps to ensure that there would be no conflict at all, including by giving the Secret Service advanced notice a few hours before executing a perfectly legal search warrant. The FBI also searched the premises when Trump was not there, or even in Palm Beach, Florida at the time. The former president was in New York. What’s more, the conspiracy theory is based entirely on ignorance of the FBI’s standard operating protocol. 

Even though this new conspiracy theory is very easily debunked, it is dangerous. It shows the speed by which even the most outrageous and baseless claims can spread across the MAGA network.  The threat of political violence is persistently high, especially in the months leading up to the 2024 presidential election. And by spreading this hoax, Trump is fanning the flames, in particular, of anti-government extremism.

Nothing Unusual About the Mar-a-Lago Operations Plan

As the FBI was compelled to spell out in response to Trump’s Truth Social post, the search of Mar-a-Lago followed the Bureau’s standard operating procedure, which “includes a standard policy statement limiting the use of deadly force.”

The key word here is “limiting.” Most people will not be surprised to know that the FBI, like other law enforcement agencies, is authorized to use deadly force. FBI Special Agents – so named because of the “special” arrest powers that were granted to them in the early part of the twentieth century shortly after J. Edgar Hoover created the agency – are trained in the Justice Department’s deadly force policy almost daily while at the FBI Academy in Quantico. In fact, most newly-minted agents will be able to recite the first portion of the policy by heart: “[The FBI] may use deadly force only when necessary, that is, when the officer believes that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or another person.”

The policy then clarifies restrictions on the conditions under which the broader justification will apply, to wit:

A. Deadly force may not be used solely to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect.

B. Firearms may not be discharged solely to disable moving vehicles. Specifically, firearms may not be discharged at a moving vehicle unless: (1) a person in the vehicle is threatening the officer or another person with deadly force by means other than the vehicle; or (2) the vehicle is operated in a manner that threatens to cause death or serious physical injury to the officer or others, and no other objectively reasonable means of defense appear to exist, which includes moving out of the path of the vehicle. Firearms may not be discharged from a moving vehicle except in exigent circumstances. In these situations, an officer must have an articulable reason for this use of deadly force.

C. If feasible and if to do so would not increase the danger to the officer or others, a verbal warning to submit to the authority of the officer shall be given prior to the use of deadly force.

D. Warning shots are not permitted outside of the prison context.

E. Officers will be trained in alternative methods and tactics for handling resisting subjects, which must be used when the use of deadly force is not authorized by this policy.

F. Deadly force should not be used against persons whose actions are a threat solely to themselves or property unless an individual poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others in close proximity.

Agents’ ability to apply these restrictions, in real time, fast-moving, and changing circumstances, are tested in various ways at Quantico, such as firearms training simulators (large video screens playing out scenarios that change depending on the agent’s actions and reactions), with actors in Hogan’s Alley, the Academy’s tactical training facility, and in extended reviews and discussions of case studies with FBI attorneys. There are a few red lines that can get new agents kicked out of training, and a failure to understand and apply the restrictions on the use of deadly force is certainly one of them.

There is a through line that is often missing from analysis of these events. For Trump, the conspiracy theory serves a political and ideological purpose – namely, to undermine the public’s confidence in the U.S. government and the rule of law.

Setting forth these limitations on the use of force has been standard operating procedure since the FBI’s internal investigation into the use of deadly force at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992, which resulted in the deaths of Vicki Weaver and her 14 year-old son, Sammy. In that raid, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) developed a tactical operations plan that included specially drafted “Rules of Engagement,” which were not approved by FBI Headquarters. According to the FBI after action report, “These rules instructed the HRT snipers that before a surrender announcement was made, they could and should shoot all armed adult males appearing outside the cabin.” The report went on to find that “[c]ertain portions of these Rules not only departed from the FBI’s standard deadly force policy but also contravened the Constitution of the United States,” and that the Rules “may have created an atmosphere that encouraged the use of deadly force thereby having the effect of contributing to an unintentional death.”

 Reiterating the deadly force policy in all operation plans therefore ensures that there is no departure from the narrow conditions under which such force is authorized. (In the FBI search and arrest teams on which one of the authors participated, the team leader read the deadly force policy out loud before the start of every operation.) There is no such thing as “just” a search warrant with zero risk, and these policies are in place to minimize escalation. The possibility of a search going awry is not merely speculative for the agents of the Miami division: In that division, the same one that executed the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, two FBI agents, Special Agents Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger, were shot and killed in 2021 while attempting to execute a search warrant. In short, there was nothing unusual, out of protocol, or unnecessary about the reiteration of the DOJ deadly force policy in the Mar-a-Lago search plan, and it existed to explicitly remind agents of the need to exercise caution and restraint in situations where agents may need to react to unforeseen circumstances.

The Through Line: An extremist anti-government conspiracy theory 

In light of this background and history, it is tempting to dismiss the claim that President Biden intended to assassinate Trump as silly nonsense. For anyone operating within the bounds of reason, it is easily disproved. But that is the point – the networks of people that believe in such conspiracies are often beyond reason. If such conspiracy-mongering was confined to the fringes of the Internet, as it once was, then its threat to our democracy would be negligible.  But those days are long past.

Conspiracy theories, especially those that undermine the public’s confidence in our democratically elected government and institutions, are a core part of Trump’s political platform. These conspiratorial beliefs can culminate in violence, as Americans witnessed on January 6, 2021, when rightwing extremists and other Trump supporters, who falsely but genuinely believed that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, attacked the U.S. Capitol. And this latest episode demonstrates just how rapidly the MAGA network can manufacture and circulate dangerous new conspiracy theories – seemingly out of nothing. Indeed, the speed by which such an obviously false claim spread through the MAGA-verse should be a warning sign during the election period.      

The assassination claim appears to have originated with Julie Kelly,* a leading MAGA apologist for the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. Kelly has built a career peddling anti-government, pro-Trump conspiracy theories. Her bio on “X” reads “J6 conspiracy theorist” and “insurrection denier,” which is entirely accurate. For instance, Kelly has tried to shift the blame for Jan. 6 from Trump and rightwing extremists, including the Proud Boys, to the FBI. She has insinuated that somehow the Bureau instigated the attack.

[* Editor’s note: After publication, on May 26, 2024, Julie Kelly sent an email to Just Security saying, “At no point did I say this was an attempted assassination attempt, in fact, I have explicitly rejected that description during interviews” and also saying that this piece “compared me to Timothy McVeigh.”
Rangappa and Joscelyn respond: Our piece did not assert or intend to assert that Ms. Kelly herself made the allegation of an assassination attempt. We directly quoted others who did make the claim that the Biden DOJ had authorized the FBI to “shoot” or “assassinate” former President Trump during the search at Mar-a-Lago. We directly quoted Ms. Kelly as arguing that the FBI “risked the lives of Donald Trump, his family, his staff and Mar-a-Lago guests for a publicity stunt to make it look like Trump stole national security files.” We think the facts make it clear that this is not true either. In addition, at no point in the piece did we compare Ms. Kelly to Timothy McVeigh.]

Early in the afternoon on Tuesday, Kelly tweeted out a series of screenshots of court filings, claiming that the documents showed the FBI “risked the lives of Donald Trump, his family, his staff and Mar-a-Lago guests for a publicity stunt to make it look like Trump stole national security files.” She based her conclusions in part on an excerpt from Trump’s unsealed brief to the court, which itself deceptively quoted the Justice Department deadly force policy by omitting the word “only” before “when necessary” without using ellipses to indicate that words were removed.   

Kelly’s additional framing is bizarre. There’s no real doubt that Trump absconded to Mar-a-Lago with classified national security documents after his presidency. In other words, the FBI did not need to “make it look like Trump stole national security files” because he did just that. Kelly also grossly misinterpreted the court filings she posted on “X.” Even though Kelly’s interpretation of the FBI’s standard operating procedures is unmoored from the facts, her posts spawned coverage across the rightwing media, including on Fox News, and gained further amplification from the social media account of the Republican-majority on the House Judiciary Committee. Her post on X reached over 9 million views.

There is a through line that is often missing from analysis of these events. For Trump, the conspiracy theory serves a political and ideological purpose – namely, to undermine the public’s confidence in the U.S. government and the rule of law. Trump quickly used it on Truth Social to undermine the legitimacy of the national security documents case against him. The former president also used it to claim that President Biden was the real threat to democracy – and not him.

Violent extremists across the American right are generally hostile to the U.S. government. In addition to the Proud Boys, members of the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters (both of which participated in the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol) view the U.S. government as illegitimate. 

Others, including white nationalist groups, are opposed to the U.S. government as well. Some seek to provoke a war between the federal government and the American people. This bloody goal was set forth by neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce in his 1978 novel, The Turner Diaries, which has inspired far-right extremists for decades. The Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, “read and believed in” Pierce’s book “like the Bible,” according to federal prosecutors. McVeigh, who killed 168 people and wounded hundreds more with a truck bomb, viewed the book as a blueprint for starting a race war that would ultimately topple the U.S. government. Pierce also fantasized about an attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as the “Day of the Rope,” when all of the supposed “race traitors,” including government officials, would be hanged. It is easy to see why some have drawn comparisons between Pierce’s fictional work and the attack of January 6th, when a hangman’s gallows was constructed outside the U.S. Capitol and some rioters openly declared that lawmakers and the vice president should be hanged from it. In addition, the Proud Boys’ leaders threatened government officials after the Nov. 2020 presidential election. One of them, Ethan Nordean, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy and other felonies for his role on Jan. 6, called for a “Day of the Rope.”        

Conspiracy theories such as the nonsensical assassination plot fuel the extremists’ anti-government paranoia and increase the likelihood of future violence. We should accordingly not be surprised if rightwing extremists interpret Trump’s words as a call to action against the FBI or others. Some extremists already lashed out at the FBI in response to the Mar-a-Lago search. That was before they were told their leader was the target of an assassination attempt by the Bureau at the behest of the president.

Ricky Shiffer, a Navy veteran who claimed that he was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, attempted to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati office shortly after the Bureau searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence. After the FBI raid, Shiffer reportedly encouraged others on Truth Social to “get whatever you need to be ready for combat” and to answer the “call to arms.” Shiffer failed to breach the FBI’s office, a fact that he shared in another social media post: “If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I., and it’ll mean either I was taken off the internet, the F.B.I. got me, or they sent the regular cops.”

Shiffer was later killed after engaging in a shootout with police. After his death, the press reported that Shiffer was suspected of having ties to rightwing extremist groups, including the Proud Boys.

Beyond stoking rightwing extremism, Trump’s embrace of the latest conspiracy theory poses other risks as well. It is no secret that some of Trump’s allies are plotting to “purge” the DOJ and the FBI’s leadership should Trump regain the presidency. They would replace career professionals with Trump “loyalists” who will follow even controversial orders. The pretext for their plans is that the DOJ and FBI are hopelessly biased against Trump. It is easy to see how the latest conspiracy theory, or ones like it, could be used to justify Trump’s autocratic consolidation of power.