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How the ‘Deadly Force’ Lie Swept Through the MAGA Media Ecosystem
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How the ‘Deadly Force’ Lie Swept Through the MAGA Media Ecosystem

Numerous media figures parroted false claims about the FBI’s 2022 search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media during his New York criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21, 2024. (Photo by Curtis Means-Pool/Getty Images)

This week Judge Aileen Cannon unsealed a filing from Donald Trump’s legal team in the classified documents case in South Florida, setting off a firestorm of baseless conspiracy theorizing by the former president’s supporters that blazed its way from a long-discredited conspiracy writer through Fox News and many top right-wing radio shows. It eventually ended up, as so many things do, in a fundraising appeal from Trump himself. 

The narrative arc of this alternative reality is familiar: the sensationalization of perfunctory government-speak, the unhesitating acceptance of unproven claims, the quick and authoritative debunking of the false assertions, the desperate insistence that what’s been debunked should still generate outrage. Understanding what happened here provides useful insight into the cluttered information environment so crucial to Trump’s political success.

The swiftness with which the false claims—that the FBI, under direction from Joe Biden’s Justice Department, sought to use deadly force against Trump and even to assassinate him—made it from the fever swamps of the internet to the former president demonstrate how the MAGA ecosystem inculcates a culture of lying and misrepresentation of facts. It’s worth deconstructing both how the falsehoods entered the bloodstream and exactly what Trump’s acolytes in the media have gotten wrong, according to multiple sources at the Justice Department and FBI who spoke to The Dispatch about standard operating procedures.

First, the Trump motion itself, which seeks to dismiss the case in part by arguing the FBI’s 2022 raid on Mar-a-Lago violated Trump’s constitutional rights, appears designed to mislead the public. Trump’s filing lays out his case with several dubious claims, but what members of the pro-Trump media seized on Tuesday was language from the FBI’s “operations order” that governed the agents’ execution of the legally obtained search warrant for Mar-a-Lago. 

Under a heading titled “The Illegal Raid,” Trump’s filing noted that the FBI order “contained a ‘Policy Statement’ regarding ‘Use Of Deadly Force,’ which stated, for example, ‘Law enforcement officers of the Department of Justice may use deadly force when necessary.’” (The FBI order had been obtained by Trump’s defense team during discovery and presented as an exhibit in its filing.)

What the defense’s filing does not detail is the fact that the operation order’s permission for law enforcement to “use deadly force when necessary” is boilerplate language included in the operations order from the DOJ’s policy on use of deadly force—the same language used in pretty much every order authorizing the execution of arrest and search warrants. This is what FBI sources told The Dispatch—that at any point where armed agents are involved in an operation, even one with no expectation of resistance such as a search warrant execution, a policy dictating when deadly force can and cannot be used is not only standard but necessary. Whether the FBI is raiding the offices of a business suspected of mail fraud, the headquarters of a drug kingpin suspected of racketeering, or the home of a former president suspected of retaining classified documents illegally, the rules governing the use of deadly force remain the same.

But Americans who receive their information from a variety of pro-Trump and MAGA sources would learn none of that. The reaction from those voices was quick, hysterical, and wrong. Leading the charge was Julie Kelly, a writer at Real Clear Investigations who for years has proliferated conspiracy theories and false narratives regarding the January 6 riot at the Capitol, the prosecutions of Trump, and other subjects of interest to the MAGA movement. Her explanation of January 6? Trump supporters were innocent victims of left-wing troublemakers and Democrats started the trouble to suppress the facts about voter fraud in the 2020 election.

On Tuesday, Kelly breathlessly relayed the details of the FBI operations order on her X account.

“Oh my God,” Kelly wrote. “Armed FBI agents were preparing to confront Trump and even engage Secret Service if necessary. They were going to go door to door to terrorize MAL guests and even pick the locks. Gestapo.” She noted the operations order’s medical plan in case anyone was injured during the raid. 

Kelly even provided a screenshot of the section from the order citing the FBI’s policy statement on use of deadly force, which states that such force can only be used “when the officer has a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person.” But from this, Kelly claimed the FBI “risked the lives of Donald Trump, his family, his staff, and MAL guests” and said that “people need to be arrested for this.”

Setting aside that Trump himself was not at Mar-a-Lago at the time of the raid, it’s worth noting that the policy itself is designed to protect people at the location where a search warrant is being executed by limiting how law enforcement officers are allowed to use deadly force. As FBI sources told The Dispatch, since the Obama administration, the policy has increasingly restricted the circumstances in which federal law enforcement can use deadly force, including more limits on when firearms can be used on moving vehicles. The policy is built on the presumption that such force should only be used in times of imminent serious injury or possible death or to officers or other persons.

Yet Kelly’s tweets, and her bogus claim that the FBI language was unusual and ominous, were amplified in real time by a series of credentialed accounts on the MAGA right. One of those was the X account for the Republicans of the House Judiciary Committee, which retweeted one of Kelly’s tweets with several “siren” emojis. Others included Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Banks and Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz. Rep. Paul Gosar even said Biden “ordered the hit” on Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

On Tuesday night, the FBI issued a rare public statement seeking to quell the growing frenzy: “The FBI followed standard protocol in this search as we do for all search warrants, which includes a standard policy statement limiting the use of deadly force. No one ordered additional steps to be taken and there was no departure from the norm in this matter.” 

It didn’t work. Pro-Trump commentators continued to misrepresent the order online.

“‘​​It is standard policy to authorize shooting our Republican political opponent when we raid his home for no good reason after running the Russia collusion hoax and other scams.’ — Biden DOJ” tweeted Mollie Hemingway, a Fox News contributor, attempting to satirize the FBI’s defense while misrepresenting the text and meaning of the policy. She later gleefully tweeted about Trump’s own proliferation of this misrepresentation.

“It was not a standard op,” tweeted Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who hosts a popular online podcast show. “The MAL raid was an unprecedented action with significant potential for confusion and blue on blue issues and conflict. It also involved competing equities between federal agencies (FBI & USSS) with equal statutory claims to interrupt the other’s activities.”

What Bongino does not note is that the operating order itself provides the guidelines for how to coordinate with other law enforcement agents and even with Mar-a-Lago security and staff—quite literally a standard part of any FBI field operation. 

Perhaps the best example of how pro-Trump voices online were acting in bad faith on this idea comes from Kelly’s claim that FBI agents “were preparing to confront Trump and even engage Secret Service if necessary.” The phrase “engage Secret Service” has been interpreted by Kelly’s followers to mean the FBI was explicitly prepared to engage the former president’s protective service with firearms. But a clear reading of the order, which Kelly is paraphrasing, shows that FBI planned on contingencies in which their officers would need to engage in conversation with either Secret Service or Trump himself if he returned to the scene of the search.

The lie that the FBI, with the approval of Attorney General Merrick Garland, was authorized to shoot at Trump, at will, during its lawful execution of a search warrant, has successfully seeped into the bloodstream of right-wing America. The story even ended up on the flagship evening news program of Fox News, Special Report, where on Tuesday correspondent Kevin Corke described the details from the unsealed filing as “quite shocking” and read snippets from the operations order that he called “very interesting”—all without noting that the language about using deadly force reflected the standard policy for FBI field operations.

It fell to anchor Bret Baier to raise this unavoidable fact at the conclusion of Corke’s live report. Baier noted that “some people” may point out that the FBI was simply using the language of its standard policy for the use of deadly force, but then hedged a bit.

“But obviously it’s not standard operating procedure when you’re going into the house of a former president who happens to be protected by Secret Service. One would think that would be different,” Baier said.

As Special Report’s coverage moved to a panel discussion, the main Fox News X account tweeted: “SERIOUS THREAT: The bombshell documents show a court filing stating, ‘Law Enforcement officers of the Department of Justice may use deadly force when necessary’ during the FBI’s raid on Former President Trump’s estate.” (The tweet from 6:44 p.m. has been deleted without explanation. A spokeswoman for Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.)

Just over an hour later, Fox News host Jesse Watters continued to hype the story. “Think about this for a second: Joe Biden sent men with guns to his political opponent’s house. And turned their bedrooms upside down. That’s never happened in the history of the United States,” he said. And since she first launched the orgy of deception on Tuesday morning, Julie Kelly, the conspiracy maven, was busy appearing on many of the country’s most popular right-wing talk radio and podcast shows, including Mark Levin, Charlie Kirk, Clay Travis and Buck Sexton (successors to Rush Limbaugh), and Steve Bannon’s “War Room”—reaching millions of listeners across the country.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Trump is raising money off the controversy. “Breaking from Trump: Biden’s DOJ was authorized to shoot me!” blares the headline on a Trump fundraising email from Tuesday. And then: “It’s just been revealed that Biden’s DOJ was authorized to use DEADLY FORCE for their DESPICABLE raid in Mar-a-Lago. You know they’re just itching to do the unthinkable. Joe Biden was locked & loaded ready to take me out & put my family in danger.”

That was never the plan, of course. There was no assassination plot. There was no threatening language. Nobody was going to do the unthinkable and the FBI made special efforts, in advance, to make sure no one was in danger. Most of that was obvious right from Julie Kelly’s first irresponsible tweet. But it was confirmed in almost comical fashion some 36 hours after the manufactured controversy began, when Jacqui Heinrich, White House correspondent for Fox News, tweeted that the same FBI language that had MAGA world in hype mode was included in the operation order for the searches conducted at President Joe Biden’s home when he was believed to have retained classified documents.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.