President Trump was standing at a lectern adorned with the executive office seal, addressing an arena packed with thousands of his most strident supporters, when he paused his standard rally stump speech and reached into his suit coat.
Last year, he harangued the “hyperpartisan impeachment witch hunt” and the whistleblower who helped launch it, Trump unfolded a printout of a just-published Fox News story and waved it at the crowd in norther Louisiana.
“Look at this character. They handed me this story,” the president said of the article, which detailed old tweets by Mark Zaid, one of the attorneys representing the intelligence official who sounded the alarm on Trump’s involvement in pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political rival.
The 2017 posts were critical of the president and mentioned the need for “#rebellion.” Before reading them aloud, Trump called Zaid “a sleazeball.” He ended his digression by saying: “These people are bad people, and it’s so bad what they do to our country. They rip the guts out of our country.”
The day after the rally, Nov. 7, 2019, Zaid received a disquieting email.
“All traitors must die miserable deaths,” the message read. “Those that represent traitors shall meet the same fate. We will hunt you down and bleed you out like the pigs you are.”
The email came from Brittan J. Atkinson, said Michigan federal prosecutors, who was indicted on charges of making death threats against Zaid. The newly unsealed court filing was first reported by Politico and noted by Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Atkinston sent the menacing message from Gladwin County, in northern Michigan, the indictment said. He is charged with violating federal interstate communication laws, which prohibit “any threat to injure the person of another.” The felony offense is punishable by up to five years in prison.
The filing states that Atkinson signed off by telling Zaid, “We have nothing but time, and you are running out of it.”
“Keep looking over your shoulder,” Atkinson is alleged to have written. “We know who you are, where you live and who you associate with. We are all strangers in a crowd to you.”
It is unclear whether Trump’s words inspired Atkinson to send that email, but experts say the threat highlights the dangers of barbed rhetoric and often personal insults deployed by the president and his supporters, who have attacked the whistleblower repeatedly, posting his purported identity online and reading his name aloud in the Senate.
“I hope this indictment sends a message to other that such behavior will not be tolerated by a civil society that is governed by law,” Zaid said in a statement.
“My job was to ensure the rule of law was followed in how whistleblowers are treated. That role should not be negatively weaponized by partisans,” he added. “I will continue to zealously represent my clients, to include and especially whistleblowers, and to ensure the rule of law is enforced and protected.”
Zaid wasn’t the only one to get threats. Bradley Moss, a partner at Zaid’s firm, tweeted to Trump the morning after the president’s rally in Louisiana.
“Thank you so much for the specific commentary about my firm last night,” Moss wrote, tagging Trump’s Twitter handle. “I woke up to a ton of hate mail and death threats.”
As news of the indictment spread, some in the legal community applauded the prosecutors in Michigan and called for increased protections for whistleblowers and their lawyers.
“Whistleblower are not traitors,” said David Colapinto, the general counsel at the National Whistleblower Center, a nonprofit organization. “It is the job of the president to protect whistleblowers, not incite violence against them.”
Walter M. Shaub Jr., the former director of the independent Office of Government Ethics who clashed with the Trump administration over ethics violations, said the threats could portend further violence.
“Trump is going to get someone hurt or worse with personal attacks on people,” Shaub said on Twitter.
An attorney for Atkinson could not be reached for comment. The Detroit News reported that Atkinson appeared in court on Thursday and entered a plea of not guilty.