Last week, a Donald Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina became the focus of a criminal investigation when a Trump supporter decked a protester and threatened to kill him if he ever showed up at a Trump event again. Now it turns out that Trump himself was the target of the investigation–but it appears that, for now anyway, he won’t face charges.
In case you missed it, Rakeem Jones was about to leave the rally at Fayetteville’s Crown Coliseum when Trump supporter John McGraw hit him from behind with a forearm shiver. McGraw was later seen telling “Inside Edition” that he wasn’t at all ashamed of what he did. Watch here.
McGraw declared that “knocking the hell out of that big mouth” Jones was his favorite part of the rally, and warned that if he came back for another protest, “we might have to kill him.” He was later arrested for assault and battery, disorderly conduct, and communicating threats.
It says a lot about the kind of person Trump is that he has “instructed my people” to look into paying McGraw’s legal bills. Remember, this is a guy who was caught on tape decking a protester–behavior that has no place at a campaign rally in any self-respecting democracy.
But for a time on Monday, it appeared that Trump may have needed to save some money for his own lawyer. Ronnie Mitchell, the attorney for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, told WRAL-TV in Raleigh that deputies were very concerned with a number of things Trump said at the rally. For instance, when Jones and several of the protesters were escorted out of the Coliseum, Trump declared that in the olden days, protesters were “treated very, very rough.”
According to Mitchell, they were concerned enough about this and other statements that they opened a criminal investigation into whether Trump or his campaign could be charged with inciting a riot. Under North Carolina law, depending on how badly Jones was injured, Trump could have been charged with a misdemeanor carrying up to 120 days in jail, or a felony carrying between 10 months and three years in jail.
Later on Monday, the sheriff’s office indicated that the investigation was still very much underway. It stated that deputies were looking into “the totality of the circumstances” at the rally–including whether “conduct on the part of Mr. Trump or the Trump campaign” could be construed as incitement. Just a few hours later, however, the sheriff announced that based on a review of the case, there wasn’t enough evidence to support criminal charges. Earlier, office spokesman Sean Swain said that while Sheriff Moose Butler had considered charges against Trump, “we would have made the charges by now” if there had been enough evidence to support them.
It’s easy to see why Butler walked a fine line here. Under current precedent–guided by Brandenburg v. Ohio–his office would have had to prove that Trump was inciting imminent lawless action–that is, unlawful behavior that either happened or was likely to happen right then. While Trump has used incendiary rhetoric in the past, unless he was using undeniably incendiary rhetoric right then that caused McGraw to deck Jones, it would be very hard to prove Trump’s words caused that forearm shiver. Granted, Trump has made it clear he has no respect for the First Amendment. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect his First Amendment rights, though.
That being said, the mere fact that Trump was the target of an investigation at all is a reminder of just how close Trump has sailed to the line since launching his bid to buy the presidency. Remember, after a protester was beaten and kicked at a rally in Birmingham, Trump said that the guy probably deserved to get a beating. And it is beyond dispute that candidates for office are obligated to ensure a safe environment at their events. The way things are going, even if Trump didn’t break the law at this rally, it’s only a matter of time before he does cross the line.