Donald Trump is attempting to blame the unrest and violence at his political rallies on Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Speaking to crowds in Ohio and Missouri on Saturday, Trump linked the “thugs” who had disrupted and ultimately led him to cancel his Friday night rally in Chicago to Sanders, whom he at one point referred to as “our communist friend.” At a rally in Dayton, Ohio, Trump said the protesters had carried out a “planned attack” on his rally and supporters. Later in Cleveland, Trump called protesters at that rally “Bernie’s crowd.” Then, on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, Trump said that the Friday chaos had been caused by “professional disruptors, thousands of them, from Sanders and to a smaller extent, Hillary [Clinton],” claiming that “a lot of them come from Bernie Sanders, whether he wants to say it or not. If he says no, then he’s lying.” Trump also made what appeared to be a threat against Sanders, tweeting on Sunday morning:
Trump denied the tweet was threat on State of the Union, but nonetheless reiterated the suggestion, insisting that “if conservative Republicans ever went into [Sanders’s] rally, you would see things happen that would be unbelievable.”
Trump’s eye-for-an-eye threats aside, it is correct that many of the anti-Trump protesters that disrupted Friday’s event in Chicago were clearly Sanders supporters, as is detailed in reporting from both NBC News and Politico Magazine. According to those reports, the large-scale and successful organization of that night’s protest, probably the biggest yet of any anti-Trump effort, resulted from the involvement of numerous veteran activists including Sanders supporters, Black Lives Matter activists, and well-established student groups, especially from the diverse and liberal University of Illinois campus where the Trump event had been scheduled. In addition, the MoveOn.org political organization, which has endorsed Sanders, contributed some of their resources to the protest, supplying political signs, a banner, and email-blasting their membership in the area to encourage them to participate in what the organization characterized as a “student-led” protest. When the Chicago rally was ultimately cancelled because of the large anti-Trump presence, many protesters chanted Sanders name in celebration.
But while the protests were clearly well organized, had some support from the institutional left, and comprised many Sanders supporters, Trump has been suggesting that the protests were led or controlled by the Sanders campaign itself, a claim for which there is so far no evidence. Regarding that accusation, Sanders called Trump a liar on Saturday, and added that, “I don’t think our supporters are inciting. What our supporters are doing is responding to a candidate who has, in fact, in many ways, encouraged violence” and who has “promoted hatred and division.” In an interview on State of the Union Sunday morning, Sanders insisted that his campaign had nothing to do with the protests in Chicago, and expressed his displeasure that his supporters had attempted to stop the rally. “I would hope that my supporters would not disrupt meetings,” Sanders said. “To protest is one thing, to disrupt is something else.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s new accusations come after yet more unrest at his rallies on Saturday. In Dayton, Ohio, a protester attempted to jump on stage near Trump, leading to a tense scene as Secret Service agents rushed to protect the candidate from possible harm. That man was subsequently arrested. Then on Saturday night in Kansas City, several anti-Trump protesters were pepper-sprayed by police outside the Trump rally being held there:
Inside that Kansas City event, Trump continued his anti-protester attacks, asking police to arrest demonstrators at the rally and promising to “file whatever charges you want” in order to see them prosecuted. Trump elaborated on his thinking as well, noting that:
I hope these guys get thrown into a jail. They’ll never do it again. It’ll destroy their record. They’ll have to explain to mom and dad why they have a police record and why they can’t get a job. And you know what? I’m going to start pressing charges against all of these people. And then we won’t have a problem.
Also on Sunday, Trump told NBC’s Meet the Press that he was actively looking into paying the legal fees of a 78-year-old man, John Franklin McGraw, who was arrested after assaulting a black protester at a Trump rally in North Carolina last week. Trump said that he believed McGraw “got carried away” because “maybe he doesn’t like seeing what’s happening to the country.” Trump has repeatedly offered to paid the legal fees of supporters who attack protesters at his rallies, an offer which obviously sets a dangerous precedent. Looking into assistance for McGraw — who sucker-elbowed protester Rakeem Jones as he was being peacefully escorted out of the Trump rally by police, then later suggested he might have to kill Jones if he ever saw him again — seems to be the first time Trump has tried to follow through with that promise. The GOP front-runner also continued to insist on Meet the Press that he is not responsible for, and does not condone, any of the violence. On Fox News Sunday, Trump also claimed that “as big as the rallies are, nobody’s ever been hurt,” while also pointing out that the man McGraw assaulted — and was thus surely injured in at least some capacity — had provoked the physical response by flipping off the crowd.