Calmes: Trump's assassination lie, and Biden's missed moment

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with Kenya's President William Ruto in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Why didn't President Biden immediately refute the dangerous accusation that the government was "ready" to assassinate Donald Trump? (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

On Tuesday evening I was stopped mid-task, stunned, when I saw the subject line on a new fundraising email from Donald Trump: “They were authorized to shoot me!”

By Thursday morning, however, when I got the email that had Trump crying, “I nearly escaped death,” I was savvy to his con. My fear, however, is his most die-hard supporters are not, and that they might be provoked not to send money but to take up arms for him.

It’s happened, you know.

Trump doesn’t care. Over several days, he and his MAGA echo chamber spun a lie — the “Pants on Fire” kind, by Politifact’s reckoning — out of newly unsealed papers in the Florida classified documents criminal case against Trump. Falsely referencing boilerplate language in FBI agents’ plans for searching Mar-a-Lago in 2022, they claimed that President Biden’s Justice Department had authorized the potential assassination of Trump.

“It’s just been revealed that Biden’s DOJ was authorized to use DEADLY FORCE for their DESPICABLE raid in Mar-a-Lago,” he wailed in the Tuesday email and on his social media sites. “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.”

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He repeated the claim in Thursday’s post, and his minions amplified it. “Were they going to shoot [Secret Service] then Pres Trump, Melania, and Barron too???,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Congress’ crackpot, wondered on X (formerly Twitter) to her more than 3 million followers. Fox News host Sean Hannity fulminated in prime time. And the Republican National Committee raged that the FBI’s deadly force authority “takes the Biden administration’s weaponization of the law to an entirely new level.”

As Trump lies go, this one was a whopper that crossed all lines: A former president, now the presumed nominee of one of our two major parties, alleged that the sitting president’s administration plotted to possibly kill him. That claim should not have been met with a collective Trump-will-be-Trump shrug.

Yet that’s pretty much what happened. As a headline Thursday on the Bulwark, the anti-Trump conservatives’ website, read: “Donald Trump Is Lying About an Assassination Attempt and Nobody Cares.”

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You heard almost nothing from either party in Congress, except for MAGA Republicans who spread the lie. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley tweeted a 2022 clip in which Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland said he’d “personally approved” the decision to get a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago, and Hawley added that perhaps Garland “would like to come to Congress and explain all this under oath to the American people.”

I’m sure Garland wouldn’t mind at all. And yet it took a reporter’s question at the Justice Department on Thursday before the attorney general, the alleged head of the potential Trump death squad, responded to the slander.

“That allegation is false,” he said, “and it is extremely dangerous.” The phrasing regarding FBI force was standard operating stuff, Garland added, the same protocol that was in place when agents searched Biden’s home for classified papers in early 2023. What he could have added is that the FBI knew Trump wouldn’t be at Mar-a-Lago when the agents showed up.

The attorney general was clearly ready for the question. But his measured, belated denial wasn’t enough. Only the president can command the attention that refuting Trump’s reckless lie demanded.

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I get that Biden doesn’t want to react to every Trump fallacy. He doesn’t want to give oxygen to the constant bloviations, accord them the respect of a reaction or further exhaust Americans tired of drama. But in a nation where many of us have memories of political assassinations and assassination attempts, where domestic terrorism is ”metastasizing across the country,” according to the FBI, and political violence is on the rise, Trump’s obscenely fake news deserved stronger, faster push back.

From anyone but Trump — imagine any living past president — the assertion that the government would murder political rivals would ignite blanket media coverage, a law enforcement scramble and congressional investigations. (Where are the House Republicans so eager to impeach Biden? Don’t they believe Trump?)

It’s a measure of Trump’s widely perceived clownishness that the nation mostly yawned when the former president screamed in all-caps, “BIDEN’S DOJ WAS AUTHORIZED TO SHOOT ME!” What could be more illustrative of the complacency than Nikki Haley’s decision to betray her anti-Trump Republican supporters and finally announce on Wednesday, amid the assassination lying, that — wait for it — she’d be voting for Trump.

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The peril is that not all the nation yawns. Polls and testimonials show that Trump’s hard-core supporters — an overwhelming majority of Republicans — believe his lies. They believe Biden robbed him of reelection in 2020, that Biden operates a crime family from inside the White House and that Biden is orchestrating Trump’s criminal prosecutions. Countless Jan. 6 defendants have testified to the power of Trump’s words in inciting their violent deeds.

Why wouldn’t some of those true believers believe Biden’s Justice Department would gun Trump down? And what might they do about it?

Biden will never convince MAGA loyalists that Trump is lying about anything. But for the sake of us non-MAGA Americans, he should not have ignored such a scurrilous and dangerous accusation. He should have made a forceful case for why Trump’s lies could invite violence and argue, for the sake of his campaign, that anyone who’d tell those lies is unfit for the office.

The president missed his chance. But, alas, Trump is bound to provide him with another.


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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.