Trump’s words show that yes, he has encouraged violence

Has President Donald Trump promoted violence? At a White House briefing, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders answered with a definitive no.

We’re not considering Trump’s tweet of a GIF showing him body-slamming a figure labeled CNN at a professional wrestling match, which Trump sent several days after Huckabee Sanders’ comment.

However, the record shows at least one clear case and possibly several others in which Trump has said things that we believe an ordinary listener would understand as encouraging violence. (The White House declined to comment on the record.)

In February 2016, during his campaign for president, Trump told a crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, "So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Just knock the hell … I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise." The video shows, Trump is not smiling or chuckling as if this was intended as a joke.

On several other occasions, Trump invoked violence without necessarily inciting it. (Hat tips to the Washington Post's Aaron Blake and Mashable for collecting a number of these in one place.)

• November 2015. At a rally in Alabama, Trump said about a protester, "Get him the hell out of here, will you, please? Get him out of here. Throw him out!" The following day, calling into Fox News, Trump responded to a question about allegations that the protester had been "roughed up." The protester, Trump said, had been "so obnoxious and so loud … maybe he should have been roughed up. Maybe he should have been roughed up. Because it was totally disgusting what he was doing."

• March 2016. At an event in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump referred to a past incident with protesters. “We have had a couple that were really violent, and the particular one when I said I’d like to bang him, that was a very — he was a guy who was swinging, very loud and then started swinging at the audience and the audience swung back, and I thought it was very, very appropriate. He was swinging, he was hitting people, and the audience hit back, and that’s what we need a little bit more of.”

• March 2016. At a rally in Kansas City, talking about someone who had rushed the stage, Trump said, “I don’t know if I would have done well, but I would have been out there fighting, folks. I don’t know if I’d have done well, but I would’ve been — boom, boom, boom. I’ll beat the crap out of you.”

Trump's words have, on occasion, drawn lawsuits. However, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union has written skeptically about whether Trump's words would qualify legally as incitement to violence.

Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the free-speech group wrote concerning a lawsuit stemming from a Trump rally in Louisville, “incitement charges have been used to jail anti-war protesters, labor picketers, Communists, and civil rights activists. Over time, the Supreme Court learned from these mistakes and adopted a very speech-protective test to determine when incitement has taken place … It’s a high bar for a reason, and Trump’s conduct at the rally didn’t meet it.”

Our ruling

We found one example — when Trump said, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?” — that clearly fits the criteria of promoting or encouraging violence. We found several other examples in which Trump offered public musings that showed a tolerance for, and sometimes even a favorable disposition toward, physical violence.

Trump's words may not meet a legal threshold for incitement to violence, but Huckabee Sanders' portrayal seriously distorts the record of Trump's past statements. We rate her statement False.

“The president in no way, form or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence.”

— Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday, June 29th, 2017 in a White House press briefing