False right-wing reports about Trump trial jury instructions fuel threats against judge

WASHINGTON — False reports about the jury instructions in former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial have been spreading across right-wing media, leading to threats against the judge overseeing the case.

Several conservative news personalities, including some affiliated with Fox News, falsely claimed that New York state Judge Juan Merchan, as one Fox News anchor put it in a viral post on X, “told the jury that they do not need unanimity to convict” Trump.

That’s not true. Merchan instructed the jurors Wednesday that they “must conclude unanimously that a defendant conspired to promote or prevent the election of any person to a public office by unlawful means,” adding that they “need not be unanimous as to what those unlawful means were.”

That means that jurors have to agree unanimously that Trump committed a crime by engaging in a criminal conspiracy to falsify records with the intent to commit one or more other crimes to convict him. But jurors can choose from three options about what those other crimes were: violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act, falsification of other business records or violation of tax laws. Those “unlawful means” aren’t charges themselves, and they wouldn’t result in separate convictions, so jurors don’t have to unanimously agree on them.

The jury instruction was complex and “nuanced” — as that Fox anchor, John Roberts, tried to clarify an hour later in another post on X with fewer views — but some right-wing accounts ran with false reports.

Follow live updates on the Trump trial and verdict

In response to inaccurate reporting that Trump could be convicted without unanimous agreement that he committed a crime, a user on Gab, a site popular with far-right extremists, said Wednesday it was “time to find out where that judge lives and protest as the left calls it.” Another user posted: “I hear bad stuff happens to judges in their driveways.” On Telegram, a user called for “a military tribunal” for Merchan, and on the official Telegram channel of Steve Bannon’s “War Room,” a user said Merchan “and all involved” should be hanged.

Over on another pro-Trump forum, a user said, “Merchan wants to be the merchant of death to sell more rope, except he could easily be selling the rope that hangs him.” Another user added: “Treason. With the full penalty.”

On X, a right-wing influencer asked followers who among them wanted to see Merchan locked up for treason. Another user, who identified himself as a Marine, replied: “Let me handle the Justice System & be judge & Prosecutor, Immediate trial & Justifiable Punishments handed out, Funeral Directors get ready for a lot of Democratic Socialist Elites coming your way.”

Trump continued making social media posts about the jury instructions Thursday morning, quoting a Fox News commentator who called the prosecution “an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ case with a Mad Hatter judge” in which the “cherished principles of fairness” had been turned upside down.

Time and time again, legal proceedings in the four cases against Trump have resulted in violent threats and, in at least one case, actual violence. In August, Trump supporters posted the names and addresses of the grand jurors in Fulton County, Georgia, who indicted Trump and 18 co-defendants. In August 2022, a Jan. 6 riot participant named Rickey Walter Shiffer posted calls for violence after the FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and then fired a nail gun into an FBI field office in Cincinnati before he was killed by law enforcement.

More recently, Trump and his congressional allies falsely said that President Joe Biden plotted to kill Trump during the search of Mar-a-Lago based upon a disclosure of a standard FBI use-of-force form that limits the use of deadly force and must be filled out for every operation. In fact, federal authorities specifically planned the search for a time when Trump was known to be out of state and contacted the Secret Service ahead of time to make sure the plan went as smoothly as possible. Even right-wing former FBI special agents who have called for the bureau to be abolished pushed back against the false narrative, calling the FBI use-of-force language “boilerplate” and showing frustration that viral misinformation on the right had forced them to be in the position of looking like they were defending the bureau.

Attorney General Merrick Garland last week called the lies about the use-of-force policy “false” and “extremely dangerous” and pointed out that the same standard operations plan was used in the search of Biden’s own home (yet didn’t lead to conspiracy theories that Biden planned to have himself assassinated).