Was a call to David French’s family an attempt by the Trump campaign to intimidate him from launching an independent presidential campaign, or just trolls being trolls? For the French family, there may not have been much of a difference. The National Review writer and longtime conservative activist told the story on Morning Joe earlier today, and blamed the attempt on Trump “operatives,” while being careful not to specifically name the campaign itself:
BRZEZINSKI: Did Trump operatives reach out to your family or you?
FRENCH: My wife’s family, yes.
FRENCH: Well, you know, it was probably one of the more ham-handed attempts at intimidation, which out of the Trump operation you can expect things to be done the most incompetent way possible.
BRZEZINSKI: What happened?
FRENCH: An individual calls, he said, I’m sorry but I’ve been asked by the Trump campaign to make sure that, you know, David knows that this will be really, really bad for him. Which, you know, I actually learned about this after I made the decision. …
GEIST [later]: So was that someone from the Trump campaign, you said, called someone from your wife’s family?
FRENCH: They identified themselves as someone affiliated with the Trump campaign who had been told to call, you know, a member of my — they tracked down a member of my wife’s family in Tennessee while all of this is going on. And — you know, I only learned about it later. You know, I…
SCARBOROUGH: Did you consider that a threat?
FRENCH: I considered it a ham-handed effort to intimidate me.
In other words, whoever made this call didn’t bother to wait for French’s decision. Not that he needed the call to know that it would get “really, really bad,” anyway. As French explains, it’s already been bad enough just opposing Trump publicly:
BRZEZINSKI: Was it threatening?
FRENCH: I — yeah I — I assumed if I did this, look, I have been up against Trump for some time. And the assaults on my family have been overwhelming just as a writer. The — as everyone knows, Trump has an online racist mob that he often stokes by retweeting some of these horrible white supremacists. As that online racist mob is very fond of pointing out, I have a multiracial family and so they have gone after my youngest daughter in the worst way imaginable. The worst way. It’s one of the things…
SCARBOROUGH: They — they — they…
BRZEZINSKI: I’m sorry?
SCARBOROUGH: They’ve attacked you for having a multiracial family.
FRENCH: Oh, you have no idea. Threats. I’ve had neighbors who — this is months ago before I even considered this. Neighbors who were nervous that there were going to be attacks in our neighborhood.
This has been one of the more unusual features of this cycle, but not entirely unprecedented. In 2008, some of us experienced similar feedback and attacks from Ron Paul supporters whenever publishing anything critical of him, and again in 2012 on the by-then-ubiquitous social media platforms. The scale of this kind of ugliness seems larger than four years ago, but it’s not really clear if that’s because it actually has more breadth or that the same number of people are just more active than in previous cycles. Interestingly, Rand Paul’s campaign didn’t produce the same kind of reaction in this cycle, even when he was being criticized or dismissed.
That ugliness isn’t exclusive to Trump, in other words, but before now the GOP was able to ignore it as a marginal response. Now, it’s a fair question as to whether Trump might be tailoring his rhetoric — especially on Judge Curiel — to encourage more of it. That’s one reason why Republican Party leaders, even those who have endorsed Trump, have gone public in demanding Trump stop those attacks.
French clearly didn’t respond to that attempt at intimidation, or he wouldn’t be on national television talking about it. Presumably he has a better idea of who the caller was and his connection to the “Trump operation,” but even if it was just someone trolling on their own behalf, it’s understandable why French would be concerned for what it means for journalists and activists. The latter ugliness is even more concerning.