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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Trump's remarks on voting, virus and violence make him POTUS-provocateur

Residents wait in line Thursday at a polling

Residents wait in line Thursday at a polling site during early in-person voting in Chicago. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Kamil Krzaczynski

Provocateurs prod others to take what might be risky or transgressive action.

Presidents, on the other hand, are supposed to represent lawful authority.

Several major news items this week reveal Donald Trump playing the nonpresidential role of provocateur in chief. He hones this role as polls show him trailing in the election. How his loaded words may drive the nation in the weeks ahead remains to be seen.

His and his campaign's call for an "army" of "able-bodied" volunteers to "go into the polls" and "watch very carefully" as a "rigged election" unfolds sounds like an appeal for voter intimidation on his behalf.

If anybody on either side of the blue-red divide crosses a legal line or does something crazy, rest assured Trump will never accept responsibility for inciting it.

An incendiary and showy armed organization calling itself the Proud Boys celebrates Trump's latest dodge on white supremacy. Vaguely, the president talks of their "standing down" and "standing by" and "law and order" and cracking down on so-called anti-fascists.

The aim seems to be to manipulate fear of disorder in Trump's favor.

Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, attended a Trump rally and rooted for him on social media long before traveling from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, with an AR-15-style rifle, official say. Rittenhouse was charged with shooting three people, two of them fatally, at a protest in Kenosha.

While his lawyers claim self-defense, the White House is trying to cut it both ways. Trump praised law-enforcement handling of the case. But he also sends not-so-coy signals of support for an evidently impressionable young man who allegedly killed protesters Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz.

NBC reports that federal Homeland Security officials were instructed to respond to news media inquiries regarding Rittenhouse by saying he was in Kenosha to defend "small business owners," and that he was "seen being chased and attacked by rioters" before he opened fire.

Trump's provocations against state health authorities and federal experts began before the most recent Black Lives Matter protests. He refused to set an example for people to wear masks regularly in public places as a preventive measure against spreading the coronavirus, and he agitated against local and state decisions on when and how to reopen businesses and schools.

During Tuesday's presidential debate, Trump made misleading remarks about experts' consistency on the usefulness of masks, and he repeated more falsehood that Democratic opponent Joe Biden wants to "shut down this country and I want to keep it open."

Critics say Trump's undermining of civic information helps worsen the pandemic. As widely reported Thursday, Cornell University researchers analyzing 38 million English-language articles on the topic found Trump leading the cause of misinformation. Tweeting "Liberate Michigan!" when armed protesters demonstrate against a lockdown cannot be interpreted as "Follow health advisories."

Sometimes Trump's public language coincides with wrongdoing.

Last year, Cesar Sayoc, a 57-year-old bodybuilder and nightclub owner, got a 20-year sentence for sending mail bombs to Democrats and institutions Trump had attacked. The devices didn't explode. Sayoc's lawyers called him a Trump "superfan" who lived in his van bedecked with Trump stickers and paraphernalia. The lawyers also cited his long history of mental illness.

Two years ago this month, upon Sayoc's arrest, Trump said: "We must never allow political violence to take root in America."

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