FBI hosts security call with Florida law enforcement over concerns of pro-Trump rallies

Jay Weaver, Charles Rabin, Mary Ellen Klas

On the alert for potential pro-Trump rallies in Florida, the FBI hosted a conference call Wednesday with dozens of law enforcement agencies from Miami to Tallahassee to prepare for possible right-wing protests in the capital and other parts of the state on Sunday before the president leaves the White House next week.

The FBI indicated in the call that it has not received any specific intelligence about actual demonstrations targeting the state capital or other areas, according to sources familiar with the discussion, but it shared security information with local, state and federal authorities on preparedness for possible unrest.

The bureau’s initiative comes in response to a storming of the U.S. Capitol last week by pro-Trump supporters that so far has left five dead and resulted in the arrests of more than 70 people, Justice Department authorities said. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump for the second time, accusing him of inciting rioters who ransacked the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers were certifying the Electoral College vote of President-elect Joe Biden. Trump later released a video statement calling for calm and a peaceful transition of power.

The FBI in South Florida declined to comment on Wednesday’s conference call, but it reissued a national bureau statement about taking precautionary measures.

“As we do in the normal course of business, we are gathering information to identify any potential threats and are sharing that information with our partners,” the statement said. “The FBI respects the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. Our focus is not on peaceful protesters, but on those threatening their safety and the safety of other citizens with violence and destruction of property.”

With the FBI on Monday issuing a bulletin about possible armed marches on state capitol buildings across the country this weekend, Florida law enforcement officials are monitoring online chatter from extremists like the ones who vandalized the U.S. Capitol.

So far, authorities say they aren’t aware of any credible threats directed toward Tallahassee or elsewhere in the state. But the federal warning came as at least one call, by an unidentified group, circulated on social media urging the “storming” of government buildings if Trump, who lost the presidential election by more than 7 million votes, is ousted from office.

At least one flier circulating online calls for “an armed march on Capitol Hill & all state capitols” on Jan. 17. The flier, which does not mention Trump nor a specific organizing group, adds: “Come armed at your personal discretion.”

“When democracy is destroyed refuse to be silence,” the flier reads.

On Wednesday morning, Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell said during a city retreat that local officials are not aware of any specific threats against Florida’s Capitol but that law enforcement is preparing for the possibility of violence as a result of the recent warnings issued by the FBI. He said he was planning a meeting with other agencies later in the day, apparently referring to the FBI’s conference call.

“We do not have any specific intelligence,” Revell said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “But the national narrative is going around, and we are preparing and planning for that as well. We have no specifics for Tallahassee.”

According to Tallahassee city officials, no permits have been issued for protests in Tallahassee through inauguration day on Jan. 20, when Biden takes the oath of office in Washington.

State and city officials, however, are expecting protesters to appear Sunday at the Capitol, which has seen peaceful “Stop the Steal” demonstrations since Trump’s election loss.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said in a memo to senators this week that “there have been no threats to our safety” at this time but it was “very likely” protesters will gather Sunday at the Capitol.

Simpson also urged anyone who needed to work over the weekend to work remotely and not at the Capitol Complex “out of an abundance of caution.”

Earlier in the week, Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil canceled all days off for sworn personnel from Saturday through Jan. 20.

Police at state capitols across the nation have been on high alert as extreme right-wing online forums have continued to fume over the election, fueled by unfounded claims from Trump and other Republicans. Washington state even called up the National Guard for extra protection.

Law enforcement in South Florida is also being vigilant.

Miami and Miami-Dade police said they’re gearing up for any potential threat, but so far have not heard any chatter that gives them concern about violent protests this weekend.

Armando Aguilar Jr., Miami’s assistant police chief, said detectives are monitoring social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Gab, even the Parler website, which remains viable but limited after Apple removed it from its applications.

“We’re monitoring social media for discussions on what might pop up locally,” Aguilar said. “We’re just making sure that on paper, we’re ready. We’ll have enough people on duty and able to respond if a threat arises.

“We are seeing the general calls for marches on the Capitol and all 50 state capitols. What we aren’t seeing is anything specifically directed at Tallahassee or anything locally.”

Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez has scheduled a press conference at the Doral police headquarters for Thursday morning to discuss Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday and the planned marches on Sunday.

Like Miami, Miami-Dade police said they haven’t heard anything yet that has caught their attention.

“We have not received anything credible,” said Miami-Dade Police Detective Angel Rodriguez. “But Homeland Security is monitoring and speaking with our federal partners.”

On Spanish-language radio, former Hialeah mayor Julio Martinez said a pro-Trump rally is planned Saturday at noon in front of the Freedom Tower on Biscayne Boulevard to show “our support for Trump and bid him farewell.”

El Nuevo Herald reporter Lautaro Grinspan contributed to this story.