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Trump defends former influencer convicted of election interference who has racist, antisemitic past

By Andrew Kaczynski, Allison Gordon and Em Steck, CNN

(CNN) — Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have come to the defense of a one time social media influencer who has been convicted of election interference and has a well-known history of pushing deeply racist, antisemitic, anti-Muslim and homophobic content online.

In a video posted by his campaign in early December, former President Trump blasted President Joe Biden and “his henchmen” for allegedly trampling on the First Amendment rights of Douglass Mackey, a longtime supporter of the former president who ran an anonymous, notorious Twitter account in 2016. Trump accused Biden of seeking to jail Mackey for “sharing a joking meme about Hillary Clinton several years ago. Nobody ever heard of anything like that.”

While the former president criticized the legal action taken against Mackey, Trump Jr. lauded the content featured on Mackey’s Twitter feed. He praised Mackey on his December 7 podcast as “maybe my favorite Twitter account of all time” and said the Biden administration wanted the former influencer in prison.

Mackey, however, was under federal investigation for conspiracy to suppress votes in the 2016 presidential election during Trump’s administration. Mackey was charged seven days after Biden took office and convicted earlier this year. He was sentenced to seven months in prison but is currently out pending an appeal of his case.

Prosecutors said Mackey, 34, targeted Black voters on Twitter with a tweet meant to look like a campaign advertisement that falsely claimed they could vote for Clinton through text messages during the 2016 election.

Mackey’s Twitter account at the time featured a slew of hateful content and he was ranked as 107th in a list of “election influencers” in the runup to the 2016 election, according to an analysis conducted by the MIT Media Lab.

In a statement to CNN, an attorney for Mackey said the tweets don’t reflect his client’s current views, and that Mackey now regrets the tone and substance of his posts.

“However, he does not regret using his anonymous account to promote conservative political ideas or then-candidate Donald Trump,” attorney James Lawrence said in the statement. “Doug is grateful that former President Trump, his son, and thousands across the political spectrum can see through these smears and distractions and recognize that his case is about protecting the First Amendment rights of all Americans.”

On Twitter, Mackey had regularly shared racist caricatures of people of color, amplified demeaning stereotypes and belittled entire groups with racial slurs. He used the N-word in multiple posts, and he described Black people as “feral.” Antisemitism was another popular theme for him, and he routinely shared memes reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.

One post, for example, included a comment about decorating a cake with a Jewish slur, a reference to putting Jews in gas chambers and praise for Hitler. In another post, he hinted at retribution for Jewish Americans if Trump won presidency in 2016.

“The jews fear that Donald Trump is Hitler because they know that they have done great evil in America. They fear justice will be done,” he wrote in December 2015.

CNN reviewed Mackey’s tweets on the Internet Archive Way Back Machine and Archive Today, but is sharing only a small subset of them due to their nature.

Mackey used the pseudonym “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, but his identity was publicly exposed in a 2018 Huffington Post article. His vitriolic posts ended after that.

During his trial, Mackey testified he had apologized to his family over his tweets and that he had started therapy which he said changed his life.

“It was in bad taste,” Mackey said of his social media conduct. “It was wrong. It was offensive.”

Though contrite in court, Mackey struck a different tone in media interviews, oscillating between defiant and unapologetic over his case, while asking for financial support for his appeal. A defense fund set up to aid his appeal — and promoted by Mackey — prominently displays the avatar of his old Ricky Vaughn account.

In an interview with Tucker Carlson last month, Mackey described the content of his Twitter account as “pro-Trump, memes, jokes, all kinds of links, that kind of thing.”

Since his conviction, and subsequent appeal, Mackey has become a cause celebre among some conservatives, who say the government is attempting to suppress free speech from Trump supporters.

Among those who have expressed support for Mackey are right-wing pundit Carlson and presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. A spokesperson for Ramaswamy said the candidate was unaware of the racist content in Mackey’s other posts.

One of the more vocal Mackey supporters has been Trump Jr.

On his Rumble show earlier this month, the former president’s son praised Mackey’s online activity, calling him “the original badass account” and “one of the funniest accounts out there” on Twitter during what he labeled “the meme wars” in 2016.

“How many of you guys in the live chat remember the Ricky Vaughn account?” Trump Jr. asked his audience. “Because it was epic, man. It was, it was really good.”

“It’s great to have you, you know, we’ve probably gone back and forth on Twitter back in the old days in DMs,” he added when Mackey appeared on his show.

“It may be my favorite Twitter account of all time,” he continued. “Now, I’ll get in trouble for saying that cause they’ll say, ‘Oh, he said something once that you must disavow,’ — it was hilarious. Like again, like I said, maybe the best of all time”

Jared Holt, an expert on extremism at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said Mackey’s popularity online was largely attributable to his peddling of hateful content.

“Mackey deliberately escorted unfettered White supremacy and antisemitism into the online space surrounding the Trump 2016 campaign,” Holt told CNN.

First Amendment experts were mixed on the strength of the government’s case against Mackey with some saying the case could be overturned on appeal.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it went either way,” said Aaron Terr of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a group focused on freedom of speech. “The First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to have a general power to police alleged misinformation because there’s a very high risk that the government would abuse that power in political and partisan ways.”

“One of the purposes of the First Amendment,” he added, “is to provide ample breathing space for public debate.”

Prosecutors, however, said Mackey’s fake vote-by-text ad had significant consequences. At least 4,900 individuals texted the deceptive text code circulated by Mackey, though CNN can not confirm how many of those who texted didn’t vote.

“It’s one thing if somebody tells a joke or forwards a single meme, but when you, as the jury found, are engaged in a serious effort to trick people out of having their vote count, or otherwise, to take illegitimately, take votes away from a candidate, that’s against the law,” Norm Eisen, a senior CNN legal commentator, said.

Holt said he found it troubling that Trump and his supporters are seeking to recast Mackey as some sort of First Amendment hero.

“That Trump and his allies have turned Mackey into a martyr is disgraceful, and the complete indifference his supporters have shown to championing a hate-monger is concerning,” Holt said. “The ease at which Mackey has been falsely portrayed as a simple, well-meaning man makes me worry that there is no sort of gatekeeping or self-enforcement happening in the Trump movement anymore.”

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