WICHITA, Kan. ― A federal judge in Wichita objected to the suggestion that Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election helped inspire fans of Donald Trump to plot a terrorist attack aimed at killing Muslim refugees in November of that year. He then sentenced one of the defendants to 25 years in federal prison.
Three Kansas men ― Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen ― were convicted last April on weapons of mass destruction and civil rights charges for plotting to bomb a Garden City, Kansas, apartment complex predominantly occupied by Somali refugees.
U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren sentenced Allen, a 52-year-old Iraq War veteran, to 25 years in prison plus 10 years of supervised release on Friday morning. The federal public defenders representing Allen argued in a sentencing memo that his “misguided patriotism was inflamed by the rhetoric of the 2016 political climate and the influence of the Russian information warfare campaign against the American people.” They cited extremist Facebook ads and pages that he likely saw on his feed that turned out to be part of a Russian propaganda operation meant to boost Trump’s campaign.
“I did a lot of eye rolling, candidly, when reading that in the briefs,” Melgren said Friday. He said that he didn’t want to downplay foreign interference in the election but that by running ads, the Russians “were doing nothing more” than what political campaigns did on a regular basis. He said that only someone who wasn’t a student of U.S. history could say that the 2016 campaign season was particularly heated. ”We’ve had highly charged campaigns before,” he said.
Attorneys for the men asked the judge to consider Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims when sentencing them. Attorneys for the other two defendants are expected to lean more heavily into Trump’s rhetoric when they’re sentenced this afternoon.
Rich Federico, a federal public defender representing Allen, said that the defense team was “not blaming the Russians here” but that many of the ads that Allen viewed on Facebook were later revealed to be part of Russia’s propaganda campaign and they could have had an influence on his conduct.
Federal prosecutors wanted all three defendants to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. “The defendants stand before the Court convicted of a conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction to commit a mass murder that would send both a message and a threat: that Muslims are not welcome in America, and, unless the U.S. Government changed its immigration policies, more carnage would follow,” they wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Melgren ruled on Jan. 15 that terrorism enhancements and civil rights enhancements should apply in the case but decided to impose a sentence outside the sentencing guidelines (which call for life imprisonment).
Stein’s lawyers, who argued he was caught up in the “chaos” environment of 2016, said the context of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric was impossible to ignore.
“The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president,” they wrote in a sentencing memo.
Wright’s attorneys also emphasized the impact of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“Intellectual honesty requires this Court to confront a certain reality. As long as the White House with impunity calls Islam ‘a dangerous threat,’ and paints average Americans as ‘victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad,’ a mixed signal gets sent,” they wrote. “The President warns Americans that radical Muslims are ‘trying to take over our children.’ The Commander-in-Chief exonerates violent extremists in Charlottesville as ‘good people,’ while claiming that Muslims ‘by and large’ want to ‘subjugate’ the rest of the world.”
As long as the executive branch “condemns Islam and commends and encourages violence against would-be enemies, then a sentence imposed by the Judicial Branch does little to deter people generally from engaging in such conduct if they believe they are protecting their countries from enemies identified by their own Commander-in-Chief,” Wright’s attorneys argued.
(Because of the partial government shutdown over Trump’s demand for billions of taxpayer dollars for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, federal prosecutors and FBI agents have been working the case without getting paid. On Friday the president announced a deal to reopen the government through Feb. 15 while negotiations continue over the wall and other border security issues. )
This is a developing story and will be updated.