As Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, awaits trial for shooting three protesters with an AR-15 style rifle in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August, his supporters are pitching him as a war hero. “Kyle was a Minuteman protecting his community when the government would not,” one of his attorneys, John Pierce, tweeted in late August a few days after the protest, which was sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake. In another tweet that has since been deleted, Pierce added that Rittenhouse, who went to the protest to prevent looting, would “go down in American history alongside that brave unknown patriot at Lexington Green who fired ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ on April 19, 1775.”
“A second American Revolution against Tyranny has begun,” Pierce wrote.
It might be tempting to downplay Pierce’s declaration as bravado, perhaps part of a strategy to get his client off from criminal charges. But the depiction of Rittenhouse as a heroic rebel may not be merely figurative: Some of the teen’s defenders appear to share the belief that conservatives face an impending battle that could very well turn physical. One of Rittenhouse’s other attorneys, L. Lin Wood, has been pushing a conspiracy theory to his 191,000-plus Twitter followers that liberals are planning a violent coup against the White House, and that freedom-loving Americans will need to fight back.
Defending Rittenhouse seems to be just one front in the broader war. Weeks before taking on his case, Wood and Pierce launched the #FightBack Foundation, which has been raising funds to defend the 17-year-old. One of its bigger goals is to “protect individual rights by supporting lawsuits and other actions that address discrimination against conservatives,” according to the foundation’s website. “American cities burn, while state and local governments do not lift a hand to provide a basic degree of law and order,” Wood said in a statement that was posted on an earlier version of the website and has since been deleted. Pierce, who has
resigned from the foundation to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest related to legal disputes, wrote in an August 29 tweet commending Rittenhouse: “We the People must take back our freedom.”
Wood and Pierce are not fringe attorneys—they’ve both worked on legal cases that have garnered national attention. Wood, a well-known defamation lawyer with more than four decades of experience, has worked for former presidential candidates like Rick Perry and Herman Cain, and met with President Trump in the Oval Office in March. On Wednesday, he announced he would sue Joe Biden for libel against Rittenhouse, after Biden’s campaign shared a video that Wood alleges falsely depicted Rittenhouse as a white supremacist and militia member.
Wood is currently representing Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the white couple in St. Louis who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their mansion, in defamation matters. He’s also representing the stepmom of the Georgia police officer who killed Rayshard Brooks outside a Wendy’s. And he’s provided counsel to Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann, who sued various media outlets for their news coverage of his interaction with a Native American man in Washington, DC, in 2019. (Mother Jones’ Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery is named as a defendant in similar lawsuits filed by other attorneys.) Pierce’s firm has represented Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and several Trump supporters, including Rudy Giuliani and former Trump campaign figures George Papadopoulos and Carter Page.
As they wage a public fight against the left, both attorneys are also fighting personal legal battles of their own. Court documents associated with these cases suggest that the attorneys have a penchant for violent language. And they indicate that Wood seems to have an underlying belief that he’s being aided by a higher power. Wood was sued in August by former colleagues who accuse him, among other things, of months of erratic and abusive behavior, including physical assault and strange late-night emails in which he claimed God was commanding his actions. The complaint in the lawsuit is filled with transcripts that quote him as sending messages such as, “Buckle up your damn seatbelts. Unless I change my mind under the instructions of God, you are in for the roughest ride of your lives.” (In a lengthy affidavit, Wood has responded to the allegations of the complaint and called the suit “frivolous” and “littered with false statements.”)
Pierce, meanwhile, whose former colleague is suing him for alleged wrongful termination and breach of contract, was accused in a separate custody dispute of threatening to attack his ex-wife while suggesting that God is working in his favor.
Are violent undertones and a belief in God’s support filtering into the attorneys’ work? “In next 3 months, people will realize that God is real & only He can save us. His will SHALL be done on Earth as it is in Heaven,” Wood tweeted on August 29, a few days after Rittenhouse shot the protesters. Pierce retweeted him. Hours later, Wood added, and Pierce retweeted, that “America is now engaged in its second civil war. It will get worse before it gets better.”
Born in 1952, Wood grew up in Macon, Georgia, with his sister and parents. At the age of 16, Wood came home one night to find that his father had killed his mother. Wood took his mother’s pulse and then called the police. Later, “I…kind of had a little heart-to-heart with myself,” he told Super Lawyers Magazine in 2006. “I said, ‘You’re in charge of your life now. You’ve got to do something with it.’” The teen raised money to hire a defense attorney so his dad would have adequate representation, and eventually decided to go to Mercer Law School.
As a student, Wood supported himself by working as a hospital orderly and a sports writer for the Macon News. After graduating law school, he primarily focused on medical malpractice cases, but he eventually turned to suing journalists. His first high-profile defamation case was representing Richard Jewell, a security guard who was suspected of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing and later found to be innocent. Wood’s reputation took off when he helped Jewell sue NBC and other news outlets for their coverage of him. He also worked on several other high-profile defamation cases, and represented the woman who accused Kobe Bryant of rape.
Late last year, Wood started acting strangely, according to the lawsuit filed by his former colleagues. Nicole Wade, Jonathan Grunberg, and Taylor Wilson—who say they were partners at Wood’s firm, a title that Wood contests—say they left his law firm, L. Lin Wood P.C., in February after months of enduring Wood’s “erratic, abusive, and unprofessional behavior.” In their suit, they allege that Wood owes them money for some of their work and has refused to pay.
For months before they stopped working with Wood, they allege, they received “incoherent” phone calls, text messages, and emails from him in the middle of the night. In the fall of 2019, the lawsuit says, he allegedly assaulted Grunberg in a hotel elevator during a work trip, and in January he allegedly assaulted Wilson when Wilson went to his home to check on him. In February, Wood summoned the three attorneys to his home at about 1 a.m. The next day he fired them, then changed his mind and told them to keep working. They say he hosted a 3.5-hour teleconference with the attorneys a couple of days later, during which “he spoke almost non-stop,” “referred to himself as Almighty,” and threatened to fight the attorneys “to the death.” He referred to one of them as a “Chilean Jew” and demanded that the man admit he did not look like the other lawyers in the firm.
According to the lawsuit, soon the attorneys “were forced to terminate their employment.” Afterward, Wood repeatedly emailed them at odd hours and reiterated that he was behaving according to God’s will and would not pay them. “God has given me permission to be profane in this email,” he wrote early one morning around 3:45 a.m. “You damn dumb motherfuckers…God Almighty told me to get you back to where you belong. Broke and essentially homeless.” He continued:
You all better get on your knees and pray to Almighty God that He now asks me to show you mercy. If he does, I will show it, if he does not, I will deliver a fiery judgment against you on earth. Who the fuck did you think you were dealing with? You were screwing around me with [sic], but I was someone else in disguise. You in fact have been screwing around with God Almighty. I am not God. You lied when you told others that I thought I was…I am L. Lin Wood—the sole member of L. Lin Wood, P.C. The architect of the most masterful and powerful Valentine’s Day massacre known in American history. The last one killed seven. Mine will ruin many more before it is over. Deservedly so.
In another message to them, he continued with a similar religious theme. The “Best outcome for you in eternity Is Hell for repeatedly interfering with God’s commandment to children to honor their father,” he wrote. But days later, Wood changed his tune and sent another email recanting his prior, threatening messages. He said he’d made “accusatory statements with incomplete information and out of anger, coupled with a tried [sic] brain and body,” according to the lawsuit. He allegedly added that people he loved were worried about his mental health, but he assured the attorneys that while “I am a little crazy…I’m also mainly sane.”
The next month, in March, Wood met with President Trump in the Oval Office, purportedly at the president’s request. Wood says he was trying to urge Trump to posthumously award a presidential medal of freedom to his former client, Richard Jewell.
I met with @realDonaldTrump in the Oval Office at White House on March 11, 2020 at President’s request. I have not published photo earlier but thought today was good day to so do for context after leftist & Gannett attack article. Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian. pic.twitter.com/UxrNHPl5ek
— Lin Wood (@LLinWood) September 6, 2020
Wood has denounced the lawsuit against him. “[T]hese young lawyers have chosen to willingly engage in a disgraceful and unprofessional effort to publicly attack me by including irrelevant, out-of-context private messages I sent to them in the midst of a difficult time in my personal life arising primarily from my family’s reaction to my faith in Jesus Christ,” he said in a statement on Twitter, describing the litigation as a “shakedown effort” to coerce him to pay them in a way he believes is unethical. “I am ashamed of them.” (The three attorneys included the Twitter statement in court documents and described it as defamatory.)
Pierce has also allegedly invoked religious rhetoric when making threats. According to court records from a child custody case, he sent his ex-wife more than 60 texts laced with violent language and repeated references to Armageddon in a single day in 2019 after she told him she wouldn’t be able to drive their son to soccer camp because of a work conflict: “I will bury u if I have to,” he allegedly wrote. “I will find u at Armaggedon [sic] and fuck u up.” Pierce did not respond to questions from Mother Jones.
“I am good,” he wrote in one of the texts, copies of which were submitted to the court. “U are evil. God is on my side.” He positioned her as anti-American: “People like u hate the USA. Guess what bitch, we ain’t goin anywhere. Go to hell where u belong. America belongs to US and God.”
The next day he apologized and said he hadn’t meant what he texted her, but she remained afraid. She requested and received a temporary restraining order against him, telling the court that he expressed a desire to kill her in the past, something he later denied.
The court records contain plenty of violent threats from Pierce. In the texts, he repeatedly called her a “slut,” “cunt,” and “bitch,” and threatened to “hunt” her down. In one message, he mentioned a television character known for torturing terrorists: “Watch Jack Bauer on 24 if ur curious what I’m capable of.”
As the presidential election draws closer, both attorneys have taken to social media to warn of an impending battle. On September 5, Wood went on Twitter and shared an article published by a conservative think tank, the Claremont Institute, that posits that “Democrats and their ruling class masters [are] openly talking about staging a coup.” “Don’t be fooled,” Wood tweeted to his tens of thousands of followers. “It’s coming.”
The article, written by Claremont Institute fellow Michael Anton, a former national security official in the Trump administration, cites several justifications for the conspiracy theory that liberals are planning to violently seize the White House. For starters, Anton writes, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said earlier this year that he didn’t think Trump should invoke the Insurrection Act, a law that would allow the president to deploy active-duty troops to protests around the country. To Anton, this was a sign that military leaders were ready and willing to flout presidential orders.
On top of that, Anton points to findings by a bipartisan group known as the Transition Integrity Project, which convened a series of war-gaming exercises that asked former and current government officials, academics, and polling experts to imagine what might happen in a range of election scenarios, like if Trump lost but refused to concede his power. The experts predicted that nearly every scenario would lead to street-level violence. In one game that imagined what would happen if Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote, the organizers asked John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, to play the role of Biden. In the game, Podesta, as Biden, refused to concede the election, arguing that he didn’t believe the Democratic Party would allow him to. Podesta alleged voter suppression and convinced the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College. The Senate named Trump president, and the House named Biden president.
“Stay strong. Speak truth. Be fearless. Pray,” Wood wrote in a tweet that linked to Anton’s article.
“Every time you go into an election year, there’s some amount of people who think the president isn’t going to leave or there’s going to be some sort of coup,” says Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami professor who studies conspiracy theories. While the number of people promoting these views is relatively small, says Uscinski, the theories may be fueled by real events, like violence at protests, or by the information bubbles that people create for themselves with social media and the news they read.
There may also be certain traits that predispose people to holding these views. “There’s a correlation between conspiracy theories and people who engage in Manichean thinking, which is that politics is a battle between good and evil,” says Uscinski. His research has found that believers of certain theories, like QAnon followers, are more religious on average than others.
“One of the biggest predictors of whether people believe in conspiracy theories is whether they think we’re living in end times as foretold by Biblical prophesies,” says Eric Oliver, a University of Chicago political science professor who co-wrote a book, Enchanted America, about myths popular with conservatives, including one about an impending apocalypse.
Oliver has seen a recent increase in the number of people engaging in doomsday thinking about politics. One reason could be that Trump himself has trafficked conspiracy theories, though with public figures it can be tough to know whether they sincerely believe the theories or are using them to manipulate public opinion.
Wood appears to have a history of promoting conspiracy theories. According to the lawsuit by his former colleagues, he told them he feared that if they blew the whistle on his unprofessional behavior toward them it would interfere with “his imminent receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and appointment as Chief Justice of United States Supreme Court.” In the lawsuit, they said he believed he was slated to join the high court because of “(1) a decade-plus old ‘prophecy’ [he] heard in a YouTube video, and (2) a conspiracy theory that Chief Justice Roberts would be revealed to be part of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking ring and was being blackmailed by liberals to rule in their favor.”
On Twitter, Wood has also stated views about the coronavirus that run counter to science. “If God thought we needed masks, he would have included them in original design,” he wrote in late August. He has also said that if he became infected he would take hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that Trump has touted despite a lack of evidence that it’s effective against the coronavirus.
Wood told Mother Jones he never believed he would be appointed to the Supreme Court, but did not deny the allegation that he suggested a link between Justice Roberts and Jeffrey Epstein. “It is my understanding and belief that the term conspiracy theorist was developed by the CIA in the 1950’s to demean individuals who were reviewing facts and reaching logical conclusions,” he wrote in an email to Mother Jones. “In my 43 years of law practice, I have always focused on discovering factual truth and then applying the rule of logic to those truthful facts.”
Do you think this is really about Covid-19? Or is Israel acting under cover of Covid-19 to protect its citizens from another soon-to-be released virus that could potentially be more serious than Covid-19. Only time will tell.#FightBack for Freedomhttps://t.co/KYAbm15Luo
— Lin Wood (@LLinWood) September 14, 2020
Wood’s rhetoric becomes especially apocalyptic when he talks about politics. In another tweet, he wrote, “Democrats are not trying to win election. Biden has dementia & Harris is unqualified. They seek to steal Presidency by cheating with mail-in ballots. Under cover of planned violence, they intend to overthrow Constitution & seize power.”
Rittenhouse may not have planned to become a cause célèbre in this fight between the Left and Right, but his attorneys appear to be making him out as one. “Kyle Rittenhouse should be freed immediately and the charges should be dropped,” Pierce tweeted. “He was protecting his community where his government failed, and defended himself. God gave him that right, and no prosecutor will be allowed to take it away. Ever.”
That’s not how some witnesses of the shooting see things. Rittenhouse drove to the protest in Kenosha after a militia group called the Kenosha Guard put out a call for people with guns to protect property in the city. Rittenhouse was not a member of the group, but he had participated in a youth police cadet program. He’d also attended a Trump rally in January. After he fatally shot two people and injured a third, some protesters described his victims as heroes who were struck while trying to disarm him. In a press statement, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul passed along his condolences: “[W]e are thinking of their destroyed futures and their friends and families that must live with this overwhelming grief.”
Rittenhouse’s lawyers argue the teen was acting in self-defense. In early September, Wood praised him alongside the Covington Catholic student who sued media companies. “Nicholas Sandmann at age 16 warned us that mainstream & social media are liars. Kyle Rittenhouse at age 17 warned us to defend ourselves,” he wrote. “Two boys selected to convey Paul Revere-like warnings to all Freedom Loving Americans on what is coming.”