New York (CNN Business)Editor’s note: This story contains language that some readers may find offensive.
Many reporters are sadly accustomed to receiving threats and harassment in connection with their work. For some, the intimidation can have a chilling effect. For others, it can become like brutal background noise, accepted as part of the job, even when the threats rise to the level of a felony.
That’s why I want to share what I experienced on Monday. I was a part of something unusual: Justice.
In a federal courtroom in lower Manhattan, Robert Lemke, a California man and devoted Donald Trump supporter, was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to sending threats to lawmakers and members of the media.
CNN’s Don Lemon and I were there because we were on the receiving end of Lemke’s threats.
Lemon and I both delivered what are known as “victim impact statements” before U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein. Other victims submitted letters. The testimonials of Lemke’s targets and, on the other hand, sympathetic character letters from his family members were all considered by the judge.
It was a fascinating process to observe from the inside. And it related to the stories that Lemon and I cover on CNN on a regular basis. This was, after all, a case about the real-life consequences of election lies.
Lemke’s defense attorney said he fell down a “social media rabbit hole” when Trump lost the 2020 election. Lemke targeted journalists, lawmakers and other public figures who accurately stated that President Biden won. The harassment began in November 2020 and continued until his arrest in January 2021.
“I wholeheartedly believed I was protecting the 2020 election from fraud and deceit,” Lemke said in court on Monday. He claimed to be remorseful for his actions and said “I would rephrase my words” if he could.
Lemke’s defense said time served, nearly 11 months, was adequate punishment. The government urged a harsher sentence. Hellerstein ultimately sentenced him to 3 years in prison, minus time served, along with 3 years of supervised release. This result was above and beyond what the sentencing guidelines for the charge entailed.
“Robust political debate is a hallmark of our democracy,” Hellerstein said. But “threats to intimidate are not debates.”
Hellerstein dismissed Lemke’s assertions about being a “political prisoner” and said “this sentence has nothing to do with his opinions.”
“The need to deter others from other similar conduct is evident,” the judge added.
What the victims said
My involvement in this case began in January when the feds announced Lemke’s arrest. I reported on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” that he had been charged with sending threatening texts to relatives of both Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos. I thought it was newsworthy because threats against members of the media are rarely prosecuted.
Unbeknownst to me at that point, I was also one of Lemke’s targets. When authorities seized his phones, they found a garbage heap full of text and voice messages, and that’s why FBI agents asked to speak with me in March.
The agents wanted to know about ugly messages I received on a Sunday night the previous November, a couple of weeks after Trump began to contest the election results. The messages invoked my family members — my brother, my mother, and my father.
One of the voice messages said “you can either choose to dig the hole deeper or stop digging, because we’re not fucking around.” One of the texts included a photo of my father’s grave site. Another text described my mother’s house, implying he was there.
Months later, I was asked if I would be willing to testify at trial, and I said yes, in the hope that this case would send a message against the pervasive harassment of journalists.
Lemke avoided a jury trial by pleading guilty in October to a single charge, involving the threats against Stephanopoulos’s family. But through the process, I learned that others at CNN, like Lemon, were also threatened and harassed. So were multiple members of Congress, and a mayor and a nonprofit CEO. The government counted threatening communiques to approximately 50 victims. And all of that information was applicable at the sentencing hearing.
It was clear from the evidence that Lemke was triggered over and over again by accurate news reports about Trump losing. As he admitted in court on Monday, he thought he was a part of something bigger, a crusade to keep Trump in power. The Big Lie led him to threaten brothers, and mothers, and fathers, and even kids.
At the sentencing hearing, Lemke’s defense attorney Julia Gatto, of the Manhattan federal defenders’ office, acknowledged the “hateful, horrible, traumatizing, terrorizing” nature of the threats.
But she portrayed him as a man “drowning” in disinformation peddled by people he trusted. She said Lemke fell down a “social media rabbit hole” and suggested that he succumbed to “escalating rhetoric” from lawmakers and newscasters.
Rhetoric from “as high as President Trump,” the judge interjected.
“As high as President Trump,” Gatto affirmed.
“Mr. Lemke was wrapped up in this political firestorm,” Gatto said. “He was bombarded with this messaging.”
On the other side of a socially-distanced bench, I saw Lemon scribbling, adding to his prepared remarks.
Gatto sought relief for her client, citing “inhumane conditions” heightened by the pandemic at the detention center where Lemke was being held.
Then it was Assistant United States Attorney Kyle A. Wirshba’s turn to address the judge.
Wirshba linked Lemke’s electronic crime to the physical violence at the Capitol on January 6, suggesting that it was all of a piece. And he shared portions of written statements submitted by other victims, including Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who received threatening messages from Lemke on a private cell phone number while she was at the Capitol on January 6.
In a letter to the judge, Duckworth described being “terrified for my family for weeks thereafter.” Duckworth also said she took security measures after receiving the threat.
A relative of George Stephanopolous wrote to the judge that she was unable to sleep after receiving the messages. Stephanopolous was anchoring ABC’s live coverage of the insurrection at the time.
A family member of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries also wrote to the judge about the terror instilled by Lemke’s messages. The judge appeared to be struck by the fact that, as he put it, “pressure was being placed on family members” to influence the actions of public officials.
The other lawmaker victim identified in court on Monday was Rep. John Garamendi of California. Lemke wanted all of them “to stop telling the truth,” Wirshba said.
Don Lemon’s turn: “I am exhausted”
Lemon was invited to speak next. “I postponed my vacation to be here, and I’m glad I did,” he began. He said he wanted the court to recognize that Lemke is “not a victim.”
Lemon placed the man’s threats in the broader context of the Trump era. Citing his 30 year career in journalism, Lemon said the past five to six years have been marked by “an onslaught of sustained, frightening threats from the likes of Robert Lemke.”
“I am exhausted,” he said. “We are exhausted.”
Lemon described occasions when his home has been targeted and his phone has been inundated by menacing messages. In Lemke’s case, “he first tried to lure me in by pretending he knew me,” Lemon said.
Some of the messages, Lemon said, carried the implication that Lemke was a part of a right-wing militia with thousands. One of the messages insinuated that Lemon could be abducted. Lemon said he feared for himself and his fiancé.
“I am tired of looking over my shoulder,” Lemon said, choking up. “I am tired of being suspicious of even friendly faces in public. I am tired of being called ‘fake news’ and even more horrendous names like faggot and nigger by people like Robert Lemke.”
Then Lemon spoke off the cuff about the defense’s implication that Lemke was simply stuck in a pro-Trump rabbit hole. “For people like him, it is never their fault,” Lemon said.
I spoke next, recounting the night of menacing messages from Lemke and making the point that threats are never acceptable, no matter a person’s job or background or political bent.
After a bit more back-and-forth, Lemke delivered his apology and said he wanted his targets to know that “I am not a threat.”
Then the sentence was delivered, with Hellerstein echoing Lemon’s point that Lemke “is not a victim.” With that, the court was dismissed. I thanked the prosecutors again for their diligence in the case, adding that I hope this case sent a message about the line between appropriate and intolerable political discourse.
“For a free press, this is an especially important baseline to uphold,” I told the judge. “The press can’t be truly free if it is subject to threats and harassment.”
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