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The American flag has always been an important backdrop to U.S. politics. And now it has been raised as an issue in the Donald Trump campaign, after 22-year-old Thomas DiMassimo jumped a barrier and rushed the stage March 12 at a Trump event in Dayton, Ohio. DiMassimo was promptly arrested.
The DiMassimo incident and its aftermath captured much of the weekend news cycle amid concerns over repeated confrontations between pro- and anti-Trump factions.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd noted that after the Dayton rally, Trump tweeted a video that purportedly showed DiMassimo posing with a gun against the backdrop of an ISIS flag, with Arabic-language music playing in the background.
Trump was referring to a video that, as it turns out, had been posted on YouTube in order to troll DiMassimo. PolitiFact previously looked at Trump’s DiMassimo-ISIS claim and rated it False.
But Trump also made another point -- that DiMassimo had desecrated a U.S. flag. And, Trump said, there was a video to prove it.
"He was walking, dragging the American flag on the ground like it was a piece of garbage," Trump told Todd. "I don’t like that, and a lot of people don’t like that."
PolitiFact decided to check this claim as well.
DiMassimo has numerous Atlanta connections. His mother works as manager of Atlanta’s infrastructure bond program, and his father is a metro area teacher. Cartersville attorney Lester Tate is representing the family and helped Thomas DiMassimo, who was released from jail the same day he was charged, retain an attorney in Ohio.
Tate declined to comment when contacted for this fact-check. DiMassimo did not respond to an email request for comment.
According to news reports, YouTube videos and his own Facebook page, DiMassimo has a history of using flag desecration as a form of protest. He ripped up a Confederate Flag at a Stone Mountain protest last year.
One video, titled "Not My Flag" and uploaded by YouTube user "Tommy DiMassimo," shows DiMassimo taking part in a protest at Wright State University, where he was a student, in April 2015. The video shows him dragging a U.S. flag behind him and ultimately standing on it.
The video had been viewed more than 311,000 times as of this fact-check. It had 270 likes and more than 2,300 dislikes.
Mistreating the flag is an incendiary topic. There have been attempts to ban the practice throughout U.S. history, but it is not illegal, even to the point of damaging or destroying a flag. According to U.S. law, "desecration" of the flag applies to "whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Texas vs. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), and reaffirmed in U.S. vs. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990), that it is unconstitutional for a government to prohibit the desecration of a flag, due to its status as symbolic speech.
Text accompanying the DiMassimo video states the demonstration was held to support Valdosta State University student Eric Sheppard, who was arrested for bringing a gun on campus during a protest at the Georgia school. Sheppard also desecrated a U.S. flag in that protest.
In the video of the Wright State University demonstration, a counter-protester confronts DiMassimo and the other protesters. The man is carrying a U.S. flag on a pole across his shoulder.
"You need to learn respect," yells the man, who then references U.S. deaths in the Vietnam War. "I’ve got 58,000 of my brothers who died for this flag."
One of the protesters yells, "You know what this stands for?" At that point, DiMassimo, who is standing on a U.S. flag, yells: "Racism, capitalism, imperialism."
Trump said Thomas DiMassimo had desecrated a U.S. flag by "dragging the American flag on the ground like it was a piece of garbage."
He is correct. A YouTube video posted by DiMassimo shows him dragging a flag on the ground and later standing on it. This is offensive to many, but legal under the First Amendment.
We rate Trump’s statement True.
March 15 telephone interview with Lester Tate.
Flag desecration according to U.S. law
ACLU on flag desecration bans
Donald Trump, comments on NBC’s Meet the Press, March 13, 2016
Thomas DiMassio, "Not My Flag" (YouTube video), April 29, 2015
Thomas DiMassio, Twitter feed, accessed March 13, 2016
Dayton Daily News, "Man arrested for rushing stage at Donald Trump rally in Dayton," March 13, 2016
BuzzFeed, "Trump Uses Doctored Video To Connect Protester To ISIS," March 12, 2016
Daily Mail, "Revealed: Man, 22, who left Trump visibly shaken after rushing the stage at his Ohio rally is a former child actor who caused uproar last year by standing on the American flag in anti-racism demo," March 12, 2016
Email interview with Andrew Kaczynski, political reporter for BuzzFeed, March 13, 2016
Email interview with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, March 13, 2016
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