The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump hid plan for Capitol march on day he marked as ‘wild’, panel says

New evidence and testimony showed the president’s tweet promoting a protest on Jan. 6 united extremist groups and led to calls for violence

A tweet by President Donald Trump encouraging people to come to D.C. and protest on Jan. 6, 2021, is shown on a screen July 12 as the House select committee holds a hearing on the attack on the Capitol. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump scrawled the words on Twitter that motivated right-wing extremists to seek blood on Jan. 6, 2021, and kept secret a plan to direct his supporters to the Capitol that day, according to evidence and testimony presented Tuesday at the seventh hearing of the House select committee investigating the pro-Trump riot.

The tweet came at 1:42 a.m. on Dec. 19, 2020, after an hours-long meeting with outside advisers about seizing voting machines that a White House adviser described in real time as “unhinged.”

“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” wrote the president. “Be there, will be wild!”

The message marked a turning point in Trump’s efforts to stay in power and, in the telling of Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), “would galvanize his followers, unleash a political firestorm and change the course of our history as a country.”

Notably, the committee member said, the president’s move to advertise a protest on Jan. 6 caused the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, two right-wing extremist groups that have not historically worked together, to join hands and coordinate their planning, including with maps of D.C. that pinpointed the location of police.

The tweet also illustrated, said committee members, Trump’s pattern of escalating efforts to thwart the peaceful transfer of power at every moment when he had an opportunity to dial them down.

That tendency, they argued, reflected his disregard for the advice of his lawyers. A clip of new testimony from White House counsel Pat Cipollone showed he was among those pushing back on baseless conspiracy theories launched by pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, demanding during an extended encounter in the White House on Dec. 18, 2020, “Where is the evidence?”

And the same impulse has continued to shape Trump’s behavior, claimed Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the committee’s vice chair, who said the former president had recently tried to call a witness in the panel’s investigation. She said the committee had notified the Justice Department of the episode, promising, “We will take any effort to influence witness testimony very seriously.”

The Jan. 6, 2021 House committee held its latest public hearing on July 12, focusing on how President Donald Trump summoned far-right militant groups to D.C. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

As she has throughout this summer’s hearings, Cheney insisted on Trump’s ultimate responsibility for instigating an insurrection that was built on a lie. “President Trump is a 76-year-old man,” she said. “He is not an impressionable child. Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices.”

The committee presented evidence showing that Trump’s tweet on Dec. 19 altered planning for the protest activity that would ultimately bring deadly mayhem to the Capitol. Originally, a pro-Trump group called Women for America First had been preparing for a rally after the inauguration of Joe Biden on Jan. 20. But, following the president’s tweet, the group changed the permit to Jan. 6, according to documents displayed by the House panel.

Among pro-Trump influencers who enjoy broad online followings, the tweet was a siren. Alex Jones, the far-right host of Infowars, said, “President Trump, in the early morning hours today, has tweeted that he wants the American people to march on Washington.” Tim Pool, a prominent YouTuber, said of Jan. 6, “This could be Trump’s last stand.” And Matt Bracken, a right-wing commentator, became specific, envisioning “storming right into the Capitol.”

Further afield, the tweet caused violent rhetoric to course through anonymous pro-Trump sectors of the internet. “Trump just told us all to come armed,” one message read. Another user said volunteers were needed “for the firing squad.” Jim Watkins, the owner of the online message board where the extremist QAnon ideology took root, told the House panel he was moved by Trump’s tweet. “When the president of the United States announced that he was going to have a rally, I bought a ticket and went.”

Some of the messages were “openly homicidal,” Raskin said, and littered with racist and genocidal rallying cries. One asked, “Why don’t we just kill them. … every last democrat ….” Another said, “white revolution is the only solution.”

A post on a popular pro-Trump forum, thedonald.win, envisioned police officers “laying on the ground in a pool of blood.” The site’s founder, Jody Williams, told the committee that the president’s tweet focused attention on Jan. 6.

“After it was announced that he was going to be there on the sixth to talk, then yes, everything else was kind of shut out, and it was just going to be on the sixth,” Williams said.

A post on that forum pressed, “JOIN YOUR LOCAL PROUD BOYS CHAPTER AS WELL.”

The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, some of whose members have been indicted on charges of conspiracy related to Jan. 6, “responded immediately to President Trump’s call,” Raskin said.

Kelly Meggs, the head of the Florida branch of the Oath Keepers, took to Facebook on the morning of Dec. 19 to declare an alliance between the two groups, writing, “We have decided to work together and shut this … down,” with an expletive for emphasis.

Phone records obtained by the committee, Raskin said, show Meggs called Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who has been indicted on conspiracy charges in the Capitol attack, that afternoon.

The attack: The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event

The next day, the Proud Boys “got to work,” Raskin said, launching an encrypted chat called the “Ministry of Self Defense,” in which they used maps of D.C. and other tools to engage in “strategic and tactical planning about Jan. 6.”

The lawmaker said members of both extremist groups worked with Flynn — the former lieutenant general who attended the Dec. 18 meeting in the White House and had been pictured just days before being guarded by an Oath Keeper — as well as with longtime Trump friend Roger Stone. Both men were pardoned in the final weeks of the Trump administration.

The committee obtained encrypted content from a group chat called “Friends of Stone,” or F.O.S., that Raskin said included Tarrio and Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, among others. In the chat, Rhodes said anyone not able to travel to D.C. should instead launch protests in their state capitals. He also called on Trump to invoke martial law, according to video shown by the committee.

Flynn did not respond to a request for comment. Stone, in a text message, said, “Any claim assertion or implication that I knew in advance about, was involved in or condoned any illegal act at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is categorically false.” He defended his decision to give a speech on Jan. 5 “consistent with my constitutional free-speech rights to skepticism about the anomalies and irregularities in the 2020 election. I am certainly entitled to my apocalyptic view of America’s future as expressed in my speech.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, Trump attacked the committee on Truth Social, the social media platform developed by his allies after he was banned from Twitter, saying the investigation was an effort to harm his poll numbers.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who co-led Tuesday’s hearing, presented evidence that Trump planned in advance to direct his supporters to the Capitol but kept his intentions veiled.

An undated draft tweet, marked as being seen by the president, promoted his Jan. 6 speech at the Ellipse and concluded, “March to the Capitol after. Stop the Steal!!”

A Trump campaign spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, wrote in an email after a Jan. 2 call with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that the president’s “expectations are to have something intimate at the Ellipse and call on everyone to march to the Capitol.”

Rally organizers indicated they had advance knowledge that the president would issue the call at the last minute. “POTUS is going to call for it just unexpectedly,” Kylie Kremer, a leader of Women for America First and an organizer of the rally at the Ellipse, wrote in a text message on Jan. 4. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Ali Alexander, another organizer of pro-Trump protest activity, also exhibited prior knowledge of the president’s plans in a text message the following day. “Trump is supposed to order us to the capitol at the end of his speech but we will see,” he wrote.

Alexander said Tuesday he could not recall who notified him about the president’s remarks. “Plans were changing daily,” he said. “We went with the flow and were focused on compliance.”

But Murphy said the “evidence confirms that this was not a spontaneous call to action, but rather was a deliberate strategy decided upon in advance by the president.”

When he executed that strategy — and ad-libbed remarks instructing his supporters to “show strength” and “fight like hell,” in changes to his prepared speech revealed by evidence from the National Archives and witness testimony, according to Murphy — the images of violence emerging from the Capitol hours later left some of his former top aides uncomfortable.

Five takeaways from the hearing on extremism and Trump

Brad Parscale, his onetime campaign manager who had stepped away from the reelection effort, reacted to Trump’s conduct in a text message that evening to Pierson. “A sitting president asking for civil war,” he wrote.

“If I was Trump and knew my rhetoric killed someone,” he added. When Pierson pushed back, saying, “It wasn’t the rhetoric,” Parscale replied, “Katrina. Yes it was.”

Parscale is now advising Trump’s leadership PAC, Save America, and has been paid $150,000 by the group since he sent those text messages. He declined to comment. But a person familiar with Parscale’s thinking said he was angry with Trump at the time for dismissing him as campaign manager and thought the president should have commented hours before he did to tell people to leave the Capitol. The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said Parscale has since made peace with Trump. The two spoke Tuesday after the texts were revealed, the person said, adding that Parscale would be involved in a prospective 2024 campaign.

Trump’s mood was brightest during the post-election period on the evening of Jan. 5, 2021, former White House aides told the committee, according to clips from their depositions. That’s because he could hear his supporters gathering from his perch in the Oval Office, they said.

Those supporters, said Murphy, “believed him” when he said falsely that the election had been stolen.

“And many headed towards the Capitol. As a result, people died. People were injured,” she said. “Many of his supporters’ lives will never be the same.”

One of those supporters, Stephen Ayres, a cabinet maker from Ohio who pleaded guilty in June to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building, testified Tuesday.

He said he marched to the Capitol on the president’s instructions, recalling, “We basically just followed what he said.” Ayres said he left the Capitol after Trump instructed the rioters to do so in a video message that also called them “very special,” and would have gone home sooner had the president asked.

Instead, Raskin said, Trump “became the first president ever to call for a crowd to descend on the capital city to block the constitutional transfer of power.”

“The creation of the internet and social media has given today’s tyrants tools of propaganda and disinformation that yesterday’s despots could only have dreamed of,” he said.

Ayres, asked to reflect on lessons from Jan. 6, said, “The biggest thing for me is take the blinders off, make sure you step back and see what’s going on before it’s too late.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

Loading...