Those assurances were ridiculed at the time, and that ridicule was entirely vindicated Wednesday. As Congress began to accept the results of the electoral college, Trump supporters stormed the capitol, forcing both chambers to shut down as they were considering the first challenge to the results, from Arizona. Rioters clashed with police and forced their way into buildings and even the floor of Congress. There was broken glass. There was an armed standoff at the door of the House Chamber.
To be clear, this was something Trump and his allies flirted with repeatedly in the day and weeks before it happened — and indeed, not more than a couple hours prior. And the president also expressed approval for what he had seen shortly after the scenes subsided. The president is now being criticized by even top allies for fanning the flames and failing to repudiate the scenes.
At a rally near the capitol earlier Wednesday, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani endorsed the idea of a “trial by combat” — an allusion to something being settled by physical violence rather than evidence. He cited supposed evidence of his baseless voter fraud claims but then turned to a method of justice that had no place for such things.
“If we’re wrong, we will be made fools of,” Giuliani said, despite courts having almost universally found his claims to be wrong. “But if we’re right, a lot of them will go to jail. So let’s have trial by combat.”
Trump appeared soon after Giuliani, encouraging his supporters to head to the Capitol building. Trump told the supporters he wanted them “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” but he has often offered mixed messages on this kind of thing. He has occasionally and suggestively said that supporters might respond with force if they believe the election result is fraudulent, and he has repeatedly alluded that his supporters might wind up being as allegedly violent as his opponents.
And even as the unrest built Wednesday afternoon, he spent his first tweet criticizing Vice President Pence for not supporting his effort to overturn the election results. He later tweeted in support of Capitol Police, saying they were on the side of the country and added, “Stay peaceful!”
In case the half-heartedness of the president’s sentiments wasn’t obvious, his former aides quickly called him out. Mulvaney said: “The President’s tweet is not enough. He can stop this now and needs to do exactly that. Tell these folks to go home.”
Former White House communications adviser Alyssa Farah said, “Condemn this now, @realDonaldTrump — you are the only one they will listen to. For our country!”
Trump later, after two hours of pressure, released a video urging people to go home. He did so while making pains to sympathize with their cause and saying, “I love you, you’re very special.”
In case the intent wasn’t clear, he then tweeted an even more sympathetic message saying, “These are the things and events that happen” when an election is stolen. “Remember this day forever!” (The tweets were later removed by Twitter.)
Trump will often offer half-measures and mixed messages in response to such scenes — enough to allow his supporters to argue that he spoke up but hardly a rebuke. GOP members of Congress, including Reps. Mike Gallagher (Wis.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), both war veterans, joined Mulvaney and Farah in labeling the initial response insufficient.
In the hours after his latest comments, GOP senators up to and including Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) criticized him for either contributing to the situation or not speaking out forcefully enough against it.
Cotton pointed to both Trump and his colleagues who have pushed a doomed effort to overturn the election, which he came out against Monday.
“It’s past time for the president to accept the results of the election, quit misleading the American people, and repudiate mob violence,” said Cotton, who has been among Trump’s top allies in the Senate. “And the senators and representatives who fanned the flames by encouraging the president and leading their supporters to believe that their objections could reverse the election results should withdraw those objections.”
Trump’s comments were also far short of what Pence said, which was that “this attack on our Capitol will not be tolerated and those involved will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Whatever Trump has personally said, his claims have led allies to more than flirt with the prospect of violence. Just this weekend, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), whose lawsuit on behalf of Trump was rejected by the Supreme Court, told Newsmax that violence was essentially what those court cases asked for.
“But if bottom line is, the court is saying: ‘We’re not going to touch this. You have no remedy’ — basically, in effect, the ruling would be that you got to go the streets and be as violent as antifa and BLM …” Gohmert said, referring to Black Lives Matter.
The Arizona Republican Party last month retweeted a conspiracy theorist behind the protests who said he was wiling to die for the cause, adding, “He is. Are you?”
Trump has repeatedly alluded to prospective violence by his supporters over his four years, including the idea that law enforcement and supporters, including bikers, might take matters into their own hands. Last year, he invoked the infamous phrase “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” and retweeted a video saying “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” within about 24 hours in response to racial justice demonstrations. And in late December, he alluded to the idea that Democrats would “fight to the death” if the roles were reversed and the election was allegedly stolen from them.
Trump also repeatedly promoted a video from a former employee of the Epoch Times, a pro-Trump news outlet, in which a narrator intones “We will fight to the death to protect those rights.”
It’s a clear and demonstrated theme over the past five years. Trump is a master of hinting at things and then gently disavowing them when it becomes untenable, to give himself plausible deniability and allow his supporters to believe the best about his intentions. What has been attempted Wednesday, though, has been a very predictable result of all of it — and one Trump clearly isn’t terribly sorry to see take place on his behalf.
Correction: This post initially misidentified a video as coming from the Epoch Times. It was, in fact, from a former employee of the newspaper.