Over that period, the scale of what had occurred had become increasingly clear. Capitol Police officers were, in places, overwhelmed by the sheer number of rioters. Video clips emerged showing the brutality of the attacks on police officers, one of whom died of his injuries. Various rumors about those present had arisen and already been debunked.
One of those debunked theories was that two men present at the riot were associated with the left-wing ideology of antifa, a decentralized network of activists that has at times used violence in opposition to right-wing actors. An article in the conservative Washington Times, since retracted, claimed that two men pictured in the Capitol were linked to antifa. They weren’t. But the article said precisely what many Trump allies wanted to hear — the worst aspects of the day were not the fault of Trump’s side — so the claim quickly permeated conservative media, including Fox News, and was elevated by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) as he voted to reject the certification from states that supported President-elect Joe Biden.
All of that was last week, though. Again, by Monday morning, the reality was clear: The violence was pro-Trump, not some false-flag effort by Trump’s opponents. Yet, according to Axios, that’s precisely the claim that Trump made in a call with the highest-ranking Republican in the House.
“In a tense, 30-minute-plus phone call . . . with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Trump trotted out the Antifa line,” Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported. “McCarthy would have none of it, telling the president: ‘It’s not Antifa, it’s MAGA. I know. I was there,’ according to a White House official and another source familiar with the call.”
McCarthy is clearly correct. The Washington Post and Reuters tracked down other online rumors of antifa presence at the Capitol, finding no evidence to support the claims. The FBI told reporters that there was “no indication” of antifa presence. Trump supporters who celebrated the action were quick to insist that they were the ones who deserved the credit.
One of those arrested, Terry Brown of Pennsylvania, described the scene inside the building.
“There were probably 2,000 to 3,000 people in there at any given time,” he said, according to the Lebanon Daily News. “There were a bunch of garbage cans they threw down the steps . . . and people stopped and they were yelling ‘we’re not Antifa.’ ”
Yet Trump insists they were. There are probably at least two reasons he does so.
The first is that he has repeatedly tried to position antifa as a violent threat to the United States for months. Over the course of the 2020 campaign, Trump tried to use antifa as a foil, a frightening vision of what the United States would become should he lose his reelection bid. When protests focused on police brutality at times devolved into vandalism and violence in the spring, Trump repeatedly claimed that antifa was at fault — and, by extension, left-wing politics.
But that, too, was false. The violence during that period was not a function of antifa, according to a Post review of arrest records. The administration kept trying to pin the most dangerous acts of that period on antifa, but the identified suspects kept not being associated with antifa.
Behind the scenes, government experts were identifying other more dangerous groups. In September, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned that the most significant lethal threat came from self-proclaimed white supremacist groups — groups that were in obvious attendance last week. (A government whistleblower alleged shortly before that in testimony that the risk posed by self-identified white nationalists had been downplayed within DHS in favor of elevating antifa.) The Capitol riot was also well-populated with adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which was included in a May 2019 warning from the FBI about the rise of “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists.”
The other reason Trump probably ascribed the violence to antifa was encapsulated in a quote from an administration official reported by The Post last week.
“He kept saying: ‘The vast majority of them are peaceful. What about the riots this summer? What about the other side? No one cared when they were rioting. My people are peaceful. My people aren’t thugs,’ ” the official said. “He didn’t want to condemn his people.”
The central refrain — “we aren’t antifa” — echoes the chants Brown heard in the crowd. But that little addition about Trump’s people not being “thugs” gives away the subtext.
Trump has used the term “thug” repeatedly as president, generally in reference to his political opponents and often when those opponents are or are perceived to be non-White.
“Weakness will never beat anarchists, looters or thugs,” Trump tweeted shortly after protests began in May, “and Joe [Biden] has been politically weak all of his life. LAW & ORDER!”
“They are not ‘peaceful protesters,’ as [Biden] and the Democrats call them, they are THUGS — And it is all taking place in Democrat run cities,” Trump said of protesters in September. “Call me and request Federal HELP. We will solve your problems in a matter of minutes.”
The thugs are those on the left who use violence as part of their protests. His supporters aren’t thugs; ergo, someone else must have been at fault for the violence. This is, of course, in keeping with Trump’s long-standing view of the criminal spectrum in the United States, from insisting that his allies deserve pardons after being caught committing crimes by then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to claiming that police need to crack down more forcefully on immigrant criminals and left-wing protesters. That this often overlaps with the racial spectrum is not a coincidence.
There is a third possible explanation for Trump’s claim to McCarthy that antifa was involved: He hoped that McCarthy, like some of his least reality-adherent supporters, would simply accept his claim at face value. That McCarthy would simply default to the assumption that it was The Others who were misbehaving, not his own side.
While McCarthy has broadly supported Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential contest, he — reportedly — put his foot down on this one point in his conversation with Trump on Monday. In fact, the crowd reflected precisely the ideologies that Trump’s administration had been warning about for months: far-right and fringe extremists.
It is not hard to figure out why Trump would want to downplay that.