Trump himself has appealed to this argument, insisting Tuesday that nothing about his Jan. 6 speech suggested incitement. It was, like his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019, beyond reproach.
“It’s been analyzed,” he said of the speech, “and people thought that what I said was totally appropriate.”
Like that call with Zelensky, which led to Trump’s impeachment in December 2019, though, the issue is far broader than one speech or one conversation. The groundwork for what occurred at the Capitol was established well before that day. In fact, it stretches back months, to at least April, when Trump began raising questions about the reliability of the 2020 presidential vote.
Trump’s supporters raided the Capitol because he insisted that the election was stolen and that something had to be done. This is the timeline of why they came to accept that and how Trump fostered that belief. (Parts of this timeline come from Just Security’s overview of the president’s actions.)
Before 2020: Since he declared his candidacy, Trump has been reticent to overtly criticize those who support him, regardless of their politics. That includes self-proclaimed white-nationalist groups, whom Trump has criticized only when pressed and then only with qualifiers. In March 2019, the Pew Research Center found that most Americans believed Trump had done too little to distance himself from self-described white nationalists. Self-proclaimed white-nationalist groups expanded during his presidency.
April: With the emergence of the novel coronavirus and infections surging nationally, states began rethinking how they would deal with voting in the presidential primaries and in November’s general election. After the state of Wisconsin postponed its primary elections, Trump lashed out at the state and the shift to mail-in voting.
“Now, mail ballots — they cheat,” Trump said April 7. “Okay? People cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters. They go and collect them. They’re fraudulent in many cases.”
Over the next few months, the number of Republicans indicating that they would vote by mail declined.
May: On April 30, protesters stormed the state Capitol in Michigan to protest measures aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.
The next day, Trump sided with the protesters on Twitter.
“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” he wrote. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
He had previously offered the same sentiment on social media, calling obliquely for unnamed people to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and other states, using revolutionary language to describe opposition to stay-at-home orders and business closures. Trump’s frustrations with those orders stemmed at least in part from his concern that the closures would hurt the economy in the months before he sought reelection.
June: As the months passed, Trump continued to elevate various fraud claims, generally ones detached from any actual demonstrated wrongdoing. He claimed, for example, that mail-in balloting would make the vote susceptible to a flood of votes sent from foreign actors, a claim that was obviously nonsensical even at the time.
In late May and into June, the country was wracked by another point of tension: protests centered on the death of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. Some of those protests devolved into violence and vandalism, which Trump used to amplify campaign rhetoric about the need to protect the public. Over the ensuing months, Trump continued to link the political left and Democrats to physical violence and opposition to the U.S. government.
Trump and the Justice Department repeatedly elevated the threat posed by antifa, a loose-knit ideology whose adherents were at some protests. Demonstrated violence by right-wing actors such as the Proud Boys or members of the “boogaloo” movement, which advocates a second Civil War, was comparatively downplayed.
July: During an interview with Fox News that aired July 19, Trump declined to say that he would necessarily accept the results of the election.
“I’m not going to just say yes,” Trump replied. “I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.”
At the same time, he continued to make unfounded allegations about fraud.
“Mail-In Ballot fraud found in many elections,” Trump tweeted July 10. “People are just now seeing how bad, dishonest and slow it is. Election results could be delayed for months. No more big election night answers? 1% not even counted in 2016. Ridiculous! Just a formula for RIGGING an Election.”
Needless to say, this was not an accurate presentation of mail-in balloting.
August: After Marjorie Taylor Greene won the Republican nomination for Georgia’s 14th District, Trump offered her his explicit praise, despite Greene’s background, which included expressed support for the sprawling QAnon conspiracy theory. The theory holds, among other things, that Trump is fighting a secret war against satanic pedophiles who have infiltrated Democratic politics and Hollywood. In 2019, federal law enforcement identified QAnon as one facet of a rising violent threat posted by conspiracy-theory adherents.
On Aug. 19, Trump was asked about QAnon directly. His response was similar to his past approach to self-described white nationalists.
“Well, I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” Trump said. “But I don’t know much about the movement.”
By the end of August, it was already clear that Trump’s efforts to mislead his base about the November election posed a significant risk of fomenting violence.
Violence had already occurred, without Trump’s condemnation. He refused to condemn Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenage Trump supporter accused of fatally shooting two people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Wisconsin.
“I guess it looks like he fell and then they very violently attacked him, and it was something we’re looking at right now and it’s under investigation,” Trump said. “I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed. But it’s under investigation.”
September: A whistleblower from within the Department of Homeland Security alleged that agency leaders sought to downplay the risk posed by self-described white nationalists and to emphasize the threat of left-wing actors. Trump continued his efforts to cast mail balloting as rife with fraud.
In late September, the president was asked if he would cede power peacefully.
“Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very trans — we’ll have a very peaceful — ” Trump replied, “There won’t be a transfer, frankly,” he continued. “There’ll be a continuation.”
The “ballots” that Trump wanted to get rid of were the mail ballots against which he had been railing.
The next day, both he and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany were given a chance to reinforce that Trump would ensure a peaceful transition. Neither did.
“The president will accept the results of a free and fair election,” McEnany stated — making a peaceful transition contingent on Trump accepting the election as fair. A few hours later, the president made clear that he didn’t plan to do so.
“We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” he said.
During his first debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Trump was asked to condemn the presence of self-described white-nationalist and fascistic groups that had shown up at some protests. He was asked explicitly to condemn the Proud Boys.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump replied. “But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.”
The Proud Boys quickly adopted the non-condemnation as an informal slogan.
October through Nov. 3: Trump and his allies in conservative media ramp up their allegations that the election results are at risk from fraudulent mail-in voting. The National Republican Campaign Committee, for example, ran ads on Facebook shortly before the election claiming that “Nancy Pelosi and radical Democrats are trying to steal this election.”
During a town hall interview with NBC News, Trump again defended QAnon.
“I know nothing about it,” he said. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard, but I know nothing about it.”
This is whitewashing, at best: QAnon adherents accuse a wide array of political actors of being pedophiles, meaning that their “fight” against pedophilia is really an effort to impugn and attack people based on politics.
“I’ll tell you what I do know about,” Trump added: “I know about antifa, and I know about the radical left. And I know how violent they are and how vicious they are.”
When a group of Trump supporters surrounded Biden’s campaign bus, nearly forcing it off the road, Trump praised them.
Election Day: When polls closed on the evening of Nov. 3, Trump held leads in a number of swing states, a predicted artifact of Republicans being more likely to vote on Election Day itself. Democratic voters were more likely to cast mail ballots, meaning that it took longer for those votes to be counted.
Early in the morning of Nov. 4, Trump claimed that he had won the election, basing his claim on those incomplete returns. He claimed that fraud was rampant and that he would take his case to the Supreme Court.
November and December: Trump elevated a wide array of theories about fraud, none of which were substantiated.
He suffered a number of legal and political defeats. Courts rejected his claims about fraud tainting the results. Vote tallies proved that Biden had won the presidency, and Trump’s efforts to block the certification of those votes failed. His effort to interfere with the casting of electoral votes in mid-December was similarly futile.
But day after day, Trump continued to allege that the election was stolen from him. He continued to try to persuade state officials to overturn the obvious preferences of their voters.
“If a Democrat Presidential Candidate had an Election Rigged & Stolen, with proof of such acts at a level never seen before,” Trump tweeted in December, “the Democrat Senators would consider it an act of war, and fight to the death. Mitch & the Republicans do NOTHING, just want to let it pass. NO FIGHT!”
On Dec. 19, Trump tweeted his support for protests in Washington on Jan. 6.
“Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” Trump wrote. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
Jan. 6, around noon: Trump begins speaking to the crowd gathered outside the White House. In attendance or nearby are thousands of Trump supporters — and scores of QAnon supporters and members of the Proud Boys and self-described white-nationalist groups.
“They want to steal the election,” Trump told the crowd to cheers. “The radical left knows exactly what they’re doing. They’re ruthless, and it’s time that somebody did something about it.”
His comments about a peaceful protest came early in the speech. Near the end, he was less gentle.
“Nobody until I came along had any idea how corrupt our elections were,” Trump said. “… I said something’s wrong here, something is really wrong.”
“And we fight. We fight like hell,” he added. “And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
He then told the audience that “we” would walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol to “try and give [Republicans] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
Within two hours, the mob had broken into the Capitol. Trump, who did not walk with them to their destination, watched the events unfold on a television in the White House. For hours, he ignored entreaties from his embattled allies in the Capitol and declined to act to ensure that the building was secured.
While Vice President Pence was being protected in a secure area in the building, Trump tweeted additional encouragement to his supporters in the streets.
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify,” Trump wrote. “USA demands the truth!”
“It took him a while to appreciate the gravity of the situation,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “The president saw these people as allies in his journey and sympathetic to the idea that the election was stolen.”
“My people are peaceful,” Trump reportedly said at another point. “My people aren’t thugs.”
All of this was predictable. It derived from Trump’s insistences that he couldn’t have lost fairly and his refusal to condemn the right-wing and racist fringe. He spent months building up a sense that the election would be suspect and then spent months claiming that it was. He told his supporters that they would need to fight to overturn the election results.
Put succinctly, the president declined to say he would ensure a peaceful transition of power. Then he didn’t.