Even by itself, that effort relies on an effort to cherry-pick from the comments Trump made during a rally outside the White House that morning and to contextualize his demands that his supporters “fight” against the electoral vote results that Congress would formalize a few hours later.
“The article of impeachment cherry picks Mr. Trump’s phrases from an hour-long speech,” the brief reads, immediately before stating that Trump “unambiguously advocated” that the crowd should act peacefully by cherry-picking a comment to that effect Trump made early in his speech. It then isolates several of the many demands that his supporters fight for him and compares them to rhetoric from Democrats or plays down what observers might have taken from the comments.
“The words of President Trump’s January 6 speech speak for themselves,” Trump’s attorneys state at another point. “President Trump did not direct anyone to commit lawless actions, and the claim that he could be responsible if a small group of criminals (who had come to the capital of their own accord armed and ready for a fight) completely misunderstood him, were so enamored with him and inspired by his words that they left his speech early, and then walked a mile and a half away to 'imminently’ do the opposite of what he had just asked for, is simply absurd.”
That’s the crux of the argument. But the flaw is obvious: The “criminals” who stormed the Capitol did not come to the capital entirely of their own accord. They came, according to all available evidence, because Trump highlighted Jan. 6 as a date on which pressure would be applied on Congress to overturn the results of the election. They came that day because Trump asked them to and they interfered with the effort to finalize the 2020 election because that was what Trump wanted them to do.
The evidence reflects this. On Sunday, The Washington Post walked through evidence collected by federal investigators in which those involved in storming the Capitol linked their actions to Trump’s desires. Others had said as much to media outlets before their arrests. But what the existing evidentiary record shows is that attention turned to the 6th only after Trump highlighted it. It wasn’t just that people came that day because of Trump, it’s that the day didn’t become a focus of attention until Trump highlighted it.
On Dec. 14, members of the electoral college met in all 50 states to formally cast their votes for president, confirming Joe Biden’s win. What was scheduled to happen Jan. 6 was simply that Congress would count those votes, a formality that in elections past attracted little attention. This year, though, there were rumblings that Republican elected officials would oppose the counting of the electoral votes, claiming that irregularities had marred the vote counting. On Dec. 17, Trump highlighted one such objection by retweeting a One America News story about a plan by then-Sen.-elect Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) to object.
It’s possible that Trump learned about the vote-counting only because he saw an ad created by the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans. That ad aired Dec. 10 and prominently featured then-Vice President Mike Pence’s role in confirming the final electoral-vote count. Trump was reportedly furious when he saw the spot and was soon insisting that Pence could simply stand in the way of the final vote counting. (He couldn’t.)
Trump’s first tweet about a rally or event Jan. 6 came on Dec. 19. He shared a news story on Twitter about false claims of fraud being presented by a member of his administration, then telling his millions of followers that there would be a “big protest in D.C. on January 6th.”
“Be there,” he added, “will be wild!”
Over the next few weeks, he kept up the drumbeat: Big rally Jan. 6, up to the people to stop the finalization of the election.
On Dec. 26, he lashed out at the Justice Department for not reinforcing his false claims about voter fraud.
“They should be ashamed,” he said on Twitter. “History will remember. Never give up. See everyone in D.C. on January 6th.”
A review of charging documents compiled by the department doesn’t indicate that any of those arrested in the storming of the Capitol had identified Jan. 6 as a date for travel to D.C. In fact, several of the documents show that plans changed only after Trump identified the date.
A statement of facts related to the arrest of Karl Dresch, for example, alleges that Dresch had posted information on Facebook focused on Jan. 6 by “no later than December 16, 2020” — before Trump’s first tweet about the rally. But the alleged Dec. 16 post from Dresch appears to have been simply “Stop the Steal,” a phrase broadly related to Trump’s false fraud claims. Four days later, after Trump identified the 6th as a target date, Dresch allegedly posted about it: “7-4-1776 = 1-6-2021.”
An indictment charging members of a self-described militia group in Ohio in connection with the violence shows a similar shift. Jessica Watkins allegedly told an acquaintance Nov. 9 that, “I need you fighting fit by innaugeration [sic],” suggesting an emphasis on Jan. 20. By Dec. 29, the focus shifted to the 6th: “Trump wants all able bodied Patriots to come.”
A number of others arrested in connection with their alleged involvement in the storming of the Capitol similarly announced plans to attend only after Trump had emphasized the date.
- Kenneth Grayson allegedly wrote Dec. 23 that he would be “there for the greatest celebration of all time after Pence leads the Senate flip!!”
- That same day, Ronald Sandlin allegedly posed a question to his Facebook friends: “Who is going to Washington D.C. on the 6th of January? I’m going to be there to show support for our president and to do my part to stop the steal and stand behind Trump when he decides to cross the rubicon.” He later organized a GoFundMe fundraiser to pay for people to attend.
- Gina Bisignano allegedly replied to a Trump Facebook post calling for people to come on Jan. 6 with “I’ll be there.”
Other timelines are less clear. A witness who spoke with the FBI alleged that Jacob Lewis had said to “watch what happens to the Capitol on the 6th.” The alleged conversation took place in December 2020, suggesting that it may have followed Trump’s initial focus on the date. Albert Ciarpelli allegedly told the FBI that he made plans to travel to Washington after seeing television ads promoting the rally that day, although it’s unclear when the ad aired.
But this highlights another important point: Organizations focused on promoting rallies in Washington on Jan. 6 began to do so only after Trump’s initial tweet.
On Jan. 2, Trump retweeted a message promoting the rally near the White House, organized by an activist associated with the website TrumpMarch.com. It had put together a bus tour in November and early December to champion Trump’s false claims about the election. As of Dec. 18, the day of Trump’s first tweet, the site was still promoting the end of that tour. By Dec. 23, it had shifted to a bus tour ending in D.C. on Jan. 6.
It’s important to note, as journalist Marcy Wheeler did Monday, that those already arrested by federal agents probably are among those least likely to have been part of coordinated plans to commit acts of violence Jan. 6. They were, instead, people who promoted their involvement in the attempted insurrection on Facebook, where acquaintances could see — and report — their boasts. There may be others who’d focused on overrunning the Capitol on Jan. 6 even before Trump first elevated the day in that Dec. 17 tweet.
Of course, it’s not likely that the Capitol could have been overrun were there not a crowd of thousands pushing against the inadequate barriers that had been constructed around the building. It probably required a large mass of people to work, a large mass that was there because Trump had demanded that it be.
It is true that some of those present at the Capitol were not inspired by Trump’s speech that morning. In the criminal complaint targeting Garret Miller, the FBI claims that Miller had written on Facebook that “we where [sic] going in. … No matter what. … Decided before the trump speech.”
The first alleged mention of the day came Jan. 2, when the FBI indicates that Miller wrote on Facebook that he was “about to drive across the country for this trump s---.”
The prior afternoon, Trump had again tweeted an explicit call for attendance that day.
“The BIG Protest Rally in Washington, D.C., will take place at 11.00 A.M. on January 6th,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Locational details to follow. StopTheSteal!”