That latter speech from Stone, a longtime ally of Trump’s and a longtime foe of the truth, was documented in a permit submitted to the Capitol Police in advance of the day’s protest. Obtained by BuzzFeed News, the permit lists an exhaustive set of planned speakers for the rally on the east front of the Capitol that day, running from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Among the planned speakers were Ali Alexander, the right-wing provocateur who had been vacuuming up money through his “Stop the Steal” effort, and various members of Congress, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) (identified as Marjorie Greens in the permit), Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).
Eventually, the plan changed. Apparently following conversations with the White House, that long-planned Capitol rally was folded into a tripartite group of events running from the evening of Jan. 5 until the following afternoon. Every component was pointed in the same direction, toward bolstering Trump’s false claims of election fraud and responding to his exhortations for people to show up and protest.
We’re discussing this nine months later because of what happened next. There were often-nebulous discussions in the days before Jan. 6 about storming the Capitol, generally the sort of bluster that is common at the moment as elements of the right compete in a virtual toughness contest. There were real discussions about how to infiltrate the building that day, according to federal prosecutors, including alleged coordination by members of far-right groups like the Oath Keepers. Our best understanding of what occurred, though, is that the Capitol was overrun mostly because of circumstance, because there were so many people there and they were so angry and, importantly, because there was no one hitting the brakes.
This is a critically important point. Discussion of Jan. 6 has often blurred the line of culpability between those who put the pieces in place and those who engaged in violence. If a homeowner refuses to clear oil-soaked rags from his garage and turns it into a cigar club called The Arson Zone, he certainly bears blame if some drunken customer intentionally burns the place down. But the homeowner isn’t the arsonist.
At least, not necessarily. The unanswered question about Jan. 6 is, in essence, whether the homeowner and the arsonist had agreed on what would happen next. And that question remains unanswered.
There are tantalizing questions. Alexander bragged earlier this year that he’d planned his Jan. 6 rally with the assistance of several members of Congress, including Gosar, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.). A report from Rolling Stone published over the weekend cited unnamed sources who had helped plan the events in describing regular communications between members’ offices and rally organizers — something that could have been simply about orchestrating logistics or that could have been more nefarious. In the days after Jan. 6, two Democratic representatives said that they had seen Boebert conducting tours of the Capitol days before Jan. 6, implying that it was related. We don’t know that it was.
That Rolling Stone report was quickly heralded on the left as reinforcement of the idea that House Republicans bore significant blame for the day’s events. In reality, we know little more now than we did last week: those representatives often giddily reinforced Trump’s false claims of fraud and were scheduled to participate in events egging on those who rejected the reality of the election — but there’s no new indication that they were involved in a plot specifically to overrun the building.
This may seem like an academic question, in the same way that it seems academic to distinguish between the homeowner and the arsonist. Both bear blame, certainly! But the question now is not whether Trump (and his allies and Facebook) stoked fury and brought together combustible elements. We know they did. The question that the House committee investigating the riot is trying to answer is whether the homeowner and the arsonist worked together.
Committee chair Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday where he was asked about comments made by former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon on Jan. 5 suggesting that the next day would be tumultuous. Was this evidence that the attack was premeditated, host Margaret Brennan asked?
“Well, there’s no question,” Thompson replied. “Clearly the direction of the committee is to look at that premeditation to make sure that we identified, but the worst kept secret in America is that Donald Trump invited individuals to come to Washington on Jan. 6.”
In fact, it wasn’t a secret at all. Trump tweeted about it. He repeatedly encouraged people to come to the city in the days prior to Jan. 6. By implying that it was a secret, Thompson’s hinting at a nefariousness that isn’t proven, that Trump was secretly working to stoke anger and draw people to the Capitol as part of his plot. But it wasn’t hidden! There was absolutely premeditation about the day’s events — but not necessarily about the attack itself, which at this point is the central question.
People will criticize this point as hair-splitting, but it’s important. If all Thompson is trying to do is prove that Trump drew people to the Capitol and misled them about the election, well, might as well wrap up the committee. That work is done. If, instead, he’s trying to figure out if there was a broader effort to prepare for an attack on the Capitol, there’s more to do. If that distinction isn’t made clear, the left risks making the same rhetorical error the right made in criticizing last year’s protests. There is a difference between protesting and rioting and, salient to Jan. 6, there is a difference between a mob and an attack. That, in particular, is the unanswered question about the day’s events.
What’s interesting about the rally that was scheduled for the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, the one at which Roger Stone was scheduled to speak, was that it extended for four hours after the special session convened. It was not a plan oriented around a morning of speeches that would then end at 1 p.m. so people could storm the Capitol. As with Bannon’s Jan. 5 ironic complaints that the Capitol Police weren’t doing enough to protect Republicans who planned to object to the counting of electoral votes, the schedule suggests a lack of awareness of what was going to happen.
At 2:12 p.m., when the Capitol was first breached, rally attendees were supposed to be hearing a speech from Scott Presler, a mild-mannered conservative activist who focuses on voter turnout. If the agreed-upon plan was that this was somehow connected to a violent attack on law enforcement, the evidence for that plan has not yet emerged.