The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On Jan. 6 itself, Trump’s allies understood that he was the catalyst

Pro-Trump protesters storm the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. (Will Oliver/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

History is often about what-ifs. What has happened is a function of a lot of different choices at different moments, decisions that subtly or dramatically shifted the course of what was to come — and which often spur a single question: What if another path had been taken?

The riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 is such an event. An earthquake in the history of the United States, it, too, derives from a number of decisions, most of them taken by President Donald Trump. What if he hadn’t repeatedly made false claims about the election? What if he hadn’t seized on that day as a point of pressure? What if he’d decided against drawing supporters to D.C. by the thousands?

And what if he’d actually tried to stop the violence once it was underway?

On Monday evening, America learned more about the extent to which Trump’s broad galaxy of allies, from Fox News hosts to Republicans inside the Capitol building, had urged him and his team to try to shut down the riot as it was underway. We’ve known since the day itself that Trump was disinclined to step in as the Capitol was stormed and as Congress and his vice president were hurried to safety. But we haven’t really known until now the range of voices who, as that unfolded, were pushing and pushing for him to more aggressively dismantle the juggernaut he’d created.

Whatever he and his allies say about the events of that day now, many were very clear in the moment on what was unfolding: a group of people was seizing and, then, had seized control of the seat of American legislative power — and Trump could make it stop.

But he didn’t even try until well after the damage was done.

Trump was still speaking at his rally on the Ellipse south of the White House when the first barricade was breached on the west front of the Capitol. Even as he was telling his audience that “when you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules” and that “we must stop this deal and then we must ensure that such outrageous election fraud never happens again, can never be allowed to happen again,” protesters were already approaching the building from within the perimeter that had already been established. Less than 10 minutes after he told the audience that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Capitol Police were reporting injuries.

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By 2:12 p.m., rioters had breached the Capitol building itself. Vice President Mike Pence was quickly evacuated. A few minutes after, Fox News interviewed a guy from Tampa who expressed his frustration that Pence had decided against going along with Trump’s plan to retain power.

“I think there’s several hundred thousand people here that are very disappointed,” the man said, live on air, “but I still believe President Trump has something else left.”

Trump usually watched Fox News and was watching television at the beginning of the riot, though we don’t know if he saw that man’s comments. But at 2:24 p.m., he offered his first thoughts since the Capitol was breached.

“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,” he tweeted. “USA demands the truth!”

At that point, national security adviser Keith Kellogg told Trump that Pence was secure but, according to the book “Peril,” that “nobody’s carrying a TV on their shoulder. You need to get a tweet out real quick, help control the crowd up there. This is out of control.”

By then the major cable networks, including Fox, had already reported that the Capitol had been breached. But Trump didn’t offer any public effort to quell the violence until more than 10 minutes after his attack on Pence. Finally, a tepid message: “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!” Four minutes after that tweet, Ashli Babbitt attempted to enter the Speaker’s Lobby adjacent to the House floor and was shot. She later died of her wound.

It’s by this point that Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, was fielding multiple messages from allies on Capitol Hill and the studios of Fox News. On Monday, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), vice-chairman of the House select committee on the Jan. 6 attack, read a series of messages sent to Meadows early that afternoon.

Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. asked Meadows to get his father to condemn the violence “ASAP. The Capitol Police tweet is not enough.” Meadows agreed. Trump Jr. replied that his father “has to lead now. It has gone too far and gotten out of hand.”

Fox News’s Laura Ingraham similarly pushed Meadows to get Trump to act, saying that “this is hurting all of us” and that Trump was “destroying his legacy.” The network’s Brian Kilmeade sent Meadows something similar. Sean Hannity suggested that Trump should make a statement to encourage people to leave the Capitol.

Other legislators texted bleak updates to Meadows, their former colleague.

“Hey, Mark, protesters are literally storming the Capitol. Breaking windows on doors,” one texted, according to Cheney. “Rushing in. Is Trump going to say something?”

“POTUS has to come out firmly and tell protesters to dissipate,” one wrote. “Someone is going to get killed.” Another: “TELL THEM TO GO HOME.”

At 3:13 p.m., an hour after the Capitol was first breached and with Congress and Pence in hiding, Trump offered a wan request to his supporters.

“I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful,” he wrote in a tweet. “No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order — respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!”

Another hour passed. He published a video message to his supporters.

“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us,” he said. “It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side, but you have to go home now. We have to have peace.” He later added: “We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. But go home and go home in peace.”

Less than 10 minutes later, Rosanne Boyland was trampled to death as a mob on the east side of the Capitol attacked police officers in an attempt to get inside. The National Guard didn’t arrive until after 5 p.m.

From the first moment that violence began at the Capitol that day, it was clear why it was being done and who bore primary responsibility that it had. If Trump had chosen not to amplify false claims of fraud and if he hadn’t pushed people to be there in huge numbers, there’s no riot. In the months that have passed since, there’s been a great deal of effort made to distract from that reality, to suggest that somehow the riot was detached from Trump’s decisions and actions.

But on that day, as the Capitol was being overwhelmed, numerous people in Trump’s orbit saw him as the catalyst. They understood that if anyone could bring the situation to an end, it was Trump. For hours, though, Trump didn’t. He watched it unfold on television. His allies tried to use the delay in the counting of the electoral votes to pressure legislators to reject them.

Consider that Trump’s own son tried to get Meadows to intervene with Trump. The implication here is obvious: Trump was ignoring everyone else’s entreaties. It certainly wasn’t the case that Sean Hannity or Donald Trump Jr. didn’t have the president’s ear. It was almost certainly that they found him willfully deaf to their appeals.

A bit after 6 p.m., Trump offered one last thought on Twitter.

“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump wrote. “Go home with love & in peace.”

Then he added one last thought: “Remember this day forever!”

That bit of advice was heeded.

Update: Appearing on Hannity’s show Monday evening, Meadows made a remarkable claim about Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “they’re going to find that not only did the president act, but he acted quickly.”

The timeline above speaks for itself.


This article originally attributed a plea to Meadows from reporter Jake Sherman as having come from a Republican legislator. That message has been removed.