The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Was the White House warned about pushing people to the Capitol on Jan. 6?

Trump supporters at a rally near the White House on Jan. 6. (John Minchillo/AP)
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One of the perils of our splintered media ecosystem is that it can be difficult to track information that’s novel and information that isn’t. News has a novelty bias, born in part from decades of deeply reported political coverups — we learn something that we hadn’t encountered before or that’s truly new, and it seems as though it necessarily expands the boundaries of our knowledge in a significant way. We’ve seen this repeatedly in the past decade, with huge troves of information being mined for interesting nuggets — nuggets then treated as important even when they immediately or quickly were revealed as being the opposite.

So, this weekend, a small new revelation related to the inquiry into the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6: Ali Alexander, an organizer of the “Stop the Steal” movement, had contacted Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) to get him involved in the day’s events. This prompted a broad denial from Brooks suggesting that he’d simply received an unverified request to speak at Alexander’s event that day, planned for Capitol Hill. Still: a connection between a member of Congress and an organizer of the day’s rallies!

Except that this connection not only was only already known, it was not a secret. Brooks spoke at the Ellipse that day, something that he said was a response to a personal request from the White House. Brooks talked to rally organizers and spoke at the rally. That’s known.

Your response here might focus on the distinction between the White House event and Alexander’s. But that is a distinction without much difference. By the time Jan. 6 rolled around, Alexander’s Capitol Hill efforts were intertwined with what was happening at the rally outside the White House. What’s emerged as important, instead, is the question of how the two were meant to be literally connected on the day itself.

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Here, I myself fell prey to novelty bias. Last week, one of the people involved in discussions around the events on that day, Dustin Stockton, was interviewed on MSNBC. In that conversation with the network’s Chris Hayes, he made a claim I had overlooked.

“What we revealed to the committee is that there was an internal conflict that was ongoing inside the organizer groups, about what the program and what the day on January 6 should look like,” Stockton told Hayes. “And we kind of lost that battle. And we didn’t realize we lost that battle until President Trump told people to walk down to the Capitol.”

You’ll remember Trump saying that: We’re all going to walk down to the Capitol, all of us together. Among the last words he said were that “we’re going to try and give them” — congressional Republicans — “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country. So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.” By then, protesters had already pushed past police officers on Capitol Hill, but thousands of Trump supporters would soon be joining them.

Now, Stockton had made this same point before. In June, he spoke with ProPublica, expressing bafflement about Trump’s plea. Then there was an interview granted to Politico that ran last month, in which David Freedlander wrote that Stockton and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lawrence, saw Alexander and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones as opportunists who were derailing the intent of the day’s activities.

The pair, Freedlander reported, “had been trying to keep [Alexander and Jones] and their cohort away from their efforts, and say a deal was ultimately brokered to allow Alexander and Jones to speak at the rally on the 5th so long as there was no rally at the Capitol on the 6th. But Alexander and Jones planned one anyway — and when Trump mentioned walking over to the Capitol in his speech, it meant to Stockton and Lawrence that someone from the other side had gotten to him.”

It’s important to dig through this a bit. When Trump on Dec. 19, 2020, tweeted encouragement for people to show up in Washington on Jan. 6 — “Be there, will be wild!” — Alexander or his team quickly stood up a website called WildProtest.com. In the same period, the group Stockton was working with, Women for America First (WAF), moved a protest planned for shortly after the inauguration to instead coincide with that date. Both groups sought permits — WAF from the city for events at the Lincoln Memorial and Freedom Plaza near the White House and Alexander’s group from Capitol Police for a spot to the northeast of the Capitol. That latter permit, obtained by BuzzFeed News, was in the name of a group called “One Nation Under God” — but included Alexander as a speaker. Eventually, the list of speakers at Alexander’s rally also included Brooks.

ProPublica’s Joshua Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien report that there was soon tension between the fringe-y effort run by Alexander and Jones and the WAF effort, led by longtime tea party activist Amy Kremer and her daughter, Kylie. A major Republican donor was pushing for Alexander and Jones to be given space at the rally that was eventually moved to the Ellipse, south of the White House, and Trump ally Katrina Pierson was reportedly deputized to resolve the feud with Trump himself.

“Trump expressed surprise that other people wanted to speak at the Ellipse at all. His request for the day was simple: He wanted lots of music and to limit the speakers to himself, some family members and a few others, according to the source and emails reviewed by ProPublica,” Kaplan and Sapien report. “The president asked if there was another venue where people like Alexander and Roger Stone” — Trump’s longtime adviser — “could speak.” There was: a separate event planned for Jan. 5 by the Eighty Percent Coalition, a group founded by Cindy Chafian, a former organizer with WAF. Stockton later told the New York Times that he arranged to move the speakers.

Regardless, both WAF and Alexander’s group eventually announced a blended set of events. On Jan. 3, the WAF’s website for its “March to Save America” was updated to include not only the rally at the Ellipse on the morning of Jan. 6 — now with Trump publicly confirmed to attend — but also a notice that at “1:00 p.m., we protest at US Capitol.” That was the time at which Alexander’s event was slated to begin, as his WildProtest website soon touted. Neither group had a permit for a march, but the final permit granted to WAF noted that “some participants may leave to attend rallies at the United States Capitol to hear the results of Congressional certification of the Electoral College count.”

To ProPublica, Stockton indicated that he saw the danger looming.

“A last-minute march, without a permit, without all the metro police that’d usually be there to fortify the perimeter, felt unsafe,” he said. He told Kaplan and Sapien that he and Amy Kremer, of WAF, had gone to Pierson to express concern about the apparent plan for an informal march.

“Feeling that they weren’t gaining enough traction, Stockton said, he and Kremer agreed to call [White House Chief of Staff Mark] Meadows directly,” ProPublica’s reporters wrote. “Kremer, who has a personal relationship with Meadows dating back to his early days in Congress, said she would handle the matter herself. Soon after, Kremer told Stockton ‘the White House would take care of it,’ which he interpreted to mean she had contacted top officials about the march.”

To ProPublica, Kremer denied speaking with Meadows about concerns and, more recently, she denied that Stockton helped organize the day’s events at all.

Alexander was at the Ellipse rally and left for the Capitol with a large contingent of people shortly after the violence began. It’s not clear whether he and his group intended to host an actual rally at the Capitol or whether it confirmed the speakers it included in its lineup. (Alexander should not be considered a reliable interlocutor.) But there are documented indicators of tensions with the WAF team. According to notes taken by the Capitol Police official evaluating the permit application from Alexander’s group, a Dec. 22 conversation with a spokesperson for the group included a question about where WAF members would be, since their group “does not agree” with some of the “Women for America First idea[s] and was trying to avoid being next to them.”

A few days later, Kremer sent a text message to the team coordinating WAF’s event (obtained by ProPublica) saying that the White House “and team Trump are aware of the situation with Ali and Cindy” (probably Chafian) and that she needed “to be the one to handle both.”

All of this gets back to Stockton’s point. There were two events planned, one by a group that hosted Trump that morning and another by elements of the right-wing fringe. There was concern expressed by Stockton and Lawrence about the transition between the two, concern he believed had been resolved until he heard Trump push people to the Capitol. As he told the Times at the end of January, “the plan had been to stay at the Ellipse until the counting of state electoral slates was completed” — until the White House got involved.

There was no rally on Capitol Hill by Alexander that day. There was, however, a moment in which he and Jones appeared among the crowd at the top of the stairs on the Capitol’s east front, with Jones using a megaphone in a desperate effort to be heard over the ruckus — and pledging to get the president to show up. (Journalist Marcy Wheeler notes that he’d previously told protesters on the other side of the building to head around, promising that Trump would show.)

“Guys, I’m telling you, Trump’s not going to come if we don’t calm down,” Jones said, Alexander standing nearby. “Let’s be peaceful.”

It was far too late for that.

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