The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unpacking how Trump primed Jan. 6’s most dangerous weapon: The mob

Pro-Trump protesters storm into the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (Shannon Stapleton)
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Everyone understood that scale was important.

Donald Trump certainly did. He’d been trumpeting his ability to draw a crowd since well before he was elected president. He sent out multiple entreaties for people to show up in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, including one that promised attendees that the day would be “wild.” In the months since, far from chastened about how those who answered his call behaved that day, he’s boasted about how many people showed up to hear him speak outside the White House.

But those who arrived in the city that day with more overtly nefarious goals similarly understood the utility of having a large mass of people. On public forums like TheDonald.win, Trump supporters pushed people to show up in the city, appeals that sat beside plans for bringing weapons and intimidating the members of Congress who would be voting to finalize Trump’s 2020 election loss. In court documents released in recent months, extremist groups spotlighted the utility of having a huge mass of angry people show up in Washington to pressure the government.

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Days after Joe Biden’s victory was confirmed, the head of the Oath Keepers allegedly published a call to action that included gathering “millions” of people in the capital to “storm” the center of legislative power. In a chat among leaders of the group the Proud Boys, one allegedly speculated about the utility of having a huge crowd overwhelm police.

“[W]hat would they do [if] 1 million patriots stormed and took the capital [sic] building. Shoot into the crowd? I think not,” one wrote. The reply? “They would do nothing because they can do nothing.” In other messages, Proud Boys allegedly discussed the possibility of “normies” — regular people incited to violence — burning D.C. “to ash.”

The person who had the power to ensure or prevent a gathering of sufficient size to guarantee that law enforcement would be overwhelmed was Trump. What’s more, he actively encouraged people to march from his rally at the Ellipse on that day to the Capitol building — an appeal he made more than once, including, at one point early in his speech, claiming that he would walk with them.

“We are going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue — I love Pennsylvania Avenue,” he said in the last few sentences of his speech, “and we are going to the Capitol.”

Even as he was speaking, people had begun moving toward the Capitol. That movement was recorded in videos uploaded to the social media site Parler. Initial barricades had already collapsed before Trump finished, but the Capitol wasn’t actually breached until well after he ended his address.

ENTIRE DAY

By now, the question is not whether Trump bears blame for what unfolded on Jan. 6; that’s clear from his having spent weeks making false claims about having won the election and then drawing tens of thousands of people to Washington who helped create the critical mass needed to overwhelm police on Capitol Hill. The question, instead, is the extent to which Trump and his team understood — as did the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and Trump’s supporters online — that getting those thousands of people to the Capitol enabled the sort of violence that subsequently unfolded.

The first indication that there was some internal tension about the prospect of pushing people to the Capitol came in the weeks after the riot itself.

In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s “will be wild!” tweet about coming to Washington on Jan. 6, a two-track effort began to bring the promise of broad protest to fruition. One track involved the group Women for Trump and its leaders Amy and Kylie Kremer. The other track centered on a rally at the Capitol itself, a continuation of “stop the steal” efforts from a right-wing activist named Ali Alexander.

As Jan. 6 approached, those two tracks were fused into one coordinated plan involving three events: a rally on Jan. 5 at which fringier Trump supporters could speak, the Trump speech at the Ellipse on the morning of Jan. 6 and then a vaguely defined rally at the Capitol itself as the counting of electoral votes was underway. That latter rally was included in official messaging for the “March to Save America,” as it was known — but there was no permit obtained specifically for a march between the White House and Capitol Hill. Instead, permits for the rallies indicated that there would likely be some informal movement between the two locations.

Dustin Stockton, one of those who helped put together the package of events, would later indicate alarm at Trump’s announcement that the crowd would travel from the White House to the Capitol. Speaking to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in December, Stockton described testimony he’d offered to the House committee investigating the violence at the Capitol.

“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 said. “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.”

This is important. It’s an indication that people around Trump were opposed to moving people to the Capitol but Trump did anyway. The concern, Stockton told ProPublica last summer, was that “a last-minute march, without a permit, without all the metro police that’d usually be there to fortify the perimeter, felt unsafe.” He raised concerns with Amy Kremer and, he said, the pair contacted Katrina Pierson, a longtime Trump ally who was coordinating the White House’s plans for the day with organizers. Not getting the desired response, Stockton said, Kremer then said she would escalate the question to Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff. Stockton says Kremer later told him that “the White House would take care of it.”

On Sunday, Rolling Stone offered new reporting on a call between Kremer and Meadows. Scott Johnston, who worked as an aide to Kremer at the time, told the magazine that he’d overheard a conversation between Meadows, Pierson and Kremer.

“They were very open about how there was going to be a march. Everyone knew there was going to be a march,” Johnston claimed. Ultimately, Johnston claims, the group decided to “direct the people down there and make it look like they went down there on their own.”

The worries? That actually providing security would cost a lot — and that they didn’t want it to look like Trump was pushing people to pressure Congress. This would certainly help explain why Stockton was surprised by Trump’s speech.

Responding to the Rolling Stone article, Kremer and Pierson flatly denied participating in any such phone call. If Stockton and Johnston offered testimony to Congress similar to what they told ProPublica and Rolling Stone, though, they did so under penalty of perjury.

Trump’s defense of his actions before and on Jan. 6 has largely been that he simply brought people to Washington where they lamentably crossed the line into violence based on his dishonest claims about the election. In other words, that he doused everything with gasoline and passed out matches but didn’t actually spark the flame.

The question that lingers, and that will certainly be of interest to the Jan. 6 committee to answer — not to mention to historians — is whether he understood how pushing people to the Capitol that day would increase the likelihood that violence would erupt. If he, like those pro-Trump posters on TheDonald and like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, understood that having thousands of people surrounding the police at the Capitol made it more likely that the electoral-vote count would be interrupted.

We now have another indication that he probably did.

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