By now, federal investigators have put together a well-populated if not-yet-complete picture of the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. Through hundreds of indictments and numerous plea agreements, we have thousands of pages of information about how and why those who allegedly participated in the riot came to Washington that day.
A review of all of those documents suggests that one particular day played an outsize role on the path to the day’s violence: Dec. 19, 2020 — the day on which President Donald Trump tweeted his encouragement for people to show up with the promise that it would be “wild.”
The importance of that tweet is admittedly obvious. In the abstract, it was the president of the United States encouraging his supporters — tens of millions of them, as per the election held a month prior — to come to protest the election results. For all of his efforts after the fact to cast his encouragement as centrally peaceful, that Dec. 19 tweet makes clear that he expected — or embraced — some level of static. It had immediate specific importance, too: Soon after the tweet was sent, supporters who had been elevating the “stop the steal” mantra stood up a new website centered on gathering near the Capitol on Jan. 6. It was called WildProtest.com.
What’s less clear is the extent to which Dec. 19 triggered a broader focus on Jan. 6. Did Trump’s message trickle down to the grass roots tangibly? Or was there just a slow buildup, one that either was already underway or would emerge later?
Last month, I looked at the paths two extremist groups — the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys — took to get to the Capitol on that day. What struck me then was that the Proud Boys only seemed to coalesce around Jan. 6 in the aftermath of Trump’s tweet. Was that true of others as well?
To answer that question, I downloaded each of the documents hosted at the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 Capitol Breach Cases page and converted them to readable text. Then I ran a brute force search for each date from Nov. 1, 2020, to Feb. 1, 2021; this allowed me to remove duplicates (searching for “November 1” also would catch “November 10”).
Looking solely at the period from Nov. 4, 2020, (the day after the election) until Jan. 5, 2021, (the day before the riot), I found that dates were mentioned more than 2,800 times. And, among those, two particular dates stood out: Dec. 12 and Dec. 19, 2020.
The significance of Dec. 12 is straightforward. That day, there was a pro-Trump rally in Washington that, in the evening, devolved into violence. That violence included members of the Proud Boys. The group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio, stole a “Black Lives Matter” flag from a church and set it on fire, leading to his eventual arrest and his being banned from D.C. shortly before the Jan. 6 riot.
Here I’ll note how the method of determining the importance of dates is influenced by how and what the Justice Department presents. The documents include ones charging members of both the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys as parts of conspiracies. Therefore, they include more communications between members of those groups to show how the conspiracy allegedly arose. As another example of how this works, Dec. 12 also spikes because the Oath Keepers held a training in North Carolina that day, something that’s mentioned more than once in charging documents.
But, of course, there are other times that the date is mentioned that are more to our point. Such as in a Facebook post cited in documents related to the arrest of Micajah Jackson.
What’s interesting about the data collected on dates is that Dec. 14, 2020, is relatively quiet — despite being the day that electors met to certify the results of each state’s presidential vote. This was a point at which there could have been a concerted effort to pressure the finalization of the electoral vote, but at least among those who ended up being arrested for their roles in storming the Capitol, it didn’t spur much interest.
Then we get to Dec. 19.
Here too, there are reasons for the date to appear a lot. In several documents, for example, Trump’s tweet is noted as a matter of fact. There are also comments recorded that aren’t immediately linked to Trump’s tweet. On that day, for example, Kenneth Reda allegedly posted on Parler that “[w]e have got to get to DC on January 6th it is IMPERATIVE every single person that VOTED for Trump has to flood DC …” Was that directly related to the tweet? It’s hard to say.
Often, though, there’s no real question. For example:
- Kelly O’Brien (charged in relation to Jan. 6) allegedly posted on Facebook that day: “CALLING ALL PATRIOTS! Be in Washington D.C. January 6th. This wasn’t organized by any group. DJT has invited us and it’s going to be ‘wild.’ ”
- On a private Telegram group, one user wrote “Trump is calling on everyone to go to DC Jan 6th,” prompting Edward Badalian (charged) to allegedly reply, “ok so who is down to drive to DC on Jan 4?”
- In a charging document, the government alleges that Matthew Greene decided to travel to Washington that day because of Trump’s tweet.
- Rachel Myers allegedly sent Michael Gianos a screenshot of the tweet over Facebook, with the “will be wild” part circled.
What’s particularly interesting about the appearance of dates in the documents collected by the Justice Department is what happened after Dec. 19. Dates that fell in the seven days before appear in the documents an average of 21 times — including the 78 mentions of Dec. 12. In the seven days including and after Dec. 19, dates were mentioned on average twice as many times. In other words, it wasn’t just that Dec. 19 came up more than other dates, it’s that dates began being increasingly mentioned from that point forward — suggesting that events related to Jan. 6 were happening with more frequency after Dec. 19.
Again, we already knew that Trump’s tweet was important. This is not a discovery that Trump bears culpability for the riot that day; that has long been obvious. Instead, it’s a measure of the role Dec. 19 played as something of a tipping point.
The die was cast.