WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 08: The Capitol Dome is seen reflected in a window on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Sept. 08, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Red Flags

As Trump propelled his supporters to Washington, law enforcement agencies failed to heed mounting warnings about violence on Jan. 6.

The head of intelligence at D.C.’s homeland security office was growing desperate. For days, Donell HarvinDonell HarvinClose As the head of intelligence at D.C.'s homeland security office, Harvin led a team that spotted warnings that extremists planned to descend on the Capitol and disrupt the electoral count. and his team had spotted increasing signs that supporters of President Donald Trump were planning violence when Congress met to formalize the electoral college vote, but federal law enforcement agencies did not seem to share his sense of urgency. On Saturday, Jan. 2, he picked up the phone and called his counterpart in San Francisco, waking Mike Sena before dawn.

Sena listened with alarm. The Northern California intelligence office he commanded had also been inundated with political threats flagged by social media companies, several involving plans to disrupt the joint session or hurt lawmakers on Jan. 6.

He organized an unusual call for all of the nation’s regional homeland security offices — known as fusion centers — to find out what others were seeing. Sena expected a couple dozen people to get on the line that Monday. But then the number of callers hit 100. Then 200. Then nearly 300. Officials from nearly all 80 regions, from New York to Guam, logged on.

In the 20 years since the country had created fusion centers in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sena couldn’t remember a moment like this. For the first time, from coast to coast, the centers were blinking red. The hour, date and location of concern was the same: 1 p.m., the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6.

Harvin asked his counterparts to share what they were seeing. Within minutes, an avalanche of new tips began streaming in. Self-styled militias and other extremist groups in the Northeast were circulating radio frequencies to use near the Capitol. In the Midwest, men with violent criminal histories were discussing plans to travel to Washington with weapons.

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Forty-eight hours before the attack, Harvin began pressing every alarm button he could. He invited the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, military intelligence services and other agencies to see the information in real time as his team collected it. He took another extreme step: He asked the city’s health department to convene a call of D.C.-area hospitals and urged them to prepare for a mass casualty event. Empty your emergency rooms, he said, and stock up your blood banks.


Harvin was one of numerous people inside and outside of government who alerted authorities to the growing likelihood of deadly violence on Jan. 6, according to a Washington Post investigation, which found a cascade of previously undisclosed warnings preceded the attack on the Capitol. Alerts were raised by local officials, FBI informants, social media companies, former national security officials, researchers, lawmakers and tipsters, new documents and firsthand accounts show.

This investigation is based on interviews with more than 230 people and thousands of pages of court documents and internal law enforcement reports, along with hundreds of videos, photographs and audio recordings. Some of those who were interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions or sensitive information.

While the public may have been surprised by what happened on Jan. 6, the makings of the insurrection had been spotted at every level, from one side of the country to the other. The red flags were everywhere.

One of the most striking flares came when a tipster called the FBI on the afternoon of Dec. 20: Trump supporters were discussing online how to sneak guns into Washington to “overrun” police and arrest members of Congress in January, according to internal bureau documents obtained by The Post. The tipster offered specifics: Those planning violence believed they had “orders from the President,” used code words such as “pickaxe” to describe guns and posted the times and locations of four spots around the country for caravans to meet the day before the joint session. On one site, a poster specifically mentioned Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) as a target.

Key findings
  • Law enforcement officials did not respond with urgency to a cascade of warnings about violence on Jan. 6
  • Pentagon leaders had acute fears about widespread violence, and some feared Trump could misuse the National Guard to remain in power
  • The Capitol Police was disorganized and unprepared
  • Trump’s election lies radicalized his supporters in real time

An FBI official who assessed the tip noted that its criminal division had received a “significant number” of alerts about threats to Congress and other government officials. The FBI passed the information to law enforcement agencies in D.C. but did not pursue the matter. “The individual or group identified during the Assessment does not warrant further FBI investigation at this time,” the internal report concluded.

The paralysis that led to one of the biggest security failures in the nation’s history was driven by unique breakdowns inside each law enforcement agency and was exacerbated by the patchwork nature of security across a city where responsibilities are split between local and federal authorities.

While the U.S. government has been consumed with heading off future terrorist plots since 9/11, its agencies failed to effectively harness the security and intelligence infrastructure built in the wake of that assault by Islamic extremists to look inward at domestic threats.

Intelligence officials certainly never envisioned a mass attack against the government incited by the sitting president.

Yet Trump was the driving force at every turn as he orchestrated what would become an attempted political coup in the months leading up to Jan. 6, calling his supporters to Washington, encouraging the mob to march on the Capitol and freezing in place key federal agencies whose job it was to investigate and stop threats to national security.

For months, the president had been priming his supporters to believe that the election was rigged, that he was the rightful winner, and that Joe Biden’s victory was illegitimate and the product of a conspiracy by Democrats and the media. Throughout the fall and winter, Trump leaned on election officials in states such as Georgia and Arizona with a blizzard of tweets and personal phone calls, trying to get them to undo the results of the election.

When that failed, he turned his focus to Jan. 6, historically a pro forma ritual by Congress.

His words triggered rapid action by angry supporters who made plans to go to the nation’s capital, fusing together in a dangerous call-and-response.

Come to Washington, Trump tweeted to his supporters on the Saturday before Christmas, issuing a clarion call for them to gather and protest on Jan. 6: “Be there, will be wild!”

His supporters immediately responded on the pro-Trump forum under a thread titled “TRUMP TWEET. DADDY SAYS BE IN DC ON JAN. 6TH.”


It was the first time since Election Day that the president had urged his backers to turn out in Washington and protest. His message immediately began to shift the intelligence landscape, with the volume of threatening messages about Jan. 6 expanding by the hour.

As Jan. 6 neared, Trump ratcheted up his calls for action on that day – and the pressure on Vice President Mike Pence, whose role was to preside over the joint session. The president embraced a cast of renegade lawyers who argued that Pence could reject electors from a handful of states and, ultimately, nullify Biden’s victory.

The plan was far-fetched and, according to legal experts, unconstitutional. To Trump, Pence appeared open to the legislative maneuvers the president was demanding, soliciting detailed legal analyses to determine how far he could bow to Trump’s wishes.


Trump primed his base to view Pence as either a would-be hero or villain, depending on the path the vice president took.

“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us,” he declared at a rally in Georgia two days before the joint session, adding: “If he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him as much.”

Trump’s supporters not only knew where the president wanted them to gather on Jan. 6. They knew whom to target.

Trump spoke at a rally in Dalton, Ga., on Jan. 4, a day before the state's runoff election that determined control of the Senate. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post; The Washington Post; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Again and again, as the pivotal day approached, top law enforcement officials fielded warnings of what was to come, but failed to respond in kind.

The FBI, the nation’s primary domestic intelligence agency, received numerous alerts of people vowing to violently confront Congress, but largely regarded social media posts about planning for Jan. 6 — even those discussing bringing firearms, arresting lawmakers and shooting police — as protected First Amendment speech. The bureau hampered its own understanding of how far-right extremists and Trump supporters were mobilizing at a key juncture when the FBI switched over its social-media monitoring service a week before the attack.


Politics was also at play. After months of the president threatening to fire FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, the agency’s senior leaders worried that any public statements by the director might be “asking for a desperate president to come after him,” as one person familiar with the discussions said.

At the Pentagon, leaders had acute fears about widespread violence, and some feared Trump could misuse the National Guard to remain in power, new accounts reveal.

Military officials took fateful steps to avoid being entangled in domestic unrest, scarred by the president’s efforts months earlier to use the military to quash racial justice protests. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy sought to require that only senior Pentagon leaders could approve changes to missions for National Guard soldiers. In the end, that posture contributed to the hours-long delay in getting the Guard to the Capitol to help restore order.


At one point, Milley suggested locking down the city and revoking permits for protests, and acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller said he feared a bloody “Boston Massacre-type” altercation that could be exploited by extremists to claim they were under attack by the government.

Miller was particularly frustrated with Justice officials, who he thought should be taking charge, and described one call he organized with key security officials and Cabinet members as “a s--- show.” “There was not the acceptance by the other departments and agencies writ large that this was going to be an event that needed to be synchronized and coordinated and talked through,” he said. “It was like, ‘Permit’s good.’ ‘Fencing’s up.’ ‘We got extra Park Police.’ ‘Okay, we’re done. Have a nice day.’ That was the tone.”


Department of Homeland Security officials received sobering assessments of the risk of possible violence on Jan. 6, including that federal buildings could be targeted by protesters. One senior official was on the call with the fusion centers organized by Sena that prompted D.C. to begin preparing for a mass casualty event. The agency flew in hundreds of Border Patrol and other agents to protect its D.C. offices. But it did not issue a security bulletin — the department’s most readily recognized warning to law enforcement agencies, as well as to the public, regarding possible violence. Agency leaders also never moved to put the Secret Service in charge of security planning for an event that would bring together all members of Congress, the vice president and the vice president-elect, a move that could have elevated intelligence sharing and security coordination.


The U.S. Capitol Police, tasked with guarding a key branch of government, had been tracking threatening social media posts for weeks but was hampered by poor communication and planning. The department’s new head of intelligence concluded on Jan. 3 that Trump supporters had grown desperate to overturn the election and “Congress itself” would be the target. But Chief Steven Sund did not have that information when he initiated a last-minute request to bring in National Guard soldiers, one that was swiftly rejected. So unprepared was the police force that some shields, helmets and other crowd-control gear were locked away and hundreds of officers were either stationed away from the Capitol or allowed to remain on previously scheduled leave.


In response to The Post’s findings, Capitol Police leaders said they have already instituted many reforms to correct the mistakes that led to Jan. 6. “The Department expected and planned for violence from some protesters with ties to domestic terrorist organizations, but nobody in the law enforcement or intelligence communities imagined, on top of that threat, Americans who were not affiliated with those groups would cause the mayhem to metastasize to a volume uncontrollable for any single law enforcement agency,” the department said in a statement. “The world should never forget our officers fought like hell on January 6 and at the end of the day nobody they were charged with protecting was hurt and the Legislative process continued.”

DHS said in a statement that it is participating in ongoing investigations about the security failings and “leveraging lessons learned to enhance its ability to prevent future acts of violence.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Defense Department “continues to cooperate with the Congress as they examine the events of that day.”

Senior FBI officials defended the bureau’s work leading up to Jan. 6 as proactive and aggressive. In interviews and statements, they insisted much of the alarming online chatter agents saw was largely “aspirational” and therefore protected First Amendment free speech — not the detailed evidence of planning needed to launch an investigation or foresee a mass attack on the Capitol.

In a handful of cases, the FBI engaged with people who were already under investigation to discourage them from traveling to Washington for Jan. 6, officials said. A bureau official said in one instance, investigators received a tip about a person espousing violence toward police officers on Jan. 6 and sent agents and local police to interview the subject. Nationwide, the bureau also instructed field offices to be on the lookout for information on threats in the Washington region before the joint session.

FBI Assistant Director Cathy Milhoan said the bureau “was actively engaged in gathering intelligence, disrupting travel, and sharing information with our partners. The FBI specifically warned state, local, and federal partners about the potential for violence at the January 6 events.”

The Justice Department said it is awaiting the findings of ongoing investigations into its preparations for that day, adding that the Capitol attack “was a heinous event that sought to interfere with the cornerstone of our democracy—the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another. Holding accountable those who committed criminal acts on January 6th is a top priority.”

In a statement, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich disputed The Post’s investigation as “fake news” and falsely cast people who entered the Capitol that day as “agitators not associated with President Trump.”

102 days to go

The violent events of Jan. 6 had been months in the making.

Trump’s first allusion to the notion that Congress could determine the winner of the presidential race came more than a month before voters went to the polls, on Sept. 26, at a rally outside Harrisburg, Pa.

After rattling off his usual tropes about voter fraud, the president offered a new line: “I don’t want to go back to Congress either, even though we have an advantage if we go back to Congress. Does everyone understand that? I think it’s 26 to 22 or something because it’s counted one vote per state.”

A few people hollered, but some behind the stage looked puzzled. Trump was describing the little-known constitutional process in which Congress plays a role in determining the election results— an ordeal the country hadn’t faced since the 19th century.


While the line didn’t register in Harrisburg, congressional Democrats in Washington took note.

In early August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had quietly instructed members of her leadership team to begin contingency planning in the case of a tie or dispute in the electoral college. When candidates tie in the electoral college, each state’s delegation in the House is allotted one vote to determine the president. Ahead of the election, Republicans held the advantage, controlling 26 state delegations to the Democrats’ 22.

Recognizing this possibility, Democrats had begun targeting six races across Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Montana and Alaska, a list that would grow to more than a dozen. If a handful of those changed hands, it would give Democrats control of more than 25 state delegations when the new Congress was seated on Jan. 3 — enough to ensure that Biden would win a contested vote in the House.

Trump’s remark in Pennsylvania confirmed Democratic suspicions. The next day, Pelosi sent a letter to her caucus revealing that a backup plan was already underway.

“The Constitution says that a candidate must receive a majority of the state delegations to win,” Pelosi wrote. “We must achieve that majority of delegations or keep the Republicans from doing so.”

Three days after the Harrisburg rally, Trump made a more menacing declaration at the first presidential debate.

Asked by moderator Chris Wallace whether he would condemn white supremacists and militia groups for their part in compounding deadly violence that had beset U.S. cities during the summer of 2020 — including a 17-year-old who allegedly fired on protesters in Kenosha, Wis., killing two and wounding a third — Trump insisted that the violence was coming from the left, not the right.

Biden pressed Trump to specifically condemn the Proud Boys, a far-right group known for street brawls with liberal protesters. When Wallace sought an answer, Trump said, "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

On Parler, the social media network popular with conservatives and hate groups, the leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, responded almost immediately:

Trump’s message wasn’t just stirring far-right extremists to action. In Tampa, a 38-year-old crane operator named Paul HodgkinsPaul HodgkinsClose The 38-year-old crane operator from Tampa traveled to Washington to show his support for Trump after absorbing false claims that the election was rigged — a decision that would drastically upend his life. was captivated by the president’s encouragement.


To a man who felt that the homeownership his parents had achieved would always be out of reach, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan had struck a chord. The son and grandson of union elevator mechanics, Hodgkins had worked at factories, driven delivery trucks, sold firewood and scrapped metal, and until recent years had a side gig as a wrestler, sometimes making just $25 a match. For the past seven years, he had worked late-night shifts at a manufacturing facility, moving large steel coils.

His political affiliations were equally nomadic — he had backed Republican George W. Bush in 2000, independent Ralph Nader in 2004 and Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. In 2012, he wrote in his own name. But since 2016, he had been all-in for Trump.

LEFT: Paul Hodgkins volunteers at a Trump rally in Tampa on Oct. 29, 2020. RIGHT: Leading up to Election Day, Hodgkins stood along busy intersections, waving Trump campaign flags. (Photos courtesy of Paul Hodgkins)

“Ever since I was a kid, I remember many people saying they would love to see someone who wasn’t a politician, who hadn’t been bought and sold through the levers of Washington, become president. I saw that in Donald Trump,” Hodgkins said. “It seemed like both sides of the aisle didn’t want him, and that made me and a lot of other people want him all the more.”

Hodgkins volunteered for Trump phone banks, but what he really loved was a kind of performance art version of campaigning. In the weeks before Election Day, Hodgkins donned a pair of star-spangled MAGA tights and stood along busy intersections in Tampa, waving Trump campaign flags.

As Trump made misleading and false claims warning about voter fraud, Hodgkins grew concerned. He had never heard of tactics like “vote harvesting” or seen so much voting by mail.

“Previous elections we didn’t have that kind of thing go on,” he said.

63 days to go

In the wee hours of the morning after the election, as it appeared that he could be in danger of losing, Trump stepped before supporters in the East Room and falsely claimed that the election was rigged.

The next day, Trump tweeted that he “claimed” a win in Pennsylvania, falsely asserting that the state wasn’t allowing vote observers.

The tweets and other social media posts by Trump, his son Eric Trump and members of his campaign began to activate his supporters, especially in the must-win battleground states that he was on track to lose. Mentions of “stop the steal” exploded online. Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh claimed without evidence that there were shenanigans at a ballot-processing center in Detroit preventing Trump’s votes from being counted fairly. By that afternoon, the president’s supporters had converged on the facility. By nightfall, protesters had also congregated outside government offices in Maricopa County, Ariz., where over 300,000 ballots remained to be counted.

At his computer in Colorado, Graham Brookie, who had served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and was now tracking domestic extremism as part of a group called the Digital Forensic Research Lab, watched “a million misinformation flowers blooming.”

Brookie and his lead researcher, Jared Holt, took note as extremists shared small scraps about the election and prominent figures rapidly amplified them, snowballing rumors into conspiracies and then discussions of action. “You get a little piece of information. ‘They just shut down all the voting machines in X.’ ” Brookie said. “Someone adds to that. Someone adds to that. Then you have them talking about what they can do.”

On the messaging app Telegram, users identifying as Proud Boys posted a rumor that officials in Maricopa, which encompasses Phoenix, were not counting all the votes because some people had used Sharpie pens to mark their ballots. County officials had debunked the rumor, but that didn’t matter.

Holt felt his first pang of worry about where it would all lead when he was monitoring video from Maricopa on Nov. 4. He could see some protesters openly brandishing rifles and handguns.

“You had folks with very extreme views armed,” Holt said. “It wasn’t just an airing of grievances, but some went with intention to intimidate.”

Trump supporters descended on the Maricopa County Elections Department in Phoenix on Nov. 4 after rumors proliferated about problems with the vote counting. Police escorted election workers to their cars. (Photos by Caitlin O'Hara for The Washington Post)

The view from the ground was also jarring to Clint HickmanClint HickmanClose As chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in 2020, the longtime Republican resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results. , the GOP chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and a committed Trump supporter. When the president had visited Phoenix for a rally on June 23, Hickman was the only county official invited to greet him at the airport, standing below as Trump descended the stairs of Air Force One. Hickman displayed a photograph of that moment in his office, next to pictures of his family.


But now the president’s supporters were threatening his colleagues in the elections office and the democratic process they were carrying out. Outside the county elections building, a man wearing a fur robe and horns — a figure who was known as the QAnon Shaman — rallied alongside Infowars’s Alex Jones, who was shouting into a megaphone: “Resistance is victory! You are victory!”

The mob was pushing toward the building and spreading out into the parking lot nearby. Hickman imagined his own mother — who had volunteered to count votes in previous elections — at the center of such a crowd and grew angry. “I have to send these little old ladies into the parking lot to get their cars next to these people?” he recalled thinking.

Election workers tabulated ballots inside the Maricopa County building as protesters gathered outside for days. (Photos by Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post)

Protests organized under the hashtag #StopTheSteal soon spread to Atlanta, Harrisburg and Las Vegas. The movement was being promoted on a website called, which listed all of the protests in each state. The site was run by Ali Alexander, a far-right activist who had been invited to the White House social media summit in 2019 after questioning whether then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) should be called a Black American.

On Nov. 7, major news organizations called the race in Pennsylvania for Biden, putting him above the 270 electoral votes needed to secure victory. As Democrats celebrated, members of the self-styled militia group the Three Percenters, as well as followers of the QAnon extremist ideology, and others converged on state capitals. In Harrisburg, hundreds of supporters of an assortment of anti-government self-proclaimed militias stood alongside Republican lawmakers on steps to the statehouse, chanting “Donald Trump won” and “hold the line.”

That day, an FBI intelligence analyst in Alabama issued a warning over email to other agents. The analyst cited threats spotted on and other Internet forums by the SITE Intelligence Group, a private service that monitors online extremism and counts employees in the FBI among its subscribers. An FBI agent in Seattle received the warning and blasted it out to dozens of his contacts, including local and state law enforcement officials.

One section was particularly alarming: “Death Threats: Militia groups are espousing increasingly violent rhetoric, expressing a new level of escalation by declaring, ‘The fight is now.’ On a popular militia forum, users called to execute Biden, Democrats, tech company employees, journalists, and other ‘rats.’”

“Waves of ‘#StopTheSteal’ and similar hash-tag events are being organized across the country as various voter fraud theories gain momentum among Trump supporters,” the agent continued, adding: “Please stay focused and safe.”


As the vote counting continued, the results were changing the calculus for Pelosi and House Democrats. Although Trump had lost, he had done better than they expected, and Republicans gained seats in the House. That allowed Republicans to keep their edge in the number of state delegations they controlled — and provided Trump a path to win a vote in the House on Jan. 6 if somehow the electoral college vote could be challenged.

Trump supporters gathered at state capitals and at election offices in battleground states including Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post; Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post; Salwan Georges/The Washington Post; Mikayla Whitmore for The Washington Post; Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

53 days to go

As Trump refused to concede, angry supporters and self-styled militias geared up to fight. Quickly, plans for a “Million MAGA March” in Washington on Nov. 14 galvanized figures known for their hard-edge rhetoric.

Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the anti-government Oath Keepers, who declared in September that “civil war is here, right now” because of violence rattling Portland, Ore., said he was prepared to engage in violence on Trump’s command should he invoke the Insurrection Act — a rarely used law that gives the president the power to use the military to suppress uprisings and civil disorder that the police alone cannot control.

Days before the march, Rhodes appeared at a Stop the Steal rally in Northern Virginia. Live-streaming the event on the Oath Keepers’ YouTube channel, Rhodes told the audience that Trump supporters “must declare that Joe Biden is not … anyone’s president. He’s a usurper.”

Rhodes urged all citizens to be ready to fight while Trump “is commander in chief and has a narrowing window” to act.

Extremists associated with the Three Percenters planned to join the Oath Keepers on Nov. 14. Nicholas Fuentes, leader of the white-nationalist “Groyper” movement, and who was present at the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, called on his allies to join him in Washington.

A key set of Trump’s grass-roots supporters also jumped in. Former tea party activist Amy Kremer helped rebrand the pro-Trump group Women for America First into a Stop the Steal planning engine, propelling a wider audience of Trump supporters into action.

Extremists like the Proud Boys came to Washington on Nov. 14 to show support for Trump and the Stop the Steal movement. The president's motorcade passed near his supporters, before things turned extremely violent after dark. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post; Matt McClain/The Washington Post; Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

At Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Mary McCord watched the plans for the protest with growing apprehension. A former acting assistant attorney general for national security, she had begun coordinating with Brookie’s lab. She shared what his researchers had found in Nov. 11 letters to D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) and federal prosecutors in Washington. Based on public and private social media posts, she wrote, it appeared that groups with “track records of violent activity” were heading to D.C. and were likely to be met by counterprotesters, “increasing the potential for conflict.”

Racine would go on to pass the information to the mayor and other elected D.C. officials, and asked McCord to keep his office updated. The prosecutors flagged it for the FBI’s Washington Field Office.


Inside Capitol Police headquarters, officials beefed up numbers of available patrol officers and made plans to station civil disturbance units — which use shields, helmets and other protective crowd-control gear — along the east side of the Capitol, where protesters were expected.

One of the units was led by Capt. Carneysha MendozaCapt. Carneysha MendozaClose A 19-year veteran of the Capitol Police, Mendoza led officers battling rioters in the Rotunda of the Capitol on Jan. 6., a former soldier known for arriving at the office as early as 3 a.m. to run flights of stairs.

Mendoza, a 19-year veteran of the force, had a knack for finding herself in the middle of disaster. She had been stationed at the Pentagon on 9/11, and was the watch commander in 2017 when a gunman opened fire on members of Congress practicing in Virginia for an exhibition baseball game.

On Nov. 14, Mendoza and her team lined up outside the Capitol near dusk and watched as Proud Boys and other protesters paraded across the Capitol grounds. It seemed to her that they were eyeing her officers, sizing them up as they walked past.


As night dragged on, the extremists and groups of counterprotesters began to scuffle — they were soon brawling in the street between the Capitol and the Supreme Court.

Mendoza and her crew repeatedly waded into the melee to separate the warring sides. Punches flew. Officers were pushed through the crowd.

Far-right extremists marched through the city, and skirmishes with counterprotesters lasted well into the night. (Jorge Ribas, Clarence Williams/The Washington Post; Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post; Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post; Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

There and across the city, the fighting went on for hours. Near midnight, members of the Proud Boys managed to take over the newly dedicated Black Lives Matter Plaza north of the White House and unfurl a massive banner that read “Trump Law and Order.”

By the time it ended, one person was stabbed, four officers were injured, police took eight firearms off protesters, and more than 20 people had been arrested, many for inciting violence.

The fighting was so intense that Mendoza could barely move when she awoke the next morning. The next night, she texted a colleague who had been there:

He was recovering, too, but wrote he’d toasted the job they’d done keeping it from getting worse — attaching a picture of an empty tumbler beside a bottle of Scotch.

48 days to go

At the White House, Trump was growing more agitated by the day as informal advisers and outside allies fed him increasingly wild claims, including that the vote may have been manipulated from overseas and that some voting machine software had weighted Biden ballots to count more than Trump ones. Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, and attorney Sidney Powell passed along purported evidence of fraud that one senior White House official who reviewed the material called “a joke.” On Nov. 14, the same day as the protest, researchers on Trump’s own campaign circulated a 14-page memo refuting many of their theories, including the notion that the company Dominion Voting Systems had ties to Venezuela or antifa, a loosely knit group of far-left activists.

But the president was so enamored with the conspiracy theories that he asked advisers if the government could research them — particularly whether foreign countries such as China hacked the vote.

And he gave Giuliani and Powell an ample platform to promote their claims, sidelining his campaign lawyers. On Nov. 19, the duo stepped before reporters at the Republican National Committee and laid out a dizzying explanation of how the election was rigged.

Rudolph W. Giuliani advances allegations of voting irregularities. (Washington Post video; Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)

“We cannot let this happen to us,” Giuliani said, predicting doom if the election was not overturned. “We cannot allow these crooks, because that’s what they are, to steal an election from the American people. They elected Donald Trump. They didn’t elect Joe Biden. Joe Biden is in the lead because of the fraudulent ballots.”

Watching at home in Tampa as dark hair dye dripped down the side of Giuliani’s face, Paul HodgkinsPaul HodgkinsClose The 38-year-old crane operator from Tampa traveled to Washington to show his support for Trump after absorbing false claims that the election was rigged — a decision that would drastically upend his life. suspected rightly that the scene would become fodder for late-night comedians. But his overriding impression was of two nationally recognized former federal prosecutors making very serious allegations on behalf of the president of the United States.

Hodgkins had fallen into a deep depression after the election. He felt distant from longtime friends and family members who disdained Trump, including his mother, brother and sister, and closer to friends he made on the campaign, who believed the election was stolen.

Yes, Trump could exaggerate, Hodgkins knew, but the growing number of voices agreeing with the president was convincing.

“Lawyers like Giuliani and Sidney Powell are not known to chase fairy tales,” Hodgkins recalled thinking. “I don’t think they were just making up the claims. I am pretty sure if you were going to hire them to represent you, they are not going to be cheap. These are not ambulance chasers.”

He soaked up false allegations of election fraud on Fox News and the right-wing website Daily Caller. He took notice of Stop the Steal rallies popping up around Tampa.

The new movement helped Hodgkins shake off his post-election funk. He wrote a $10 check to the Trump campaign and attended a campaign meetup.

He was ready to help the cause.

36 days to go

Though it was clear that Trump’s rejection of the election was stirring his supporters to action, senior law enforcement officials at the FBI and Justice Department were feeling boxed in.

The president was increasingly irate that officials would not support his unfounded claims of voter fraud. Trump’s threats to Wray rankled. The FBI chief wasn’t looking for any more confrontations with the president.


At the Justice Department, Attorney General William P. Barr was falling out of step with the president he had long defended. Barr had spent much of the run-up to the election echoing Trump’s claims that there could be mail-ballot fraud. After Election Day, he eased the rules for federal prosecutors to launch their own election investigations, and sided with FBI agents who wanted to run down at least one of the president’s fraud claims. But none of it had turned up evidence of manipulation that could have affected the outcome.

Justice Department and FBI officials stayed quiet in the face of mounting recriminations coming from the White House and the president’s Twitter feed. Some senior law enforcement officials felt Trump’s demands would eventually abate, while others argued that, if push came to shove, Barr himself could end it with a public statement.

“We can stop this whenever we want, but we’d rather not do that. It’s not our place,” said one senior official at the time.

A second senior Justice Department official familiar with Barr’s thinking said the attorney general wasn’t optimistic about that, although he felt that as long as Trump’s lawyers were focused mostly on state-related election issues, the Justice Department could steer clear of the fray.

In the latter half of November, some Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), privately pressed Barr to make some kind of public statement knocking down the baseless claims about massive vote count errors.


Barr put them off, but on Nov. 23, he privately told Trump the claims of major problems with voting machines were nonsense.

After Thanksgiving came and Trump publicly chided the attorney general on Fox News for not turning up fraud, Barr decided to speak out. On Dec. 1, he gave an interview to the Associated Press, whose stories circulate in thousands of television and newspaper markets across the country. “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” the attorney general declared.

Barr and his advisers knew the statement would infuriate Trump but hoped it would also “breathe some reality into the situation,” the second official recalled, and shift the burden of proof back to the president’s lawyers. Instead, it marked the beginning of the end of Barr’s tenure. Two weeks after the statement, he announced he would leave the job.

Soon, Ali Alexander, Amy Kremer and Trump’s other backers were promoting a second rally in D.C. for Dec. 12 — two days before members of the electoral college would meet in state capitals across the nation.

Jared Holt, at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, was picking up intensely violent imagery in the calls for Trump allies to return to D.C. On Telegram, the Philadelphia Proud Boys, a chapter that had made repeated headlines for engaging in violence, shared an image of men in helmets and black tactical gear with assault rifles. A caption in large type on the bottom half of the picture read “Shatter Their Teeth.”

A New Hampshire Proud Boys group leader calling himself “biggdaddy” promoted the event on Parler and told members not to miss making history to “support our President.”

Rhodes published a national call for Oath Keepers to travel to D.C., specifically calling on law enforcement officers to join the cause, noting they were allowed to carry concealed weapons.

“We especially need LEO and military veterans with pertinent backgrounds for security (combat arms veterans, for example), or civilian equivalents,” Rhodes wrote.

Discussions Holt could see on the social network service MeWe suggested the number of militants who would be traveling to D.C. this time was far greater than in the previous month.

“They’re meeting up with like 750 Proud Boys over there,” wrote one user on a chat group for self-described Three Percenters in Pennsylvania.

Some of the groups were already making clear they wanted to pressure lawmakers where they worked. On Nov. 18, Alexander joined Fuentes, the Groyper leader; Tarrio of the Proud Boys; and Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist of Infowars; at a rally outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta.

“Who’s going to be ready to storm the Capitol with us in a couple of minutes?” Alexander called out through a megaphone. “Peacefully,” Jones added. “Peacefully,” Alexander said, laughing. The crowd then filed inside, chanting “special session,” urging state legislators to convene to investigate the 2020 election.

Alexander and other protesters returned to the Georgia Capitol each day for the next three days. On Nov. 21, Trump tweeted his approval. “Big Rallies all over the Country,” he wrote. “The proof pouring in is undeniable. Many more votes than needed. This was a LANDSLIDE!”

In Georgia, the torrent of fraud claims by Trump and his allies had triggered a wave of threats against election officials. Among them was a young technician for Dominion Voting Systems working in the Atlanta suburbs, who was spotted on a video transferring routine files between computers. Online, QAnon-affiliated accounts claimed the technician was manipulating votes, targeted him with an Internet GIF of a swinging noose and called for him to be hung for treason. He briefly went into hiding.

Gabriel SterlingGabriel SterlingClose A top official in the office of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) who warned that Trump’s rhetoric could inspire violence. , a top official in the office of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, had had enough.

The longtime Republican official stood before the television cameras at a Dec. 1 news conference at the state Capitol, his voice shaking with anger: “It. Has. All. Gone. Too. Far.”

“Mr. President, it looks like you likely lost the state of Georgia,” Sterling continued, and then added: “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone is going to get killed.”

Days later, Alexander, the Stop the Steal activist, raised the stakes in a tweet: “I am willing to give my life for this fight,” he wrote. The post was retweeted by the Arizona GOP — which asked its followers whether they, too, were willing to die.

Several hundred Proud Boys were among the thousands of Trump supporters to descend on Washington on Dec. 12. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post; Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post; Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

25 days to go

On Dec. 12, just as they had a month earlier, thousands of pro-Trump supporters and protesters converged on D.C., including what police estimated were — as advertised in advance by extremists — about 700 Proud Boys.

“This isn’t over, this is just beginning,” Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson told the crowd.

Watching the rally on a computer propped open in her kitchen in the Washington area, Rep. Liz CheneyRep. Liz CheneyClose The GOP congresswoman from Wyoming worked behind the scenes to make sure the Jan. 6 electoral count was not disrupted. Afterward, she paid a steep political price. (R-Wyo.) couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Her thoughts flashed forward to Jan. 6, and she started to fear just how far Trump’s most avid supporters might go. Cheney imagined a bomb threat halting the count to certify the election.


“We have to count the votes that day,” she said to herself. Cheney soon began a shadow effort to block Trump. She recruited 10 former secretaries of defense, from Republican and Democratic administrations, to sign an op-ed published in The Post that warned military officials to steer clear of any effort to use soldiers to thwart the peaceful transfer of power. And she began working on what would become a 21-page memo detailing why Congress had no constitutional right to block Biden’s victory.

At the rally, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was urging the president to declare martial law and redo the election, urged the crowd to keep fighting. “There are still avenues” for a Trump win, he said ominously. “The courts aren’t going to decide who the next president of the United States is going to be. We the people decide.”

Alexander told those assembled that if the electoral college endorsed Biden’s victory, his Stop the Steal organization would turn its attention to pressuring Republicans to object to the certification on Jan. 6.

As Trump left town for the Army-Navy game on Dec. 12, Marine One flew over his supporters. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post; Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post; Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post; Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Trump flew over the crowd in a helicopter and cheered on his supporters.

With nightfall came chaos.

Tarrio, the Proud Boys leader, paraded a Black Lives Matter banner that someone had ripped from the side of Asbury United Methodist Church, a historic Black church in downtown Washington, and he and others set it on fire.

Protesters in helmets and bulletproof vests marched through downtown in militaristic rows, shouting “Move out!” and “1776!” They rushed down side streets and alleys, trying to reach counterprotesters. Hundreds of police in riot gear moved with them, trying to keep the militants away from their apparent targets.

Eventually, the two sides brawled. At least four people were stabbed, including members of the Proud Boys. Eight people, including two police officers, ended up in D.C. hospitals. Six protesters were charged with assaulting officers, and dozens more were arrested, including four charged with rioting and one for carrying an illegal Taser.

Trump returned to the White House in Marine One the night of the clashes. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post; Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post; Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post; Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post; Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The day after the Dec. 12 melee, D.C. police officials gathered and began reviewing the violence. Along with the vandalism of the church, officers reported several Proud Boys had worn earpieces and seemed to be communicating with one another to identify targets.

Within the FBI, many would draw the wrong lesson from that night — that the principal danger posed by Proud Boys or other extremist groups was street clashes. It would prove to be a grave miscalculation.

“Jan. 6 will be the MPD’s problem,” one federal law enforcement official said in December, referring to the D.C. police and echoing an oft-repeated and widely held belief within the FBI at the time.

As it turned out, much of the planning for Jan. 6 was preparation for the wrong kind of violence, in the wrong place.

Counterterrorism had been the FBI’s primary mission since 9/11, and out of the ashes of that intelligence failure, the bureau had rebuilt itself with the central goal of getting “left of bang,” the term investigators used for disrupting terrorism plots before they unleash violence. For more than a decade, though, when the FBI talked about terrorism, it primarily meant violence inspired by foreign groups.

A generation of senior FBI executives rose through the ranks of the International Terrorism Operating Center, located in a sprawling modern complex of buildings called Liberty Crossing in Northern Virginia. Domestic terrorism, by contrast, was a far smaller operation, focused around cramped, old office space in downtown Washington.

It wasn’t just that the international terrorism agents got more money and personnel, both in Washington and in the FBI’s 56 field offices around the country. The FBI also required agents to clear higher hurdles just to open an investigation.

Domestic terrorism cases are the only type of terrorism cases that require explicit authorization — and regular reauthorization — from the senior lawyer in an FBI field office to proceed. The rule is designed to keep a tight rein on agents who might cross legal lines and investigate constitutionally protected speech. Federal agents also had fewer legal options with which to charge domestic terrorism suspects than a person inspired by the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. For example, the charge of material support for a foreign terrorist has no legal equivalent for someone eager to commit violence for domestic extremists. As a result, domestic terrorism investigators often settle for filing gun or drug charges, and often in state, not federal court, which can mask the severity of extremist violence.

From 2016 to 2019, the annual number of domestic terrorist suspects arrested fell from 229 to 107, before jumping up to 180 in 2020. Wray has said that in the past 19 months, he has more than tripled the number of agents and analysts working on domestic terrorism cases, in order to handle the growing caseload.

In the week after the Dec. 12 protest, the FBI tweeted that it was partnering with local police, adding $1,000 to the reward D.C. had offered for information about suspects from that night. Outwardly, the FBI did little else — even as the bureau received a tip Dec. 17 that protesters were encouraging shooting at police at the joint session.

“Please be in DC, armed, on the 6th,” read an online post highlighted in an FBI memo shared with Capitol Police and local law enforcement. “You might have to kill the palace guards. Are you okay with [that]?” read one comment. Another said: “Drop a handful, the rest will flee.”


19 days to go

By mid-December, the electoral college had met and formalized Biden’s victory. Trump had just one more move: disrupting Congress’s count of the votes on Jan. 6.

“Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” the president tweeted on Dec. 19, sending out the pivotal message that set the congressional certification as the final showdown: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

The exhortation, more than almost any other words or action by Trump after the election, seemed to electrify his most devoted followers in chat groups and websites like Some took it as an order.

A confidential informant voluntarily sent his FBI contact dozens of exchanges the next day between self-described members of the Three Percenters. Trump’s tweet, combined with a video the president later posted, titled “Fight for Trump,” were “literally” taken together as a “call to arms,” the informant said.


Among the messages the informant flagged from a MeWe chat group for members of the self-styled militia:

On that same day, Dec. 20, the FBI received a call alerting them to Trump supporters making plans online to bring arms to Washington and arrest lawmakers. The Sunday afternoon call was handled by the bureau’s National Threat Operations Center, a clearinghouse for tips about crimes, according to a document titled “Threats to Take Guns and Overrun the DC Police January 4th-January 20th.” The file was updated the following afternoon by an FBI employee seeking to reclassify the information: “More DT [domestic terrorism] than Criminal in nature… Criminal has received a significant number of Guardians as a results of threats to Congress and other government officials.”

The caller, according to the FBI document, said people were “planning on meeting in certain areas and sneaking guns into DC in an attempt to overrun the DC police, beginning January 4th-20th.” On three different sites, “there is discussion about recruitment, where to meet at, bringing guns, and arresting Senators and members of Congress to hold trials outside in public areas.”

Logistics — down to shopping malls in Scranton, Pa.; Louisville; and Columbia, S.C.; where people would meet to travel to D.C. — were being plotted on Discord, one of those websites. Posters were inserting iterations of the word “peaceful” to prevent their comments from being deleted by moderators, the caller said, citing the example, “Mitt Romney peacefully gets it first.” The tipster provided the screen name of one person who was encouraging others to violence.

Here, in a short, simple government form, was a warning about a threat identifying a potential place, period of time and a specific target: a senator from Utah.


Later that same night, the FBI received a similar call, which was written up with the title: “Additional Information on Washington, D.C. Protest Jan 6 2020.” In that tip, the caller told the FBI that the website “is calling for violence on 01/06/2021 regarding the election results.”

Of the combined tips, an FBI official wrote: “None of these sites have specifics on what they’re going to do once they overturn the DC police. These sites are wanting to do this ‘because it will stop the steal.’ ”

By Tuesday morning, Dec. 22 – less than 48 hours after the first call was recorded in the FBI’s system — the threat assessment was closed, marked at the top: “Does not warrant further investigation at this time.”

An FBI official said that before closing the issue, the bureau first checked its databases and took “other follow up action,” including sharing the information with local police, Capitol Police and federal agencies. Most of the tips they received contained “vague and primarily First Amendment-protected speech,” the official said. The bureau documents show the pro-Trump site appeared many times in the Bureau’s tip and investigative files: the FBI’s Guardian system had 190 results for the site, and a separate FBI database for tracking investigations, called Sentinel, had 128 results for the site.

Romney’s office could not locate a record that it had been alerted about the tip. An FBI official noted that the tip was shared with the Capitol Police.

Meanwhile, activist Ali Alexander’s team was launching multiple websites, including, to promote rallies in D.C. on Jan. 6. The site explicitly called on supporters to march from the White House to the Capitol at 1 p.m. “Take a stand with President Trump and the #StopTheSteal coalition,” the website stated. “The fate of our nation depends on it.”


The site listed a coalition of groups it said was backing the effort, including Amy Kremer’s Women for America First; Turning Point Action, a group run by Trump ally Charlie Kirk, who promised to send 80 buses of young people to D.C. on Jan. 6; and the Rule of Law Defense Fund, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which sent robocalls urging people to go to D.C. for the day’s events.


Stop the Steal also secured permitted space for a rally on the east side of the Capitol on Jan. 6. The organization had applied under a different name.

McCord, top, and Brookie warned of a shift in tone in the extremist chat groups they monitored. (Photos by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On extremist chat groups, Brookie, Holt and McCord saw a new tone of desperation take hold. Trump supporters were going further than before — talking about being citizen soldiers who might have to die for their cause.

On Dec. 21, McCord shared their research with D.C. officials. She was concerned enough that she also sent a copy to her former colleagues at the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington and a senior counterterrorism official at the FBI. She was assured the warnings were being shared with key law enforcement authorities.


Holt focused on the explicit talk of violence, writing in his report that Oath Keepers were “ramping up” pressure on their peers to join them in settling the election by force, “preferably with guns.”

“Nothing is going to happen unless we MAKE it happen,” began an exchange he highlighted in the report, which was passed along to the FBI.

“How much more of this s--- do you need to see … There is only one way. It’s not signs. It’s not rallies. It’s f---ing bullets!” read the post from a person identifying as an Oath Keeper.

Holt and Brookie soon spotted a shift from threats to planning.

Members of self-styled militias from all over the country were sharing plans for protester convoys to Washington. A map was being circulated on MeWe showing three rally points — code-named Cowboy, Minuteman and Rebel — for the “MAGA Cavalry” that would ride on Jan. 5. Proud Boys and others shared the meetup spots up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

At the White House, Pence began telling advisers that he knew he was in the crosshairs — Trump would expect him to act.

The president at first took a conciliatory tack. My people are telling me you have more power than you think you have, he told Pence in a meeting a few days before Christmas. Repeatedly, Pence responded that he did not believe there was an avenue for him to stop the certification — but he said he would take a look at the arguments.


Soon the vice president and his team were being lobbied by a clutch of pro-Trump lawyers including John Eastman, a conservative attorney who had written an op-ed questioning Harris’s U.S. citizenship and whether she was eligible to run for vice president.

Behind the scenes, the White House chief of staff was also spurring on a looming confrontation between Trump and his vice president.

Mark Meadows “was talking out of both sides of his mouth, telling Pence: ‘We know how this goes. We’re going to calm everything down. Don’t worry. We’re turning the temperature down,’ ” said a senior administration official. “And then he would tell Trump: ‘I’m telling Pence he has to do this. Pence is going to do it. It’s going to be great. Eastman is right. We’ll get him [Pence] to do it.’ ”


Still, many White House and campaign aides did not view Jan. 6 as a critical day and were not worried about violence. The goal of Trump’s tweet in which he said Jan. 6 would “be wild,” they believed, was simply to attract a big crowd to give the television cameras a counternarrative to the coverage of the Capitol that day.

One senior administration official said he only realized how much Trump’s focus on Jan. 6 was activating his supporters when his mother, who lives in a Southern state, told him in late December that her friends were coming by bus. “A lot of people from the church are going to D.C. on January 6 — are you going to be there?” she asked him.

16 days to go

Three days before Christmas, D.C. police hosted their first teleconference to begin coordinating for Jan. 6. Among the agencies on the call: the FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Park Police and Capitol Police. Analysts from the fusion center run by Donell HarvinDonell HarvinClose As the head of intelligence at D.C.'s homeland security office, Harvin led a team that spotted warnings that extremists planned to descend on the Capitol and disrupt the electoral count. did not participate.


For gun-carrying agents at the FBI and elsewhere, the nation’s network of fusion centers set up in response to 9/11 had long been viewed as producing uneven work. Some even disparagingly referred to them as “confusion centers.” Their mission was to keep tabs on open-source information and to make sure tips didn’t get lost between agencies. Yet early on, some social media posts that centers had flagged sent police on wild goose chases. “These guys often couldn’t find their lanes,” said one senior federal law enforcement official who was on the Dec. 22 call with the FBI and others.

The dynamic was particularly fraught in D.C. The National Capital Region Threat Intelligence Consortium, or NTIC, as the fusion center is known, is supposed to share intelligence from all law enforcement entities in the region. But D.C. is home to the FBI and the country’s other preeminent law enforcement and intelligence agencies, turning the pecking order upside down.

The FBI put more stock in the analysis of its own agents. Plus, D.C.’s fusion center is one of only a handful in the country housed in a civilian agency and not a police department, making law enforcement reluctant at times to distribute sensitive intel about ongoing investigations.

Still, D.C. officials relied on it for intelligence, and Harvin assigned an analyst to each new permitted protest that might turn violent and tasked them with gaming out whether the city would be able to handle it.

The Jan. 6 assignment went to the office’s most junior analyst, who quickly became spooked about what he saw. Almost daily, he brought Harvin disturbing new posts found online.

Extremists from different parts of the country were now coordinating logistics. They were mobilizing an informal army, exchanging tips about how to smuggle weapons into D.C., where to meet, what to wear, he noted.


Prominent members of the Proud Boys — the group that Trump had told months earlier to “stand back and stand by” and that had been at the center of violence at the previous two Trump rallies — were soliciting money online for communications equipment and protective gear.

Anti-government extremists known as “boogaloo boys,” some of whom with militia ties had been implicated two months earlier in a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, were discussing rendezvous points to stash weapons and stage rapid reserve forces to platoon into D.C. with avowed neo-Nazis — two elements in the far right that the analyst hadn’t commonly seen align.

By the time Harvin called a major planning meeting on Dec. 30, the young analyst was ready to present a worst-case scenario: Someone could plant an improvised explosive device near the Capitol, he said. With law enforcement distracted, extremists might then band together and attack government buildings, maybe even the Capitol.

Even as the meeting went on, Trump returned to Twitter and further egged on his supporters:

As a paramedic in the New York Fire Department, Harvin had responded to the World Trade Center on 9/11 and prided himself as someone who had learned to keep his cool. But now he was anything but. “This feeling came over that I was out of my depth, that I was in over my head,” he said. “I was kind of freaking out.”

[Tune into a special Washington Post Live conversation with Donell Harvin and Clint Hickman on Nov. 2]

Harvin called his boss, Christopher Rodriguez, director of the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. The city might not be ready for the “unholy alliance” of extremist groups and masses of Trump supporters about to descend on the city, he said.

Rodriguez, who had served as a counterterrorism analyst at the CIA for more than 10 years, wanted a full briefing. They brought in the analyst, went through the data and Rodriguez agreed. The chatter about bringing guns to D.C., in particular, was off the charts. He consulted with then-acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III, and the two briefed Bowser.

Bowser and her aides were worried about a repeat of the federal response to Black Lives Matter protests, when the Justice Department sent prison riot teams, U.S. marshals and others onto D.C. streets without name tags or badges identifying them as federal agents. The mayor would end up sending a letter to federal officials discouraging a repeat of such deployment on Jan. 6 unless federal agents would declare their presence to D.C. police.

She was also reluctant to request the National Guard, concerned that the troops could be given orders by the president and abandon their posts. But Bowser decided the city needed the manpower to free all available police officers to focus on the potentially armed protesters. On Dec. 31, the city submitted a narrow request to the Pentagon for troops to assist with mostly traffic control.

For their part, Pentagon leaders were not looking for a role in Jan. 6 security.

Milley was worried that once troops were activated and on the streets of the nation’s capital, it would be much easier for Trump to redirect them as he wished. He thought that was a distinct possibility, having little faith that Trump would suddenly act rationally and not in his personal self-interest to stay in power.


Ryan McCarthy, the Army secretary, wasn’t sure he could rule out such a scenario, either, especially after Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and other senior defense officials after the election. He considered Esper and Joseph Kernan, a retired Navy SEAL who was undersecretary of defense for intelligence, to be good men and friends who were ousted without rational reason. McCarthy also was concerned about National Guard members getting into confrontations with protesters, as some federal forces had during racial justice demonstrations months earlier.


Miller, who had been appointed acting defense secretary by Trump after the election, did not believe Trump would misuse the military, but shared the worry that a conflict could erupt between the forces and those in the crowd, instigated by the Proud Boys and other far-right groups. “I thought the demonstrators were going to try to bait us into a Boston Massacre-type situation,” he said.

The three also agreed there was another problem: optics. Given Trump’s rhetoric, his critics could view the deployment of soldiers within range of the Capitol as intimidating on the day that lawmakers were affirming the results of the election.

“I was very cognizant of the potential that this could be misconstrued by so many people as a power grab and play into the narrative that the military was on the cusp of overthrowing duly elected officials to redo an election,” Miller said.

In a Jan. 2 phone call, the three ended up deciding that the D.C. mayor’s proposal — to send Guard members elsewhere in the city to run traffic control — was “a sweet spot,” Miller said. It would allow the Pentagon to say it was helping, but keep troops out of the way of protesters as they took aim at the Capitol.

McCarthy and Milley discussed the particulars. A letter would need to be sent, laying out clear guardrails for the 340 troops who would be deployed. And it should come with one special restriction, they decided: a requirement that any change to the soldiers’ orders come all the way back to the acting secretary of defense for explicit approval. McCarthy said he could sign the letter. Miller said, no, he would do it. Milley welcomed Miller’s direct engagement, telling others he thought it would slow the ability of Trump to redirect troops into the political fray, and put one of the president’s own on the line should Trump flex his power as commander in chief.

McCarthy followed Miller’s letter with his own, further putting the Guard in defensive mode. They would have no weapons, and in a verbal order, he added that Guard troops were to stay west of Ninth Street, essentially no closer than a mile to the Capitol. And in another unusual restriction, soldiers would carpool in vans to their traffic-control duties, leaving Humvees and other military vehicles at the armory.

7 days to go

On the last weekend of 2020, the FBI lost access to Dataminr, a third-party service that can alert agents and analysts to important social media posts about breaking news, as well as when, where and how often key words and phrases appear in online posts.

The shutdown had been months in the making. The bureau advertised in early 2020 that it wanted to sign a new contract for “social media alerting,” describing the service as “mission-critical.”

But the end-of-the-year changeover limited the FBI’s understanding of what was happening online at a key juncture, just as extremists were mobilizing. FBI agents started using an alternative service known as ZeroFox that was unfamiliar to many in the bureau. The change came as a surprise, causing confusion about how to use the new system.

Some agents and analysts felt the new service was a significant downgrade, particularly when it came to tracking things on Twitter. Within the FBI, some frustrated agents quickly started using a derisive nickname for ZeroFox — replacing the “Fox” with a similar-sounding expletive, to indicate how little use it seemed to have.


“It wasn’t that we were blind, it just turned out to be a bad time to have less visibility into what was happening online, because we were changing systems and a lot of people didn’t really know the new system,” said one person familiar with the matter.

On New Year’s Eve, Harvin’s team set up a call with analysts at the Capitol Police. The growing intensity of online threats reminded John K. “Jack” Donohue, the new director of intelligence for the police department, of a foreign terrorism operation. As a young New York Police Department officer, Donohue had been an intelligence analyst and had trained in the methods of the Islamic State and related foreign terrorist groups after 9/11. He understood how isolated followers could be activated online, drawn to a violent cause that gave them purpose.

Donohue was especially worried by the volume of well-known white-supremacist groups whose members said they planned to come, as well as a sense among them that they had the approval of, if not a direct order from, the president of the United States.

But Donohue was new to the job. Since taking over in November, he and his newly arrived deputy, Julie Farnam, a longtime Department of Homeland Security division chief, had been working to professionalize a Capitol Police intelligence unit that was widely seen as an embarrassment. Capitol Police leaders feared letting their intel unit brief other agencies because its work product was so shabby. The department didn’t routinely share its collected intelligence with rank-and-file officers, something Donohue was planning to change. He kept studying the threatening online posts.


All the while, Trump was keeping the pressure up, seeking a soft spot in the system.

In tweets, interviews and statements, he harangued the FBI, governors, state lawmakers and even local election officials. “The 2020 election was rigged. It was a scam and the whole world is watching and they’re laughing at our country. They’re laughing at us,” Trump said when he called into a hearing of Republicans in Arizona to discuss purported fraud.

Behind the scenes, the president zeroed in on three maneuvers in his attempt to overturn the election. He pressed Justice Department officials to assert there were irregularities in the vote. He goaded state officials to reopen the counts. And as a last resort, he kept lobbying his vice president to simply cast the results aside on Jan. 6.

In a Dec. 27 phone call, Richard Donoghue, a senior Justice Department official, took notes on the president’s brazen efforts. William Barr’s replacement, Jeffrey Rosen, had just told Trump the department couldn’t “snap its fingers” and change the outcome of the election. Trump responded, asking the acting attorney general to simply play along: “Just say the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressman,” Donoghue wrote.


The president’s supporters were following his lead, bombarding Republican officials in states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona to take action. “It’s pretty apparent you don’t know everything that is going on,” Arizona Senate President Karen Fann (R) reassured one constituent in a Dec. 29 email, adding that the Senate had gone to court to enforce a subpoena on Maricopa County, in part to inspect its voting machines.

“We have the full support of Trump and Giuliani,” she added.


Clint HickmanClint HickmanClose As chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in 2020, the longtime Republican resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results. , the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, was enjoying a New Year’s Eve dinner in Phoenix with his wife and some friends when his phone rang at about 8 p.m. It was a Washington number.

He let the call go to voice mail, then, curious, ducked out of the loud restaurant to check the message. It was from a man who said he was an operator at the White House switchboard, calling to inform Hickman that the president wanted to speak to him.

Hickman didn’t know what to think — he’d been receiving a lot of prank calls since he and the other board members voted to certify Biden’s win amid a flood of vitriol and protests. If it really was the White House, he wasn’t eager to speak to Trump. He returned to the table and announced incredulously to the group, “Well, that was the president.”

Three nights later, Hickman’s phone rang again. The Washington Post had just published a recording of a phone call that weekend between Trump and another Republican election official, Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state. On the call, Trump urged Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat.

Now — after midnight in Washington — the president appeared to want to talk to the Maricopa County chairman.


Hickman again did not respond: “My mom always warned me nothing good happens after midnight.”

6 days to go

In Florida, Paul HodgkinsPaul HodgkinsClose The 38-year-old crane operator from Tampa traveled to Washington to show his support for Trump after absorbing false claims that the election was rigged — a decision that would drastically upend his life. had made the decision to go to Washington. He found a pro-Trump women’s group offering a package deal for about $300, which included a bus ride from Sarasota, Fla., to D.C. and two nights at the Westin Crystal City Reagan National Airport hotel.

Hodgkins put his blue Trump tights on for a New Year’s Eve party.

“As it got closer to Jan. 6, the people I talked to said it was important,” Hodgkins said. “That it was going to be a historical event, maybe the biggest political turnout ever in Washington.”

Ronald “Ronnie” Sandlin, a 34-year-old living with his parents in Memphis, was equally motivated. Sandlin had never been very political, but he was making plans to drive to D.C. and was calling for others to join him. In a post on Facebook, Sandlin vowed “to do my part to stop the steal and stand behind Trump when he decides to cross the rubicon.”

By New Year’s, Sandlin was in touch with around a dozen other Trump supporters making similar plans, including a 34-year-old Idaho man named Josiah Colt and a 31-year-old Las Vegas resident named Nathaniel DeGrave.


Theirs was one of numerous plans that coalesced in mostly public view. On Facebook, Sandlin posted what appeared to be an image of him holding a semiautomatic rifle and asking for financial help to pay for the trip. “Every penny is a boot in the a-- against tyranny.”

On the same day, DeGrave asked for help learning how to shoot a gun. Who “can shoot and has excellent aim and can teach me today or tomorrow,” DeGrave wrote on Facebook. “I want somebody special forces or ex fbi to teach me … this is for a very patriotic cause.”

Other ominous messages were posted on Parler, which had recently begun communicating with the FBI after its attorneys had decided some posts were so threatening that they required law enforcement notification.


On Dec. 22, Parler had sent the FBI three screenshots from a user who threatened to kill politicians. On Jan. 2, the company passed along more, including a series of posts by a user making threats about Jan. 6. “This is the final stand where we are drawing the red line at Capitol Hill. I trust the American people will take back the USA with force and many are ready to die,” the user wrote, adding: “don’t be surprised if we take the #capital building.”

By early January, larger social media companies in Silicon Valley were also flagging scores of posts daily to the fusion center in Northern California. For companies to reach the threshold to report its users to law enforcement, such posts typically imply violence or the use of a weapon. Sena, the fusion center director, told the companies his office couldn’t keep up with the surge and asked them to start sending the concerning posts directly to the FBI’s analysis center in West Virginia.

On Jan. 1, an amateur historian of architecture in Washington who maintains a website on tunnels, including those under the Capitol, filed a report on the FBI’s website about an unusual spike in hits to his site from outside the D.C. area, including from the domains, and He traced some of the traffic back to posts about Jan. 6.

In another batch of messages to the FBI, a bureau informant in the Midwest characterized the talk among members of self-proclaimed militias as heavy on planning to travel to D.C., and said the tone had become significantly more “anti-law enforcement.”

In defending their decisions, FBI officials said the bureau makes a key distinction between “aspirational” speech about violence and what they called “a specific intent to commit violence.” Aspirational talk is protected by the First Amendment, said a senior FBI official.

“Broad claims and online chatter often lack specificity or detail about concrete plans and participants and, therefore, are not susceptible to disruption,” said an FBI official.

Lawmakers gather on the opening day of the 117th Congress, when Nancy Pelosi was reelected House speaker, Steny H. Hoyer was elected majority leader, and Kevin McCarthy was elected minority leader. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post; Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post; Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post; Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post; Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

3 days to go

On Jan. 3, leaders at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, joined one in a series of conference calls to go over security concerns about Jan. 6. The group discussed the possibility of protesters targeting federal buildings. Most officials saw the biggest risk to be what one called the “same old” fighting between pro-Trump protesters and liberal demonstrators that had occurred at earlier rallies, particularly after sunset. O’Brien thought the biggest danger would be the counterprotesters — what the president referred to as antifa.


Miller, the acting defense secretary, couldn’t believe the Justice Department wasn’t more concerned.

Unknown to him, Rosen was consumed with a separate but related crisis. The pressure campaign against the acting attorney general had reached a boiling point. Minutes before the call, Rosen learned that Trump intended to replace him with Jeffrey Clark, a mid-level department attorney who had just made clear he would do Trump’s election bidding.


Clark had drafted a letter to officials in Georgia, falsely declaring that the Justice Department had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple states” and recommending state legislatures convene in special session to consider appointing new presidential electors.

In the hours that followed, Rosen and the upper tier of the Justice Department would vow to resign should the president push forward with installing Clark.

“Jeff Clark will be leading a graveyard,” Justice official Steve Engel told the president in the Oval Office. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone warned Trump that Clark’s letter was “a murder-suicide pact” that would “damage anyone and anything that it touches.” Cipollone said he, too, would resign.

Still, Clark encouraged Trump. “Mr. President, we can do this,” he told Trump. “We can get it done. History is calling.”

After a three-hour standoff, Trump dropped the idea as unworkable, leaving only one person left who could help him set aside the election and retain the White House: Pence.

Unaware of the high-stakes moment playing out at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, officials at the Capitol were reaching their own fire-alarm moment.

Donohue and Farnam, of the Capitol Police, were sweating the final intelligence assessment for Jan. 6.

For weeks, their analysts had catalogued comments on and other sites in which Trump supporters had discussed confronting members of Congress and police.

“Anyone going armed needs to be mentally prepared to draw down on” law enforcement officers, read a post highlighted back in a Dec. 21 internal report.


It had been a day after that when the FBI told Capitol Police it wasn’t investigating similar threats about overrunning police and arresting lawmakers.

Since then, Capitol Police had been following the lead of the bureau, which did not aggressively pursue many such posts out of First Amendment concerns. But the flow of troubling warnings now felt like a deluge. Since New Year’s Eve, there had been the debrief from Harvin, online chatter flagged by Donohue’s former intel contacts at the NYPD, and something else: The leaders of the two congressional chambers, Pelosi and McConnell, had had their homes vandalized with messages about a stimulus payment that Congress failed to approve, drawing heckles from Trump.

LEFT: RIGHT: Trump supporters who gathered in front of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s vandalized home protest the then-majority leader’s decision to block the most recent stimulus bill. (Photos by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Police found a pig’s head, smeared with fake blood, on Pelosi’s driveway in San Francisco, along with the message “Cancel rent, we want everything” scrawled on the garage door. In Kentucky, officers discovered someone had spray-painted McConnell’s home with the phrases “WERES MY MONEY” and “MITCH KILLS POOR.”

It seemed a menacing signal: Angry people knew where the two leaders lived and were willing to break the law to get their message across. The number of officers assigned to each leader was increased, and the details were issued assault weapons.

Donohue and Farnam made a grim prediction in their final internal report: Jan. 6 would be far more dangerous to the Capitol and its occupants than the pro-Trump rallies in November and December.

Trump supporters had reached a desperate stage, Donohue and Farnam wrote, in which they believed the certification of the election at the joint session was their “last chance” to block Biden from becoming president. “Congress itself is the target,” they concluded, but the key analysis was tucked at the bottom of Page 13 of a 15-page report.


Separately, Sund, the Capitol Police chief, had begun to question whether his force was prepared. Hotel reservations were soaring and flights to D.C. in the time remaining before Jan. 6 were filling up. The chief took an unprecedented step. On Jan. 3, he asked his bosses to declare an emergency so he could request the National Guard to station troops around the Capitol as a show of force.


He met resistance from his superiors, the sergeants-at-arms for the House and the Senate — both former Secret Service agents who reported to Pelosi and McConnell. Paul Irving, of the House side, said the optics of bringing in the Guard probably wouldn’t be welcomed by leadership. Mike Stenger, on the Senate side, suggested Sund ask the D.C. National Guard to informally “lean forward” instead, so it could be ready to be summoned in case of an emergency.

Sund agreed not to press for a deployment — unaware of the new threat assessment being prepared by his own intelligence unit that very day.

A platform is under construction at the Capitol ahead of the inauguration. A protester waves a Stop the Steal flag outside the Capitol on Jan. 3. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post; Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

2 days to go

On Jan. 4, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, reached out to the FBI. He was alarmed after hearing reports from his staff of widespread online chatter of violence surrounding the Jan. 6 ceremony. He wanted to make sure the bureau was seeing the threat, and to learn what it was doing to counter the danger.

David Bowdich, the No. 2 official at the FBI, heard him out but did not sound concerned. Don’t worry, he told the senator, the FBI was on top of it.


That day, the National Park Service allowed the number of people expected under a permit filed for the rally at the Ellipse to balloon from 5,000 to 30,000.

On Twitter, Trump kept hyping the event.

That same day, Sena held the call for fusion centers from around the country. No one from the FBI spoke, and Sena couldn’t tell whether anyone from the bureau had even joined. Kurt Reuther, a senior Department of Homeland Security official, piped up at one point, saying the department was standing by to help. It struck several as a hollow offer. There was already plenty to do. Officials from several fusion centers said on the call that they knew of groups mobilizing. “MAGA Drag the Interstates” rallies were planned, and analysts had picked up chatter of an “Occupy the Capital” movement.


There was so much material now bubbling up about Jan. 6 that bureau analysts running the FBI’s online portal where social media companies were reporting suspected criminal behavior had begun using a hashtag to track and organize incoming threats: #CERTUNREST2021.

In short, Sena wrote in an email to all 80 fusion centers, “a significant number of individuals plan to or are advocating for others to travel to Washington, DC to engage in civil unrest and violence.”

At the very same time as the fusion center call that day, a deputy chief for the Capitol Police scheduled a briefing for commanders and supervisors to discuss Donohue’s threat assessment that “Congress itself” was the target. Sund, the chief, was left off the invitation. Donohue gave his presentation, surprised that the chief wasn’t on the call. But even for those on the call, many didn’t hear a major shift in Donohue’s risk forecast or fresh cause for alarm.


It was part of a pattern of miscommunication, poor planning and sloppiness inside the department that left Capitol Police completely ill-equipped for what was to come.

Officers had left polycarbonate riot shields used to combat violent protesters in a hot trailer over the summer, making them more brittle and easier to crack. Smoke grenades and other crowd-control munitions had expired in a storage room. Of the 10 officers assigned to fire such less-lethal rounds, none had current certification to do so. The department didn’t even have an up-to-date list of officers who were in the voluntary riot-control units in order to call for backup if necessary. And they would be short-staffed. One in five officers wouldn’t be at the Capitol on Jan. 6 — scores were at home quarantined for covid or on previously scheduled leave or shift work.


For those who would be there, the department did not clearly communicate the threat they would face. A Capitol Police analyst had been researching the applicants approved for six different protests that would encircle the Capitol, and had grown suspicious that many, if not all, were front groups for the Stop the Steal campaign. But the possibility that one like-minded mass was going to descend on the Capitol was not shared with rank-and-file officers. In fact, some said they were told the groups were different, possibly adversarial, and to be on the lookout for counterprotesters. To keep them away, Capitol Police ringed the building with bike racks as a leading line of defense, but in many places no one tied them together or weighed them down.


Over at the Pentagon, officials remained worried about the level of preparedness.

On a Jan. 4 call with Cabinet members and top security officials, Milley questioned why protesters were being allowed on Capitol grounds at all, given the threats against Pelosi and McConnell, and noted that extremists had begun boasting on social media that they planned to come armed and attack lawmakers.


“Why are we granting permits to groups that have already indicated their intent to commit violence?” he asked. “Is there a process for going back and revoking these permits?” Some on the call cited free-speech concerns and the challenge of revoking permits for properly registered protests.

That same day, Trump met with Pence and John Eastman in the Oval Office. Eastman, then a professor and former law school dean at Chapman University, had written that Pence could exercise unprecedented powers over the certification process. In what he later said was one early draft, he argued the vice president could set aside the electoral college votes and gavel Trump in as the next president. In a second memo, he suggested several options, including that Pence could delay the count so lawmakers could further assess fraud claims, potentially also upending Biden’s electoral lead and allowing Trump to win.


Eastman’s allies, including Giuliani and former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, were huddled blocks away in a makeshift war room at the Willard Hotel, conferring about how to put the plan into motion.

Yet even the professor himself did not think the gambit was likely to work. When Cipollone pressed Eastman after one meeting on whether he truly believed his legal theory would clear a path for Pence to overturn the election results, Eastman admitted that he thought it probably wouldn’t work. Furious, Cipollone exploded, berating the lawyer.


On the afternoon of Jan. 4, the vice president quizzed the professor on his plan to disrupt the electoral college count. Eastman said that it was an “open question” whether Pence had the ability to unilaterally decide which votes to count.

“You heard him say that, right?” Pence said to the president. Trump did not seem to be paying attention.

The vice president said the law seemed to leave him no choice but to preside over the formalization of Biden’s victory. But, Pence assured the president, he was still willing to read any materials on the topic that Trump wanted him to see.

38 hours to go

On Jan. 5, Hodgkins got off work in Tampa around 12:30 a.m. He’d slept only a couple of hours when he got up, collected his bag and a red Trump flag on a pole, and left for the bus terminal in Sarasota.

The flag wouldn’t fit in his bag, so he carried it in the car and, when he got to the bus, stowed it in the luggage compartment underneath. The mood inside among the mostly older, unmasked women was festive. Hodgkins was the youngest person and one of the few men. He had brought trail mix and beef jerky, and bought his favorite grilled chicken nuggets and a Blizzard milkshake at a Dairy Queen later that day.

His spirits were tempered by a text from his mother, accusing him of being blind to reality.

Also traveling north were DeGrave and Sandlin, and along the way, they were making good on a pledge made on Facebook to financial supporters to document their journey. They posted pictures and videos, including an eight-second clip of the two coughing when a can of bear spray accidentally discharged in DeGrave’s pocket.

“Nate’s bear mace was going off in his pocket and it started filling the van (with) bear spray,” Colt wrote in a caption posted with the picture. In another video, the two and others are heard debating carrying guns the next day. “For the camera’s sake,” DeGrave said, “we’re not going to carry.”

Late in the afternoon, in Des Moines, Douglas Jensen prepared to go, too.

The father of three, who had slipped deep into the QAnon extremist ideology over the previous four years, had become convinced that Trump would deliver big news to his supporters — possibly fulfilling the “Q” prophesy that corrupt politicians would someday be arrested en masse. After finishing a full shift at his construction job, Jensen and a friend embarked on a 16-hour overnight drive, estimating they would get to D.C. just in time for Trump’s speech.


As Trump’s supporters converged on Washington, his allies anticipated the unrest that would follow. “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow,” Bannon told listeners of his podcast on Jan. 5.

Trump supporters gather at D.C.’s Freedom Plaza a day before the riot. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Across the city, officials charged with the nation’s security had wildly different expectations about what the next day would bring.

The lead attorney on the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, which had convened several hearings on domestic extremism over the previous two years, told his committee staff to stay home. He packed snacks and clothes, unsure of whether it would be safe to leave the building the next night.

Miller also packed a gym bag with an extra set of clothes to bring to the Pentagon, on the off chance the situation spiraled out of control.

At Justice, Rosen told much of his staff they could work from home, reflecting a general sense of unease about possible traffic disruptions and disorder, but no serious concern that democracy itself could be at risk.

All day, a crowd kept growing blocks from the White House, where Trump surrogates took turns at a microphone declaring the election results were about to be overturned.

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell urged Trump supporters to pray for Pence to “make the right decision for our country.” On Jan. 6, the country would experience a “miracle” and “great cleansing of evil,” Lindell said to applause.

In the crowd, a man thrust a sign in the air that read “Trump Won! Complete the American Revolution.” A woman waved a huge red flag with the numbers “1776 2.0.” As Lindell spoke, D.C. police surrounded a converted school bus that drove past a police line a couple blocks away. After searching the bus and finding firearms, officers cuffed the three occupants. Trump supporters walking nearby booed.

That evening, the multibillion-dollar security apparatus built in the wake of 9/11 to protect the country’s most critical functions produced a single, stark, final warning of the looming danger — much of it echoing the report the FBI received more than two weeks earlier. An intelligence analyst at the FBI office in Norfolk filed a situational information report describing alarming calls for violence circulating on — it included more talk of the “MAGA Cavalry” and people heading for D.C.

The FBI analyst’s report cited one post that declared: “Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their … slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.”

The report noted people had shared maps of tunnels underneath Congress, and planned rendezvous spots in the eastern part of the United States to travel together to Washington.

The memo — like the others before it — was jarringly prescient. But it also betrayed the FBI’s long-running institutional unease with investigating domestic extremism. The document cautioned that the people who had made the threatening posts “have been identified as participating in activities that are protected by the First Amendment. … Their inclusion here is not intended to associate the protected activity with criminality or a threat to national security.”

To some inside the FBI, that cautionary language was a telling example of how the bureau tempered its reaction to threats of violence from White, middle-aged and middle-class Americans.


The intelligence analyst emailed the document to Washington’s FBI field office at 6:52 p.m., and that office forwarded it to other local law enforcement agencies at 7:37 p.m. Before 8 p.m., a Capitol Police officer embedded with the FBI also emailed it to her superiors at the department’s intelligence operations section.

While the memo was shared widely at low levels of various agencies, it was not flagged to the leadership of law enforcement agencies.

Outside the FBI, the bureau’s handling of the report sent the message that it was not particularly concerned.

Protests continued into the night on Jan. 5. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post; Samuel Corum/Getty Images; Jorge Ribas and Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post; Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

18 hours to go

Inside the Oval Office on the evening of Jan. 5, the Colonnade door swung open, filling the room with the frigid night air, but also the sound of the president’s supporters, gathered a couple blocks away.

Earlier that day, Trump had again pressed Pence to forestall Biden’s confirmation: Just delay the vote to certify the election; send it back to the states, the president urged. The vice president felt he’d been clear: he would not do so. He told Trump he would talk to him again in the morning.

Still, the president did not seem deflated after Pence’s departure.

“Stop, can you hear it?” Trump asked when Judd Deere, a press aide, came in. “This is just incredible music,” he said. The president encouraged Deere to round up his team to come listen, and before long, there was a small crowd, all watching Trump gleefully listen along to the ’70s and ’80s rock and pop songs common to his campaign events.

On the Resolute Desk, bills were stacked high that faced a midnight deadline to be signed or vetoed, and in Georgia, polls were still open for runoff races that would decide whether his party would control the Senate. But to anyone in the room, it was clear Trump’s thoughts had cast out to the crowd and the next day. He wanted to communicate with them, and proceeded to dictate a tweet to Dan Scavino, his deputy chief of staff.


Scavino, perched in a chair by the crackling fireplace, read it back:

Trump was getting warmed up. He and Scavino workshopped a second tweet:

The crowd outside suddenly roared loudly. “They’re fired up. They’re fired up,” Trump said. The president looked at Scavino: He didn’t want violence the next day, he said.

Several in the room took Trump’s comment to mean he didn’t want counterprotesters brawling with his supporters as the two sides had in November and December, sending Trump into a rage at the time against D.C. police for what he claimed was soft handling of protesters.

Soon a third tweet finished his thought:

For nine weeks, the coda to Trump’s presidency had blared like a siren song. His false claims of election fraud had lured followers to act on their worst instincts. A wave of them had come to Washington, and more were on the way.

Trump turned to an aide and asked what he thought the crowd wanted to hear at the next day’s rally. The aide suggested Trump should highlight all of his accomplishments. “I mean, you’ve had an incredible four years,” he said.

“No, no,” Trump interrupted. “These people are upset. They’re angry.”

He issued a final message on Twitter:

Jacqueline Alemany, Emma Brown, Alice Crites, Tom Jackman, Tom Hamburger, Peter Hermann, Spencer S. Hsu, Isaac Stanley-Becker, Julie Tate, Elise Viebeck and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to clarify how two presidential elections were settled in the 19th century.

Red Flags
As Trump propelled his supporters to Washington, law enforcement agencies failed to heed mounting warnings about violence on Jan. 6.
For 187 harrowing minutes, the president watched his supporters attack the Capitol — and resisted pleas to stop them.
Threats and disinformation spread across the country in the wake of the Capitol siege, shaking the underpinnings of American democracy.
Series findings
About this story

This project is based on interviews with more than 230 people and thousands of pages of court documents and internal law enforcement reports, as well as hundreds of videos, photographs and audio clips.

Reporting by Jacqueline Alemany, Hannah Allam, Devlin Barrett, Emma Brown, Aaron C. Davis, Josh Dawsey, Amy Gardner, Tom Hamburger, Shane Harris, Rosalind S. Helderman, Peter Hermann, Spencer S. Hsu, Tom Jackman, Paul Kane, Dan Lamothe, Carol D. Leonnig, Nick Miroff, Ellen Nakashima, Ashley Parker, Beth Reinhard, Philip Rucker, Marianna Sotomayor, Isaac Stanley-Becker, Craig Timberg, Rachel Weiner and Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Jon Swaine, Ben Terris, Elise Viebeck, Gerrit De Vynck in San Francisco; Jeremy Duda in Phoenix; Mark Shavin in Kennesaw, Ga.; and McKenzie Beard, Caroline Cliona Boyle, Heather MacNeil, Aneeta Mathur-Ashton, Vanessa Montalbano, Megan Ruggles, Nick Trombola and Carley Welch with the American University-Washington Post practicum program also contributed reporting.

Staff photography by Jabin Botsford, Ricky Carioti, Michael Robinson Chavez, Demetrius Freeman, Katherine Frey, Salwan Georges, Melina Mara, Matt McClain, Bonnie Jo Mount, Bill O’Leary, Toni L. Sandys and Michael S. Williamson. Additional photography by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, Cassidy Araiza, Fábio Erdos, Karla Gachet, Evelyn Hockstein, Craig Hudson, Kevin D. Liles, Edward Linsmier, Caitlin O’Hara, Courtney Pedroza, Sarah Rice, Astrid Riecken, Sarah Silbiger, Amanda Voisard and Mikayla Whitmore.

Design and development by Madison Walls, Tyler Remmel and Jake Crump. Additional design by Matthew Callahan, Irfan Uraizee and Garland Potts. Design editing by Brian Gross. Photo editing and research by Natalia Jiménez-Stuard. Graphics by Daniela Santamariña and graphics editing by Kevin Uhrmacher and Lauren Tierney.

Staff videography by Ricky Carioti, Alice Li, Whitney Leaming, Justin Moyer, Jorge Ribas, Michael E. Ruane, Clarence Williams and Joy Sharon Yi and additional videography by Ray Whitehouse. Video research and reporting by Sarah Cahlan, Joyce Sohyun Lee, Meg Kelly and Elyse Samuels, Adriana Usero and JM Rieger and editing by Phoebe Connelly and Nadine Ajaka.

Video production by Erin Patrick O’Connor and Whitney Shefte and editing by Jorge Ribas and Jesse Mesner-Hage. Audio production by Ariel Plotnick, Ted Muldoon, Rennie Svirnovskiy and Emma Talkoff and editing by Ariel Plotnick.

Lead editor: Matea Gold. Story editing by Steven Ginsberg, Matea Gold, Dan Eggen and Peter Wallsten. Copy editing by Mike Cirelli and Laura Michalski. Project editing by Marian Liu.

Additional editing, production and support by Teddy Amenabar, Naseem Amini, Chris Barber, Lynh Bui, Courtney Beesch, Steven Bohner, Alice Crites, Mercedes Domenech, Sarah Dunton, Ann Gerhart, Tess Homan, Meghan Hoyer, Tom Johnson, Dave Jorgenson, Coleen O’Lear, Travis Lyles, Angel Mendoza, Tessa Muggeridge, Katherine O’Hearn, Lauren Prince, Lizzy Raben, John Sullivan, Julie Tate, Claire Tran, John Taylor, Elizabeth Tuten, Chris Vazquez and Deme Walls.