Before the rally of thousands of President Trump’s supporters on Wednesday, some aides worried that if Trump spoke at the event not far from the Capitol, it could stoke the crowd and create a volatile scene, a senior administration official said. But Trump, the official said, was determined to do it.
“We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved,” Trump told the crowd to whoops and loud cheers, falsely claiming that President-elect Joe Biden’s victory was based on fraudulent vote counts. “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide. This was not a close election.”
He said Republicans had to keep fighting and urged a crowd of aggrieved supporters to mount an insurrection against constitutional order on Wednesday, encouraging what quickly became a mob assault on the U.S. Capitol carried out in his name. The fabrications were familiar, but this time, Trump’s angry rant amounted to a call to arms.
In a long and violent day that the president urged his followers to remember “forever,” he was typical Trump. He exhorted his followers, he spoke falsehoods, he took to Twitter, he attacked the media, and he confronted the Constitution of the United States. It was as if four years of the Trump presidency were squeezed into one day. In the twilight of his presidency, Trump was where he always yearns to be — in the middle of the vortex, at the center of attention in a broken nation.
Later Wednesday, Trump appeared to sympathize with the mob and to explain away the violence as the natural consequence of his election loss to Biden. He also edged close to celebrating the day’s events.
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” he tweeted. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
Twitter said later Wednesday it had locked Trump’s account for violating its rules.
The sight of rioters, some armed, trying to overturn an election marked an unprecedented but not entirely unexpected reaping of what Trump has sown.
“He incited violence. He abdicated his responsibility to lead, and he failed to quell violence at the Capitol. It’s straightforward,” said Tom Bossert, who was Trump’s first homeland security adviser.
Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, said the day’s events were a “very predictable” result of Trump’s rhetoric but without presidential precedent.
“There is no parallel. This is a president who has incited a mob insurrection against Congress as it’s trying to finish its constitutional duties,” Zelizer said.
Most of the rioters shown on television smashing their way into the Capitol were wearing Trump regalia. Many shouted his name or proclaimed the conspiracy theories he has told them about unsubstantiated election fraud, saying it robbed him of a victory in the Nov. 3 election.
Even many Trump supporters were aghast. A number of aides resigned, including the first lady’s chief of staff, a spokeswoman and the White House social secretary, officials said.
One senior administration official, who said they had considered resigning but decided against it because there were only two weeks left in Trump’s term, called it the worst day of his presidency.
“Today totally undercut all of the accomplishments of the last four years,” the senior administration official said. “It’s incredibly sad. There is nothing else to say about it. It’s the worst day I’ve had in here.”
Former Trump communications director Alyssa Farah, who left the White House last month, tweeted directly to her old boss.
“Condemn this now, @realDonaldTrump - you are the only one they will listen to. For our country!” she wrote.
Former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney also publicly called for the president to do more.
GOP lawmakers bombarded White House staffers on Wednesday afternoon with pleas to get Trump to speak out more forcefully against the group, according to two White House officials.
White House officials and allies had struggled to persuade Trump to condemn the mob, said several people familiar with the discussions. Like others interviewed for this report, they spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the events.
As he watched television, Trump spent much of the afternoon fuming about Vice President Pence instead of worrying about the violence in the Capitol, even lambasting Pence while he was in a secure location, trying to remain safe from the mob. Pence said earlier in the day that he would not intervene to change the outcome of the election.
It took several hours and entreaties by phone and Twitter from Republican allies, former White House employees and other Trump allies before Trump released a video message directly addressing the violence.
In it, Trump sympathized with his violent followers and perpetuated the false claims about a stolen election that had incited the mob in the first place. He did not blame his supporters or disavow them.
“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side, but you have to go home now,” Trump said gently.
“We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt.”
By that time a woman had been fatally shot and several officers injured.
Earlier, Trump had urged the rogue militants to “remain peaceful” as television scenes played out of officers being overrun.
Trump has always been reluctant to condemn violence, racism or falsehoods perpetrated by his political followers or members of like-minded organizations. From the deadly protest in Charlottesville in 2017 to the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and the recent rise of the Proud Boys group, Trump has repeatedly equivocated or declined to condemn violence and antidemocratic actions on the political far right.
A senior White House aide said Trump wanted his supporters to swarm the Capitol and protest loudly all day. “There was no plan for them to go inside,” this official said. “If you’d had told me this morning that the Capitol was going to be attacked like that, I would have laughed at you.”
As for the rally itself, Trump was unhappy with the staging, which had the crowd spread out over two large expanses of lawn and held back from a raised stage area.
Trump told aides he was pleased so many had come to Washington but was angry that the crowd was not closer to him, a senior administration official said. During his speech, Trump griped that the news media got the best seats in the house.
On Monday and Tuesday, the president spent extensive time discussing with aides the “Save America” rally on the Ellipse, even discussing what songs should be played and how fiery his remarks should be.
In recent days, Trump has plotted with others how to get revenge against anyone who did not go along with him, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“Policy doesn’t animate him. Revenge animates him,” said an adviser who had recently spoken with the president.
Trump has been fixated on overturning the election for weeks, making hundreds of calls to allies, lawyers, state legislators, governors and other officials and regularly huddling with outside lawyers Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and others.
Some aides have tried to persuade Trump that he should lay off Pence, who is loyal, but Trump doubled down. He lashed Pence by name a half-dozen times during Wednesday’s address to the crowd, all but calling him a coward.
Trump, who was 30 minutes late, told the crowd he had just spoken to Pence ahead of his ceremonial role presiding over the congressional action.
“I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so, because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” Trump said. “All Vice President Pence has to do is recertify, and we become president, and you are the happiest people.”
The Trump supporters who became insurgents had come to Washington at his urging, to demonstrate against congressional certification of Biden’s victory on Wednesday.
Trump said he would walk with the crowd to the Capitol, although in the end, he did not. Many in the large and boisterous crowd set off for the Capitol before he had finished speaking.
He spent much of the more than one-hour speech angrily denouncing fellow Republicans he said had failed him by not objecting to the pro forma congressional action. Trump promised to “primary the hell out of” members of Congress who would not support his efforts to overturn the election results, whom he called “weak Republicans” and “pathetic.”
Patty Binkley, 66, was among those who left early and headed for the Capitol.
“We’ve heard all that stuff before,” Binkley, who arrived by car from Tennessee, said as she was pushed in a wheelchair while Trump continued to speak. “We thought he was going to come out and say something new.”
Not long after Trump spoke, the very lawmakers he had implied were traitors were fleeing the floors of the House and Senate, and Pence was whisked to a protected area.
Pence then expressed outrage.
“The violence and destruction taking place at the US Capitol Must Stop and it Must Stop Now. Anyone involved must respect Law Enforcement officers and immediately leave the building,” Pence tweeted shortly after 3:30 p.m.
“Peaceful protest is the right of every American but this attack on our Capitol will not be tolerated and those involved will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
White House aides said they received no guidance about the day, other than an email that the White House Mess, a Navy-run cafeteria, would be closing because of a citywide curfew.
The West Wing has largely been empty in recent days, with only Meadows and a couple of others as constants, while others have tried to stay away. Most aides are working from home.
A number of advisers and aides, including many who have been loyal to Trump for years, are increasingly despondent and embarrassed by his conduct. Many officials are no longer coming to work, two administration officials said.
“He can’t admit that he lost. He would literally do anything in the world,” one official said.
A second administration official said: “Guy can’t just help himself and go away.”