Inside Trump’s battle to stay in office
By Alan Feuer, Luke Broadwater, Maggie Haberman, Katie Benner and Michael S. Schmidt
Like 9/11, Jan. 6 needs no year attached to convey its dark place in American history. On that Wednesday afternoon, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump assaulted the Capitol, resulting in what Vice President Mike Pence had refused to do: disrupting the ceremonial certification of the electoral votes confirming that Joe Biden would be the next president of the United States.
But Jan. 6 has also become a somewhat misleading shorthand for something bigger: a months-long campaign by Trump and his allies to subvert American democracy and cling to power by reversing an election.
Over the past year and a half, much has come to light about how they went about it, embracing one tactic after another in a way that led a federal judge to conclude that elements of it likely amounted to a criminal conspiracy.
The story so far has been pieced together through the prosecutions of rioters, the early stages of a broader Justice Department investigation, the work of the House select committee examining the attack and its origins, and the work of journalists.
At its heart is a grievance-filled, insecure president, unable to face the fact of his defeat, working with a cabal of loyalists in and out of government to pursue an evolving plan that unfolded in successive chapters, each in effect taking aim at a pillar of democracy.
There was a failed legal strategy that clogged the courts with fantastical conspiracy theories. It was followed by a plot to twist the Justice Department into backing Trump’s repeated lie that the election had been rigged and stolen from him, and consideration of proposals that he direct the military or the Homeland Security Department to seize voting machines.
Those were followed by a strong-armed attempt to subvert the Electoral College process and bludgeon Pence into taking part, all leading to the violent effort to keep Congress from formally affirming Trump’s loss on Jan. 6.
Taken as a whole, the narrative that has emerged — elements of which the House select committee on Jan. 6 began setting out on Thursday (9) evening in the first of a series of hearings — is as chilling as it is audacious.
Planting seeds of doubt
For years, Trump had railed against contests in which he failed, disliked the outcome or feared he might be defeated.
He objected nearly two decades ago to the results of the Emmys and falsely claimed that President Barack Obama had not won the popular vote. He asserted that Sen. Ted Cruz “stole” a primary victory from him in Iowa in 2016 and predicted, before he defeated Hillary Clinton that year to win the presidency, that the general election would be “rigged”.
In the months leading up to the 2020 election, trailing in the polls, he again predicted that he would be cheated out of a victory, and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
But what might once have been seen as political bluster or a character defect metastasized in Trump’s case into a grave test of American democracy, what the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol now calls “the Big Lie” — a sprawling undertaking that extended from the West Wing to the far-right fringe and culminated with a violent mob laying siege to Congress.
Trump encouraged the lie in its various forms, indulging in increasingly outlandish fictions, spreading disinformation about the election results and encouraging his followers to challenge the vote at every step — in the courts, at state houses and in the streets. As his legal defeats stacked up, he became more vitriolic in his condemnations of Republicans who failed to support his false claims of having been the true victor in the election, and he lavished praise on those who parroted his accusations.
Trump’s simple lie found an eager audience in a broader movement fuelled by hard-right groups who believe the United States, with its increasing racial and ethnic diversity, is being stolen from them. The message of a stolen election was not entirely new.
For years, allies of Trump had promoted the false “Stop The Steal” narrative that elections were being stolen in districts across the country, particularly in cities with large numbers of Black and Latino voters that are typically won by Democrats. In 2016, an organization called Stop The Steal, affiliated with political operative Roger Stone, encouraged Trump supporters to swarm city voting locations in search of fraud, sparking alarm about voter intimidation.
That narrative gained steam months before the 2020 election when some of Trump’s staunchest allies raised doubts about the security of mail-in ballots — an option that grew more popular during the pandemic — and began to spread claims that China or other nations would interfere in the election, to Trump’s detriment.
After Trump lost, the ‘Stop the Steal’ narrative became a self-fulfilling prophecy and then a movement, promoted by a cast of lawyers, provocateurs, ideologues and others with an interest in keeping him in power — including some who had received, or would benefit from, a presidential pardon.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, under federal investigation for his pro-Trump activities in Ukraine, was perhaps the biggest promoter of the lie, traveling around the country to hold hearings and collect dubious affidavits about how the election was purportedly stolen.
But Giuliani had plenty of help.
Among those who emerged as the biggest promoters of the lie were lawyers Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood, against whom a federal judge has ordered sanctions; former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was pardoned by Trump weeks after the election after twice pleading guilty to lying to the FBI; Patrick Byrne, the former Overstock chief executive; MyPillow executive Mike Lindell; retired Army Col. Phil Waldron; and Ron Watkins, the administrator of the online message board 8kun, who played a major role in spreading the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, whose adherents believe that top Democrats worship Satan and run a child-trafficking ring.
At Wood’s estate in South Carolina, and at offices and hotels in the Washington area — including the Willard Intercontinental and the Trump International hotels — assorted Trump allies met to plan strategies to overturn the election.
Their strategies relied on a range of conspiracy theories: that fraud had been perpetrated by dead voters in Philadelphia and election workers in Georgia; that defence contractors in Italy had used satellites to flip votes; that former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, was somehow involved.
Some were especially tangled and outlandish, but would play an outsized role in the effort to convince not just the courts but the American public that the election was tainted.
In August 2020, before a single presidential vote was cast, Waldron, an information warfare expert with a long-standing interest in China’s purported involvement in election interference, developed a relationship with a Texas cybersecurity firm, Allied Security Operations.
Waldron has claimed that Allied had just discovered that the Chinese Communist Party had developed a way to flip votes on American tabulation machines, particularly those built by Dominion Voting Systems. Those allegations about Dominion became the centrepiece for four federal lawsuits, laced with conspiracy theories, that Powell filed in late November and early December 2020, seeking to reverse election results.
But as Trump worked to overturn the election, he was told repeatedly — including by his own Justice Department — that his various claims were false.
In the chaotic postelection period, a hotline Trump’s legal team set up for fraud allegations was flooded with unverified claims. A Postal Service truck driver from Pennsylvania asserted without evidence that his 18-wheeler had been filled with phony ballots. Republican voters in Arizona complained that some ballots had not been counted because they were marked with Sharpie pens that could not be read by voting machines.
Trump appeared to be aware of many of these reports, and spoke about them often with aides and officials, raising various theories about voting fraud even as they debunked them one by one.
“When you gave him a very direct answer on one of them, he wouldn’t fight us on it,” recalled Richard P. Donoghue, a former top Justice Department official, in an interview with the House committee. “But he would move to another allegation.”
Fighting in the courts
Trump made no secret of his plan to wage a legal battle in his bid to hold on to the White House. Two days before Election Day, he stood in front of reporters at a North Carolina airport and declared that as soon as the election was over, “We’re going in with our lawyers.”
For the next six weeks or so, the lawyers did go in — again and again and then again — filing suits challenging the voting results. The relentless attacks took place in city courts, county courts and federal courts in key swing states from Georgia to Nevada. More than 60 lawsuits were ultimately filed by an army of lawyers, some employed by Trump’s Republican allies, others working directly for the Trump campaign.
All of this unfolded as several people close to Trump were telling him that he had been soundly — and legally — defeated.
According to testimony provided to the House committee by Jason Miller, a senior campaign adviser, a campaign data expert informed Trump “in pretty blunt terms” shortly after the election that he was going to lose. A week or so later, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, announced that there was no evidence of fraud in the election.
That finding was backed up by Attorney General Bill Barr, who alerted Trump privately in November and acknowledged publicly on Dec. 1 that the Justice Department had not found any evidence of fraud “on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
In the end, Trump’s legal scorecard was abysmal. He won only one case, on a minor technical point affecting a small batch of votes in Pennsylvania.
Using the courts was Trump’s first, and in a way his most conventional, method of trying to stave off defeat. While the wide-ranging effort was a failure, it did accomplish something that eventually assisted him: The sheer scope and number of cases helped to sow doubts about the vote-counting process and to keep alive the falsehood that the election had been rigged.
As early as August 2020, Trump turned to a well-known Republican lawyer named Cleta Mitchell to assemble an election litigation team, according to recent court papers.
After the election, a team of lawyers that was led by Giuliani and included Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis oversaw the basic strategy being used to manage the far-flung cases handled by local lawyers in courts across the country.
The cases fell into three broad categories.
The first were suits alleging what could be called traditional voting fraud. In Michigan, for instance, claims were made that poll workers had altered the dates on absentee ballots. In Georgia, accusations arose that phony ballots had been sent to counting stations after hours. In Arizona, in what some of Trump’s allies would come to call ‘SharpieGate’, Republicans complained that dozens, maybe even hundreds, of ballots had not been counted because voters had been told to fill them out with felt-tipped Sharpies instead of ballpoint pens.
A second batch of lawsuits focused on highly technical procedural issues related to changes made to the voting process during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these suits raised questions about arcane matters like the deadlines by which mail-in voters had to submit materials confirming their identities or about the legitimacy of ballot drop boxes. Often, they hinged on complex arguments about the scope of state lawmakers’ power to establish election rules.
The third batch focused on a bizarre and baseless conspiracy theory that Chinese software companies, Swiss bankers, Venezuelan officials and liberal financier George Soros had joined forces to hack into Dominion voting machines in a secret plot to flip votes away from Trump. Filed in the Democratic strongholds of Detroit, Atlanta, Phoenix and Milwaukee, these suits became known collectively as the Krakens — a reference by Powell to a mythological, havoc-wreaking sea beast.
Even before the suits were filed, officials inside Trump’s campaign looked into some of the claims about Dominion and found that they had no merit. Eventually, the Kraken cases were laughed out of court.
Still, despite their outlandish content, the lawsuits played a role in subsequent events.
Trump even mentioned the Dominion conspiracy theory several times in his Jan. 2, 2021, phone call with Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, whom he asked to “find 11,780” votes to help him win the state. (That call is now the subject of a criminal investigation in Georgia.)
With the courts closing off as an avenue to keep Trump in power, he and his allies moved on to a series of largely ad hoc but stunningly anti-democratic efforts to reverse the election outcome.
It was Dec. 17, 2020, three days after electors in state capitols across the country cast their votes in the Electoral College to formally confirm that Biden had been elected the 46th president of the United States. Under ordinary circumstances, that would have been accepted as the end of the election.
But appearing on Newsmax, the conservative news channel, Flynn, the onetime national security adviser, had other ideas.
Trump, he said, “could immediately on his order seize every single” voting machine in the country.
“He could also order, within the swing states, if he wanted to, he could take military capabilities and he could place them in those states and basically rerun an election in each of those states,” said Flynn, whose pardon for lying to FBI agents investigating his ties to Russia had been issued less than a month earlier.
“It’s not unprecedented,” he said, adding that while he was not advocating the use of martial law, it had been used dozens of times in American history.
A day later, Flynn was in the Oval Office, pressing his case directly to the president — an extraordinary episode that underscores how Trump was willing to at least consider steps associated with autocracies.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, informal advisers and allies used their television appearances to try to bring his attention to outlandish claims and influence how he used his power. Often, a group of aides inside the White House worked to keep him from pursuing those ideas.
But as Trump listened less and less to his staff, he proved receptive to the ideas put forth by Flynn. On the evening of Dec. 18, 2020, Flynn, Powell and others joined Trump in the Oval Office, armed with draft executive orders that they wanted him to sign — based in part on the baseless conspiracy theories about voting machine fraud promoted by Waldron.
What ensued was among the most heated clashes of Trump’s presidency, one in which he weighed the viability of employing his commander-in-chief powers to baldly political ends: his own survival in office. For hours, first in the Oval Office and later in the White House residence, Trump openly entertained ideas from the fringes of politics, even as appalled White House aides manoeuvred furiously to try to head off a decision to act on them.
It was typical of the chaos of the Trump-era West Wing that the meeting took place only through a kind of subterfuge. A young aide to Peter Navarro, a Trump adviser who was particularly aggressive in promoting efforts to keep the president in power, went around senior West Wing officials to sneak Flynn, Powell and others onto the White House grounds.
As Powell and the others walked into the Oval Office, Eric Herschmann, a top White House lawyer in the final year of the administration, wondered aloud, “How the hell did Sidney get in the building?”
On one side in the meeting were Powell and Flynn, who complained in front of White House staff members, including Herschmann, that they were failing to fight hard enough for Trump. Powell and Flynn, asserting that foreign adversaries including Iran, China and Venezuela had used Dominion voting machines to flip votes for Biden, said the president should use his authority to defend the country to seize the machines, preserve them as evidence and rerun the election.
On the other side were staff members including Herschmann, who initially took the lead in pushing back against Powell and Flynn and then called out for West Wing aides to have the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, join them.
The meeting became so contentious that some people left in tears of frustration, after shouting in the face of demands pressed for hours by the outside supporters, recalled two people with knowledge of the proceedings.
The showdown came at a time when similar ideas were swirling among the president’s allies. The House committee has heard witness testimony that, in the lead-up to and in the days after that moment, there were discussions in the White House about Trump asking about invoking martial law or the Insurrection Act, which would allow him to use active-duty troops for a specific purpose, according to a person familiar with the committee’s work.
Giuliani was among those arguing against Flynn and Powell in the meeting. Though he had become the face of Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, he was wary of their plan. After initially listening in on the meeting by phone, Giuliani went to the White House, where he told Powell that Trump had no basis to use the military.
Yet around the time of the meeting, at Trump’s direction, Giuliani called the Homeland Security Department to ask whether a civilian agency could serve the same purpose in seizing the machines. The prospect was dismissed by Kenneth Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary, but Trump continued to ask about it in the days that followed.
In the end, the draft executive orders that Powell had brought to Trump went unsigned. But the president and his allies had still more — and more disturbing — ideas in mind for keeping power.
Hostile takeover bid
At 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, Jeffrey Clark, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division and an expert in environmental law, strode into the conference room of his boss, the acting attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, who had taken over weeks earlier from Barr.
Clark was there with some remarkable but by that point not entirely surprising news for Rosen: Trump had offered Clark the job of running the Justice Department, effective that day. Rosen, according to an account he gave the Senate Judiciary Committee, could stay on as the No. 2 if he wished. Rosen replied that he was not about to be fired by a subordinate and said he would take the matter directly to Trump.
The manoeuvring for control of the Justice Department was a closely held secret at that point, but it underscored the lengths to which Trump was willing to go to forestall his defeat.
Over the span of several weeks, a battle raged among camps inside the administration and among allies of Trump over who would lead the Justice Department at a moment when it was under intense pressure from Trump to do more to investigate and validate his wide-ranging and unsupported claims that he had been robbed of re-election by fraud.
And over a few tense days, Trump brought to a head a plan that would have pushed aside Rosen, who had refused the president’s entreaties, in favour of Clark, a loyalist who was eagerly promoting steps including having the Justice Department send Georgia officials a letter stating that voter fraud allegations could invalidate the state’s Electoral College results — a message with no basis.
Barr had earlier dismissed allegations of widespread fraud, but Trump was not about to give up. He and his allies, including a band of Republican House members and several conservative lawyers, contacted Justice Department leaders nearly every day leading up to Jan. 6, sometimes multiple times a day, with demands for fraud investigations and other steps to overturn the election.
Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, for instance, worked with Clark to try to persuade Georgia officials to withdraw the state’s results. Others pushed the department to bring the fight to the Supreme Court.
The pressure campaign ramped up on Dec. 14, the day Trump announced that the department’s then-No. 2 official, Rosen, would replace Barr. An aide to Trump emailed Rosen talking points about voter fraud in Michigan and problems with Dominion Voting Systems machines, the first of many fraud conspiracy theories that Rosen and his team would examine and debunk.
Rosen and other department officials hoped that the facts would eventually persuade Trump to acknowledge his loss. They had no idea that Perry had secretly introduced the president to Clark as the Justice Department ally he had longed for, one who would put the department to work disputing the election results.
Inklings of deeper trouble came on Dec. 27, when Rosen and his top deputy, Donoghue, told Trump that no evidence supported the lawsuits he had filed in an attempt to overturn the election. Reports of corruption in swing states had not been borne out.
Trump countered that the department could “just say that the election was corrupt,” and leave the rest to him “and the R. Congressmen,” according to notes from the call. Donoghue testified that the “R” referred to Republicans, some of whom were already working to undermine public faith in the election.
Giving a hint of his intentions, Trump said that “people tell me Jeff Clark is great, I should put him in,” Donoghue later testified. That day, Perry also called Donoghue to tell him that Clark could “do something” about the president’s claims.
During tense conversations with Clark, Rosen and Donoghue learned that he was working on a plan with Trump’s allies to overturn the Georgia results. He asked Rosen to send the proposed letter falsely informing Georgia state officials that a federal investigation could invalidate the state’s results. Rosen refused.
At the White House, the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, briefed Rosen and Donoghue on a conspiracy theory known as Italygate, which baselessly claimed that people in Italy had used military technology to remotely tamper with voting machines in the United States.
By New Year’s Eve, Rosen and Donoghue had grown deeply concerned. They had rebuffed outlandish demands to lobby the Supreme Court, appoint special counsels and give credence to wild conspiracy theories. But they struggled to handle Clark, who wanted a department official to falsely say at a news conference that fraud inquiries had cast doubt on the election result.
Rosen and Donoghue forbade him to talk to Trump.
On Jan. 2, Clark revealed that he had secretly conducted a witness interview in connection with an already-disproved election fraud allegation. And he raised the prospect with Rosen that Trump could install him as acting attorney general, but he offered a deal: He would decline any such offer if Rosen would send the sham letter to Georgia state officials. Donoghue shut down the plan.
Clark then secretly spoke with Trump, in defiance of orders. On Jan. 3, he informed Rosen that the president intended to replace him with Clark.
Unwilling to be pushed out without a fight, Rosen worked with Cipollone, the White House counsel and an ally, to convene a meeting with Trump for that evening, a Sunday. Before going to the White House, Donoghue hosted a conference call with the department’s top seven or eight leaders, laying out Clark’s machinations and Rosen’s upcoming fight for his job.
Should Rosen be fired, he asked, what would the group do?
Shocked, the officials unanimously agreed to resign en masse if Rosen was forced out. Their plan brought to mind the Nixon era’s so-called Saturday Night Massacre, when Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and his deputy resigned rather than carry out the president’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating him.
The showdown that played out at the White House that evening was extraordinary even by the standards of the Trump administration. Trump opened the Oval Office meeting around 6 p.m. with a blunt statement: “One thing we know is you, Rosen, aren’t going to do anything to overturn the election,” Trump said, according to Rosen’s later testimony.
Cipollone called Clark’s plan to send the proposed letter to Georgia a “murder-suicide pact,” participants in the meeting later testified. The officials warned that firing Rosen would spark a mass resignation, and that Clark would lead a depopulated agency.
In a heated moment, Donoghue said that Clark “wouldn’t even know how to find his way” to the FBI director’s office and was “not even competent to serve as the attorney general,” he later told investigators.
When Clark protested, Donoghue told investigators that he snapped. “You’re an environmental lawyer,” he recounted saying to Clark. “How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.”
Only in the final stages of the roughly three-hour meeting did Trump relent. The plan to install Clark atop the Justice Department was shelved, and the letter to Georgia officials was never sent.
But Trump was still not ready to let go of his election fraud claims. He said that he would fire the US attorney in Atlanta, who quit upon hearing about the threat. Soon after the end of the Oval Office meeting, Donoghue recounted to Senate investigators, Trump alerted him to a report that a Department of Homeland Security agent had found a truck filled with shredded ballots near Atlanta.
The Justice Department, the FBI and the Homeland Security Department later concluded that the only ballots to have been destroyed were from previous elections, and had been cleared out to make room for storage of the 2020 ballots.
Thwarted in his attempt to execute a hostile takeover of the Justice Department, Trump and his team still had another strategy to turn to.
On Nov. 5, 2020, as his father waited for key states to finish counting their votes, Donald Trump Jr. relayed over text message a series of suggestions to Meadows, the White House chief of staff, for how the president could stay in power.
One message referred to Jan. 6, 2021, when the vice president would oversee the congressional certification of the Electoral College votes — typically a routine process. The message described the date as a last-ditch option, one that would be meaningful only if the Trump forces could engineer a situation in which neither the elder Trump, nor Biden, the election’s winner, was found to have amassed enough electoral votes to win and the race was sent to the House of Representatives to decide.
That plan had been pushed by Trump’s informal adviser Steve Bannon, and a person familiar with the younger Trump’s text message identified Bannon as being the source of the information.
This tactic would involve two strands: pressing Pence to agree to flout the Constitution on the critical date of Jan. 6, and creating at least the appearance that there were alternate slates of pro-Trump electors from swing states that had clearly been won by Biden. The electors plan is now under scrutiny by federal prosecutors.
Between Nov. 5 and Jan. 6, Pence was subjected to an intense pressure campaign from a range of Trump’s associates outside the government, including John Eastman, a lawyer working with the president, and from Trump himself. During that time, Pence had his counsel research what his powers were with regard to Jan. 6, and then, over time, made clear to Trump that he did not believe he had the authority that the president insisted he did.
But before Pence gavelled in the proceedings on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, the Trump forces would need to promote the notion in state legislatures that there should be legitimate slates of alternate electors ready to swing the election in Trump’s favour should Biden’s victories there be called into question.
The plan to replace legitimate electors for Biden with alternate electors for Trump ramped up just days after the election when pro-Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell emailed Eastman, a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, to assign him the task of producing a memo to create a legal framework to challenge the electoral certification in Congress.
One lawyer, Kenneth Chesebro, wrote a series of memos in November and December describing how the plan could be carried out, though he said various state laws made it “somewhat dicey” and “very problematic” in some jurisdictions. A federal judge has found that one of those memos — a Dec. 13 missive sent to Eastman and Giuliani advising how the Senate could reject Biden’s victory — “likely furthered the crimes of obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy to defraud the United States.”
As lawyers were working to put the alternate elector plan into action, so were other members of Trump’s team.
Michael A. Roman and Gary Michael Brown, the director and deputy director of Election Day operations for Trump’s campaign, began participating in the efforts to encourage state legislators to appoint false “alternate” slates of electors, according to the House committee.
Angela McCallum, the Trump campaign’s national executive assistant, made calls to lawmakers, telling them there was an effort underway in multiple states to keep Trump in power and asking for their support. “You do have the power to reclaim your authority and send us a slate of electors that will support President Trump and Vice President Pence,” she told one in Michigan, according to a voicemail message made public in December 2020.
Trump personally called Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers amid an effort to rescind the certification of the county’s election results.
Around the same time, the White House Counsel’s Office told Meadows and Republican members of Congress that the plan to use so-called alternative electors was not “legally sound,” but they pressed on.
On Jan. 2, Eastman and Giuliani joined Trump on a call with hundreds of state lawmakers. Trump told the legislators they were the best chance to change the certified results of the presidential election in certain states. “You’re the ones that are going to make the decision,” he said.
Ultimately, groups of Republicans in seven states signed documents presenting themselves as either authorized or alternate electors. The plan is now under investigation by the Justice Department as part of its growing criminal inquiry.
But no state legislature or governor agreed to certify those slates as authentic. Out of options, Trump was left trying to pressure Pence to unilaterally reject electoral votes for Biden in his role as president of the Senate when Congress met on Jan. 6 to certify the election results.
On Jan. 4, 2021, Trump and Eastman met with Pence and his team in the Oval Office. That meeting was followed by another on Jan. 5, during which Eastman sought again to persuade Pence’s top lawyer, Greg Jacob, to go along with the scheme.
As Trump became more aggressive toward a number of officials, Pence told the president directly that he did not believe he had the power to delay the certification.
That day, Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, called the lead Secret Service agent on the vice president’s detail to his office in the West Wing to warn him that the tensions between Trump and Pence, which aides had tried to tamp down, was about to become public. Trump was going to turn on Pence and they might have a security risk because of it, Short said, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
The next morning, Jan. 6, with his adult children and aides milling around the Oval Office, Trump called the vice president’s residence to push one last time. Just before Pence headed to the Capitol, people familiar with the discussion said shortly afterward, Trump told him: “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy.”
Outside on the Ellipse, a fervently pro-Trump crowd was waiting.
‘Fight like Hell’
Like so many things during Trump’s time in the White House, it started with a tweet.
On Dec. 19, 2020, six weeks after losing the election, Trump took to Twitter and issued a call to his supporters to join him in Washington for a last-ditch rally to protest the results of the vote. A date was set for Jan. 6, 2021 — the day Congress would oversee the final certification of the count.
“Be there,” Trump wrote, “will be wild!”
The response online was huge and instantaneous. Within hours, the president’s words had been amplified by a network of right-wing activists and hard-core conservatives in Congress. In the offline world, pro-Trump organizers set to work obtaining permits and Port-a-Potties, and people across the country started to mobilize, making travel plans and arranging for hotel rooms.
Ultimately hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters descended on Washington that day and many listened to the president deliver an incendiary speech at the Ellipse near the White House. They heard his claims that the election had been stolen and his encouragement to “fight like hell” to save the country. Thousands heeded his call to march from the Ellipse to the Capitol.
While only a fraction of these people eventually took part in the riot that erupted, investigators — both in Congress and in the Justice Department — have been focused on an array of questions that concern the crowd. How did it come together? Who, aside from Trump, helped direct it toward the Capitol? And how was it transformed into a violent mob?
The inquiries remain ongoing but have touched on a sprawling cast of characters: figures in the White House and the Trump campaign; Stop the Steal activists; members of Congress allied with Trump; and far-right extremist groups that placed themselves at the forefront of the action. As prosecutors have repeatedly pointed out, a significant role was also played by more ordinary people who had no affiliations with right-wing organizations. Court records show, in fact, that those who acted most violently on Jan. 6 were in many ways those with the most ordinary backgrounds.
One of the earliest public calls to march on the Capitol was posted on Twitter on Dec. 16, 2020 — three days before Trump’s more famous tweet — by Tina Forte, a self-described ‘America First Patriot’ running in this year’s Republican primary in New York for the chance to face Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Forte’s post — she said it was a screenshot of a Facebook invitation — announced what was billed as a ‘Patriots United March on Congress’ at noon on Jan. 6, well before most organizers were discussing such a thing. The invitation, which has since been removed from Facebook, appears to be connected to an organization called the Patriot Party Inc. in Florida. A representative listed in the group’s incorporation papers did not return a phone call seeking comment.
While Forte’s post got only a couple of hundred retweets, Trump’s announcement of a Jan. 6 event shot around the internet.
Ten minutes after it went up, Michael Coudrey, an associate of the Stop the Steal activist Ali Alexander, reposted it with more than 5,000 retweets. The right-wing media outlet Gateway Pundit soon published an article about the tweet and a similar video that Trump released that night. Trump’s social media guru, Dan Scavino, posted the article on Twitter and soon had more than 20,000 retweets.
The amplification continued all that day with posts from groups such as MAGA Drag the Interstate (‘Beyond Ready!’) and pro-Trump figures including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. (“I’m planning a little something on Jan. 6 as well.”) On an online forum called TheDonald.win, reactions to Trump’s tweet were particularly violent. In the days that followed, people on the site posted information on how to bring guns to Washington, maps of tunnels under the Capitol, even specifications for a guillotine.
Among those who reacted most forcefully to Trump’s tweet were members of far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters militia movement. Court papers show that many of them sprang into action within days, even hours, acquiring protective gear, setting up private channels of communication and, in one case, readying heavily armed “quick reaction forces” to be staged outside of Washington. (Leaders of both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have been indicted on federal charges of seditious conspiracy for their roles on Jan. 6.)
Trump’s announcement of the Jan. 6 event also ignited a scramble among organizers who quickly broke into two broad camps with very different views about how to plan the rally.
On one side was a group called Women for America First that was loosely allied with the White House and had played a central role in two previous large-scale pro-Trump rallies in Washington, in November and December 2020. Women for America First, led by a mother-and-daughter team, Amy and Kylie Kremer, wanted to situate the Jan. 6 event at the Ellipse and focus on speeches by Trump and members of Congress.
On the other side was a group of organizers led by Alexander and one of his chief allies, Alex Jones, who runs the conspiracy theory media outlet Infowars. Alexander and Jones had appeared at a series of their own events around the country in the run-up to Jan. 6 and often used a more aggressive style of rhetoric.
They ended up amid the crowd that marched from the Ellipse to the Capitol that day, using a bullhorn to encourage people with shouts of “1776!” Jones later claimed that “the White House” had informed him three days before the Ellipse event that he was supposed to lead the march and that Trump would follow.
While these two warring factions have often been the focus of attention, another group of lesser-known organizers also had rallies planned at the Capitol on Jan. 6. That group included the organizations Latinos for Trump and the Virginia Freedom Keepers, which oppose vaccine and mask mandates. The anti-vaccine activists Ty and Charlene Bollinger were also involved in the same event on the east side of the Capitol.
All of these activists had a few things in common: They were all participants in a private group chat on the encrypted app Signal called FOS or Friends of Stone, a reference to Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime adviser. Their joint event at the Capitol was also protected by members of the Oath Keepers, who were guarding Stone that day as well.
Moreover, a week before Jan. 6, some members of these groups took part in a conference call where a communications expert named Jason Sullivan had encouraged them to “descend on the Capitol” and pressure lawmakers not to certify the election. Sullivan, who once worked for Stone, told his listeners on the call that Trump intended to impose a “limited form” of martial law on Jan. 6 and that Biden would never enter the White House.
Stone has denied any involvement in the Capitol attack.
Soon after Trump told the crowd on the Ellipse that “you will never take back our country with weakness,” rioters, believing Trump’s lie of a stolen election, stormed the Capitol with Pence inside, erected a gallows, and forced lawmakers to evacuate in a scene of violence and mayhem.
As a mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” Eastman, the lawyer who had been pushing the plan to block or delay the certification, sent a hostile message to Jacob, Pence’s counsel, blaming the vice president for the violence.
“The ‘siege’ is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary to allow this to be aired in a public way so that the American people can see for themselves what happened,” Eastman wrote.
Even though Trump had promised the crowd that he would join them at the Capitol, he instead returned to the White House. As he watched the riot unfold on television, Republican members of Congress, former administration officials, Fox News personalities and even the president’s own son sent Meadows text messages imploring the president to stop the violence.
“Fix this now,” Rep. Chip Roy of Texas wrote.
“TELL THEM TO GO HOME !!!” said Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff.
As the riot played out, Meadows left the dining room off the Oval Office where Trump was watching on television, walked into his own office and told colleagues that Trump was complaining that the vice president was being whisked to safety.
Meadows, according to an account provided to the House committee investigating Jan. 6, then told the colleagues that Trump had said something to the effect of, maybe Pence should be hanged.
It took more than three hours for Trump to tell the mob to disperse.
In a video posted on Twitter, Trump told his supporters that there had been “an election that was stolen from us,” but that it was time for them to go home peacefully. “We love you,” he said. “You’re very special.”
-New York Times