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We’re still piecing together the fragments of reports, pictures, and videos from the harrowing siege of the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, an event that threatened to upend democratic governance and dashed hopes for a peaceful transfer of power. As new information had come forward, the attack on Congress during the counting of the Electoral College votes look even more coordinated and dangerous than it initially appeared.
And as the push for a second impeachment of the president gains steams, Donald Trump’s role in the attack is coming into focus.
One of the drafts of articles of impeachment, titled “Incitement of Insurrection,” charges: “Donald John Trump engaged in high Crimes and Misdemeanors by willfully inciting violence against the Government of the United States.” It adds:
This is all true and persuasive — even former Trump allies such as ex-Chief of Staff John Kelly said: “What happened on Capitol Hill yesterday is a direct result of his poisoning the minds of people with the lies and the frauds.” Kelly said that were he back in the Cabinet, he would vote in favor of using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump for this conduct.
But inevitably, Trump’s defenders will say it’s unfair to accuse him of inciting something he couldn’t control. He didn’t explicitly say the rioters should disrupt Congress’s counting of the Electoral College votes, and we can’t know what he really intended, they’ll say, so it would be unjust to impeach him on these grounds. They made very similar arguments during the first impeachment.
To counter this argument, however, Democrats could appeal to the clear timeline of events that shows Trump doing more than just inciting a riot or insurrection. The sequence of events provides indications of Trump’s intentions and paints them in an unflattering light. More than simply inciting a crowd to violence, his conduct is better understood as another former ally — ex-Attorney General Bill Barr, of all people — described it: “Orchestrating a mob to pressure Congress.”
Here’s the series of events:
- On Dec. 1, Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling demanded an end to the president’s attacks on the process. He said: “Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed.”
- Ahead of Jan. 6, Trump promoted disinformation about the election being stolen and encouraged his supporters to rally at the counting of the Electoral College votes. He could have had the rally anywhere — he has rallies all over the country — but he intentionally chose Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Capitol. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Dec. 19. “Be there, will be wild!”
- Right-wing figures online spread the idea of an attack on Congress in the days preceding the event. The New York Times reported: “[T]he term ‘Storm the Capitol’ was mentioned 100,000 times in the 30 days preceding Jan. 6, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company. Many of these mentions appeared in viral tweet threads that discussed the possible storming of the Capitol and included details on how to enter the building.” It not clear if Trump knew of this talk, but he was actively stoking the plans for Jan. 6, and he often retweeted far-right and conspiratorial figures on Twitter.
- On Jan. 2, Trump ally Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas actively called for violence on Newsmax. He said: “But if bottom line is, the court is saying, ‘We’re not going to touch this. You have no remedy’ — basically, in effect, the ruling would be that you gotta go the streets and be as violent as Antifa and BLM.”
- On Jan. 5, the New York Times reported that Vice President Mike Pence had told Trump he could not overturn the results of the election on Jan. 6 during the count of the votes, as Trump had hoped and repeatedly claimed. That same night, Trump released a statement that denied the story, though other outlets would corroborate it. CNN reported that “the President repeatedly warned with ‘thinly veiled threats’ to Pence that he would suffer major political consequences if he refused to cooperate.”
- Trump tweeted at 1 a.m. on Jan. 6: “If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency. Many States want to decertify the mistake they made in certifying incorrect & even fraudulent numbers in a process NOT approved by their State Legislatures (which it must be). Mike can send it back!”
- On the morning of Jan. 6, Trump held a “Save America” rally. GOP Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama spoke, echoing Trump’s claims about the election, and saying it was time for “patriots” to “take names and kick ass.” Rudy Giuliani says it’s time for “trial by combat.”
- Finally, Trump spoke beginning around noon, about an hour before the counting of the Electoral College votes is to begin in Congress. He said:
- “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength. You have to be strong.”
- “Fight like hell”
- “We’re going to have to fight much harder and Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us.”
- “Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore and that’s what this is all about.”
- “We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Ave … and we’re going to the Capitol. … But and we’re going to [try] and give our Republicans — the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help — we’re to try and give them kind of pride and boldness they need to take back our country.”
- Around the time Trump finished up his speech and sending his supporters to the Capitol after 1 p.m., Pence released a statement saying he won’t change the result of the election. Congress began the process of counting the votes.
- While this was going on, Trump supporters at the building were already beginning to clash with the police, first arriving at 12:40 p.m., according to the Washington Post. The Post reported that the Capitol was breached at 1:59 p.m. Lawmakers and aides scrambled to hide and lockdown to protect themselves from the rioters, as an overwhelmed Capitol Police force found itself unable to contain the insurrection.
- Some of the rioters chanted: “Hang Mike Pence.” Reuters reporter Jim Bourg said three rioters claimed they intended to do just that.
- According to CNN, Trump called GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, meaning to speak to Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville, “shortly after 2 p.m.” The senators were in lockdown because of the invasion. CNN reported: “Tuberville spoke with Trump for less than 10 minutes, with the President trying to convince him to make additional objections to the Electoral College vote in a futile effort to block Congress’ certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s win, according to a source familiar with the call. The call was cut off because senators were asked to move to a secure location.”
- Then, at 2:24 p.m., while the riot was still ongoing, Trump tweeted out: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”
- At 2:38 p.m., Trump tweeted: “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!” Some videos show the rioters were telling police that they should be on the same side.
- At 3:13 p.m., Trump tweeted again: “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order – respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!” Neither time did he mention the safety of the lawmakers nor the vice president. And he did not tell the rioters to leave the Capitol, which they had criminally broken into.
- At some point during the breach, Trump spoke to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on the phone. According to Jake Sherman of Punchbowl News, the pair “got into a screaming match … as an enraged mob of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol, according to a source familiar with the episode. McCarthy, one of the president’s closest allies in Congress, demanded that Trump release a statement denouncing the mob. Initially, Trump would not agree to do it.” McCarthy, clearly distressed by the attack, said on ABC News, “I called the President … I begged him to go talk to the nation.”
- At 3:40 p.m., New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman reported: “Nearly every denunciation of the violence from the president or his daughter or the president’s lawyer has included language giving members of the rioting mob a permission structure. Ivanka Trump called them ‘patriots,’ Giuliani tells them they’re on the right side of history.”
- At 3:40 p.m., she tweeted: “Per people close to the White House, several official and unofficial aides are trying – without success – to get the president to issue a stronger statement. He simply won’t do it. He’s been furious at Pence for refusing to do something he doesn’t have power to do and that’s that.”
- At 4:17 p.m., Trump posted a Twitter video asking his people to go home. However, the video included more of his false claims about the stolen election, continuing to justify their assault. And he said he “loved” his supporters at the Capitol and that they were “very special.”
- At 6:01 p.m., Trump tweeted: “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. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
- Giuliani called Sen. Lee around 7 p.m., leaving a message for Tuberville, again asking him to delay the counting of the Electoral College votes. Lee turned a copy of that recording over to the Dispatch.
- Shortly before 4 a.m. on Jan. 7, Congress finished counting the votes and declared Joe Biden the winner.
But the timeline as laid out above tells a clear story. Trump and his allies spread false information about the election for weeks, even though they were warned it was dangerous. Their rhetoric became more heated and incendiary. Trump organized around the Jan. 6 date as his followers became increasingly radicalized, and he placed public pressure on Pence to overturn the election, even though he was told repeatedly the vice president had no such power. When he riled up the crowd on Jan. 6, he had already reportedly been told that Pence would not be doing what he wanted — but he set his supporters up for disappointment anyway. Then, once the Capitol was breached, he continued making his demands — to Pence on Twitter and to Tuberville over the phone — to do his bidding and overturn the election. When he talks to McCarthy, he forced him to beg to call off the rioters. Despite repeated requests for him to call off the mob, which he could have done with a single tweet, he refused for multiple hours.
Multiple reports, from Haberman as well as GOP Sen. Ben Sasse, describe Trump as being enthusiastic or “delighted” while the siege of the Capitol unfolded.
This shows that what Trump was doing was more than just incitement. He was using the mob and the storming of the Capitol for a targeted purpose. He hoped he could use it to pressure Congress and the vice president into overturning the result of the election. He even admitted his plan openly, telling the crowd, “We’re going to have to fight much harder and Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us” and, “We’re going to try and give our Republicans — the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help — we’re to try and give them kind of pride and boldness they need to take back our country.”
Eventually, he relented, as it became clear his plan wasn’t working, his allies were turning on him, and he faced serious legal exposure. But the damage to democracy was done, many were injured and traumatized, and five people, including one member of the Capitol Police, were killed in the chaos.