At last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the Republican Party tried to rewrite history, in this case very recent history. Seven panels at the event were dedicated to the thoroughly-debunked assertion that Joe Biden is not a legitimate president, including "Other Culprits: Why Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence" and "The Left Pulled the Strings, Covered It Up, and Even Admits It." Trump mined The Big Lie in his keynote speech, claiming that "this election was rigged," that the Democrats had "just lost the White House," that "I may even decide to beat them a third time" in the 2024 presidential race.
One thing Trump didn't address at CPAC was the insurrection he incited on January 6.
The GOP's ongoing attempt to avoid blame for the seditionist uprising while doubling down on the messaging that caused it is a grave disservice to our fragile democracy. We owe it to ourselves—and to future generations—to get the history right. Following are known facts (so far).
Prior to January 6, 2021, the official electoral college vote certification was a purely ceremonial ritual. The 2021 certification was fraught with violence and division because of the disinformation promulgated by Donald Trump and his allies in state legislatures, Congress, and right-wing media.
After riling up Republican voters for two months with craven lies about the election having been stolen, the GOP arranged one final, grand charade: a "Stop the Steal" rally followed by a "Save America March." The rally and the march were a prelude to the formal challenge by 13 Republican senators and 140 House members to Joe Biden's seven million-ballot win. The challenge, led by senators keen on appealing to the Republican base in 2024 presidential runs, would consist of regurgitated claims rejected for lack of evidence in 60 judicial cases, by both Democratic and Republican judges, including numerous judges appointed by Trump.
Sensing trouble, Washington D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser requested National Guard backup, but Trump's Defense Department handcuffed the Guard's mission. According to Paul Sonne, Peter Hermann, and Missy Ryan of the Washington Post, "the Pentagon prohibited the District's guardsmen from receiving ammunition or riot gear, interacting with protesters unless necessary for self-defense, sharing equipment with local law enforcement, or using Guard surveillance and air assets without the defense secretary's explicit sign-off." In a directive that would have disastrous consequences, "The D.C. Guard was also told it would be allowed to deploy a quick-reaction force only as a measure of last resort," which in effect forced local D.C. officials to get a sign-off from Trump's Defense Department for rapid deployment, a bureaucratic hurdle which hadn't existed previously.
On the day of the certification, Trump called vice president Mike Pence, who would preside over the ceremony, and told him, "You can either go down in history as a patriot…or you can go down in history as a pussy."
Pence chose to go down in history as a patriot. Just before the count began, he released a public letter stating the obvious—that he lacked the constitutional authority to unilaterally decide which electoral votes to accept or reject.
Concerns about The U.S. Constitution and long-established democratic precedent were absent from the speeches at Trump's rally on the Mall, which preyed on right-wing victimhood and included numerous incitements to violence. Leading things off, Republican representative Mo Brooks said, "Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass!" Referring to congressional Republicans who intended to honor the election results by not challenging Biden's legitimate win, Donald Trump, Jr. said, "We're coming for you, and we're going to have a good time doing it" and that if they didn't change their minds and oppose certification "I'm gonna be in your backyard in a couple of months." Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told the crowd, "Let's have trial by combat," which was "an eerie reference to battles to the death in the series 'Game of Thrones.'"
Talking tough from behind bulletproof glass, Trump spewed a litany of baseless assertions about the election, "used the words 'fight' or 'fighting' at least 20 times," said "You'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength. You have to be strong," and finished with a call to action:
"We will never give up; we will never concede….We will stop the steal. We're going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, and we're going to the Capitol…We're going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones…the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country."
As could be expected, the violent rhetoric whipped the MAGA-ites into a frenzy. After traversing Pennsylvania Avenue, a crowd of 8,000, some equipped with "riot helmets, gas masks, shields, pepper spray, fireworks, climbing gear...explosives, metal pipes, [and] baseball bats," arrived at the Capitol.
Just before 2 p.m., Trump supporters—heavily represented by right-wing hate groups, inlaid with former members of law enforcement and the military—busted through a police line to storm the Capitol, the first hostile takeover of America's seat of government since 1814.
Once inside, the insurrectionists stopped the certification of Biden's victory, assaulted Capitol police officers, attacked journalists, traumatized members of Congress and congressional aides, and contributed to multiple members of Congress getting COVID-19.
Some of the insurrectionists carried zip-tie handcuffs or weapons and targeted the offices of specific members of Congress in hopes of kidnapping them, or worse. There were allegations that plotters may have had help from Republican representatives or members of the Capitol police force.
Because local officials' authority to call for backup had been taken away one day before the certification, it was left to Capitol police chief Steven Sund to beg Trump administration officials in the Department of Defense (DOD) for backup. Trump's DOD stonewalled Sund. Lieutenant General Walter Piatt reportedly told Sund he didn't like "the optics" of "having armed military personnel on the grounds of the Capitol," though the DOD had deployed armed military personnel at peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in June.
Several Republicans, including senator Lindsey Graham, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, and former advisor Kellyanne Conway called the White House after the breach to try to get Trump to act, but Trump wasn't taking calls at first because he was wrapped up in watching the attempted coup he'd fomented on TV. As one aide told a reporter, "'He was hard to reach, and you know why? Because it was live TV….If it's TiVo, he just hits pause and takes the calls. If it's live TV, he watches it, and he was just watching it all unfold.'"
According to Republican congressional representative Jamie Herrera Beutler, who was with Kevin McCarthy, "When McCarthy finally reached the president on January 6 and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the president initially repeated the falsehood that it was anti-fascists that had breached the Capitol….McCarthy refuted that and told the president that these were Trump supporters. That's when, according to McCarthy, the president said: 'Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.'"
This was of a piece with a report from Republican senator Ben Sasse that Trump was "confused about why other people on his team weren't as excited as he was as you had rioters pushing against Capitol Police trying to get into the building." Sasse also mentioned that Trump was talking to the other people in the room about "a path by which he was going to stay in office after January 20."
While lawmakers hid from rioters, Trump called Republican senator Tommy Tuberville, to push Tuberville to obstruct the electoral college vote certification whenever it could safely resume. (Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani would make a call to Republican senator Mike Lee, later in the day, with the same purpose). When Trump reached Tuberville, around 2:15 p.m., he was notified that Mike Pence and his family had been whisked away from the Senate floor.
Despite his knowledge of the threat to the vice president's safety, at 2:24 p.m., while "America Firsters and other invaders fanned out in search of lawmakers, breaking into offices and reveling in their own astounding impunity," Trump tweeted that "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!"
As former Trump ally Mitch McConnell would later say at Trump's impeachment trial, the president "kept pressing his scheme to overturn the election. Even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice President Pence was in serious danger, even as the mob carrying Trump banners was beating cops and breaching perimeters, the president sent a further tweet attacking his own vice president."
Trump made half-hearted attempts to defuse the situation with tweets at 2:38 ("Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!") and 3:13 p.m. ("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!").
Pressured by aides when these tweets had no discernible impact on the rioters, Trump released a slightly more forceful video plea two hours into the breach, but even then, he fed the ill-founded rage at the heart of the insurrection:
"It was a landslide election. And everyone knows it. Especially the other side. But you have to go home. … There's never been a time like this when such a thing happened when they could take it away from all of us. From me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election. … Go home. We love you. You're very special."
The Capitol was finally cleared at 5:34 p.m., three-and-a-half hours after it had been breached. Over $30 million dollars in damage was done to the citadel of American democracy. 146 police officers sustained injuries and seven people would end up dead, including three Capitol police officers—one of whom was an Iraq War vet who had been bashed in the head with a fire extinguisher, and two others who would later commit suicide. If not for the bravery of the Capitol police, the toll would have been even worse, as rioters came within a hair's breadth of getting their hands on Mike Pence and members of Congress.
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!"
Ultimately, the insurrection was unsuccessful. Once the Capitol was secured, Congress certified Joe Biden's win, despite the objections of 2/3rds of House Republicans and eight Republican senators who came out of hiding to pimp the false election fraud narrative which had jeopardized their safety just hours earlier.
In the two weeks between the election certification and Joe Biden's inauguration, U.S. taxpayers were stuck with a $480 million tab to secure the Capitol, as 25,000 National Guard members were sent to D.C.
The most concise summation of January 6 came from rock-ribbed Republican Liz Cheney, the daughter of ultra-conservative former vice president Dick Cheney and the chair of the House GOP Conference who voted with Trump 93% of the time during his four years in office. On the eve of the January 13 House of Representatives vote to impeach Trump for inciting a riot, Cheney released a statement:
"On January 6, 2021 a violent mob attacked the United States Capitol to obstruct the process of our democracy and stop the counting of presidential electoral votes. This insurrection caused injury, death and destruction in the most sacred space in our Republic.
"Much more will become clear in coming days and weeks, but what we know now is enough. The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution."
Sadly, Cheney's matter-of-fact statement was as brave as it was rare. With the exception of a very small number of congressional Republicans who supported impeachment (10 in the House, six in the Senate), the party has tried to bury January 6, to pretend that it never happened.
Since one of our two major political parties is AWOL in its oversight role, it is incumbent on Congressional Democrats to nut up and make a 9/11-style commission with aggressive subpoena powers become reality. If the U.S. is to remain a functioning democracy, American citizens need a full accounting of everything that happened on January 6, 2021—whether Donald Trump likes it or not.
Dan Benbow has been an online political features writer since 2003. His work has appeared at Salon, Buzzflash, RawStory, AlterNet, BeyondChron, GetUnderground/Kotori Magazine, and his boutique blog, Truth and Beauty. He can be followed @danbenbow on Twitter.