Today marks the one-year anniversary of a violent assault on the seat of U.S. democracy.
Like most one-year-olds who get scolded for bad behavior, Republicans aren’t owning up to their role in the insurrection. With the exception of a handful of brave souls who are willing to risk losing their seats for the greater good, congressional Republicans are either pretending January 6 never happened or spinning a fantastical victim narrative where the insurrection was a mere “protest” and the Big Bad Democrats (and Liz Cheney) are being unfair to their twice-impeached, one-term president. Right-wing media is singing from the same hymnal, feeding mass denial among the Republican base, two-thirds of whom still can’t accept that Biden won legitimately.
Numerous Republicans involved in the attack on democracy have refused to appear before the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack (hereafter referred to as “the January 6 committee”), gone to court to try to dictate the terms of their testimony, pleaded the 5th in front of the committee, withheld public documents, or sued to block phone records which could provide key details about the insurrection and Team Trump’s extensive efforts to overturn the will of the people.
Despite epic stonewalling of the committee, a clear picture of the Republican Party’s full ownership of January 6 has come into view. With each new revelation, the circle of collaborators widens to include numerous congressional Republicans, Trump operatives, and high-level members of the Trump administration.
In a world governed by facts, logic, and data, the insurrection—and the story you’re about to read—wouldn’t exist. No one who was paying attention to polling in the weeks before the 2020 election was surprised when Biden won.
It was apparent by the evening of Wednesday, November 4, less than 24 hours after polls closed on election day, that Donald Trump was going to lose. With Wisconsin and Michigan called for Joe Biden that day, and Arizona and the 2nd district of Nebraska before that, Biden only had to win Nevada to amass 270 electoral college votes. His chances of losing Nevada, an effectively blue state Democrats had won in the previous three election cycles, was remote, and Pennsylvania appeared to be a really good bet for Biden, based on Trump’s narrowing margin and the number of votes which remained to be counted in heavily-Democratic precincts.
The projections proved correct. On Saturday, November 7, 2020, Joe Biden was officially declared the winner of Pennsylvania and president-elect of the United States.
If anything, it was surprising that the election was even close, given that Biden had an 8.4% national lead on election day. A number of theories would emerge for why pollsters had failed so spectacularly for a second straight presidential election, but it was evident that record levels of culture war polarization stirred up by Donald Trump turned right-leaning whites out in droves, making Iowa and Ohio (which were predicted to be close) Republican blowouts, and Biden’s Wisconsin win far smaller than pollsters thought it would be. At the same time, racial divisiveness backfired among most young voters, suburban voters, and voters of color, driving Georgia and Arizona—states a Democratic presidential candidate hadn’t won since 1992 and 1996, respectively—to Joe Biden. The Democratic sweep of 2020 Senate races in these states proved that Biden’s wins were no fluke.
Though the results of the presidential election were orderly and predictable based on voter turnout demographics, Trump and his allies in state legislatures, Congress, the Republican Attorneys General Association, right-wing media, and social media were lethally effective in manipulating that polarization in the eight-and-a-half weeks between Trump’s loss and the insurrection.
In fact, Trump’s disinformation campaign began months before the election with constant claims that mail balloting was inherently corrupt and that the election would be “rigged” against him, an attempt to suppress a voting method preferred by many Democrats and pre-emptively delegitimize a potential loss at the polls. Trump repeated these baseless talking points with such mind-numbing repetition that most Republican voters took them seriously, prepping his followers to believe the many lies to come.
Outside of the right-wing echo chamber, it was common knowledge that Republican-leaning, in-person votes would be counted first in a lot of competitive states, creating a “red mirage” (the false impression that Trump was going to win), when the reality was that there would be a “blue shift” as more Democratic votes—mail votes in particular—were counted.
Preying on Republican voters’ programmed ignorance, Trump held a press conference early on the morning after election day where he claimed that his shrinking leads in competitive states were fraudulent, and said, “Frankly, we did win this election.” This would be the opening of a full-court press to steal the presidency through disinformation, dozens of frivolous lawsuits, abrupt personnel changes, abuse of executive powers, and pressure campaigns on state and local officials.
Later that day, November 4, Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows received a text (likely from Trump energy secretary Rick Perry) suggesting an “aggressive strategy” to hold the White House. The plan was to convince at least three Republican-controlled state legislatures to shatter long-standing legal precedent by tossing out the will of the voters and declaring their state’s electors for Trump.
Two days later, on November 6, a member of Congress texted Meadows with a similar proposal.
“I love it!”
Also on the 6th, Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona (who would later be tied to the January 6 “Save America” rally) sent out widely-shared tweets implying that his states’ tally was fraudulent due to vote-flipping on Dominion voting machines, a talking point that Republicans would milk to death—even though Trump’s lawyers knew the claim was false.
On November 9, Trump’s exceptionally loyal attorney general, William Barr, sent a directive to federal prosecutors which allowed them to ramp up voter fraud charges before state elections were certified, a change in Justice Department policy which prompted the resignation of Richard Pilger, who headed the department’s election crimes division.
On the same day, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper for not being “sufficiently loyal” (i.e. for refusing to deploy troops to American cities during the summer protests, among other apostasies). Trump replaced Esper with the underqualified Christopher Miller, who brought three Trump loyalists with him, including Kash Patel, a lawyer with no military experience.
This was an oddly consequential move for an outgoing administration to make. Suspicions were further aroused when two administration officials told the New York Times that Trump was considering firing FBI chief Christopher Wray and CIA head Gina Haspel too; Haspel reportedly told General Mark Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.”
According to I Alone Can Fix It by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Phillip Rucker, on or around November 10, Milley received a call referring to the likelihood that Trump and his allies would try to overturn the election. Milley responded that, “They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed” because “You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns.”
Speaking at a military installation in Virginia the following day (Veteran’s Day), Milley told the assembled crowd, “We do not take an oath to a king or queen, or tyrant or dictator, we do not take an oath to an individual….We take an oath to the Constitution, and every soldier that is represented in this museum—every sailor, airman, marine, coastguard—each of us protects and defends that document, regardless of personal price.”
One public official who paid a personal price for following the Constitution was Republican Chris Krebs, the Trump-appointed head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. On November 18, Trump fired Krebs by tweet because he’d had the gall to fact-check false claims of election fraud online and had gotten off-message by publicly sharing his observation that 2020 was “the most secure election in American history.”
Later that day, after pressure from Trump, the two Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers (covering Detroit, which is 78% Black) tried to rescind their certifications of the county’s vote totals. They were denied in these efforts, which would have only delayed the obvious, given Biden’s 154,000-vote margin of victory in Michigan.
Unwilling to let objective reality get in the way of raw power, on November 19 Trump’s attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sydney Powell had a surreal hair dye-dripping press conference in which they served up several false and misleading claims to try to pressure the Justice Department to open “a full-scale criminal investigation” of the election. (Four months later, when Powell was sued by Dominion, who manufactured the voting machines which Powell said had produced fraudulent vote tallies, Powell’s lawyers defended their client by claiming that “no reasonable person” would have believed Powell’s attacks on Dominion.)
On November 20, Trump continued his campaign to flip states he’d lost when he invited Republican representatives from Michigan’s state legislature to the White House. Trump was unable to cow them into submission because there was no legal way for Republicans to overcome Biden’s 154,000-vote victory in the state. After the meeting, the Michigan representatives made a joint statement to the press in which they said, “We have not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan and as legislative leaders, we will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan's electors, just as we have said throughout this election.”
With Michigan a long shot, Trump turned his attention to Pennsylvania. On November 25, Trump conferenced in from the White House to a hearing/publicity stunt in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani issued—and Trump backed—debunked claims about voter fraud in that state.
Trump later invited key Pennsylvania legislators to the White House. Joining Trump was Phil Waldron, a retired Army colonel who would circulate a PowerPoint presentation chockfull of outlandish conspiracy theories to Mark Meadows and Republican members of Congress. Waldron would later say that he spoke with Mark Meadows “maybe eight to ten times” between election day and the insurrection.
False claims continued on November 29, when Trump spewed election lies and whined about the FBI and the Justice Department in an interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo. (Bartiromo would later be sued for promulgating disinformation about the presidential election).
Trump’s favored narrative took a major hit on December 1, when Attorney General William Barr told an AP reporter, “we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome of the election.” According to reporter Jonathan Karl, Barr felt that Trump’s fraud allegations were “all bullshit,” but he’d agreed to the investigations to “appease his boss.”
Barr’s boss was busy on December 5, as he tried to muscle conservative Republican governor Brian Kemp into throwing out Georgia’s electors and pressured the Republican head of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Bryan Cutler, to do the same in his state.
Convincing Republicans in at least three swing states Joe Biden had won to send alternate slates of electors, or toss out electors for Biden, was Trump’s only chance. If neither presidential candidate amassed 270 electoral college votes, the election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, where Republicans had a majority of the state delegations. If put into action, this plan would have allowed Trump to stay in office by effectively nullifying the presidential election and the votes of 159,000,000 Americans.
Twenty of Biden’s electoral college votes were in Pennsylvania. Trump’s maneuvering to overcome an 80,000-vote loss in that state was set back on December 8, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit claiming a measure passed by Pennsylvania’s Republican legislature to expand mail voting had been unconstitutional.
By the end of December 9, the District of Columbia and all 50 states had certified their vote totals, and Biden’s win.
Though Attorney General William Barr had already issued his finding that Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, Trump poked him again on December 10 with a retweet asking for a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of fraud.
Chaos was averted on December 11. Trump planned to fire CIA director Gina Haspel’s deputy director and replace him with the woefully-underqualified Kash Patel (see November 9 entry) in order to install a loyalist near the top of the CIA. As with the post-election firing of Defense Secretary Mike Esper, this would be a significant and confusing move for a lame duck administration to make.
In response, Haspel told Trump she would resign if her deputy was let go. Following the meeting, Trump got together with Mike Pence and other senior aides who recommended keeping Haspel happy, so Trump left Haspel’s deputy in place.
Another one of Trump’s machinations was thwarted when the U.S. Supreme Court tossed a lawsuit by the state of Texas challenging results in four other states, saying Texas did not have “a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another state conducts its elections.”
December 14 should have put an end to Trump’s efforts to steal the 2020 presidential election. On that day, the Electoral College met and certified Joe Biden’s win. According to Biden, seven Republican senators called to congratulate him. Trump allies Mitch McConnell, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Vladimir Putin publicly congratulated the president-elect.
While some Republicans in swing states won by Biden engaged in kabuki theater by appointing legally-meaningless alternate electors, Trump continued his efforts to subvert democracy. As reported by CNN, “Trump's assistant sent [deputy attorney general Jeff] Rosen and [Justice Department] official Richard Donoghue a document claiming to show voter fraud in Antrim County, Michigan. An aide to Donoghue forwarded the document to the US Attorneys for the Eastern and Western Districts in Michigan. Less than an hour later, Trump tweeted that [Attorney General William] Barr would be leaving the Justice Department just before Christmas, elevating both Rosen and Donoghue to the top spots at [the Justice Department].”
The day after the electoral college validated Biden’s win, December 15, Trump tweeted, “This Fake Election can no longer stand” and invited Jeff Rosen to the Oval Office, where he pressured his next attorney general to put Justice Department backing behind election lawsuits, 61 of 62 of which would be rejected by Democratic and Republican judges, including Trump appointees.
A document dated December 17 would later become a potential smoking gun in the investigation of the coup attempt. Included in a privilege log provided to the January 6 committee by the attorney for Bernard Kerik (see January 4 entry), the withheld document was titled, “DRAFT LETTER FROM POTUS TO SEIZE EVIDENCE IN THE INTEREST OF NATIONAL SECURITY FOR THE 2020 ELECTIONS.”
The timing and presumed content of the document dovetailed neatly with the meeting Trump held with top advisors on December 18. According to CNN, a screaming match took place in the Oval Office between those who supported the rule of law and those who did not. Firmly in the latter category was Trump’s former national security advisor, convicted felon Michael Flynn, who had recently said that Trump should declare martial law, seize voting machines, and force a new election. Not surprisingly, two of the suggestions which came up at the Oval Office were that Trump declare a national emergency (which could be used as a justification for martial law) and that Lin Wood (see November 19 entry) be named Special Counsel to investigate voting machines, which would require approval from the attorney general. In an interview with Rachel Maddow this week, Politico reporter Nicholas Wu said of the overlap between the December 17 document and the controversial topics discussed on December 18, “It’s unclear exactly if these two things are linked, but…that’s quite a coincidence.”
On December 19, according to reporters Kaitlin Collins, Kevin Liptak, and Pamela Brown, “Trump's campaign legal team sent a memo to dozens of staffers…instructing them to preserve all documents related to Dominion Voting Systems and Sidney Powell in anticipation of potential litigation by the company against the pro-Trump attorney.”
The same day, Trump tweeted “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
The drumbeat of propaganda continued on December 21, when Trump tweeted that he’d “won in a landslide” and “[needed] backing from the Justice Department,” and December 22, when he tweeted a video with the claim that “The rigging of the 2020 election was only the final step in the Democrats’ and the media’s yearslong effort to overthrow the will of the American people.”
Attorney General William Barr resigned on December 23.
On December 26, Trump tweeted more lies about the election (calling it “the biggest SCAM in our nation’s history”), attacked the FBI, the Justice Department, and the courts for following the rule of law, and referenced his January 6 rally. He also called Frances Watson, the top elections investigator in the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, and employed flattery to try to get her to take another look at the ballots in a state he’d lost by over 11,000 votes.
As the date of congressional certification grew closer, Trump became increasingly desperate. On December 27, he pressured his new Attorney General, Jeff Rosen, to review “election fraud” in Pennsylvania and Arizona that William Barr had already found to be inconsequential. Rosen reportedly told Trump that the Department of Justice “can’t, and won’t, just flip a switch and change the election.” In response, Trump told Rosen to “just say that the election was corrupt” and “leave the rest to me and the [Republican] congressmen.”
Trump also tried to get Rosen to sign on to a lawsuit (which had already been rejected by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel) asking the Supreme Court to toss out electoral college votes in six states Trump lost and order a “special election.”
Trump wasn’t the only one badgering Rosen. Trump loyalist Jeffrey Clark (the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division in the Department of Justice) made five cracks at Rosen, trying to get him to challenge election results in key states lost by Trump.
Rosen’s second-in-command also felt the heat. Coaxed by Trump, Pennsylvania representative Scott Perry called Richard Donoghue, the Deputy Attorney General, to try to get the Justice Department to review debunked voter fraud claims in Pennsylvania. In addition, Perry tried to convince Donoghue to grant more power to Trump loyalist Jeffrey Clark to look at election results. (Perry would later duck the January 6 committee, citing his devotion to “the rule of law.”)
On December 28, Clark peddled conspiracy theories around the Justice Department and sent a message to Jeff Rosen and Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue requesting their sign-off on a letter which asked Georgia’s Republican legislature to call a special session to investigate election “irregularities” and choose a slate of electors for Trump. Donoghue responded via email that signing such a letter was “not even in the realm of possibility.”
Mark Meadows did his part on December 29 when he urged Rosen and Donoghue to consider the right-wing myth that the number of votes cast in Pennsylvania was larger than the number of registered voters and to take a look at “Italygate” (a theory that Biden supporters in Italy had used satellites to change a massive number of votes in several swing states from Trump to Biden).
Meanwhile, Trump’s personal assistant Molly Michael emailed Rosen, Donoghue, and Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall a legal complaint baselessly claiming that the six swing states Trump had lost by the narrowest margins (NV, WI, PA, MI, GA, AZ) had violated the Electors Clause of the Constitution, with a request to file a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The following day, December 30, Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon called the president and suggested he lure Mike Pence back to Washington (from a skiing vacation) in order to pressure him about the January 6 certification, in hopes that they could “kill the Biden presidency in the crib.”
As Trump worked on Pence, presidential aspirant Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, made a savvy play for future Republican primary voters when he became the first senator to announce his intent to object to electors for Joe Biden on January 6.
Trump’s minions continued to pressure the Justice Department. In two of five known emails Mark Meadows sent to the DOJ asking them to review far-out conspiracy theories, Trump’s chief of staff that day sent Justice officials disinformation about Italygate and alleged voter fraud in Fulton County, Georgia. (Meadows also forwarded debunked conspiracy theories to “the FBI, Pentagon, National Security Council, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.”)
Trump’s outside attorney, Kurt Olsen, called Jeff Rosen and said that Trump expected him to file Molly Michael’s Supreme Court lawsuit (see December 29 entry) by noon that day. Rosen refused to comply.
Unable to get the new Attorney General to do his bidding, Trump invited Rosen and Donoghue to the White House on New Year’s Eve. At the meeting, Trump reportedly said that he was considering replacing Rosen with Jeffrey Clark because Rosen hadn’t been aggressive enough in investigating alleged voter fraud.
On January 1, 2021, Rosen received a 13-minute YouTube video about Italygate from Mark Meadows and a Trump-appointed judge in Texas rejected Arizona representative Louie Gohmert’s lawsuit claiming Mike Pence could pick and choose which electors to accept.
January 2, 2021 was a big day in the annals of failed election theft.
Eleven Republican senators, including former and likely future presidential candidate Ted Cruz, made a joint statement in which they referred to ill-defined fraud and advocated “an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states.” The senators’ public pretense was that the audit was necessary in order to assuage millions of Americans who had doubts about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Polls cited showed that one-third of independents, two-thirds of Republicans, and 39% of all voters held the baseless belief that the election had been “rigged.”
In plain English, the senators were contending that since four out of every 10 Americans were gullible enough to believe ludicrous Republican lies about the election, a 10-day “audit” giving Republicans more openings to spread ludicrous lies about the election to gullible Americans was necessary in order to “restore faith in American Democracy.”
While his congressional sycophants stretched irony past the breaking point, Trump made a heavy-handed attempt to flip Georgia. During an infamous hour-long conference call, Trump tried to bully conservative Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into “[finding] 11,780 votes” for him—just enough to give Trump Georgia’s 16 electoral college votes.
Trump also called 300 state legislators, telling them they could overrule the will of the voters in their states.
In another Justice Department setback for Trump, Jeff Rosen wrote Jeffrey Clark back and asserted, as his second-in-command Richard Donoghue had on December 28, that he was “not prepared to sign” a letter asking Georgia’s Republican legislature to investigate alleged fraud and send an alternative slate of electors for Trump.
On January 3, 2021, Mark Meadows received a text which said, “I heard Jeff Clark is [going to replace Jeff Rosen] on Monday [January 4]. That's amazing. It will make a lot of patriots happy, and I'm personally so proud that you are at the tip of the spear, and I could call you a friend.”
Because Rosen insisted on following the rule of law, Trump held a meeting that Sunday with Clark, Rosen, and Donoghue to decide if he wanted to replace Rosen with Clark, who would be certain to abuse the powers of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to try to push voter fraud lies and pressure Georgia to give their electors to Trump. This was one of nine times Trump tried to get his DOJ to undermine democracy, according to a Democratic Senate Judiciary report.
Rosen told congressional investigators that Trump began the meeting by saying, “One thing we know is you, Rosen, aren't going to do anything to overturn the election,” and implied that he could keep his job if he agreed to send Jeffrey Clark’s letter to Georgia legislators.
Trump backed off of his threat to replace Rosen after “Donoghue and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel Steve Engel made clear that there would be mass resignations at DOJ if Trump moved forward with replacing Rosen with Clark.”
Though he left Rosen in place, Trump fired the U.S. attorney who covered the Atlanta area, Bjay Pak, because Trump felt Pak hadn’t done enough to investigate alleged fraud in his district. Pak’s replacement, Trump loyalist Bobby Christine, later concluded that “There’s just nothing to” Trump’s claims of voter fraud in Fulton County.
Earlier that day, all ten living defense secretaries, including the recently deposed Mark Esper, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post in which they advocated for an orderly transition of power and said that acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and those working under him “are each bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration, and to do so wholeheartedly. They must also refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team.”
Trump and his collaborators weren’t yet accepting that there would be a “new team” on January 20.
According to Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, on January 4, 2021, General Mark Milley was turned down when he suggested to Trump cabinet members that permits for a January 6 protest at the Capitol building be revoked (due to the possibility of violence).
That same day, Trump’s lawyer John Eastman presented Mike Pence with a six-step plan to toss the electoral college votes from seven states Trump lost. If Pence carried out the plan, neither candidate would have 270 electoral college votes, which would throw the election to the House of Representatives, allowing Republicans to ignore the voters. A second option was to have Pence adjourn the counting, allowing time for states Trump had lost to send alternate electors. Eastman had advocated for this scheme on a Steve Bannon podcast two days earlier and sketched out its details in a two-page memo that had been sent to Republican senators Lyndsey Graham and Mike Lee, both of whom would conclude that Trump’s fraud claims were baseless.
Speaking to Jim Acosta on CNN, famous Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein said of the Eastman memo, “I think what we are seeing in these memos particularly are blueprints for a coup….The actual blueprints in document form in which the president of the United States, through his chief of staff, is sending to Mike Pence's, the vice president's, staff a blueprint to overturn an election, a blueprint for a conspiracy led by a president of the United States to result in an authoritarian coup in which the election is stolen.”
The nerve center of the authoritarian coup attempt was a war room at the Willard Hotel, one block from the White House. In the weeks before January 6, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani led a team of conspirators who attempted to overturn Biden’s victory by injecting disinformation about voter fraud into the right-wing media bloodstream, encouraging Trump supporters in swing states to pressure their state legislators to block certification of Biden’s victory, pushing state legislators directly to block certification of Biden’s victory, and trying to convince Mike Pence that he had the power to deny state-certified electoral college votes.
At various times Giuliani was joined by Steve Bannon, John Eastman, Bernard Kerik (see December 17 entry), and Phil Waldron (see November 25 entry), author of a 38-page PowerPoint detailing ways to overturn the election.
Exhaustive details of the Willard team’s disinformation and public pressure strategies were revealed just this week in a document given to the January 6 committee by Bernard Kerik’s attorney.
While Trump and his war room cabal brainstormed ways to manipulate Mike Pence, other Republicans gave the vice president sound interpretations of constitutional law. Conservative judge J. Michael Luttig told Pence’s staff that there was no legal basis for him to reject electoral college votes, advice he also received from conservatives John Yoo (who’d authored the Bush Administration torture memo) and former vice president Dan Quayle.
That night, appearing at a rally for two Republican senators facing runoffs in Georgia, Trump told the audience Biden wasn’t “taking this White House. We’re going to fight like hell.”
The imminent threat to democracy was far greater than was known to the U.S. public on January 5, 2021, the day before the official counting of electoral ballots.
The Secret Service “warned the U.S. Capitol Police that their officers could face violence at the hands of supporters of former President Donald Trump.”
Washington D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser requested National Guard backup, but Donald 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 forced local D.C. officials to get approval from Trump’s Defense Department for rapid deployment, a bureaucratic hurdle which hadn’t existed previously.
As D.C. girded for trouble, Trump riled his supporters up with a tweet that read, “Washington is being inundated with people who don’t want to see an election victory stolen by emboldened Radical Left Democrats….Our Country has had enough, they won’t take it anymore!”
Sensing that Pence wasn’t going to intervene on his behalf, Trump called his apparatchiks at the Willard Hotel late in the evening and strategized about how they could delay the vote count long enough to get three swing states to de-certify Biden’s electoral votes or send alternate slates of electoral votes to the Capitol.
One of the central figures at the Willard Hotel was Steve Bannon. Liz Cheney, the future vice chair of the January 6 committee, would later say, “Based on the committee’s investigation, it appears that Mr. Bannon had substantial advance knowledge of the plans for January 6th and likely had an important role in formulating those plans.”
On his podcast the night of January 5, Steve Bannon concluded ominously: “It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen. OK, it’s going to be quite extraordinarily different. All I can say is, strap in…. You made this happen and tomorrow it’s game day. So strap in. Let’s get ready.”
JANUARY 6, 2021
Prior to January 6, 2021, the electoral college vote count and certification had been purely ceremonial.
But since none of Trump’s banana republic tactics to overthrow the election had worked, the president’s fundraiser Caroline Wren, campaign operative Katrina Pierson, chief of staff Mark Meadows, Republican members of Congress, and right-wing activists planned one final, grand charade: a “Stop the Steal” rally followed by a “Save America March.”
Activists involved in the planning bought burner phones with cash to communicate with members of the White House, including chief of staff Mark Meadows. It would later come out that “Trump’s political operation reported paying more than $4.3 million to people and firms that organized the Jan. 6 rally since the start of the 2020 election.”
According to Hunter Walker of Rolling Stone, event planners also collaborated with fringe-right members of Congress such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Louie Gohmert (see January 1 entry), Paul Gosar (later to become one of the biggest defenders of the insurrectionists), Madison Cawthorn (who spoke at the rally on January 6), Andy Biggs, and Lauren Boebert (later accused of giving “reconnaissance tours” of the Capitol building to seditionists-to-be in the days before the insurrection).
Two of Walker’s sources (both activist event planners) said that Gosar—who allegedly made phone calls to the sources on January 6—promised that Trump would grant them pardons if they incurred any legal trouble as a result of the rally. Right-wing activist Ali Alexander, one of the key organizers of the “Wild Protest,” had also mentioned collaborating with Biggs, Gosar, and Mo Brooks (who spoke at the rally) in a video which was later deleted. Walker’s sources further contended that Mark Meadows was warned in advance about potential violence, though there’s no evidence he did anything to stop it.
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 would consist of regurgitated fraud claims which had been rejected for lack of merit in more than 60 judicial cases, by judges of all ideological stripes. Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro would later brag about his role in recruiting members of Congress for this cynical political stunt. He and Steve Bannon came up with a plan called “the Green Bay sweep.” The aim was to get challengers to delay the electoral vote certification as long as possible in hopes that several hours of televised hearings (full of Republican propaganda about a “rigged election”) would pressure Mike Pence to flip and end American democracy.
Before the ceremony, Trump called vice president Mike Pence 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 precedents were absent from the speeches at Trump’s rally on the Mall, which included numerous incitements to violence.
Lead-off speaker Mo Brooks, clad in body armor, said, “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass!” Donald Trump, Jr. told congressional Republicans who intended to honor the election results, “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 Biden’s certification “I’m gonna be in your backyard in a couple of months.” Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said, “Let’s have trial by combat,” which was “an eerie reference to battles to the death in the series ‘Game of Thrones.’”
Donald Trump headlined at high noon and talked tough from behind bulletproof glass. He trotted out a litany of lies about the election, “used the words ‘fight’ or ‘fighting’ at least 20 times,” and said “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength. You have to be strong.”
By 1:00 p.m.—five minutes before Nancy Pelosi brought Congress to order—Trump supporters had busted through barrier fences around the U.S. Capitol.
Trump finished with a call to action, just minutes after the formal count had begun:
“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.”
While Trump returned to the safety of the White House, his ally, Paul Gosar (one of the members of Congress who had collaborated with the “Stop the Steal” organizers), began the GOP stalling tactics, objecting to electors from Arizona. The two houses of Congress separated to “debate” Gosar’s objection.
At 1:30 p.m., insurrectionists at the back of the Capitol overtook police, forcing them inside the building. Unaware of these dangers, Congress continued the proceedings. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, who had voted with Trump 91% of the time, said “Voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken — they've all spoken….If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.”
As McConnell spoke, a crowd of 8,000 equipped with “riot helmets, gas masks, shields, pepper spray, fireworks, climbing gear...explosives, metal pipes, [and] baseball bats” surrounded the Capitol.
At 2:11 p.m., Trump supporters—heavily represented by right-wing hate groups, former members of law enforcement and the military, and including at least one Trump appointee, busted through a police line to storm the Capitol, the first hostile takeover of America’s seat of government since 1814.
The Senate was called into recess at 2:20 p.m. The House soon followed.
Now inside the Capitol, insurrectionists assaulted Capitol police officers, attacked journalists, traumatized members of Congress and congressional aides, and contributed to multiple members of Congress getting Covid-19.
Under the surface appearance of random chaos were a number of determined seditionists with concrete goals. Some targeted the offices of specific members of Congress in hopes of kidnapping them, or worse, while others appear to have ransacked the Senate parliamentarian’s office in an attempt to intercept electoral college ballots. There were allegations that plotters may have had help from Republican representatives and/or members of the Capitol police force.
Because local officials’ authority to call for backup had been taken away by the Trump administration one day before the certification, it was left to Capitol police chief Steven Sund to beg Trump allies in the Department of Defense for backup. Trump’s military officials stonewalled Sund, who started calling at 1:49 p.m. for help.
Around 2:30, Sund “pleaded” with Lieutenant Generals Walter Piatt and Charles Flynn, the brother of Michael Flynn—who had suggested that Trump declare martial law—to deploy the National Guard. Accompanying Sund were Major General William Walker (the commander of the DC National Guard), Walker’s counsel (Colonel Earl Matthews), and D.C. chief of police Robert Contee.
According to Matthews, Piatt told Sund he didn’t like “the optics” of “having armed military personnel on the grounds of the Capitol,” though the Defense Department had had no concern about “optics” in June 2020 when they had deployed armed military personnel at peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.
After Contee said he would notify DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and ask her to have a press conference to expose Piatt and Flynn’s decision, Piatt’s cover-your-ass fallback suggestion was to have “Guardsmen take over D.C. police officers’ traffic duties so those officers could head to the Capitol.” This too was baffling, since there was no good reason to send the police (rather than the Guard) and a hand-off would take more time than sending the Guard directly to the Capitol. As reported by Politico, Matthew’s 36-page memo about January 6 said that “Every D.C. Guard leader was desperate to get to the Capitol to help…then stunned by the delay in deployment. Responding to civil unrest in Washington is ‘a foundational mission, a statutory mission of the D.C. National Guard.’”
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy had been invited to the call but was “incommunicado or unreachable for most of the afternoon,” according to Matthews.
As Trump’s Defense Department officials let insurrectionists ravage the Capitol, several Republicans—including former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, senator Lindsey Graham, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, and former advisor Kellyanne Conway—called the White House to try to get Trump to act.
But the commander-in-chief wasn’t taking calls. He was too 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.’”
Since Trump wasn’t answering, numerous Republicans tried to get to him by texting one of the key players in efforts to overturn the election, chief of staff Mark Meadows. While at the White House with the president, Meadows received pleas to have Trump call off the insurrection from Fox News personalities Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Brian Kilmeade, congressional Republicans under siege in the Capitol, and Donald Trump, Jr.
President Trump was unmoved, even when Ivanka asked him to stop the violence, perhaps because he felt the rioters kept his hopes alive by obstructing the vote count. According to Republican congressional representative Jamie Herrera Beutler, who was with Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy (inside the Capitol), “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.”
At 2:24 p.m., as “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!”
While lawmakers hid from rioters, Trump called Republican Tommy Tuberville to push the Alabama senator to stall the electoral college vote certification whenever it could safely resume. Trump reached Tuberville around 2:26 p.m. and was notified that Mike Pence and his wife and daughter had been whisked away from the Senate floor. (It would later come out that the seditionists missed Pence and his family by one minute.)
As Trump ally Mitch McConnell would later say at Trump’s second 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!”).
Around the time of Trump’s 3:13 tweet, some of his supporters showed their dedication to law and order by harassing the Capitol police who were protecting members of Congress huddled in the Speaker’s Lobby. Once they convinced the officers to abandon their posts, insurrectionists started smashing the windows inside the doors to the lobby. Many of them continued even after they saw an officer pointing a gun at them on the other side of the door. One of the insurrectionists who refused to back off was QAnon follower Ashli Babbitt. Moments after Babbitt was fatally shot, tactical officers appeared, clearing the area and moving the attackers away from the lobby.
At 4:06 p.m., president-elect Joe Biden tweeted a speech in which he said, “I call on President Trump to go on national television now, to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege. This is not a protest. It is an insurrection.”
Pressured by aides since his tweets had had no discernible impact on his followers, Trump released a slightly more assertive video plea at 4:17 p.m., 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 National Guard finally arrived at 5:20 p.m., three hours and 31 minutes after the initial request from Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund.
This jaw-dropping delay happened despite the fact that Mark Meadows, who was with Trump, was in “non-stop” communication all day with Kash Patel (see December 11 entry), the chief of staff for Defense Secretary Christopher Miller—whom Trump had installed after losing the 2020 election. One has to be naïve not to at least wonder if the parties were conspiring to delay Guard deployment, as Miller was perfectly aware of how dire the situation was from early on and yet reportedly didn’t sign off on the deployment until 4:32 p.m., two hours and 43 minutes after Steven Sund first asked for backup. (One further wonders if Miller’s predecessor, the “insufficiently loyal” Mark Esper, would have waited so long to sign off.)
The Capitol was cleared at 5:34 p.m.
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!”
With an hour to go before the vote count would resume, Rudy Giuliani called what he thought was Tommy Tuberville’s cellphone and left a voicemail. Giuliani mistakenly dialed the wrong senator, who gave the recording to The Dispatch. In the message, Giuliani asked the senator to organize objections to ten states won by Biden in order to drag the vote count-and-certification out as long as possible, preferably until the end of the following day. Giuliani said that the delay would give Republicans more time to present evidence of “fraud” in key swing states. Another goal could have been to impede the certification in order to allow more time for the resolution of a longshot election lawsuit that was before the Supreme Court (who would refuse to expedite the claim on January 11).
After Mike Pence had re-started the official vote count, Trump’s lawyer John Eastman emailed Pence’s lawyer, Greg Jacob, claiming that Pence was breaking the Electoral Count Act because debate was going “past the allotted time.”
Jacob didn’t reply to the email.
Pence officially certified Joe Biden’s victory at 3:42 a.m., January 7, 2021.
Biden’s win was certified despite the objections of two-thirds of House Republicans and eight Republican senators who came out of their hiding spots to push the false election fraud narrative which had jeopardized their safety just hours earlier.
The most concise summation of January 6 came from Republican Liz Cheney, the daughter of ultra-conservative former vice president Dick Cheney and the chair of the House GOP Conference who had voted with Trump 93% of the time during his single term in office. On the eve of the January 13, 2021 House of Representatives vote which would give Donald Trump the distinction of being the only president to be impeached twice, 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.”
Cheney’s matter-of-fact statement was rare on the right side of the aisle. Only six Republican senators and 10 House members supported impeachment.
Remarkably, Republican denial about Trump’s role in the insurrection has only deepened in the year since the impeachment vote, despite all of the information exposing a GOP web of complicity that now includes over 1,000 public figures (according to Public Wise’s Insurrection Index).
Republicans killed a Senate investigation of January 6. When Democrats proposed a bipartisan House committee, Republicans tried to plant two aggressive perpetrators of the Big Lie on the committee: Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, the latter of whom texted Mark Meadows on January 5, suggesting Mike Pence could block certification.
Republicans demoted Liz Cheney for her unwillingness to stay on message and replaced her with Trump toady Elise Stefanik. GOP strategists are primarying all of the Republican House members who supported impeachment that are up for re-election in 2022.
The House select committee that emerged, which includes Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger (both of whom voted for Trump in 2020), has been stonewalled by many of the people who could have the most information about January 6, including Lee Eastman, Jeffrey Clark, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, Bernard Kerik, and—after he’d disappointed his master by giving the committee two thousand texts and thousands of pages of email records—Mark Meadows.
Not only is Trump unrepentant about his role in the severe trauma inflicted on Capitol law enforcement, injuries to more than 150 officers, the deaths of five law enforcement officers (an Iraq War vet who was bashed in the head with a fire extinguisher and four who committed suicide), the $480 million taxpayer-funded tab to secure the Capitol with 25,000 National Guard members before Joe Biden’s inauguration, the $1.5 million dollars in damage done to the citadel of American democracy, let alone the damage done to America’s reputation abroad and long-standing tradition of peaceful transfers of power, Trump embraces January 6.
ABC reporter Jonathan Karl, who interviewed Trump for his book Betrayal: the Final Act of the Trump Show, said, “I was absolutely dumbfounded at how fondly he looks back on January 6th. He thinks it was a great day. He thinks it was one of the greatest days of his time in politics.”
Meanwhile, the Big Lie that fueled the insurrection looks even more preposterous than it did a year ago, as swing state recounts have only reinforced Biden’s legitimacy.
Georgia did three recounts, one by hand. All three verified a Biden margin of over 11,000 ballots.
An independent audit of Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa, found no change in Biden’s margin of victory. Arizona’s Republican legislature didn’t like this finding, so they hired Cyber Ninjas, a Trump-supporting cybersecurity company, on the taxpayer dime. The Cyber Ninjas’ audit increased Biden’s Maricopa margin by 360 votes.
A recount of Wisconsin’s two biggest Democratic counties requested by Republicans padded Biden’s 20,000+-vote margin by another 87 ballots.
Michigan’s recount validated Biden’s comfortable 154,000-vote margin.
A thorough AP study of the six closest swing states found a total of less than 475 potentially fraudulent votes. Not all of the ballots were necessarily fraudulent (thus the word “potentially”), not all of the ballots were necessarily counted, and the ballots came from Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Joe Biden won each of these states by more than 10,000 votes.
Despite irrefutable real-world evidence that Biden won the 2020 presidential election, most Republican officials across the country have refused to acknowledge Trump’s loss or actively doubled down on the Big Lie out of fear of incurring Trump’s wrath or agitating his hordes of followers. Right-wing media has followed in goose-step formation.
This chorus of lies and complicity of silence has played to the false victimhood at the core of the conservative identity, transforming the Republican Party into an authoritarian cult whose followers by and large lack the critical thinking skills (or the will) to process factual information which is at odds with what they want to believe.
68% of Republican voters still believe that Trump was robbed of a second term. That figure rises to 82% among Republicans whose main (dis)information source is Fox and 97% of Republicans who take Newsmax and One America News Network at face value. 30% of Republicans are so dismayed by Donald Trump’s election loss that they believe “violence might be warranted,” a number which jumps to 40% among the Newsmax and One America crowd.
The main cause of this lizard brain hostility is fear. Fear of modernity, fear of technology, fear of the competitive, ever-shifting global economy, fear of the heightened influence of women, fear of the increased visibility of LGBTQ Americans, and—perhaps most of all—fear of changing racial demographics, all of which have been aggressively weaponized through Republican politicians’ polarizing culture war distractions.
According to a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, only 29% of Republicans feel that American life has improved since the patriarchal, Caucasian-dominated, gays-closeted, pre-civil rights 1950s, two-thirds feel being Christian and born in the U.S. are an important part of American citizenship, and 80% feel the diversifying U.S. is at risk of losing its “cultural identity.”
The consequences of the Republican Party’s proto-fascist lurch are reflected in America’s status as a “flawed democracy” for five straight years in the Democracy Index, the 2021 report of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which recently listed American democracy as “backsliding” for the first time, and the Freedom House assessment (done before January 6, 2021) which showed the state of U.S. democracy in freefall, comparable to Mongolia and Panama, countries with a limited history of free and fair elections.
It seems perfectly logical that Republicans are scheduling this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Hungary, a former democracy which provides a blueprint for the GOP’s dream of an oligarchic America with fixed elections. (Trump even endorsed Hungary’s dictator, Viktor Orbán, for another term.)
And it’s likely to get worse after the 2022 mid-terms.
The historical data is clear: parties in control of the White House and both houses of Congress routinely lose seats, and often lose a lot of seats, in mid-term elections. Barack Obama lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats in his first mid-term election. Even Bill Clinton, who was exceptionally skilled at messaging, lost 52 House seats and eight Senate seats in his first mid-term. Mass retirements among House Democrats are a key indicator that power is about to switch hands; being in the minority party in the lower chamber of any legislature can be a thankless task.
If Republicans win back the House of Representatives, they will kill the select committee investigating January 6. Jim Jordan, who texted Mark Meadows the day before the insurrection with the suggestion that Pence could ignore state-certified electoral votes, would become the head of the House Judiciary Committee, which would engage in a series of hyped-up hearings to taint a relatively scandal-free Biden Administration and distract people from the GOP’s culpability for January 6.
At the state level, Republicans will probably win back governor’s mansions, flip legislatures, and increase their margins in legislatures they already control, allowing them to throw down an iron curtain of voter suppression in key states. After 2022, expect more and stricter voter ID laws which punish Americans for the crime of Voting While Black, more laws to make it harder to vote by mail, more laws to replace bipartisan election administrators with right-wing Republicans eager to target and disenfranchise as many Democratic voters as possible.
Supporters of democracy hold out hope that Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin will magically transcend their current roles as corporate-funded Agents of Doom to support a filibuster carve-out for The Freedom to Vote Act, which would supersede state-level voter suppression legislation passed on GOP party-line votes. But so far Sinema and Manchin have given no indication that they’re willing to change the filibuster rules, and even if they did, the bill would ultimately have to get past a 6-3 Republican Supreme Court majority which has shown hostility to free and fair elections.
Sure, anything can happen. I don’t have a crystal ball. Biden’s economy is humming, the pandemic could calm down, the mid-terms are 10 months off—an eternity in politics.
But from where we sit now, America’s future looks bleak.
Come 2024, we may discover that January 6 was not a low point, but a mere dress rehearsal for the death of the world’s oldest democracy.
Dan Benbow has been an online political features writer since 2003. His work has appeared at Salon, Truthout, RawStory, AlterNet, BuzzFlash, BeyondChron, AddictingInfo, GetUnderground/KotoriMag, and his boutique blog, “Truth and Beauty.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed @danbenbow on Twitter.