When Congress convened on Jan. 6, 2021 for a joint session to certify the results of the 2020 election, the warning signs were flashing red that Donald Trump’s followers would lay siege to the US Capitol in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.
The most obvious sign was the extraordinary event of a sitting president summoning his followers to Washington DC for a rally to nurse grievances over the election outcome only hours before members of Congress carried out what should typically be a formality of certifying the election. This rally took place as some of Trump’s supporters in Congress had publicly pledged to object to the electoral slates in states narrowly won by Joe Biden, and promoted the idea that Vice President Mike Pence could set aside the electoral votes, raising expectations among the president’s followers that there remained a pathway for Trump to be inaugurated for a second term on Jan. 20, 2021.
Looking back at President Trump’s willful promotion of disinformation and his followers’ increasing willingness to resort to political violence as their anger swelled in the aftermath of Election Day, the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 was all but inevitable.
As with the 2016 election, Trump began laying the groundwork to delegitimize any result other than his victory long before voters went to the polls in 2020. Consequently, when he lost, his followers would reflexively believe that the election had been stolen.
Reacting to efforts by Democratic state officials to expand access to mail-in voting as a measure to protect voters from exposure to COVID-19, Trump tweeted on July 2, 2020: “Mail-in ballots will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election.” That was only one of more than 100 instances in 2020 when Trump disseminated “false claims or imaginary threats about voting by mail,” according to the Washington Post.
Writing in The Atlantic, Barton Gellman explained that many mail-in ballots, which would tend to favor Biden, would continue to be counted after election night, and accurately predicted that Trump would insist on stopping the count before all the ballots were tabulated. In an article subtitled, “If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result,” Gellman wrote, “As November 3 approaches, [the] screens are blinking red, alight with warnings that the political system does not know how to absorb.”
As the campaign entered the final stretch, the public witnessed Trump endorse political violence with his shoutout to the Proud Boys during the first presidential debate.
Asked by moderator Chris Wallace if he were willing to “condemn white supremacist and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence,” Trump deflected. When pressed, Trump said, “What do you want to call ’em? Give me a name.” Biden interjected, “Proud Boys.”
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said, before pivoting back to an attack on “antifa.” The statement made the Proud Boys a household name; it created a recruitment bonanza and helped the group attract “normies” who would flock to their side at rallies in the months to come.
Predictably, Trump falsely declared victory in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Nov. 5, before all of the votes had come in, saying, “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”
Signs of potential political violence were apparent almost immediately after election day.
On Nov. 5, Vets for Trump cofounder Joshua Macias and Antonio LaMotta, two men who would later be present on the Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6 attack, were arrested for carrying handguns outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the vote was being tabulated, based on a tip from the FBI. The men had driven a silver Hummer adorned with QAnon stickers from Virginia, and police found an AR-15-style rifle and 160 rounds of ammunition in the vehicle. Vladimir Lemets, the executive director of Vets for Trump, reportedly told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Macias has traveled to Philadelphia to monitor the vote count.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner described the incident as “alarming” in coverage that made national headlines.
As election officials continued to tabulate votes in critical swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Arizona, pro-Trump rallies organized under the hashtag #StopTheSteal materialized beginning and on the first Saturday after the election and continued through November and into December. (As Right Wing Watch reported at the time, the rallies didn’t materialize organically: Ali Alexander, a political operative associated with Trump confidant Roger Stone, went live on Periscope on Nov. 5, calling for “voter integrity” rallies in Phoenix; Harrisburg, Pa.; Detroit; Madison, Wis.; and Atlanta, while offering to cover airfare for right-wing social media influencers.)
The state capitol rallies fed into large pro-Trump gatherings in Washington DC on Nov. 14 and Dec. 12 that were marred by violence at night, as Proud Boys and unaffiliated Trump supporters clashed with left-wing counter-protesters. Trump’s response to the rallies was not to calm his supporters or even to feign difference; to the contrary he conspicuously signaled his support by driving past the Nov. 14 rally at Freedom Plaza in his presidential motorcade and flying over the Dec. 12 rally at the National Mall in Marine One.
As early as Dec. 1, some of Trump supporters — most notably, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, his former national security advisor — were publicly calling on him to invoke the Insurrection Act, a drastic initiative that would only make sense if they also believed the president was justified in holding on to power through extralegal means and would need to mobilize the military to suppress civil unrest on the part of the left.
Flynn tweeted out a press release from the Ohio-based We The People Convention on Dec. 1 that urged Trump to “immediately declare a limited form of Martial Law, and temporarily suspend the Constitution and civilian control of these federal elections, for the sole purpose of having the military oversee a re-vote.” Addressing Trump supporters at the Dec. 12 rally in DC, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes repeated the call for the president to invoke the Insurrection Act, reportedly claiming that his failure to take action would result in a “much more desperate [and] much more bloody war.”
Only six days later, Flynn and lawyer Sidney Powell, who had been promoting false and unfounded claims about election fraud, made a widely publicized visit to the White House to urge Trump to declare martial law and order the military to oversee new elections in the battleground states he lost.
Meanwhile, plans were coming together for the Jan. 6 rally. Against a backdrop of two rallies that showcased supporters in tactical gear parading through downtown DC and starting fights, Trump took to Twitter to mobilize his base, writing, “Big protest on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
Trump’s repeated violations of political norms might have desensitized the public to his transgressions, but by any objective measure a sitting president summoning supporters with a demonstrated track record of violence to DC at the moment Congress was set to take a critical vote to certify the election while actively promoting disinformation could only be viewed as tossing a lit match in a pool of gasoline.
While much of the nation reacted in shock when Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 while calling for violence against lawmakers, far-right activists had already made several practice runs over the preceding 12 months, which received widespread publicity.
In January 2020, thousands of Second Amendment supporters carried assault-style rifles in the streets of downtown Richmond, although they were prevented from bringing firearms onto the grounds of the Virginia state capitol. While fears of violence did not materialize, news coverage at the time reflected that authorities and the broader public were alert to the danger, with the Washington Post reporting, “Thousands of gun-rights advocates packed the streets around the Virginia Capitol on Monday, bristling with weapons, flags and threats of insurrection….”
Later in January, in an incident that received less publicity, activists in camouflage organized by We Are KY Gunowners carried semi-automatic rifles into the Kentucky state capitol in Frankfort, posing for a photo with their firearms hoisted overhead.
Beginning in late April, almost two months into the pandemic, scenes of heavily armed men in tactical gear converging on state capitols in Ohio, North Carolina and Colorado, among other states, swept through the media. On April 30, hundreds of far-right activists angered by COVID restrictions swarmed into the Michigan State Capitol while the legislature was in session. Some carried rifles into the Senate gallery, where they yelled down at state lawmakers, while others reportedly demanded entry to the House floor, confronting the sergeant at arms.
But one incident that took place only two days after Trump summoned his supporters to Washington eerily foreshadowed the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol. On Dec. 21, 2020, far-right protesters carrying firearms and bear spray stormed the Oregon state capitol during a special session to discuss COVID measures. The protesters reportedly sprayed bear mace at police, broke glass doors, assaulted journalists and demanded the arrest of Gov. Kate Brown. On Jan. 6, Trump supporters would spray chemical spray at police, break down doors and windows, assault journalists, and roam the halls of Congress calling out the names of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, among others.
In another signal flare that should have been an alert about the potential for political violence on Jan. 6, 2021, the US Justice Department announced on Dec. 17, 2020 that six militia members in Michigan had been indicted on charges related to an alleged plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Meanwhile, against the backdrop of Trump supporters’ anger over the outcome of the election and the firehose of disinformation promoted by the president and his backers, threats and harassment against election workers proliferated, leading an election official in Georgia to warn during an emotional press conference on Dec. 1, 2020: “Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed. It’s not right.”
Even honestly relaying the facts about the election was apparently grounds for violent retribution, as when Joe diGenova, an attorney for the Trump campaign went on Newsmax and said that Chris Krebs, a former cybersecurity official who had debunked Trump’s election fraud claims, “should be drawn and quartered. Taken out at dawn and shot.”
It was also apparent by mid-December — and notably, about a week before Trump issued his call for supporters to converge on DC on Jan. 6 — that his violent supporters had turned against the police. As videographer Ford Fischer documented on the night of the Dec. 12 rally when police prevented Trump supporters from attacking antifascist counter-protesters, Proud Boy Jeremy Bertino yelled at them, “They want to kill you! Why do you protect them?” An unidentified Proud Boy standing at Bertino’s side, yelled, “Oath breakers! Do your f*cking job. Give us one hour.”
Ten days later, on Parler, Bertino celebrated the siege of the Oregon state capitol, writing, “So all these people who scream ‘Back the blue’ constantly, how do you feel about what happened at the capital in Oregon yesterday? The police protected big daddy while he decided what rights to give us. I back good police who will protect your rights over their pensions. But don’t get it twisted. They will be the first line of defense for the maggot politicians in office. Some will lay down the badge and join us; others will blindly defend the corrupt politicians who aim to enslave you. TO POLICE EVERYWHERE, pick a f*cking side. This war is inevitable.”
While Parler would later be shut down, in the weeks following the Dec. 12 pro-Trump rally, it served as an open organizing platform for Jan. 6.
One of the accounts conversing with Bertino on Parler — using the handle @WeThePeopleWarrior — was a Prince William County, Va. sheriff’s deputy. Antifascist researcher Molly Conger identified Deputy Aaron Hoffman on Dec. 25, 2020 as the person behind the @WeThePeopleWarrior account who wrote on Parler: “We cannot get suckered into going back to DC and marching… take back your State capitals!!! Find the homes of every Governor, mayor, attorney general, liberal judge, senator, congressman and every major media/social media CEO… find them, remove them from their sanctuary. Bring the nightmare to where they lay their heads and kiss their loved ones.”
Hoffman claimed that his Parler account had been hacked, but after a brief investigation, Sheriff Glendell Hill announced that the deputy had been fired.
Hoffman’s posts were not the only example of aggressive talk on Parler that foreshadowed anti-government violence in the run-up to Jan. 6.
Michael Sobczak, a Marine Corps veteran who served as commander of his local American Legion post in Escondido, Calif., posted a meme on Parler on Dec. 31 showing a gallows outfitted with nooses and accompanied by the text, “Government repair kit.” Sobczak wrote in the post: “The solution is simple, and the cure is permanent.” The makeshift gallows set up outside the US Capitol on Jan. 6 would become one of the indelible images of the insurrection.
Sobczak, who had marched with the Proud Boys, was removed from his position at the American Legion after other Parler posts came to light showing him bragging about violence against counters-protesters at the DC rally on Dec. 12 and an earlier rally in Yorba Linda, Calif. The news of Sobczak’s troubles was published in The San Diego Union-Tribune on Jan. 3, 2021.
By the beginning of the new year, even Vice President Mike Pence wasn’t immune as a target of political violence among Trump’s supporters. Lin Wood, the prominent defamation lawyer who had spoken at rallies in Georgia to support Trump’s false claims of election fraud, tweeted on Jan. 1 that Pence could “face execution by firing squad” for “treason.”
Proud Boys admirer Ralph Pina talking up the Jan. 6 Trump rally in DC: "What I'm hoping for is Trump wins, the leftists lose their minds, and it gave me a reason to finally go out there and test of the new firepower I've acquired in the past couple of years. #JAN6 #TrumpRally 1/pic.twitter.com/AfAnKWRThB— Jordan Green (@Jordan Green) 1609720957
It was clear before Jan. 6 that the expectation that Pence should intervene in the electoral certification would shape the actions that Trump’s supporters took that day.
During a publicly accessible video chat that included Bertino and English nationalist campaigner Tommy Robinson, a man identified as “Ralph (The Patriot) Pina” predicted: “It’s going to go down one of two ways. Either Pence is going to show himself a patriot, and he recognizes the truth of everything going on, right? And he lays it all out in the House and in the Congress on the 6th. However, should Pence prove himself not to be the patriot he needs to be, he’s just opened the gate for Trump to call up the Insurrection Act and fix it from there. Either way it goes, there’s gonna be civil unrest.”
The hope and expectation among the president’s violent supporters was that their candidate would prevail and invoke the Insurrection Act, giving license to unleash retribution against their left-wing adversaries, at least in their minds. The twist was that Pence would let them down, and they would wind up turning their fury on Congress and the police protecting the US Capitol.
“What I’m hoping for is Trump wins, the leftists lose their minds, and it gave me a reason to finally go out and test the new firepower I’ve acquired in the past couple of years,” Pina said on Jan. 3.
Dominic Pezzola — a Marine Corps veteran and Proud Boy from Rochester, NY who now faces conspiracy charges for, among other things, bashing out a window at the Capitol with a stolen police riot shield on Jan. 6 — chronicled his arrival in the city the previous day by posting on Parler under his handle @ProudBoyNY: “Arrived in DC safe and sound.”
Not all the users on Parler who discussed plans for Jan. 6 could necessarily be identified, but they made their intentions plain.
Screen capture of Parler post taken by Raw Story on Jan. 3, 2021
“It’s pretty simple, guys,” wrote a user with the handle @Ssmith148259 on Jan. 3. “The answer to this problem is MAGA storming into Congress and hanging every single democrat and rino and anyone who didn’t stand up to the election fraud.”
Another user with the handle @Lochlansimmons wrote on Dec. 29: “We’re gonna kill Congress. Sorry to burst your bubble btw not a [Proud Boy] but I’m good with words I’ll get people to go in there anyways.”
Screen capture of Parler post taken by Raw Story on Dec. 30, 2020
@RBall1986 weighed in on Dec. 30: “Gonna have to prepare to engage with and overwhelm [law enforcement officers]. That’s a fact. Bring flex cuffs and don’t get singled out. Citizens arrest cops and confiscate their taxpayer funded equipment.”
The danger was apparent to anyone who was paying attention.
In an opinion piece entitled “Until Biden’s win is certified, the US remains vulnerable,” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote on Dec. 26, 2020 that the “big showdown” would be “the Jan. 6 gathering of both houses of Congress” to certify the electoral vote.
“Trump’s last-ditch campaign will almost certainly fail in Congress,” Ignatius predicted. “The greater danger is on the streets, where pro-Trump forces are already threatening chaos.”