The Copper State had gone Democratic just once since 1948, when Bill Clinton won by two points in his 1996 landslide. Without Arizona, Trump would have to win three of the five states left (Georgia, Nevada, and the Blue Wall states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania).
The Blue Wall states had supported Democratic candidates in every presidential election since 1992 except for the outlier 2016 race in which Trump scraped by with the help of voter suppression, Jill Stein, Cambridge Analytica, Julian Assange, James Comey, and Russia’s 50,000+ fake Twitter accounts.
Sensing that they’d been dealt a death blow, the Trump campaign had conniption fits when Arizona was called by their network of choice. Efforts to pressure Fox to take the projection back failed. By the end of the night, the AP followed suit.
Biden also won Nebraska’s 2nd district on election day, giving him 238 electoral college votes. To get to the magic number of 270, he just needed to win Wisconsin (10), Michigan (16), and Nevada, Georgia, or Pennsylvania.
With so many routes to 270, Biden’s likelihood of winning shot up to 80% at electionbettingodds.com by the morning of November 4. That afternoon-into-evening, pre-2016 patterns re-asserted themselves when Wisconsin and Michigan were called for Biden, the latter by over 150,000 votes. Trump’s campaign team made noise about challenging Biden’s 20,000-ballot Wisconsin win, but as former Wisconsin governor and Trump ally Scott Walker pointed out at the time, a recount was highly unlikely to change the result.
With Wisconsin and Michigan in Biden’s column, Democrats needed just six more electoral college votes to retake the White House, exactly the number in Nevada. Biden’s chances of losing Nevada (a state Democrats had won in the previous three election cycles) were remote, and Pennsylvania appeared to be a really good bet for Biden, based on Trump’s narrowing margin and the proportion of votes which remained to be counted in heavily-Democratic precincts.
Joe Biden was officially declared the winner of Pennsylvania and president-elect of the United States on Saturday, November 7, 2020.
Biden would go on to win Nevada and Georgia, giving him 306 electoral college votes—well above the necessary threshold of 270—to go with a commanding seven million-ballot popular vote win.
If anything, it was surprising that the race was even close, given that Biden came into election day with an 8.4% national lead.
Among the possible causes for the polling errors were GOP voter suppression, the reluctance of some Trump supporters to talk to pollsters, and Trump’s momentum at the end of the race.
Sifting through the election results, 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 much narrower than pollsters thought it would be.
At the same time, racial divisiveness backfired among young voters, suburbanites, and people of color, driving Georgia and Arizona to Joe Biden.
Given voter turnout demographics, the results of the 2020 presidential election were relatively orderly and predictable. Biden’s victory was more conclusive than either of W. Bush’s wins and Trump’s 2016 victory, and his popular-vote margin exceeded Obama’s 2012 re-election.
In any functional democracy, the Pennsylvania call would have ended the election drama, triggered a graceful concession, and set the presidential transition in motion.
But America had the unique distinction of being governed by Donald J. Trump, a deeply wounded narcissist with an iron grip on the levers of power.
Trump’s disinformation campaign had begun long before the election with constant repetition of the false claim that mail balloting was inherently corrupt and that the 2020 election would be “rigged” against him, a way to pre-emptively delegitimize a potential loss at the polls. Trump repeated this flagrant lie so often that many Republican voters took it at face value, 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), after which there would be a “blue shift” as more Democratic votes—mail votes in particular—were counted. Three days before the 2020 election, on October 31, 2020 Trump strategist Steve Bannon told “a group of associates” that Trump was going to exploit his base’s programmed ignorance by staging a big announcement not long after polls closed, while the red mirage was at its peak:
“What Trump’s gonna do is just declare victory. Right? He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s a winner….He’s just gonna say he’s a winner.”
Jonathan Swan of Axios broke a story about this strategy on November 1, two days before the election. According to Swan, “President Trump has told confidants he'll declare victory on Tuesday night if it looks like he's ‘ahead,’ according to three sources familiar with his private comments. That's even if the Electoral College outcome still hinges on large numbers of uncounted votes in key states like Pennsylvania.”
Sure enough, egged on by a drunken Rudy Giuliani while ignoring more cautious advisors, Trump held a press conference early on the morning after election day. 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 an aggressive campaign to steal the presidency through disinformation, frivolous lawsuits, abrupt personnel changes, and pressure on state and local officials (and Mike Pence).
The core of the campaign was Trump’s Big Lie, a baseless theory which slotted neatly into the white grievance narrative believed by big portions of the Republican base. This sense of victimhood was inflamed by Trump’s allies in state legislatures, Congress, the Republican Attorneys General Association, right-wing media, and social media.
While gullible and crestfallen Republican voters were being conned, Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows operated in the shadows to keep Joe Biden out of the White House. Meadows played a double game, assuring some administration members that Trump would step down when the time came even as he was “directing traffic” among conspirators to keep Trump in office. In the two months between Trump’s loss and the insurrection, Meadows was conspired with at least 34 far-right Republican members of Congress.
The day after the election (November 4), as it became obvious Trump would lose, Meadows received a text from Energy Secretary Rick Perry suggesting an “aggressive strategy” to hold the White House. The plan was to convince at least three Republican-controlled legislatures in states Trump had lost to shatter long-standing legal precedent by ignoring the will of their voters and declaring electors for Trump. Shorting Biden of three states would throw the election to the House of Representatives, where Republicans had a majority of delegations in more states than Democrats.
As reported at CNN.com, on November 5 Meadows received a text from Donald Trump, Jr. which discussed “filing lawsuits and advocating recounts to prevent certain swing states from certifying their results, as well as having a handful of Republican state houses put forward slates of fake ‘Trump electors.’
“If all that failed, according to the Trump, Jr. text, GOP lawmakers in Congress could simply vote to reinstall Trump as President on January 6.”
The will of the American people was irrelevant, according to Trump, Jr.: “It’s very simple….We have multiple paths. We control them all.”
Meadows received another fake electors proposal on November 6 from Andy Biggs, a House representative of Arizona, to which he texted back, “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 Republicans would milk to death over the next two months—even though Trump’s lawyers knew the claim was false. (Right-wing networks Newsmax, Fox, and One America News would later be sued for presenting disinformation about Dominion’s machines).
While various Republicans publicly implied that fraud was happening in America’s black and brown Democratic cities, Trump spokesman Jason Miller texted Mark Meadows and a host of other top officials that the narrative was false in Pennsylvania, which was about to be declared for Biden:
“One other key data point: In 2016, POTUS received 15.5% of the vote in Philadelphia County. Today he is currently at 18.3%. So he increased from his performance in 2016. In 2016, Philadelphia County made up 11.3% of the total vote in the state. As it currently stands, Philadelphia County only makes up 10.2% of the statewide vote tally. So POTUS performed better in a smaller share. Sen. (Rick) Santorum was just making this point on CNN - cuts hard against the urban vote stealing narrative.” Philadelphia’s Republican city commissioner Al Schmidt would say much the same thing to CNN a few days later.
Even as the deceitfulness behind the fraud claims was becoming more apparent, Republican conspirators were hard at work to overturn legitimate election results. On November 7, 2020, the day Biden was officially declared president-elect, Utah senator Mike Lee texted Mark Meadows with a suggestion that Trump meet with lawyer Sidney Powell, who “[had] a strategy to keep things alive and put several states back in play.”
On November 9, Trump’s exceptionally loyal attorney general, William Barr, sent a directive to federal prosecutors 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.” Esper had fallen out of favor for refusing to deploy troops to American cities during the summer protests, supporting diversity, barring Confederate flags on military bases, and keeping an eye on Russia. Esper was replaced 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 reporters from the New York Times that Trump was considering firing FBI chief Christopher Wray and CIA head Gina Haspel. Haspel reportedly told General Mark Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.”
Haspel was on to something. On November 10, two Texas businessmen linked to Energy Secretary Rick Perry met with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, where they discussed the plan to have Republican-controlled state legislatures ignore the will of their voters and unilaterally pick the electors for their states.
According to I Alone Can Fix It by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Phillip Rucker, when hearing of the fake elector plans circulating, Mark 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 on November 11 (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.”
On November 13, Zach Parkinson (deputy director of communications for the Trump campaign) asked campaign staff to look into conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines which were making the rounds on right-wing media. Staff gave Parkinson a memo on November 14 which showed that most of the claims were false.
Though Joe Biden had been officially declared president-elect and was presumably going to take office, the Trump administration made another significant personnel move on November 18. Republican Chris Krebs, the Trump-appointed head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, was fired by tweet because he had publicly fact-checked false claims of election fraud and gotten off-message by sharing his observation that 2020 was “the most secure election in American history.”
That same day, Trump lawyer Kenneth Chesebro sent Jim Troupis (a Republican lawyer in Wisconsin) a memo detailing a plan to get Wisconsin’s legitimate electors replaced with fake (pro-Trump) electors. This would be “among the earliest known efforts to put on paper proposals for preparing alternate electors” and one of several such memos Chesebro would send to GOP operatives in swing states Trump had lost.
According to reporters for the New York Times, “The memos show how just over two weeks after Election Day, Mr. Trump’s campaign was seeking to buy itself more time to undo the results. At the heart of the strategy was the idea that their real deadline was not Dec. 14, when official electors would be chosen to reflect the outcome in each state, but Jan. 6, when Congress would meet to certify the results.”
Next door to Wisconsin, after pressure from Trump, 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. The 11th-hour reversal to placate Trump came too late and only delayed the obvious, given Biden’s 154,000-vote margin of victory in Michigan.
Refusing to let the will of the voters get in the way of raw power, on November 19 Trump’s outside attorneys Rudy Giuliani, Sydney Powell, and Jenna Ellis had a surreal hair dye-dripping press conference in which they served up several false claims to try to pressure the Justice Department to open “a full-scale criminal investigation” of the election.
These lawyers were part of “Team Kraken,” second-string attorneys who stepped up to push ludicrous legal claims as Trump’s official lawyers stepped back to honor the rule of law. One GOP operative told a reporter for New York magazine, “Any time Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and Jenna Ellis are leading your legal battle, you are not in a good place….I wouldn’t let those lawyers represent me for a parking ticket.”
Two members of Congress who were in regular text contact with Mark Meadows—SSenator Mike Lee of Utah and representative Chip Roy of Texas—were critical of the press conference. Roy told Meadows, “Hey brother—we need substance or people are going to break.” Lee said, “The potential defamation liability for the president is significant here….Unless Powell can back up everything she said, which I kind of doubt she can.” Meadows wrote Lee back that he agreed and was “very concerned” about the press conference. (Four months later, when Powell was sued by Dominion, her lawyers defended their client by claiming that “no reasonable person” would have believed Powell’s attacks on Dominion.)
On November 20, Trump continued the 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 overturn Biden’s 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.”
Trump was at it again on November 21, tweeting “Why is Joe Biden so quickly forming a Cabinet when my investigators have found hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes, enough to ‘flip’ at least four States, which in turn is more than enough to win the Election? Hopefully the Courts and/or Legislatures will have....the COURAGE to do what has to be done to maintain the integrity of our Elections, and the United States of America itself. THE WORLD IS WATCHING!!!”
On November 23, Trump appointee Emily Murphy of the General Services Administration finally released money for the Biden Administration’s transition. This unprecedented delay jeopardized national security (since Biden was not yet receiving intelligence briefings) and containment of Covid-19, which was at peak numbers due to Trump’s abject failure to address the pandemic.
With Michigan secured for Joe Biden, Trump turned his attention to Pennsylvania. On November 25, Trump conferenced in from the White House to a hearing/publicity stunt in Gettysburg, where Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani issued—and Trump backed—false claims about voter fraud in that state.
Trump later invited 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; they also exchanged texts.)
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, who would go on to 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.”
In a fit of rage at the breaking AP story, Trump allegedly heaved a porcelain plate of food through the air, leaving servants to wipe up the ketchup which dripped down a wall of the White House dining room.
Another Republican who refused to parrot Trump’s Big Lie was Gabriel Sterling. Sterling, who worked for Georgia’s conservative Republican secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, held a press conference to denounce the violent threats Georgia elections officials were receiving as a result of Trump’s endless disinformation about voting machines in the state:
“Mr. President, it looks like you likely lost the state of Georgia….Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.”
(The United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack—hereafter referred to as “the January 6 committee”—would feature testimony about the domestic terror campaign endured by Georgia elections workers Shaye Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman after Rudy Giuliani publicly accused them of rigging the vote in Joe Biden’s favor. As part of a settlement, the extreme-right One America News network would later admit that there was “no widespread voter fraud by election workers” in Georgia.)
On December 2, White House Communications Director Alyssa Farrah Griffin told Mark Meadows she would be putting in her resignation. According to Griffin, Meadows replied, “What if I could tell you we’re actually going to be staying?”
Lawyer John Eastman was one of the central legal architects—along with Kenneth Chesebro— of Trump’s extralegal efforts to stay in the White House. On December 4, Eastman emailed Russ Diamond, a far-right member of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. Eastman proposed that Pennsylvania Republicans challenge and disqualify enough absentee ballots in the state to “provide some cover” for the GOP-controlled legislature to declare the election invalid and appoint fake electors for Trump.
The fake elector strategy continued on December 5, as Trump 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 to reject Biden’s legitimate electors was still Trump’s only chance at holding onto the White House, barring a Supreme Court decision to toss out Biden’s wins in several swing states.
In a December 7 communication to Trump advisor Boris Epshteyn, Jim Troupis (see November 18) said that this strategy revolved around getting false electors on the books on December 14—the day the electoral college met—with the long-term goal of getting these electors—as opposed to the legitimate ones—accepted in the six most competitive states lost by Trump on January 6. In Troupis’ words:
“The second slate [of fake electors] just shows up at noon on Monday [December 14] and votes and then transmits the results….It is up to Pence on Jan 6 to open them. Our strategy, which we believe is replicable in all 6 contested states, is for the electors to meet and vote so that an interim decision by a Court to certify Trump the winner can be executed on by the Court ordering the Governor to issue whatever is required to name the electors. The key nationally would be for all six states to do it so the election remains in doubt until January.”
Twenty of Joe 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 to expand mail voting passed by Pennsylvania’s Republican legislature had been unconstitutional.
Legal setbacks notwithstanding, the plot continued. Arizona lawyer Jack Wilenchik emailed Trump advisor Boris Epshteyn: “We would just be sending in ‘fake’ electoral votes to [Mike] Pence so that ‘someone’ in Congress can make an objection when they start counting votes, and start arguing that the ‘fake’ votes should be counted.”
This was part of a multi-state effort among Mark Meadows, Rudy Giuliani, and Epshteyn, who was “a regular point of contact” for lawyer John Eastman. Wilenchik further wrote that the plan should be “[kept] under wraps until Congress counts the vote Jan. 6th (so we can try to ‘surprise’ the Dems and media with it).” (Wilenchik later corrected himself, typing in the same thread that “‘alternative’ votes is probably a better term than ‘fake’ votes,” to which he attached a smiley face emoji.)
Referring to a suggestion proposed by Eastman ally Kenneth Chesebro (see November 18), Wilenchik said, “His idea is basically that all of us (GA, WI, AZ, PA, etc.) have our electors send in their votes (even though the votes aren’t legal under federal law — because they’re not signed by the Governor); so that members of Congress can fight about whether they should be counted on January 6th.”
These efforts were coordinated through outside lawyer Rudy Giuliani; Trump’s official White House lawyers saw the moves as illegal.
By the end of December 9, the District of Columbia and all 50 states had certified their vote totals, and Joe 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 baseless allegations of fraud.
A major personnel change was considered then 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) in order to install a loyalist near the top of the CIA. As with the post-election firing of Defense Secretary Mike Esper and (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency leader) Christopher Krebs, this would be a consequential move for a lame duck administration to make.
In response, Haspel told Trump she would resign if her deputy was let go. Afterward, Trump met with Mike Pence and other senior aides, who recommended keeping Haspel happy. 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.”
Outraged by the decision, conspiracy-addled Trump supporters held protests across the country on December 12. The D.C. rally, which featured future January 6 paramilitary operators the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the 1st Amendment Praetorian, turned violent when counter-protesters showed up, leading to four stabbings and 33 arrests.
One protester told a reporter for the New York Times, “They don’t want to deal with this…It’s going to have to go nuclear, using the Insurrection Act and bringing out the military.” This comment referenced the wild card possibility that Donald Trump would use the chaos of street violence (even street violence provoked by his own supporters) to assert control over the presidency by deploying troops domestically.
That same day, Christina Bobb (an anchor for the far-right One America News) sent an email about Douglas Mastriano, Trump’s point person for Pennsylvania’s fake electors: “Mastriano needs a call from [Rudy Giuliani]. This needs to be done. Talk to him about legalities of what they are doing,….Electors want to be reassured that the process is * legal * essential for greater strategy.”
One person who wasn’t convinced of the legality of this strategy was Andrew Hitt, chairman of the GOP in Wisconsin. After being contacted by Rudy Giuliani for a call, Hitt texted a friend that “These guys are up to no good and its [sic] gonna fail miserably.” (Despite his stated reservations, Hitt would later become a fake elector for Trump).
On December 13, Kenneth Chesebro emailed Giuliani about the campaign’s “President of the Senate” strategy. The idea was to get false Trump electors accepted on January 6 by convincing Mike Pence to “firmly take the position that he, and he alone, is charged with the constitutional responsibility not just to open the votes, but to count them — including making judgments about what to do if there are conflicting votes.”
One leg of this strategy involved flipping Georgia, where Trump operative Robert Sinners instructed state Republicans to appoint alternate electors in “complete secrecy” so that the media wouldn’t know what they were doing:
“I must ask for your complete discretion in this process….Your duties are imperative to ensure the end result – a win in Georgia for President Trump – but will be hampered unless we have complete secrecy and discretion.”
Emails from Christina Bobb to Trump lawyers and swing state operatives revealed that state Republicans had false electors ready in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.
(Not coincidentally, Special Counsel Jack Smith would later subpoena these states as part of his investigation into Donald Trump’s potential criminal liability for the January 6 insurrection).
On December 14, the Electoral College met and certified Joe Biden’s victory. 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 the rest of the civilized world recognized Biden’s victory, 59 state-level Republican officials in seven swing states signed fake electors in hopes that Vice President Mike Pence would reject the legitimate electors on January 6.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s obsessive attempts to find elusive “voter fraud” took on new life.
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 White House. At the Oval Office, Trump 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—often with uncharacteristically scathing judicial rulings.
On December 16, Senator Mike Lee told Mark Meadows, via text, that weeks of failures to turn up concrete evidence of fraud were weakening party resolve. Referring to senators objecting to the electoral vote certification, Lee said, “I think we’re now passed [sic] the point where we can expect anyone will do it without some direction and a strong evidentiary argument.”
Lacking an evidentiary argument, someone in the Trump orbit drew up a draft executive order to have the military seize voting machines in Georgia. According to Betsy Woodruff Swan of Politico, “The order empowers the defense secretary to ‘seize, collect, retain and analyze all machines, equipment, electronically stored information, and material records required for retention under’ a U.S. law that relates to preservation of election records.” The order also “would have given the defense secretary 60 days to write an assessment of the 2020 election. That suggests it could have been a gambit to keep Trump in power until at least mid-February of 2021.”
Variations on this plan included Rudy Giuliani asking the Department of Homeland Security to seize machines, Trump asking Bill Barr, and Trump asking Republican legislators in Pennsylvania and Michigan to summon local law enforcement. Memos were drawn up for both the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon to seize voting machines. The requests were not acted on.
A document covering similar ground (dated December 17) was referenced 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.”
On December 18, a memo was drawn up advocating for the Department of Defense (DOD) to appoint a team who would review data (collected by the National Security Agency) in search of foreign interference in the 2020 election. The memo concluded that the Trump Administration could take the law into their own hands, depending on the findings:
“If evidence of foreign interference is found, the team would generate a classified DOD legal finding to support next steps to defend the Constitution in a manner superior to current civilian-only judicial remedies (which should still be pursued in parallel).”
The content of the documents drawn up December 16-18 dovetailed with a contentious six-hour meeting at the White House that evening.
The meeting began when Trump received “Team Kraken” (Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn, and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne), outsiders unaffiliated with Trump’s official White House legal team who were happy to entertain—and act on—the president’s ridiculous conspiracy theories.
Upon finding out who was with the outgoing president, Trump’s lawyer Pat Cipollone “rushed” to the White House, purportedly out of fear that Trump could receive advice which could put him at risk of breaking the law.
According to witness testimony before the January 6 committee, a screaming match ensued between those who supported the rule of law and those who did not.
Firmly in the latter category were Rudy Giuliani and 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.
On the side of law and historical precedent were White House lawyers Pat Cipollone and Eric Herschmann, and White House staff secretary Derek Lyons.
Among the ideas Cipollone and Herschmann were subjected to were Flynn’s claim that foreign countries had rigged America’s election with Nest-brand thermostats and suggestions that Trump declare a national emergency (which could be used as a justification for martial law), sign an executive order to have the National Guard seize voting machines and/or oversee re-votes in the six states Trump was contesting, and name Sidney Powell Special Counsel to investigate voting machines.
When Cipollone and Herschmann asked for evidence to support the fraud claims, nothing substantial was offered. Unhappy with this line of questioning, Trump griped about the White House lawyers not giving him “solutions.” Giuliani accused them of being “pussies.”
In an interview with Rachel Maddow, Politico reporter Nicholas Wu said of the overlap between the potential “smoking gun” December 17 document (referenced in a privilege log provided by Bernie Kerik’s lawyer) and the controversial topics discussed on December 18, “It’s unclear exactly if these two things are linked, but…that’s quite a coincidence.”
With lawyerly options to overthrow the election narrowing, Trump escalated his tactics. At 1:42 a.m. on December 19, just a few hours after the White House showdown, Trump tweeted “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
Trump’s announcement set far-right militants into motion.
According to New York Times reporters Alan Feuer, Michael S. Schmidt and Luke Broadwater, extremists “began to set up encrypted communications channels, acquire protective gear and, in one case, prepare heavily armed ‘quick reaction forces’ to be staged outside Washington.
“They also began to whip up their members with a drumbeat of bellicose language, with their private messaging channels increasingly characterized by what one called an ‘apocalyptic tone.’ Directly after Mr. Trump’s tweet was posted, the Capitol Police began to see a spike in right-wing threats against members of Congress.”
A Twitter employee who monitored traffic on the site told the January 6 committee:
“It felt as if a mob was being organized and they were gathering together their weaponry and their logic and their reasoning behind why they were prepared to fight prior to December 19….Very clear that individuals were ready willing and able to take up arms. After this Tweet on December 19, again it became clear not only were these individuals ready and willing, but the leader of their cause was asking them to join him.”
According to reporters from CNN, “a Justice Department court filing revealed that the Oath Keepers had extensive plans for violence in the days surrounding January 6. Prosecutors say that at least three chapters of the gang held military training camps focusing on ‘military-style basic’ training, ‘unconventional warfare,’ and ‘hasty ambushes.’ At least one of the Oath Keepers brought explosives, including grenades, to the quick reaction force (QRF) site outside Washington, D.C.” (Oath Keeper leader Elmer Stewart Rhodes would later be found guilty of seditious conspiracy against the U.S. government).
The forces of insurrection—the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, Bikers for Trump, Vets for Trump, members of QAnon, and others—were banding together. The head of homeland security for the District of Columbia, Donell Harvin, told the January 6 committee:
“We got derogatory information from [open source intelligence] suggesting that some very, very violent individuals were organizing to come to D.C. But not only were they organizing to come to D.C.—these non-aligned groups were aligning….When you have armed militia collaborating with white supremacy groups collaborating with conspiracy theory groups online all towards a common goal, you start seeing what we call in terrorism a blended ideology and that’s a very, very bad sign.”
On December 21, Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and Mark Meadows met with congressional allies at the White House. According to Mark Meadows’ aide Cassidy Hutchinson—one of the central witnesses before the January 6 committee—this group included Republicans Paul Gosar, Jody Hice, Scott Perry, Andy Harris, Brian Babin, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Andy Biggs, Mo Brooks, and Jim Jordan.
The House members had come in response to an email invite from Mo Brooks (who would speak at the January 6 rally) with a subject line of “White House meeting December 21 regarding January 6.” The topic, once again, was how to get illegitimate electors from swing states Trump had lost accepted. (Brooks would later ask for a pardon for himself and other members of this group. Biggs, who exchanged at least 63 text messages with Mark Meadows, would refuse to appear before the January 6 committee.)
Trump’s public communications that day included the tweet that he’d “won in a landslide” and “[needed] backing from the Justice Department.”
The propaganda continued on December 22, when Trump 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.”
In order to overthrow the will of the American people, Scott Perry, one of the main collaborators, “arranged for [Jeffrey] Clark to meet Trump behind the back of senior Department of Justice officials—and contrary to long-standing department regulations—in the Oval Office.” Clark was a largely unknown lawyer for the Environment and Natural Resources Division (and head of the United States Department of Justice Civil Division) with no legal purview over White House affairs.
While Jeffrey Clark was on the way to becoming a key figure in Donald Trump’s coup attempt, Mark Meadows flew to Georgia, where he hoped to crash signature-matching done by elections officials. Per established protocols, Meadows was not allowed to observe the process. As a consolation prize, Meadows wangled the phone number of Frances Watson, an elections investigator at the site.
Donald Trump called Watson the following day, December 23. He flattered her, trotted out grievances about imaginary voter fraud, and said, “When the right answer comes out, you'll be praised….People will say ‘great,’ because that's what it's about, the ability to check and to make it right, because everyone knows it's wrong.”
The big news that Wednesday was the resignation of Attorney General William Barr.
With Barr out of the way, Trump called new attorney general Jeffrey Rosen on December 24 to see if he could convince him to issue fake findings of vote fraud. During the conversation, Trump asked Rosen if he knew Jeffrey Clark. Rosen told the January 6 committee, “When I hung up I was quizzical as to how does the president even knew Mr. Clark….I was not aware that they had ever met or that the president had been involved in any of the issues in the civil division.”
While Trump worked on Rosen, outside attorney John Eastman commented (in an email to Kenneth Chesebro and “Trump campaign officials”) that there was a “heated fight” on the Supreme Court about Trump’s lawsuit to overturn the election. Chesebro responded that the “odds of action before Jan. 6 will become more favorable if the justices start to fear that there will be ‘wild’ chaos on Jan. 6 unless they rule by then, either way.”
The email hinted that Clarence Thomas’ wife Ginni—a board member of the far-right Council for National Policy—may have given insider information to Eastman about the status of Trump’s case before the Supreme Court. Ginni Thomas sent multiple texts to Eastman, who had previously clerked for her husband. Swaying Justice Thomas was seen as the linchpin to blocking electors in Georgia, which Thomas oversaw.
(The texts to Eastman were just a small part of Ginni Thomas’ efforts to help steal the election, which included conspiratorial texts to Mark Meadows and pleas to Republican members of the Arizona legislature to ignore the will of Arizona voters. Justice Thomas would be the one member of the Supreme Court to support Donald Trump’s effort to block White House communications documents from the January 6 committee.)
While much of the world celebrated Christmas, Donald Trump was on the phone with William J. Olson, a Republican lawyer who would go on to represent MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. Among the ideas Olson advocated were declaring martial law and replacing Jeffrey Rosen with an attorney general willing to revive the Texas Attorney General’s lawsuit to nullify electoral college votes in other states (which had been rejected by the Supreme Court on December 11).
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 “Save America” rally.
The rally was top of mind for Trump’s militant supporters. That day, the Secret Service received intelligence that the Proud Boys “think they will have a large enough group to march into DC armed and will outnumber the police so they can’t be stopped.” Moreover, “Their plan is to literally kill people.”
Meanwhile, Trump ally Scott Perry texted Mark Meadows, suggesting that the administration elevate Jeffrey Clark to attorney general if they hoped to overturn the election. This was one of at least 62 texts with Meadows after the election (in addition, Perry had dozens of contacts with Trump’s outside lawyers).
Clark was being mentioned because Trump’s attorney general of less than a week, Jeffrey Rosen, insisted on following the rule of law. On December 27, Trump pressured 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’s allies were in on a “Strategic Communications Plan,” a document detailing an aggressive disinformation campaign filled with talking points about fraud in swing states, messaging channels, and target audiences—even though Trump was told that the fraud talking points were false by “at least 11 aides and close confidants.”
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 Biden had won and order a “special election.”
Trump wasn’t the only one badgering Rosen. Jeffrey Clark made five cracks at the new attorney general, 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. Perry also tried to convince Donoghue to grant more power to Trump loyalist Jeffrey Clark, who wanted to scour election results for any data which could be exploited.
(Perry would later duck the January 6 committee while citing his devotion to “the rule of law,” then play the victim and file a lawsuit when the FBI confiscated his phone at part of a Justice Department investigation of January 6).
On December 28, Clark peddled conspiracy theories around the Justice Department and sent a message to Jeff Rosen and Richard Donoghue requesting their sign-off on a letter (conveniently typed on official Department of Justice letterhead) which asked Georgia’s Republican legislature to call a special session to investigate election “irregularities” and choose a slate of illegitimate electors for Trump.
In the words of historian Heather Cox Richardson, “Clearly, there was no time to actually conduct another investigation into the election before January 6; the letter was designed simply to justify counting out Biden’s ballots or, failing that, to create popular fury that might delay the January 6 count.”
Donoghue responded via email that signing such a letter was “not even in the realm of possibility.”
Without the backing of Justice Department leadership, Clark worked with aide Ken Klukowski (who had started at the Justice Department on December 15) to gather witnesses to provide “testimony” of voter fraud. The January 6 committee revealed that voter suppression expert Ken Blackwell emailed Mike Pence’s office to ask him to meet with Klukowski and John Eastman. According to Jeremy Stahl of Slate, “this email was the first piece of public evidence linking Eastman directly to the efforts to use the [Department of Justice] to change the outcome of the election.”
Another effort to change the outcome of the election came from William Olson, the lawyer Trump had spoken to on Christmas. Warning that “time is about to run out” for their plans, Olson sent a letter to Trump saying that the Office of White House Counsel and Attorney General Rosen were failing the president. Olson suggested the White House replace Rosen within 24 hours and re-file a case along the lines of Texas v. Pennsylvania, which would have nullified the electoral college votes of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If the Supreme Court didn’t rule in Trump’s favor, the president could act unilaterally, since “that body was never intended to be the final authority on matters of this sort.”
Mark Meadows continued the full-court press on December 29 when he urged Rosen and Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue to consider the right-wing myth that the number of votes cast in Pennsylvania was larger than the number of registered voters in the state and to take a look at “Italygate” (a theory that Biden supporters in Italy had used satellites to change a decisive number of votes in 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 (Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona) had violated the Electors Clause of the Constitution, along with a request to file a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Trump’s outside attorney, Kurt Olsen, called Jeff Rosen on December 30 and said that Trump expected him to file Michael’s Supreme Court lawsuit by noon that day. Rosen refused.
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 into refusing to accept Biden electors during the January 6 certification. The goal was to convince Pence to “kill the Biden presidency in the crib.”
As Trump worked on Pence, presidential aspirant Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, became the first senator to announce his intent to object to electors for Joe Biden on January 6.
While Hawley made a savvy play for future Republican primary voters, Trump’s minions continued to pressure the Justice Department (DOJ). In two of five known emails Mark Meadows sent asking the DOJ to review tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories, Trump’s chief of staff that day sent Justice officials disinformation about 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.”)
Unable to get the new attorney general to do his bidding, Trump invited Rosen and Donoghue to the White House on December 31. At the meeting, Trump reportedly said that he was considering replacing Rosen with Jeffrey Clark because Rosen hadn’t been aggressive enough in investigating voter fraud. Trump wanted voting machines seized by the Justice Department, but was told by Rosen that the DOJ had “no legal authority” to do so. If any such authority existed, it was held by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Once the meeting had ended, “Trump then called Ken Cuccinelli, the DHS acting deputy secretary, and falsely told him that the acting attorney general had just said that it was Cuccinelli’s job to seize voting machines ‘and you’re not doing your job.’”
As Trump tried to cling to power, Chip Roy, a supporter of Trump’s election challenges a few weeks earlier, texted Mark Meadows that it was time to give up:
“The president should call everyone off. It’s the only path. If we substitute the will of states through electors with a vote by congress every 4 years…we have destroyed the electoral college.”
On January 1, 2021, Jeff Rosen received a 13-minute YouTube video about Italygate from Mark Meadows (which Meadows had gotten the day prior from Scott Perry). Meadows also asked Rosen to send Jeffrey Clark to Georgia, presumably so that Clark could find something, anything which could be construed as “voter fraud.”
Trump loyalist and director of presidential personnel Johnny McEntee texted a memo to Greg Jacob, Mike Pence’s chief of staff, headlined with the words “Jefferson Used His Position as VP to Win,” a fanciful interpretation of the 1800 presidential election.
McEntee’s memo took a hit when a Trump-appointed judge in Texas rejected Arizona representative Louie Gohmert’s lawsuit claiming Mike Pence could pick and choose which electors to accept on January 6.
Chip Roy texted Mark Meadows that Trump’s plans to overrule the will of the people could “[drive] a stake in the heart of the federal republic.”
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 and self-serving Republican lies about an election they clearly lost, a 10-day “audit” giving Republicans more time to peddle ludicrous and self-serving lies about the election to gullible Americans was necessary in order to “restore faith in American Democracy.”
While his congressional sycophants performed Kabuki theater, Trump made another attempt to flip Georgia. After 18 requests from Mark Meadows, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger consented to a call with Trump. During an infamous 67-minute conference call, Raffensperger debunked Trump’s conspiracy theories and pointed out that multiple recounts hadn’t come close to reversing Trump’s Georgia loss. Unbowed by the facts, Trump tried to bully the Republican Secretary of State into “[finding] 11,780 votes” for him—just enough to give Trump Georgia’s 16 electoral college votes.
Trump also called 300 Republican state legislators, telling them they could overrule the will of the voters in their states and put forward fake electors.
The Justice Department continued to refuse to bend to Trump’s will. Jeff Rosen wrote Jeffrey Clark back and asserted, as his second-in-command Richard Donoghue had already done on December 28, that he was “not prepared to sign” a letter asking Georgia’s Republican legislature to “investigate” trumped-up fraud.
Nonetheless, plans continued for January 6.
According to Mark Meadows aide Cassidy Hutchinson, “the terms ‘Proud Boys’ and ‘Oath Keepers’” came up “when [Rudy] Giuliani was around.” After a January 2 meeting between Rudy Giuliani, Mark Meadows, and other White House officials, Giuliani told Hutchinson, “We’re going to the Capitol! It’s going to be great!” Hutchinson asked Meadows for clarification. Meadows told her “There’s a lot going on…things might get real, real bad on January 6.”
On January 3, 2021, 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.”
Call logs revealed by the January 6 committee showed that Clark called the White House four times that day. By the fourth call—at 4:19 p.m.—Clark was officially referred to in the logs as the “acting Attorney General.”
In testimony before the committee, Jeff Rosen said that Clark “told me that the timeline had moved up and that the president had offered him the job and that he was accepting it.” Rosen “wasn’t going to accept being fired by [a] subordinate,” so he arranged a meeting at the White House.
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 (written by Ken Klukowski, see December 28) to Georgia legislators.
For two-and-a-half hours, Clark tried to convince Trump that he should become attorney general while Richard Donoghue, Pat Cipollone, Jeff Rosen, and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Engel argued against the elevation of Clark. Engel told the January 6 committee:
“I said, ‘Mr. President you’re talking about putting a man in that seat who has never tried a criminal case, who has never conducted a criminal investigation, and he’s telling you that he’s going to take charge of the department’s 115,000 employees, including the entire FBI, and turn the place on a dime and conduct nationwide criminal investigations that will produce results in a matter of days. It’s impossible, it’s absurd, it is not going to happen, and it is going to fail.’
“He has never been in front of a trial jury, a grand jury, he’s never even been to [FBI Director] Chris Wray’s office. I said at one point, ‘If you walked into Chris Wray’s office, one, would you know how to get there, and two, if you got there, would he even know who you are? And do you really think that the FBI is going to suddenly start following your orders?’ It’s not going to happen. He’s not competent.”
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 [the Department of Justice] 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. Trump said Pak hadn’t done enough to uncover 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, where Biden amassed a huge share of his Georgia votes.
While manipulating the electoral college certification was Trump’s main focus, many political insiders had concerns that the president might fall back on the Insurrection Act—especially if pro-Trump protesters clashed with left-leaning forces on January 6. Earlier that day, all ten living defense secretaries, including the recently deposed Mark Esper, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post aimed at key players in the Trump administration’s national security apparatus.
The signatories 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.
On January 4, 2021, Republican senators were given a Team Kraken pitch to seize voting machines and delay the official January 6 certification. Kevin Cramer, a conservative Republican senator who had voted with Trump 94% of the time, disclosed that the presenters wheeled out “some of the most fantastical claims” about interference from Venezuela or China as a justification for the extraordinary step. Attending via Zoom was Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson, who would try to pass off fake electors for his state on January 6.
Another Wisconsin Republican who was in on the plot was Mark Jefferson, executive director of the state party. In a text to a colleague, he said, “Freaking Trump idiots want someone to fly original elector papers to the senate President….They’re going to call one of us to tell us just what the hell is going on.”
As revealed during the January 6 committee hearings, here summarized by historian Heather Cox Richardson: “on January 4, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien called [Mark] Meadows to warn of violence on January 6. The Secret Service and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Anthony Ornato, who was in charge of security protocol to protect anyone covered by presidential protection, also warned of coming violence.”
Despite these warnings, 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.
Still hoping to avoid a messy, violent coup in favor of a bloodless, lawyerly coup, Trump’s outside attorney 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 override the will of American voters.
Eastman’s plan was in clear violation of the Electoral Count Act passed after the 1876 election; Pence’s counsel Mark Jacob would later say that Eastman’s misreading of 130 years of election precedent was “essentially entirely made up.”
A second option was to have Pence adjourn the counting, allowing time for states Trump had lost to send fake 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 to Republican senators Lyndsey Graham and Mike Lee, both of whom would later 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 election victory. Strategies included 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 win, 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, Phil Waldron (author of a 38-page PowerPoint detailing ways to overturn the election), and Roger Stone, who had Oath Keepers as bodyguards along with connections to both Stewart Rhodes (leader of the Oath Keepers) and Enrique Tarrio (leader of the Proud Boys),
Details of the Willard team’s agenda were revealed in a document given to the January 6 committee by Bernard Kerik’s attorney. (See December 17)
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 also passed on by conservatives John Yoo and former vice president Dan Quayle.
That night, appearing at a rally for two Republican senators facing runoffs in Georgia, Trump told the audience Joe 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.
Mike Pence’s attorney, Greg Jacob, released a three-page memo which pointed out that Pence’s rejection of Joe Biden electors would be a flagrant violation of the 1887 Electoral College Act. Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, called a meeting with Timothy Giebels, the head of the vice president’s security detail. Giebels was told that due to Pence’s reluctance to meddle with the electoral count, Donald Trump “was going to turn publicly against the vice president, and there could be a security risk to Mr. Pence because of it.”
Oddly enough, an article appeared that day about Trump ally and Republican senator Chuck Grassley overseeing the electoral college vote if Pence somehow failed to show up.
The Capitol was supposed to be closed to the public due to Covid-19, but Republican House member Barry Loudermilk of Georgia gave a tour of the Capitol that day. One of the people on the tour marched to the Capitol the following day while threatening violence against Democratic members of Congress. The January 6 committee would later tweet that “Individuals on the tour photographed/recorded areas not typically of interest to tourists: hallways, staircases and security checkpoints.” (Loudermilk would be among the 147 House Republicans who would refuse to certify Biden’s win.)
Though 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,” Mark Meadows sent out an email demanding that the National Guard “protect pro-Trump people. A statement from the White House Office of the Press Secretary hyped the threat of left-leaning protesters, saying “President Trump will not allow Antifa, or any terrorist organization, to destroy our great country.”
Trump mirrored this with a tweet threatening members of antifa who showed up in D.C. on January 6. There was speculation later that this messaging could have been put in place to give Trump cover to declare a national emergency on January 6, if anti-Trump protesters showed up to fight pro-Trump protesters. A national emergency would have allowed Trump to seize voting machines according to Phil Waldron’s 38-page PowerPoint titled “Election Fraud, Foreign Interference & Options for January 6” (see November 25, January 4).
Mark Meadows continued to “direct traffic.” Among other things, he arranged secret White House meetings between Trump and his conspirators (behind the backs of White House counsel) and contacted Michael Flynn and Roger Stone—convicted felons whom Trump had recently pardoned that would be connected to the coup attempt. Flynn and Stone would appear that night at a Freedom Plaza event.
Republican representative Debbie Lesko was caught on tape asking congressional leadership to “come up with a safety plan for members” because “I’m actually very concerned about this, because we have who knows how many hundreds of thousands of people coming here. We have Antifa. We also have, quite honestly, Trump supporters, who actually believe that we are going to overturn the election. And when that doesn’t happen – most likely will not happen – they are going to go nuts.”
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 addition, “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 5 p.m. tweet which 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!”
This call out to the troops coincided with a pro-Trump event at Freedom Plaza that night. Speaking at the rally were Trump allies who were too extreme to speak at the main event on January 6—Alex Jones, Ali Alexander, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone. Stone told those in attendance they were in an “epic struggle for the future of this country between dark and light, between the godly and the godless, between good and evil. And we will win this fight or America will step off into a thousand years of darkness.”
According to deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews, during an Oval Office meeting which took place while music was booming at Freedom Plaza (just half a mile from the White House), “[Trump] was in a very good mood. And I say that because he had not been in a good mood for weeks leading up to that, and then it seemed like he was in a fantastic mood that evening.”
Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere concurred, saying Trump was “animated” and “excited about the next day. He was excited to do a rally with his supporters.”
At the meeting, Trump discussed the march to the capitol which would follow his speech at the Ellipse. Though it was known to pro-Trump activists and administration figures, the march to the Capitol wasn’t public knowledge. As January 6 committee member Stephanie Murphy would later say, “the evidence confirms that this was not a spontaneous call to action, but rather was a deliberate strategy decided upon in advance by the president.”
Late that evening, Trump called his apparatchiks at the Willard Hotel and strategized about how they could delay the vote count long enough to get three swing states to reject Biden’s electoral votes and send false electoral votes to the Capitol.
One of the key strategists at the Willard was Steve Bannon. Liz Cheney, 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.”
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 “Save America” rally followed by a march to the Capitol which wasn’t yet public knowledge.
Activists involved in the planning bought burner phones with cash to secretly 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, Paul Gosar (later to become one of the biggest defenders of the insurrectionists), Madison Cawthorn (who spoke at the January 6 rally), Andy Biggs, and Lauren Boebert.
Two of Walker’s sources (both 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 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; 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 electoral college victory. 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 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 reject electors from Biden states and end 232 years of American democracy.
While the suits conspired, Trump’s ground troops stood by. Alongside the Oath Keepers, who “were expecting Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act” so that he could have a false pretense to call up the U.S. military and maintain control of the government by force, 250-300 Proud Boys had plans to pre-empt the certification by seizing government offices and making demands on behalf of the losing presidential candidate. The leaders of the two groups had met in a D.C. underground parking lot the day prior.
According to Mark Meadows’ aide Cassidy Hutchinson, as of 8:00 a.m., “intelligence reports were already coming in that some of the people near the Ellipse, where Trump was to speak, were dressed in body armor and armed with Glock-style pistols, shotguns, and AR-15s, along with other weapons.”
When deputy chief of staff Anthony Ornato told Meadows about weapons confiscated by law enforcement, “Meadows appeared uninterested and didn't look up from his phone…saying: ‘All right, anything else?’”
At 8:24 a.m., Eric Waldow, a deputy chief in the Capitol Police Force who was “responsible for directing officers’ movements,” sent a message over Capitol Police Radio for his fellow officers to “watch out for anti-Trump protesters in the massive pro-Trump crowd.” There was concern of violence between Trump’s white supremacist followers and left-wing activists, but this would turn out to be an empty threat. Prodded to stay home with hashtags #Jan6TrumpTrap and #DontTakeTheBait, the left’s presence at the rally was minimal to nonexistent.
With just over four hours to go before the certification was to start, Trump allies continued their attempts to overturn the will of the American people.
The speaker of the Arizona House, Rusty Bowers, received a call from House of Representatives member Andy Biggs asking Bowers to reject Biden’s legitimate electors for the state of Arizona. This was one of many requests from conspirators to Bowers (including a call from Rudy Giuliani in which Giuliani admitted that “we have lots of theories, we just don’t have the evidence”).
Bowers refused, even as Trump supporters shouted epithets outside of his home while his daughter was inside dying of cancer. (Bowers would later kill a Republican bill empowering the Arizona legislature to override the will of the voters in choosing electoral college votes. In retaliation, the GOP organized and defeated Bowers in a 2022 state Senate primary).
One of the main conspirators was Representative Jim Jordan. Jordan and Trump spoke for ten minutes that morning. Jordan would later gum up the works during the certification—after the Capitol was cleared (then dodge the January 6 committee and be coy about when he spoke with Trump that day.)
The most momentous call Trump had was with Vice President Mike Pence.
Around 11:20 a.m., Trump called Pence from the Oval Office while several witnesses were present. Pence took the call. Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, estimated that the call lasted 15-20 minutes. According to reporters Kyle Cheney and Betsy Woodruff Swan, “Multiple people familiar with the testimony given to the [January 6] committee about the call offered a consistent account. One of those people — granted anonymity to speak candidly — said witnesses described the conversation as beginning relatively pleasantly, with Trump embracing the legal advice he was given about Pence’s ability to send the election back to the states.
“Although people in the Oval Office couldn’t hear him, Pence had clearly rejected Trump’s entreaties, the person indicated. Witnesses have said listeners in the room were surprised because it was the first time they recalled Pence saying no to Trump. The call deteriorated and Trump grew frustrated.”
Trump told Pence “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 confirming that he lacked the constitutional authority to unilaterally decide which electoral college votes to accept.
Preserving long-held democratic precedents were not a priority at the “Save America” rally, which was simmering with latent violence. As reported by historian Heather Cox Richardson, “Text messages between [Cassidy] Hutchinson and [Deputy Chief of Staff Anthony] Ornato show that Trump was ‘furious’ before the Ellipse rally because he wanted photos to show the space full of people and it was not full because law enforcement was screening people for weapons before they could go in. Trump wanted the screening machines, called magnetometers, to be taken down.”
According to Hutchinson’s testimony before the January 6 committee, “I overheard the president say something to the effect of, you know, ‘I don’t even care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the f-ing mags away. Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here. Let the people in. Take the f-ing mags away.’”
The speeches included several 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!”
Addressing congressional Republicans who intended to honor the will of American voters, Donald Trump, Jr. said, “We’re coming for you, and we’re going to have a good time doing it.” 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 noon. Talking tough from behind bulletproof glass, he unleashed a torrent of self-serving 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.”
Over at the Capitol, with the clock running down, Republicans were still scheming to get illegitimate electors to Mike Pence. At 12:37, an aide to Republican senator Ron Johnson texted a Pence aide about “alternate” electors Johnson wanted to pass off. In response, the Pence aide said, “Do not give that to [Pence].”
By 12:54 p.m.—six minutes before Nancy Pelosi was scheduled to bring Congress to order—Trump supporters had busted through barrier fences around the U.S. Capitol.
Five-ten minutes after the formal count had begun, Trump finished his speech 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.”
The march had been hidden—by design—from the general public. In a January 4 communication, conservative organizer Kylie Jane Kramer had texted MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell that “It can also not get out about the march because I will be in trouble with the national park service and all the agencies but POTUS is going to just call for it ‘unexpectedly.’” Trump’s advisors composed a tweet which mentioned the march; Trump read the tweet, but didn’t send it.
In the getaway car, the Secret Service refused to take Trump to the Capitol. Cassidy Hutchinson told the January 6 committee that the outgoing president threw a fit as he “attempted to grab the steering wheel and then lunged at the agent driving” the vehicle. Trump’s demand (“I am the fucking president, take me up to the Capitol now”) went unheeded.
At 1:14 p.m., Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was evacuated from Democratic National Committee headquarters, where a pipe bomb was found. Another pipe bomb, placed by the same suspect the night prior, would be found at the Republican National Committee headquarters. The motive remains unknown, but it could have been to draw law enforcement attention away from the Capitol.
Donald Trump was in the White House dining room by 1:25, where he “was informed of violence at the Capitol within 15 minutes of leaving the stage after his speech at the Ellipse.”
While doing nothing to stop the insurrection, Trump got cozy in front of Fox News. He “asked aides for a list of senators to call as he continued to pursue paths to overturn his defeat,” according to White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
Around the same time, Trump’s ally, Paul Gosar (who had collaborated with the “Save America” 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 overtook police at the back of the Capitol, forcing them inside the building. Unaware of the threat, 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 front of the Capitol.
At 1:39 p.m., the president had a four-minute call with Rudy Giuliani, who would call several senators that day to try to slow the certification down. They spoke again a half hour later.
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.
According to testimony before the January 6 committee, here referenced by Professor Heather Cox Richardson, “[Cassidy] Hutchinson went into [Mark] Meadows’s [White House] office between 2:00 and 2:05 to ask if he was watching the scene unfold on his television. Scrolling through his phone, he answered that he was. She asked if he had talked to Trump. He said, ‘Yeah. He wants to be alone right now.’ [White House Counsel Pat] Cipollone burst into the office and said to go get the president. Meadows repeated that Trump didn't want to do anything. Cipollone very clearly said this to Mark—something to the effect of, ‘Mark, something needs to be done or people are going to die and the blood’s going to be on your f-ing hands. This is getting out of control.”’
Back at the Capitol, as officer Caroline Edwards later described it to the January 6 committee, “What I saw was just a war scene….There were officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up. I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood. I was catching people as they fell. It was carnage. It was chaos.”
At 2:11 p.m., Trump supporters—heavily represented by right-wing hate groups, including many 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. By 2:13, they were inside the building.
Once inside, 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. Others ransacked the Senate parliamentarian’s office in an apparent attempt to intercept electoral college ballots. There were allegations that plotters may have had help from members of the Capitol police force and/or Republican representatives (including Barry Loudermilk, who had conducted a tour of the Capitol on January 5).
At 2:15 p.m., Pat Cipollone texted Mark Meadows that “we need to do something more. They’re literally calling for the vice president to be f’ing hung.”
Meadows responded that “You heard [Trump], Pat. He thinks Mike deserves that. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”
Cipollone’s reply: “This is f’ing crazy, we need to do something more.”
Four minutes later, Hogan Gidley (the national press secretary for Trump’s 2020 campaign) texted Hope Hicks (counselor to the president) with a suggestion that Trump put out a request to his followers to be non-violent. Hicks replied that she had suggested as much “several times” on Monday and Tuesday—this was Wednesday—but “I’m not there.”
The Senate was called into recess at 2:20 p.m., right after Mike Pence was escorted out of the chamber by Secret Service.
The House soon followed.
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 sent out what would become a notorious tweet:
“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 Trump’s deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews would tell the January 6 committee, this was exactly what wasn’t needed in that moment, as Trump was “giving the green light to [the insurrectionists]” who “truly latch on to every word and every tweet.”
While lawmakers hid from rioters, Trump called Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville to ask him to stall the electoral college vote certification whenever (or if) it could safely resume. Trump reached Tuberville around 2:26 p.m. and was notified that Mike Pence, his wife, his brother, and his daughter had been whisked away from the Senate floor. Later reports showed that the seditionists missed Pence and his family by one minute (or “five to 10 feet” by another account).
An excerpt from I Alone Can Fix It by reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker described the scene:
“At that moment, Pence was still in his ceremonial office — protected by Secret Service agents, but vulnerable because the second-floor office had windows that could be breached and the intruding thugs had gained control of the building. Tim Giebels, the lead special agent in charge of the vice president’s protective detail, twice asked Pence to evacuate the Capitol, but Pence refused. ‘I’m not leaving the Capitol,’ he told Giebels. The last thing the vice president wanted was the people attacking the Capitol to see his 20-car motorcade fleeing. That would only vindicate their insurrection.
“At 2:26, after a team of agents scouted a safe path to ensure the Pences would not encounter trouble, Giebels and the rest of Pence’s detail guided them down a staircase to a secure subterranean area that rioters couldn’t reach, where the vice president’s armored limousine awaited. Giebels asked Pence to get in one of the vehicles. ‘We can hold here,’ he said.”
At 2:28, Mark Meadows received a text from Republican representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (“Please tell the president to calm people…This isn’t the way to solve anything”). Meadows would continue to field desperate pleas to stop the violence from Trump allies (including Laura Ingraham and Mick Mulvaney) over the next half hour.
Around 2:30, Capitol police chief Steven Sund asked Lieutenant Generals Walter Piatt and Charles Flynn (the brother of Martial Law advocate Michael Flynn) for permission to deploy the National Guard. Accompanying Sund were Major General William Walker (the commander of the D.C. National Guard), Walker’s counsel (Colonel Earl Matthews), and D.C. chief of police Robert Contee.
According to Colonel 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 for “optics” in June 2020, when they had deployed armed military personnel at peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.
After police chief Contee said he would ask D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to have a press conference exposing Piatt and Flynn’s suspicious delay, Piatt’s 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, as a hand-off would take more time than sending the Guard directly to the Capitol. As reported by Politico, Colonel Matthews’ 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 seditionists ravage the Capitol, Trump allies—including former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, senator Lindsey Graham, 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 wrapped up in watching the attempted coup he’d fomented on Fox in the West Wing dining room. 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 White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Trump was also pressured (in person) to ask the rioters to go home by “Fellow lawyers Pat Philbin and Eric Herschmann, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner…Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, [Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications] Dan Scavino, [Pence National Security Advisor] Gen. Keith Kellogg, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.”
Fulfilling the request would have required minimal effort. Sarah Matthews told the January 6 committee, “It would take probably less than 60 seconds to get from the Oval Office dining room to the press briefing room. There’s a camera that is on in there at all times. If the president wanted to address people, he could have done so.”
But Trump was unmoved, even when his daughter Ivanka initially asked him to stop the violence, likely because he felt the rioters kept his hopes alive by obstructing the vote count.
Eventually, Trump took a call from Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who was inside the Capitol. Republican representative Jamie Herrera Beutler, who was with McCarthy, tweeted that “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 comment 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.”
Key to this path was a delay in the certification. As they hid in an underground Senate loading dock, Trump’s deputy chief of staff (in charge of the Secret Service) Tim Giebels asked Mike Pence to get into one of the Secret Service-protected vehicles. According to reporting in I Alone Can Fix It, Pence replied, “I’m not getting in the car, Tim….I trust you, Tim, but you’re not driving the car. If I get in that vehicle, you guys are taking off. I’m not getting in the car.”
Another excerpt from I Alone Can Fix It indicates that Pence had good reason to stay put. In the scene described, Mike Pence’s national security advisor Keith Kellogg interacts with White House Deputy Chief of Staff/liaison to the Secret Service Anthony Ornato. The exchange takes place shortly after Pence’s refusal to get into the Secret Service car. Ornato’s loyalties—to Donald Trump or democracy—are in question, as Trump had brought Ornato to the White House from the Secret Service, a major break with the non-partisan code of the Secret Service:
“Kellogg ran into Tony Ornato in the West Wing. Ornato, who oversaw Secret Service movements, told him that Pence’s detail was planning to move the vice president to Joint Base Andrews. ‘You can’t do that, Tony,’ Kellogg said. ‘Leave him where he’s at. He’s got a job to do. I know you guys too well. You’ll fly him to Alaska if you have a chance. Don’t do it.’”
While Pence held firm, Ivanka Trump convinced her father to make a half-hearted attempt to defuse the violence with a tweet at 2:38 (“Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”). Loyal foot soldier Donald Trump, Jr. texted Mark Meadows in response (“He’s got to condemn this shit ASAP. The capitol police tweet is not enough.”).
At 3:13 p.m., Trump sent another tweet (“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!”).
But he wouldn’t ask the insurrectionists to leave the Capitol, which forced Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Mike Pence to do his job for him, with calls to the governors of Virginia and Maryland, the secretary of defense, the attorney general, anyone who could help.
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, seditionists started smashing the windows inside the doors to the lobby. Some of them continued even after an officer pointing a gun at them appeared on the other side of the door.
One of the insurrectionists who refused to back off was QAnon follower Ashli Babbitt. While a nearby rioter screamed, “He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun!,” Babbitt tried to climb through a broken window in the doorframe. Moments after Babbitt was fatally shot, tactical officers appeared, clearing the area and moving the attackers away from the lobby.
By 3:45, Trump spokesman Jason Miller had come up with messaging which could end the insurrection and appease the president by shifting the blame. Miller texted Mark Meadows and (Trump aide) Dan Scavino two tweet suggestions:
- “Bad apples, likely ANTIFA or other crazed leftists, infiltrated today’s peaceful protest over the fraudulent vote count. Violence is never acceptable! MAGA supporters embrace our police and the rule of law and should leave the Capitol now!”
- “The fake news media who encouraged this summer’s violent and radical riots are now trying to blame peaceful and innocent MAGA supporters for violent actions. This isn't who we are! Our people should head home and let the criminals suffer the consequences!”
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.”
Since Trump’s tweets had no discernible impact on the insurrectionists, his advisors came up with a neutral, yet unequivocal statement:
“I urge all of my supporters to do exactly what 99% of them have already been doing — express their passions and opinions PEACEFULLY.
“My supporters have a right to make their voices heard, but make no mistake — NO ONE should be using violence or threats of violence to express themselves. Especially at the U.S. Capitol. Let’s respect our institutions. Let’s all do better.
“I am asking you to leave the Capitol Hill region NOW and go home in a peaceful way.”
Trump agreed to ask his followers to go home, but ad-libbed disinformation which fed the delusional rage at the heart of the insurrection. His video plea was posted at 4:17 p.m., over two hours into the breach and over three hours after he became aware of the violence outside the Capitol:
“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.”
As reported by Ryan Goodman and Justin Hendrix, “According to the Department of Defense’s and U.S. Army’s own timelines, it is only after President Trump publicly released [his video statement] that [Defense Secretary Christopher] Miller approved [Army Secretary Ryan] McCarthy’s plan for deploying the D.C. National Guard to the Capitol and even later when McCarthy authorized [D.C. National Guard commander William] Walker to deploy his forces to the Capitol.”
The National Guard finally arrived at 5:20 p.m.
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!”
Around 7 p.m., with an hour to go before the vote count would resume, Rudy Giuliani called what he thought was Alabama senator 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 Joe Biden in order to drag the 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 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.”
Pence officially certified Joe Biden’s victory at 3:42 a.m. on 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 hiding to parrot election fraud lies which had jeopardized their safety just hours earlier.
Remarkably, dead-enders continued to push Trump’s cause after the sun came up.
According to White House counsel Eric Herschmann, he received a call from John Eastman “asking for legal work ‘preserving something potentially for appeal’ in the contested state of Georgia,” where Trump lawyer Sidney Powell flew—that very day—to gather confidential voter data.
Herschmann reportedly told Eastman, “You’re out of your effin’ mind” and “Now I’m going to give you the best free legal advice you’re getting in your life: Get a great effing criminal defense lawyer. You’re going to need it.”
Not long after this conversation, Eastman emailed Rudy Giuliani to ask if he could be added to the growing list of pardon requests.
While some administration officials resigned and others pondered using the 25th amendment to force Donald Trump from office, Ivanka Trump patiently fought off temper tantrums as she tried to coax her father to make a statement condemning the violence he had caused.
Trump couldn’t admit he had lost. He cut out language in a prepared speech about the importance of law and order, one of his favorite themes during the campaign, removing his advisors’ verbiage that “I am directing the Department of Justice to ensure all lawbreakers are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We must send a clear message—not with mercy but with JUSTICE. Legal consequences must be swift and firm.”
Trump removed a line that could have insulted his fanbase: “I want to be very clear you do not represent me. You do not represent our movement.”
Trump’s most feral supporters had done substantial damage. They had inflicted severe trauma on Capitol law enforcement. They had injured more than 150 law enforcement officers and contributed to the deaths of five (an Iraq War vet who was bashed in the head with a fire extinguisher and four who later committed suicide). Their rampage cost America’s taxpayers $480 million to secure the Capitol (with 25,000 National Guard members) before Joe Biden’s inauguration. Taxpayers spent another $1.5 million dollars to repair the citadel of American democracy. The damage done to America’s long-standing tradition of peaceful transfers of power was (and still is) incalculable.
Donald Trump expressed no contrition.
In fact, he embraced January 6. In a TV appearance in September of 2021, 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.”
Two years after the January 6 insurrection, there’s a lot that we still don’t know.
GOP leadership saw no political benefit in angering Trump’s base or holding hundreds of Republican officials—including dozens of members of Congress—to account.
First, Senate Republicans killed an independent 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 was heavily involved in Trump’s coup attempt.
Their hands tied by Republican ploys, Democrats did the best they could to conduct an accurate investigation without a partisan process, forming a select committee with two conservative Republicans who were willing to take an honest look at what happened on January 6, 2021.
The select committee was hobbled in their mission by a long list of Republican officials who refused to appear before the committee or pleaded the 5th Amendment when they did appear. Obstruction served as a get-out-of-jail-free card for numerous Republicans who skirted the law in their collaboration with Trump and his associates.
Communication gaps are another big hole in the story.
Encrypted communications among Republican conspirators, among insurrectionist organizers, and between organizers and Republican conspirators have slipped into the ether.
Phone communications on January 6 among members of key government agencies—the Secret Service and the Defense Department—have disappeared.
During the January 6 committee hearings, Representative Jamie Raskin called Mike Pence’s refusal to get into the Secret Service vehicle (“I’m not getting into that car”) “the six most chilling words of this entire thing I’ve seen so far” and asserted that the efforts to get Pence out of the Capitol were motivated by a desire to delay the vote certification: “[Pence] knew exactly what this inside coup they had planned for was to do.”
The role of Secret Service members in Trump’s plot could be a critical piece of the puzzle, but Secret Service texts from January 5 and January 6 mysteriously disappeared. The texts disappeared after multiple House committees requested all such records be preserved on January 16, 2021. The Trump-appointed Department of Homeland Security inspector general Joseph Cuffari discovered that these texts had been deleted in May of 2021 but didn’t notify Congress until July 14, 2022. Officials in the inspector general’s office wrote a memo notifying Congress of the missing texts in April of 2022, but Cuffari didn’t forward the information.
Not surprisingly, Joe Biden hired a new Secret Service team on entering office.
Arguably the biggest question still on the table is why backup deployment to the Capitol took so long.
This delay happened despite the fact that chief of staff Mark Meadows, who was with Trump, was in “non-stop” communication all day with Kash Patel, the chief of staff for Defense Secretary Christopher Miller—whom Trump had installed after losing the 2020 election.
One line of thought is that Trump’s appointees handcuffed D.C. police and conspired to delay Guard deployment to give the insurrectionists time to stop the vote certification. Miller was perfectly aware of how dire the situation was from early on and yet reportedly didn’t sign on to the emergency deployment until 4:32 p.m., two hours and 43 minutes after Capitol police chief Steven Sund first asked for backup.
And it’s hard to imagine Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations General Charles Flynn (whose brother Michael Flynn was in Trump’s inner circle of coup planners) being disappointed if the certification didn’t happen; this could explain his odd concern about “optics” when Capitol police chief Steven Sund asked for permission to deploy backup around 2:30 p.m. Colonel Earl Matthews, a lawyer for the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, said that Flynn and his cohort Lieutenant General Walter Piatt were “absolute and unmitigated liars” when they spoke to the January 6 committee.
A second theory, based on the testimony of General Mark Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Christopher Miller before the January 6 committee, is that deployment was held off out of fear that the introduction of troops could create the chaos Trump needed to invoke the Insurrection Act, just as the Oath Keepers hoped he would. The timing of deployment—after Trump had asked his supporters to go home in the 4:17 p.m. video—may support this theory.
Or maybe Miller and/or Milley were covering their asses before the committee, after the fact. Maybe the deployment happened when it did because Mike Pence and congressional leadership were pushing the Department of Defense to act and Miller/Milley felt that Trump’s 4:17 p.m. video indicated that he no longer expected their acquiescence.
Despite these major gray areas, two very important truths are crystal clear.
One, The Big Lie that fueled the coup attempt looks even more preposterous now than it did two years ago, as swing state recounts in 2020—and 2022 election results—reinforced Biden’s legitimacy.
Georgia did three recounts, one by hand. All three verified a Biden margin of over 11,000 ballots. Biden’s win was within .6% of the pre-election projections at 538.com. In 2022, Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock beat Republican Herschel Walker by almost 100,000 votes in the Peach State, despite aggressive voter suppression legislation passed by Republicans in 2021.
The final 2020 tally in Arizona was within .6% of the RealClearPolitics polling projection. 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. In 2022, Democrats won the two most hotly-contested races in the state—for governor and U.S. Senate—despite party-line Republican voter suppression legislation passed after the 2020 election. Incumbent Democratic senator Mark Kelly won by almost six points.
A recount of Wisconsin’s two biggest Democratic counties requested by Republicans padded Biden’s 20,000+-vote margin by another 87 ballots. In 2022, Democrat Mandela Barnes narrowly lost to incumbent U.S. senator Ron Johnson (after being swamped by outside money), but Democrats won four out of the other five statewide offices. Democratic governor Tony Evers, the bulwark against a complete Republican takeover of the state’s election system, won by a comfortable 90,000 votes despite race-based GOP voter suppression measures on the books.
Michigan’s recount validated Biden’s 154,000-vote margin. Biden’s win was small next to Democrats’ victories in 2022, in which Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer won by 11 points and Democrats regained control of the state legislature.
Like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Biden won Nevada by enough of a margin—2.4 points in Biden’s case—to negate the need for a recount. This margin was within .3% of the RealClearPolitics’ pre-election projection. Nevada’s Secretary of State put out a point-by-point refutation of right-wing conspiracies just in case.
A sample audit of 63 counties in Pennsylvania after the 2020 election found results which were within “a fraction of a percentage point” of the official tabulation. Biden’s margin of victory—1.2%—was the exact same margin predicted by RealClearPolitics.com. Democrats easily won the two big races in 2022: John Fetterman clinched the U.S. Senate seat by five points; Josh Shapiro won the governor’s mansion by almost 15 points. Democrats also won control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years.
A thorough AP study of the six closest swing states in 2020 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.
A peer-reviewed study published by the National Academy of Sciences concluded the following:
“After the 2020 US presidential election Donald Trump refused to concede, alleging widespread and unparalleled voter fraud. Trump’s supporters deployed several statistical arguments in an attempt to cast doubt on the result. Reviewing the most prominent of these statistical claims, we conclude that none of them is even remotely convincing. The common logic behind these claims is that, if the election were fairly conducted, some feature of the observed 2020 election result would be unlikely or impossible. In each case, we find that the purportedly anomalous fact is either not a fact or not anomalous.”
“Lost, Not Stolen,” a paper published by “a group of prominent conservative legal and political figures,” concluded that “there is absolutely no evidence of fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election on the magnitude necessary to shift the result in any state, let alone the nation as a whole. In fact, there was no fraud that changed the outcome in even a single precinct.”
The biggest takeaway from all of the evidence to emerge over the past two years is that Donald Trump did nothing to clear the Capitol for over three hours.
In the words of January 6 committee chairman Bennie Thompson, “For 187 minutes on January 6th, this man of unbridled destructive energy could not be moved—not by his aides, not by his allies.…or the desperate pleas of those facing down the rioters….He ignored and disregarded the desperate pleas of his own family, including Ivanka and Don Jr., even though he was the only person in the world who could call off the mob. He could not be moved to rise from the dining room table… and carry his message to the violent mob.”
January 6 committee co-chair Liz Cheney was one of the few Republican officials willing to acknowledge the extent of Donald Trump’s efforts to end democracy in the United States. The daughter of ultra-conservative former vice president Dick Cheney and the former chair of the House GOP Conference (the third most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives), Cheney endorsed Trump twice, voted for him twice, donated to and raised money for his 2020 campaign as a co-captain of the Trump Victory Finance Committee, and voted with Trump 93% of the time during his single term in office.
For refusing to go along with Donald Trump’s Big Lie, Cheney was demoted from her leadership position in the party and replaced with Trump toady Elise Stefanik, who had called Trump a “whack job” in private. Cheney was then primaried, where she lost to an election denier.
In closing remarks made in a January 6 committee hearing last July, Cheney said, “In our hearing tonight, you saw an American president faced with a stark and unmistakable choice between right and wrong. There was no ambiguity, no nuance. Donald Trump made a purposeful choice to violate his oath of office.”
Claims that the committee was a partisan witch hunt were undercut by the witnesses called: “The case made against him is not made by his political enemies. It is instead a series of confessions by Donald Trump's own appointees, his own friends, his own campaign officials, people who worked for him for years and his own family.”
Looking to 2024, Cheney posed the question every American with a shred of decency should ask themselves:
“Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of Jan. 6 ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?”
Dan Benbow has been an online political features writer since 2003. His work has appeared at RawStory, the Miami Herald, the New York Daily News, Salon, Truthout, the Progressive, AlterNet, GetUnderground/KotoriMag, and his boutique blog, “Truth and Beauty.” He can be reached at email@example.com and followed @danbenbow on Twitter.