How Trump’s election disinformation campaign provoked violence on Jan. 6 — what we know so far
Donald Trump (AFP)

As the January 6th Committee prepares to hold its second public hearing today, Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has pledged that the American people will learn that Donald Trump knew he had lost the election, but that the former president nonetheless “engaged in a massive effort to spread false and fraudulent information to convince huge portions of the US population that fraud had stolen the election from him.”

Previewing today’s hearing during the inaugural session last week, Cheney said, “President Trump invested millions of dollars of campaign funds purposely spreading false information, running ads he knew were false, and convincing millions of Americans that the election was corrupt and that he was the true president. As you will see, this misinformation campaign provoked the violence on January 6th.”

With Cheney taking point on a prosecution-style effort to convict Trump of seditious conspiracy in the court of public opinion, the committee is focusing tightly on the former president, while at least so far paying less attention to proxies like former White House strategist Steve Bannon, political consultant Roger Stone, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, and attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani.

In making the case that Trump knew his election-fraud claims were false, the committee presented testimony last week from former Attorney General Bill Barr saying that he “repeatedly told the president in no uncertain terms that I didn’t see any evidence of election fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election” and from former Trump campaign advisor Jason Miller saying that the campaign’s lead data analyst “delivered to the president pretty blunt terms that he was going to lose.” According to Politico, the committee will augment that case today with testimony by Trump’s former campaign chief, Bill Stepien, who will reportedly discuss how election-fraud claims were used to drive political fundraising, and by former Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt, who was responsible for the network’s decision to report that Biden won Arizona.

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Trump laid the foundation for his false and outrageous claims about that the election was stolen well in advance of the 2020 contest, by tweeting in July 2020 that “mail-in ballots” as a public safety measure to protect voters during the pandemic “will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election.” Even before that, Trump prepared for an expected 2016 loss by claiming at a campaign rally in Wisconsin that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” Then, after the 2016 election, Trump falsely claimed that he only lost the popular vote because of “the millions of people who voted illegally.”

The former president was the loudest tribune of false claims of election fraud, which ricocheted around far-right media outlets like One America News and Newsmax and loyal social media influencers, and his recital of countless debunked fraud claims during his rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6 propelled his supporters to the Capitol, where they engaged in medieval-style hand-to-hand combat with the police for several hours and forced Congress into recess as they ransacked the building.

Knowing that mail-in votes postmarked on Election Day or just before would favor his Democratic opponent, Trump demanded that election officials stop counting votes in states where he was ahead on election night.

“This is a fraud on the American public,” he said. “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election…. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning, and add them to the list.”

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As momentum built through a series of feeder rallies in state capitols where the president was contesting the election results and surged into violent pro-Trump gatherings in Washington DC in late 2020, a misinformation engine came together that went far beyond election fraud, and incorporated claims of betrayal by a so-called “deep state” and interference by hostile foreign powers. Anxiety about demographic decline among white people amplified by white nationalist Nick Fuentes — recruited into the “Stop the Steal” coalition by organizer Ali Alexander — also motivated a sense among Trump’s supporters that the United States was turning into a country that they no longer recognized. The rioters who attacked the Capitol particularly cited claims about “deep state” betrayal and foreign interference to justify their violence.

Trump did not build the misinformation infrastructure alone. The degree to which the former president or high-level representatives with delegated authority may have managed the sprawling network of conspiracy theorists, influencers and operatives, if at all, remains unclear. What is clear is that Trump was deeply engaged in the misinformation loop, and used his massive Twitter following to serve as its chief amplifier.

Emblematic of Trump’s symbiotic relationship with far-right media, Trump retweeted a story by One America News White House correspondent Chanel Rion that created the false impression that Dominion Voting Systems allowed the election to be stolen. Trump also received information through Trade Advisor Peter Navarro and his aide Garrett Ziegler that filtered up from researchers, analysts, conspiracy theorists and so-called “whistleblowers” ensconced in a bloc of hotel rooms at the Westin Gateway Arlington across the Potomac River in Virginia.

Many of the conspiracy theories that supplied the granular detail in the election fraud narrative were live long before the 2020 election, but they were massaged and managed by a network of pro-Trump influencers eager to tailor them to the president’s whims. For example, affidavits filed by attorney Sidney Powell in federal lawsuits seeking to overturn the election included false claims that the Spain-based election technology company Scytl moved votes to offshore servers and re-shuffled them to obtain a desired outcome. Russell Ramsland, a self-described cybersecurity expert, reportedly promoted the false claim about Scytl as early as 2019. Pro-Trump podcaster Terpsehore “Tore” Maras deployed the Scytl hoax as part of a campaign to challenge the Republican governor Matt Bevin’s loss in the 2019 election in Kentucky. Then-InfoWars correspondent Millie Weaver recycled the Scytl hoax in the ShadowGate hoax in August 2020. In addition to hiring Ramsland, Byrne has acknowledged paying for hotel rooms for Maras and Weaver in Arlington in late 2020, and covering the cost of airfare for Weaver’s reporting trip to California. Byrne, who financed his own group of “cyber experts, told the Washington Post that Ramsland “acted as the conduit and synthesizer for a lot of research that was being done by other parties and technologists in our network.”

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During his speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, Trump suggested that more than an election was at stake. Depending on the outcome, he claimed, his supporters could lose their country.

“Today, we will see whether Republicans stand strong for integrity in our elections,” Trump said. “But whether or not they stand strong for our country, our country. Our country has been under siege for a long time. Far longer than this four-year period.”

In another passage, he said: “And they try to demean everybody having to do with us. And you’re the real people, you’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.”

And: “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Trump’s message resonated with Casey Cusick, a Florida pastor who told Newsmax he and his father and a congregant from their church “went to DC to the rally because we believed what Trump said, and we believed that he won the election.”

Later, in a podcast, he said, “We’re in a situation right now of combating this stuff in our country. We need to throw away all these love messages and faith messages, and start teaching our people and letting ’em know what is going on in our country. And if you don’t fight — fight back against this tyranny that’s happening — they’ll shut our churches down.”

In the weeks before Jan. 6, 2021, Trump’s allies marshaled bogus evidence about electronic vote manipulation and foreign interference in dozens of cases that were ultimately thrown out of federal and state courts. But even as the courts were dismissing the claims, his allies were mobilizing Trump’s supporters through public rallies that painted anyone who didn’t endorse the president’s views — Republican state officials, judges, the media — into an ever-widening conspiracy. The false claims of election fraud weaponized a narrative that the president’s supporters were patriots standing up to a treasonous elite bent on taking the country from them.

“He’s been fighting for America,” pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood told a crowd in Alpharetta, Ga. on Dec. 2, 2020, as he expressed support for Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor who had been charged with lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. “And he’s been fighting for you, the people, for the last several years. He’s fighting the same people that persecuted him for years and falsely accused him for years — that are trying to steal our country from us.

“We’re gonna send a message,” Wood continued, sharing the stage with “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander and fellow attorney Sidney Powell. “It’s 1776 in America again. And we’re not gonna take our freedom. We’re gonna fight for our liberty. We’re gonna send that message from Wills Park today, and we’re gonna send it all the way to Beijing, China. We’re not gonna let you take our country away…. This is America. You picked a fight with the wrong people.” Wood went on to insinuate that a state election official was intending “to sell our votes to China” while “making a ton of money.”

Powell hammered away at the same theme after being introduced by Wood.

“Americans around the world and freedom-loving people around the world are starved for the truth and for freedom,” she said. “That is exactly what they have all tried to take away from all of us. It’s been increasing exponentially for the last 20 years. It’s unbelievable to me as a child that grew up in the fifties that grew up in just an amazing time in this country when you could walk to school safely and have friends of all kinds and there was none of the divisiveness, at least in my life and the lives of my friends, regardless of their color.”

Without offering any proof or substantiation, Powell mentioned money “traced” back to China, “backdoors” in the voting system and foreign election interferences from Iran and other countries. She wondered aloud “what role our three-letter agencies had.”

“We will give all of our evidence to the Department of Justice as soon as we pull it together,” Powell promised. “It’s gonna take a lot of indictments — and fast — to show us that they really mean business because there’s been flagrant election fraud.”

Wood stoked expectations about Democrats and government officials opposed to Trump being brought to justice — a tenet of the QAnon conspiracy captured in the slogan “The storm is coming” — on his Twitter account, which was second only to Trump’s in influence among election deniers.

“If @realDonaldTrump orders military to seize documents, Chief Justice Roberts, Rod Rosenstein, Nancy Pelosi, & many others will be immediately arrested,” Wood tweeted on Jan. 4. “Documents must be seized before they are destroyed. Time is now of the essence if this part of the Kraken is to be successful.”

As Powell and Giuliani’s election lawsuits foundered, and prosecutions failed to materialize, more militant language began to creep into the rhetoric of Trump’s supporters.

Following Dec. 12, 2020 rallies that saw the Proud Boys and other Trump supporters clash with left-wing counter-protesters in downtown Washington, DC, Robert Patrick Lewis, the founder of a volunteer security group associated with Flynn, mentioned “one more plan” in a podcast interview.

“And all it would take would be one sentence from President Trump or General Flynn,” Lewis said. “And I guarantee you 10 to 15 million pissed-off American patriots — probably a large percentage of them would be vets — would be willing to drop everything, [and go] to DC or their state capitol and take action into their own hands.”

Mike Adams, head of the Natural News digital conspiracy theory hub, told his listeners during a Dec. 30, 2020 podcast: “The only two options that were ever going to work were, number one, the military, and, number two, we the people.”

Charlene Bollinger, who hosted the MAGA Freedom Rally near the Russell Senate Office Building on Jan. 6, has said that Adams is a confidant and someone she listens to.

By late December 2020, some of Trump supporters were taking the unfounded beliefs in a “deep state” treason on behalf of hostile foreign forces to its logical conclusion of violence — painting any election official or lawmaker who properly upheld or certified the election for Biden as an enemy.

“And even our so-called ambassadors of freedom, our so-called politicians, if you will, that are selling out their country, they’re all treasonous traitors,” said Cordie Williams, a Marine Corps veteran from California who founded the nationalist group 1776 Forever Free, in a podcast on Dec. 29. “And last time I checked… you know, treason is a federal crime. It’s a capital crime. And firing squad or hanging, right?”

Matt Couch, a conspiracy theorist who urged listeners to come to Washington, DC, said on a podcast two days before the assault on the Capitol: “Our founders would have already been dragging people into the middle of the street, and beating the hell out of them for what we’re being put through.”

Some pro-Trump conspiracy theorists explicitly began to frame Congress’ formal proceeding to certify Biden as the next president as a matter of war — if not one involving active hostilities than an information war.

“Everybody has now seen overwhelming video and photographic and testimony and witness evidence of election interference,” Jeffrey Prather, a former DEA agent, told Adams on Jan. 1. “Nobody believes there wasn’t election interference. Not at all. That is — intelligence is preparation of the battlefield. And mainly this battlefield is the human terrain of psychological operations and informational warfare. And I think that is what is happening.”

Whether they heard the call from Prather or from other sources, many of Trump’s supporters took the call to heart, procuring tactical gear and preparing to travel across the country to Washington, DC.

After their private chats were leaked by the news outlet Unicorn Riot, Army Special Forces veteran Jeremy Brown from Florida told his Oath Keepers to think of themselves as “patriots” who were “now operating in the counterinsurgency.”

Preparing to travel to Washington, DC in an RV he called “Ground Force One,” Brown issued an invitation heavy on military jargon.

“I would LIKE to depart by 0645 on Sunday morning, Jan 3rd,” he wrote, “Push through to the NC linkup on the 3rd, RON (Rest Over Night) there, then push to DC on the 4th. This will give us the 4th/5th to set up, conduct route reconds. CTR (Close Target Reconnaissance) and any link ups needed with DC elements.”

By Dec. 22, 2020, Ivan Raiklin, an Army Reserve officer, was publicly promoting a legally dubious scheme to persuade Vice President Mike Pence to set aside electoral votes duly won by Biden in six battleground states. Just one day earlier, Trump had met with members of the House Freedom Caucus to begin strategizing a scheme for lawmakers to object to certification of the electoral votes for Biden on Jan. 6. Two days after Raiklin began promoting the so-called “Pence card,” an aide to President Trump reportedly reached out to attorney John Eastman and asked him to write a memo about the Jan. 6 certification, beginning a campaign to strong-arm Pence to set aside the Biden electoral votes.

The campaign to pressure Pence into intervening in the electoral certification set in motion significant intrigue and speculation about what the vice president might do.

Wood and Ron Watkins, a major QAnon influencer, worked in tandem to promote inflammatory and baseless claims that Pence was a traitor who was part of a massive government betrayal of the people, based on dubious assertions made by a Maryland felon named Ryan Dark White.

On the morning of Jan. 6, as Trump’s supporters were gathering at the Ellipse, Wood tweeted: “MUST BE DONE LIST before Congress meets today: 1. Mike Pence @vp @Mike_Pence must resign & thereafter be charged with TREASON. 2. Rod Rosenstein @RodRosenstein must be arrested & charged with being accessory to murder & TREASON. 3. Chief Justice John Roberts must resign.”

During his speech, Trump repeatedly invoked Pence’s name.

“All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify and we become president, and you are the happiest people,” Trump told his followers.

“And Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country,” Trump said, mentioning the vice president a second time. “And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you. I will tell you right now, I’m not hearing good stories.”

After the rally, Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our County and our Constitution, giving the States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify.”

Ryan Nichols, a Marine Corps veteran from Texas, was part the stream of Trump supporters heading for the Capitol that received the news.

“I’m hearing reports that Pence caved,” Nichols said on Facebook Live. After breaking into the Capitol, Nichols would reemerge outside and, waving a crowbar, address fellow rioters through a bullhorn, telling them: “This is not a peaceful protest. If you have a weapon, you need to get your weapon!”

Now, walking to the Capitol, he was enraged to learn about Pence’s betrayal.

“I’m telling you if Pence caved, we’re gonna drag mother***ers through the streets,” he said. “You f***ing politicians are going to get f***ing dragged through the streets. Because we’re not going to have our election or our country stolen. If we find out you politicians voted for it, we’re going to drag your f***ing ass through the streets. Because it’s the second f***ing revolution and we’re f***ing done.”