In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.
Donald Trump entered the holiday season as fixated as ever on overturning the results of the election. « VOTER FRAUD IS NOT A CONSPIRACY THEORY, IT IS A FACT!!! » he tweeted on December 24.
The night before, Trump flew to Florida to spend the holidays at his Mar-a-Lago home. Flying with him on Air Force One: Rudy Giuliani, the president’s Number One cheerleader, who was spending Christmas with the Trumps.
Upon arriving at his golf club that Thursday, the president « received a warm welcome from members, » according to CNN. Fellow golfers were excited that Trump wasn’t giving up the fight.
Vice President Mike Pence was on Trump’s mind, though. The two men were fundamentally different. Pence, deeply conservative and a conscientious holder of his office, was never close to or buddies with the showman.
Donald Trump tweeted on Christmas Eve: « Mike Pence MUST do this … defend our Constitution from our enemies: Foreign: China, Russia, Iran… » This was the only way for Trump to directly communicate; their meetings at this point were formal and perfunctory.
Pence was reaching out to everyone—Constitutional lawyers, former vice presidents, Congressional leaders—and every one of them told him he had no role to play in the vote count on January 6, other than the pro forma ceremonial role. The Constitution was clear: Congress certified the electoral votes that had already been counted. As president of the Senate, Pence presided. But he didn’t have to. Vice President Hubert Humphrey didn’t preside, turning over the duties to the President Pro Tempore, the senior member.
Trump and his supporters, of course, had their own theory of what was possible, the Pence could reject the electors in swing states, substituting in Trump electors. It was preposterous, but Trump and the campaign produced their own experts, lawyers, and kibitzers who happily contradicted the facts, making up their own path to reversing the election when the Joint Session of Congress met.
What was Donald Trump to think? Though Pence, by all accounts, was struggling with the personal and ethical dilemma of making the final break with Donald Trump, he also continued to publicly support the president, creating the illusion that he might come through. Speaking to a group of young conservatives in Florida earlier in the week, Pence exhorted the crowd to « keep fighting until every legal vote is counted » and « every illegal vote is thrown out. »
« Stay in the fight for election integrity. Stay in the fight to defend all we’ve done, » Pence said. « Four more years! »
« Stop the steal! » the crowd chanted.
Official Washington— »the swamp, » the high-and-mighty, as John Bolton called them, the lawyers and lobbyists, the bureaucracy—concluded overwhelmingly that the election was over. Donald Trump and his supporters were merely bellowing conspiracies and fantastic claims, they thought. It was all theater to stoke the president’s ego. Donald Trump was responsible for riling people up, they thought, dismissing the 70 million who had voted for him as ignorant, illiterate, ridiculous.
And yet, outside Washington, the national angst was deep and there was genuine confusion and concern. It wasn’t just a group of young Republicans. It wasn’t just Trump’s golf club. Take, for instance, the experience of Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, when he went back to Utah for Christmas.
According to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s « Peril, » Senator Lee « began hearing from friends, neighbors, family members about the election being stolen … People who would not be regarded as being on the fringe of society—mayors, city council men, county commissioners, sheriffs—said that were expecting to go back to Washington and ‘stop the steal.’ Text messages, social media posts, people who got his phone number wanting to know what was going on. How was the election stolen? What are you going to do? »
« Cancel culture » Trump tweeted, railing against Twitter for « going wild with their flags, trying hard to suppress even the truth. Just shows how dangerous they are, purposely stifling free speech. Very dangerous for our Country. »
« This is how Communism starts, » Trump raged.
Donald Trump’s army was ready to go to war for their president, to prevent communism, to defend the nation. They sought a sense of patriotic duty, expressed in their quasi-military pretensions and even their dress.
« Who wants to go to dc? » Christopher Quaglin posted on Facebook on December 24, « I have an extra double twin bed available. »
« Driving in with my wife from Berryville VA, » Donavan Ray Crawl posted on Facebook. « Meeting up with Oathkeepers from North Carolina and Patriot group from the Shenandoah Valley. »
Ronald Mele posted on Facebook that he and three friends were thinking of renting a car to drive cross-country, « arriving January 5 to support our President on the 6th and days to follow just in case. » The following day, he explained in another Facebook post that he was « going to rent a suburban. Team of four rotating eight hours each. Need room for the ‘gear.' »
« [I]t is IMPERATIVE that we let our elected federal officials know in both the Senate and the house that we will not be voting for them again if they do not support our President Trump on January 6th when they are counting Electoral College votes … » Kenneth Reda posted.
Benjamin Burlew spoke to a family member on a call that day as well, saying he planned to « storm the Capitol. »
« By bullet or ballot, » Ryan Taylor Nichols posted on Facebook. « Restoration of the Republic is Coming. »
« That’s my basement gun room, » Quaglin captioned a photo. « I have been planning for this since fucking Bush left office and Obama came in »
All six were later arrested for their roles on January 6.
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