By Dan Barry, Mike McIntire and Matthew Rosenberg
It was the table-setter for what would come, with nearly 2,000 people gathering in Washington on Tuesday evening for a “Rally to Save America.” Speaker after angry speaker stoked stolen-election conspiracy theories and name-checked sworn enemies: Democrats and weak Republicans, communists and Satanists.
Still, the crowd seemed a bit giddy at the prospect of helping President Donald Trump reverse the result of the election — although at times the language evoked a call to arms.
As the audience thinned, groups of young men emerged in Kevlar vests and helmets, a number of them holding clubs and knives. Some were aligned with the neofascist Proud Boys; others with the Three Percenters, a far-right militia group.
“We’re not backing down anymore,” said a man with fresh stitches on his head. “This is our country.”
By Wednesday afternoon, a mob overran the nation’s Capitol as lawmakers hid in fear. Wholesale vandalism. Tear gas. Gunfire. A woman dead; an officer dead; many injured.
But the insurrection failed.
It had been the culmination of a sustained assault by the president and his enablers on fact-based reality, one that began long before the November election but took on a fevered urgency as the certainty of Trump’s defeat solidified.
Since losing to Joe Biden, Trump had mounted a campaign of lies that the presidency was being stolen from him and that marching on the Capitol was the last chance to stop it. To many Americans, it looked like one more feel-good rally to salve Trump’s wounded ego, but some of his supporters heard a battle cry.
Now dozens of them have been arrested. But the experience seemed to have only hardened the resolve of others.
Couy Griffin, 47, a Republican county commissioner from New Mexico, spoke of organizing another Capitol rally soon — one that could result in “blood running out of that building” — in a video he later posted to the Facebook page of his group, Cowboys for Trump.
“We will plant our flag on the desk of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” he said. “And Donald J. Trump, if it boils down to it.”
The advance publicity for the rally had been robust. Beyond the repeated promotions in tweets by the president and his allies, the upcoming event was cheered on social media. But woven through many of the messages to stand up for Trump — and, if possible, block the congressional certification of the election — was language that flirted with aggression, even violence.
For example, the term “Storm the Capitol” was mentioned 100,000 times in the 30 days preceding Jan. 6, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company. Many of these mentions appeared in viral tweet threads that discussed the possible storming of the Capitol.
In online discussions, some followers of QAnon and militia groups explored which weapons and tools to bring. “Pack a crowbar,” read one message posted on Gab, a social media refuge for the far-right.
Still, the communication did not appear to result in a broadly organized plan to take action. It is also unclear if any big money or coordinated fundraising was behind the mobilization, although some Trump supporters appear to have found funds through opaque online networks to help pay for transportation to the rally.
On Tuesday, a couple thousand people gathered at Freedom Plaza in Washington for the “The Rally to Save America” event, permitted as “The Rally to Revival.” The disparate interests of those attending were reflected by the speakers: well-known evangelists, alt-right celebrities (Alex Jones of Infowars) and Trump loyalists, including his former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the self-described Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone, both of whom he had pardoned.
The speakers repeatedly encouraged the attendees to see themselves as foot soldiers fighting to save the country. Americans, Flynn said, were ready to “bleed” for freedom.
At about noon Wednesday, Trump strode onto a stage set up in a park just south of the White House and for more than an hour delivered a stream of inflammatory words. He exhorted the crowd of more than 8,000 to march to the Capitol to pressure lawmakers, “because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
Even before he had finished speaking, people started moving east toward the Capitol. Soon word spread that Vice President Mike Pence — who would oversee the pro forma count by Congress of the electoral votes for certification — had announced he would not be complicit in the president’s efforts to overturn the election.
“You can imagine the emotion that ran through people when we get that word,” said Griffin, the county commissioner from New Mexico, in a video he posted on social media. “What do you think was going to happen?”
By the time the bulk of the crowd reached the building, its leading edge had metastasized into an angry mob. A man barked into a megaphone, “Keep moving forward! Fight for Trump, fight for Trump!”
People surged past a few Capitol Police officers to bang on the windows and doors. Many eyewitness accounts and videos have since emerged that convey the pandemonium as hundreds of people overwhelmed the inadequate law enforcement presence. After a few minutes, the crowd broke through and began streaming in.
Some stood in awe, while others took action. All the while, members of the Oath Keepers, a self-proclaimed citizens’ militia, seemed to be standing guard — for the transgressors. American flags flapped beside “Trump 2020” flags, and people wearing “Make America Great Again” regalia moved beside people wearing anti-Semitic slogans. Chants of “Hell no, never Joe” and “Stop the steal” broke out, as did strains of “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Derrick Evans of West Virginia, who just two months before had been elected as a Republican state delegate, wandered the halls of the Capitol, filming himself.
Amid the cheers and whoops of excitement were questions of what to do next. Some can be heard hunting for specific members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose office was broken into by several people.
One image showed a trim man moving through the Senate chamber in full paramilitary regalia. He carried a stack of flex cuffs — the plastic restraints used by police.
“Our president wants us here,” a man can be heard saying during a livestream video that showed him standing within the Capitol. “We wait and take orders from our president.”
Trump was missing in action as rioters rampaged through the halls of Congress. It would be hours before he eventually surfaced in a somewhat subdued appeal for them to leave. “We have to have peace,” he said. “So go home. We love you. You’re very special.”
Some of Trump’s supporters expressed frustration, even disbelief, that the president seemed to have given up. One man wandered away from the Capitol, yelling angrily through a megaphone that Pence was a coward and now Trump had told everyone “to just go home.”
Scores of those who responded to the incendiary words of the president now face a reckoning. A chief target of investigators will be whoever struck Brian Sicknick of the Capitol Police with a fire extinguisher; the 42-year-old officer died Thursday after being injured in the riot.
Signs of potential future violence have already surfaced. Twitter, which terminated Trump’s account Friday, noted that “plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating” online, including “a proposed secondary attack on the U.S. Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17.”
Private chat groups on Gab and Parler are peppered with talk of a possible “Million Militia March” on Jan. 20 that would disrupt the presidential inauguration of Biden. “We took the building once,” one commenter posted. “We can take it again.”