The January 6th Report Takeaway: Trump Incited the Riot
The hardest thing to explain to our children about the Trump era will be the unrelenting torrent of chaos that Donald Trump inflicted upon the country. The House January 6th Committee’s report captures his final months in office—the climax and culmination of his years of lawlessness, of deceit, and of stoking dark forces in American politics.
Read in totality, the committee’s report has a dizzying quality, as it should. The audacity, pace, and escalation of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election are breathtaking when seen in full. The 800-page report is the product of more than eighteen months of investigation by a team of government prosecutors who interviewed more than a thousand witnesses, issued more than a hundred subpoenas, and filtered through more than a million documents. It’s overwhelming—as befits Trump’s vast, many-tentacled effort to overturn the election.
So, what’s it all about? Like Watergate, January 6th is about a lot more than a break-in. Trump had no single plan to overturn the election. He had many plans. The mob that attacked the United States Capitol to prevent Joe Biden from being certified as president was the final, most desperate option. After exhausting all other pathways, Trump incited an insurrection. This fact is what the report documents in painstaking, escalating detail.
The longer story of January 6th is how Trump unfurled conspiracies in his own madcap, unrelenting, iterative way, untethered to any bounds of reason or decency. He had a motive and was maniacally motivated. Trump wanted to win so badly that he weaponized and spun up any and all resources available—his campaign, his White House, his appointees inside the Department of Justice, elected officials, low-level flacks, and foot soldiers on the ground.
It’s important to keep in mind that while Trump is ultimately responsible, he did not act alone. Many people assisted him outright or enabled him with their silence. This is a dangerous trend that continues within the Republican party today. January 6th Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney wrote in the opening of the report:
Part of the tragedy of January 6th is the conduct of those who knew that what happened was profoundly wrong, but nevertheless tried to downplay it, minimize it or defend those responsible. That effort continues every day. Today, I am perhaps most disappointed in many of my fellow conservatives who know better, those who stood against the threats of communism and Islamic terrorism but concluded that it was easier to appease Donald Trump, or keep their heads down.
Many Republicans were content to indulge Trump in the beginning, after he declared that he had won the election on Election Night. But, as documented by the report, all his legal challenges bombed:
- In total, the Trump Campaign and allies of President Trump filed 62 separate lawsuits between November 4, 2020, and January 6, 2021, calling into question or seeking to overturn the election results. Out of 62 cases, only one case resulted in a victory for President Trump or his allies. This success affected relatively few votes, did not vindicate any underlying claims of fraud, and would not have changed the outcome in Pennsylvania. Thirty of the cases were dismissed by a judge after a hearing on the merits.
White House Senior Adviser Eric Herschmann got in a dispute with Trump’s handpicked outside lawyer, Sidney Powell, who called the judges in those cases “corrupt.” Herschmann asked her: “Every one? Every single case that you’ve done in the country you guys lost, every one of them is corrupt, even the ones we appointed?”
But those internal White House disputes never played out in public, and even though Trump got his many days in court, he didn’t rest his case.
As his legal challenges failed, Trump began applying pressure on state officials to overturn results at the state level through various schemes, including requests for Georgia officials “to find the votes” to secure Trump’s victory and the creation of fraudulent slates of electors in the states that Trump lost. The report puts his frantic efforts in context:
- The Select Committee estimates that in the two months between the November election and the January 6th insurrection, President Trump or his inner circle engaged in at least 200 apparent acts of public or private outreach, pressure, or condemnation, targeting either State legislators or State or local election administrators, seeking to overturn State election results. This included at least:
- 68 meetings, attempted or connected phone calls, or text messages, each aimed at one or more State or local officials;
- 18 instances of prominent public remarks, with language targeting one or more such officials; and
- 125 social media posts by President Trump or senior aides targeting one or more such officials, either explicitly or implicitly, and mostly from his own account.
- Furthermore, these efforts by President Trump’s team also involved two other initiatives attempting to enlist support from large numbers of State legislators all at once:
- The Trump Campaign contacted or attempted to contact, nearly 200 State legislators from battleground States between November 30, 2020 and December 3, 2020, to solicit backing for possible Statehouse resolutions to overturn the election. At least some messages said they were “on behalf of the president.”
- Nearly 300 State legislators from battleground States reportedly participated in a private briefing with President Trump, Rudolph Giuliani, John Eastman, and others on January 2. The president reportedly urged them to exercise what he called “the real power” to choose electoral votes before January 6, because, as President Trump allegedly said on the call, “I don’t think the country is going to take it.”
Trump had other plans, in case those efforts failed. In December, he looked to the Department of Justice to do his bidding. Trump’s former Attorney General Bill Barr, who resigned in December 2020, told the committee that he witnessed Trump make an “avalanche” of fraud allegations, and it “was like playing Whac-A-Mole” because something would come out one day and the next day it would be another issue.”
The report states:
President Trump peppered [Barr] with unsupported conspiracy theories. Because he had authorized DOJ and FBI to investigate fraud claims, Attorney General Barr was familiar with the conspiracy theories raised by the President. The “big ones” he investigated included claims such as: Dominion voting machines switched votes, votes had been “dumped at the end of the night in Milwaukee and Detroit,” non-residents voted in Nevada, the number of ballots counted in Pennsylvania exceeded the number of votes cast, as well as a story about a truck driver supposedly driving thousands of pre-filled ballots from New York to Pennsylvania, among others.
After Barr formally resigned on December 23, Trump pressured Barr’s lieutenants, Jeffrey Rosen and Richard Donaghue. The report states:
President Trump made a “stream of allegations” during the December 27th call. As reflected in his notes, Donoghue considered the call to be an “escalation of the earlier conversations,” with the President becoming more adamant that “we weren’t doing our job.” President Trump trafficked in “conspiracy theories” he had heard from others, and Donoghue sought to “make it clear to the President these allegations were simply not true.” Donoghue sought to “correct” President Trump “in a serial fashion as he moved from one theory to another.”
It went on:
In response to what President Trump was saying during the conversation, Rosen and Donoghue tried to make clear that the claims the President made weren’t supported by the evidence. “You guys must not be following the internet the way I do,” the President remarked.
When these two Justice Department officials didn’t go along with his theories, Trump sought out a Justice official who would: Jeffrey Clark. It was later revealed that Trump offered Clark the job of attorney general. This offer only failed to go through because other Justice officials threatened to resign en masse. The cadence of the internal pressure campaign on Justice went like this:
- On December 28, Clark sent Rosen and Donaghue a draft letter to Georgia officials that, according to the report, “laid out a plan that was almost identical to what President Trump and his team had pressured State officials to carry out virtually since election day.”
- At a December 29 White House meeting, Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows “raised a new and outrageous allegation of election fraud: that an Italian company had been involved in changing votes in the Presidential election.”
- On December 30, Trump called Rosen and asked that the Department of Justice file election lawsuits on his behalf. Rosen said, “This doesn’t work. There’s multiple problems with it. And the Department of Justice is not going to be able to do it.”
- On December 31, Trump had a different idea. He summoned Rosen and Donaghue to the White House and raised the prospect of installing Clark. There, the report states:
- President Trump again asked why DOJ would not file a complaint with the Supreme Court, alleging that the election was fraudulent. Rosen and Donoghue explained, once more, that the DOJ did not have standing. DOJ represents the federal government, not the American people. President Trump was incredulous and became “very animated.” The president kept repeating the same questions, “How is that possible? How can that possibly be?” President Trump also floated the prospect of naming a special counsel, suggesting Ken Cuccinelli from the Department of Homeland Security as a possible candidate.
- During the December 31 meeting, the president also raised the prospect of seizing the voting machines. “Why don’t you guys seize machines?” he asked. “You guys should seize machines because there will be evidence.”
As late as January 3, Trump was still pushing to install Clark, the report states, “apparently to attempt to interfere with the certification of the electoral college vote on January 6th.” This is notable because it demonstrates that Trump was still dedicating time to this effort three days before Congress was scheduled to certify the election for Biden. Yet another White House meeting was called. There, according to the report:
Clark said he would conduct real investigations that would, in his view, uncover widespread fraud.” Clark declared that this was the “last opportunity to sort of set things straight with this defective election,” and he had the “intelligence,” the “will,” and“desire” to “pursue these matters in the way that the President thought most appropriate.”
Trump only relented when it became clear the Clark appointment would result in mass resignations and, he said, as relayed by the committee, “You’re not going to get anything done. These guys are going to quit. Everyone else is going to resign.” So Trump didn’t abandon the attempt to use the Justice Department to overturn the election because he realized it was improper. He stopped because he decided it had no chance of succeeding.
During those weeks, Trump also conspired with lawyers John Eastman and Kenneth Chesebro to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to disrupt the certification process for Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021 by violating the Electoral Count Act. In lobbying for this course of action, Eastman acknowledged the legal deficiencies of his plan, but counseled skeptical Republicans to “just do it and let the courts sort it through.”
Trump championed this strategy by increasing public and private pressure on Pence. He called on Pence to act according to Eastman’s plan during a January 4 speech in Georgia. Then, on January 5, Trump demanded to see Pence in person. Pence and his aides refused to tell the committee exactly what was said in the meeting, but it is known that Pence did not agree to go along with this scheme.
Later that day, Trump called Pence again to press his case. After a New York Times story was published early that evening saying that Pence didn’t agree with Trump, Trump called Pence again. After this call, the Trump campaign released a (we now know false) statement to the Times claiming that Trump and Pence were “in total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act.”
Trump continued to pressure Pence on the day of January 6th. He used his social media, in concert with his media allies. He called Pence once more, at 11:20 a.m., to make a final plea.
Ivanka Trump described the conversation as “pretty heated” and said, “It was a different tone than I’d heard him take with the Vice President before.” Julie Radford, Ivanka Trump’s chief of staff, said that Ivanka told her that Trump had even called Pence the “P Word.”
Later that day, Trump’s legal co-conspirator, John Eastman, was unremorseful. After the violence broke out and Pence was whisked away to safety, Pence aide Greg Jacob fired off an email to Eastman: “thanks to your bullshit, we are now under siege.”
Eastman replied: “The ‘siege’ is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary to allow this to be aired in a public way so the American people can see for themselves what happened.”
That Donald Trump’s various schemes ended with his most dedicated supporters storming the Capitol while armed was not a coincidence; it was the culmination of his efforts. Without his political escalations, across multiple avenues, there would have been no reason for the mob to come to Washington on January 6th. He wound up, summoned, and finally deployed his supporters, deliberately.
Trump summoned the mob for a “wild” protest on January 6th with a tweet on December 19. The report says:
By January 5th, President Trump’s supporters—a large, angry crowd ready for instructions—had assembled in Washington. That evening, he could hear his raucous supporters at a rally not far from the White House. The President knew his supporters were “angry,” and he planned to call on them to march on the U.S. Capitol. He even wanted to join them on the march. It was all part of President Trump’s plan to intimidate officials and obstruct the joint session of Congress. “We fight like hell,” President Trump told the crowd assembled at the Ellipse on January 6, 2021.
To date, the Department of Justice has arrested more than 900 people for their participation in the insurrection. The charges range from trespass to sedition.
The beginning of the committee’s report relays emotional testimony from insurrectionists who say they were misled by Trump. One testified: “If the President of the United States . . . [is] out on TV telling the world that it was stolen, what else would I believe, as a patriotic American who voted for him and wants to continue to see the country thrive as I thought it was?”
Incredibly, even after the rioters breached the Capitol, Trump continued to work his options, seeking to delay the certification of the election. The report states:
President Trump watched the violence on television from a dining room adjacent to the Oval Office, calling Senators to urge them to help him delay the electoral count . . .
Cheney calls this the “most shameful findings from our hearings.” She says in her foreword:
For hours, he would not issue a public statement instructing his supporters to disperse and leave the Capitol, despite urgent pleas from his White House staff and dozens of others to do so. Members of his family, his White House lawyers, virtually all those around him knew that this simple act was critical. For hours, he would not do it. During this time, law enforcement agents were attacked and seriously injured, the Capitol was invaded, the electoral count was halted and the lives of those in the Capitol were put at risk. In addition to being unlawful, as described in this report, this was an utter moral failure—and a clear dereliction of duty. Evidence of this can be seen in the testimony of his White House Counsel and several other White House witnesses. No man who would behave that way at that moment in time can ever serve in any position of authority in our nation again. He is unfit for any office.
Watching the violence instead of stopping the violence was Trump’s final consequential decision of his presidency.
Trump was responsible for the insurrection, but it would have been impossible for him to incite by himself.
The report enumerates a vast number of Republicans who assisted in his schemes. For many of them, nothing has changed. They won’t go to jail. And they won’t pay any political price, either. They’ll be just fine by “running to the right” for the rest of their professional lives.
Although the committee is right to laud the Republicans who testified, it must be said that most of them only spoke up long after the fact. And mostly when their own personal prospects were threatened. And some refused to speak at all. The report pointedly notes that Mike Pence refused to speak with the committee. Yet Cheney describes him as someone who “worked to defeat many of the worst parts of Trump’s plan to overturn the election.”
It’s an ugly quirk of this period of American history that people like Pence can be recognized for stepping away from the shattered-glass, ketchup-dripping, feces-smeared mess they helped Trump create, without lifting a finger to do any meaningful clean-up.