Groundwork For Insurrection Was Laid Well Before Jan. 6

Feb 8, 2021
Originally published on February 8, 2021 3:55 am
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After last month's attack on democracy at the Capitol, Ryan Goodman did some research. He edits the website Just Security, which made a timeline of the attack. It wasn't just a list of events on January 6. He tracked false claims, conspiracy theories and calls to violence going back almost a year.

RYAN GOODMAN: What the timeline helps us understand is that while we should be focused on the events of January 6, we shouldn't be hyper focused on them. The groundwork was laid well in advance.

INSKEEP: House impeachment managers say the same. Their legal brief for this week's impeachment trial cites former President Trump's acts long before January 6. His lawyers respond that Trump had a right to free speech, that the Senate has no right to try him, that he didn't intend violence. They have not specifically denied what he did. From various sources, we made our own timeline, beginning with a White House briefing on April 7, 2020. That day, then-President Trump made false claims about the security of mail-in ballots.

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DONALD TRUMP: Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they're cheaters. They go and collect them. They're fraudulent in many cases.

INSKEEP: Trump's claim was itself fraudulent. Many states have used voting by mail safely for years. States were expanding mail-in balloting during the pandemic, which Trump made a partisan issue. Attorney General William Barr followed Trump's lead, even though on June 25 he told NPR he had no evidence.

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WILLIAM BARR: I think it would be very bad, but one of the things I mentioned was the possibility of counterfeiting.

INSKEEP: Did you have evidence to raise that specific concern?

BARR: No. It's obvious.

INSKEEP: Trump was laying the groundwork to reject his looming defeat. On July 18, the president spoke with Chris Wallace of Fox News.

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TRUMP: I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election. I really do.

CHRIS WALLACE: Are you suggesting that you might not accept the results of the election?

TRUMP: I have to say, look...

INSKEEP: Wallace tried again.

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WALLACE: Can you give a direct answer - you will accept the election?

TRUMP: I have to see. Look, you - I have to see. No, I'm not going to just say yes.

INSKEEP: On August 19, at a White House briefing, Trump deepened his embrace of a popular conspiracy theory.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The QAnon movement has been - appears to be gaining a lot of followers. Can you talk about what you think about that and what you have to say to people who are following this movement right now?

TRUMP: Well, I don't know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.

INSKEEP: Purveyors of QAnon portrayed Trump as the master of a grand plan to expose a global network of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. The FBI had previously warned that such fantasies could lead people to violence. Later, Trump gave a mention to an extremist group.

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WALLACE: I'm Chris Wallace of Fox News. And I welcome you to the first of the 2020 presidential debates.

INSKEEP: On September 29, the embattled president repeated his false claims of fraud. He also sent a message to the Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center links to white supremacists. Ryan Goodman, who did the timeline for Just Security, was watching.

GOODMAN: He is asked point blank, will you essentially condemn white supremacists? And the message he has to the Proud Boys is stand back and stand by.

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WALLACE: What are you saying?

TRUMP: I'm willing to do anything - I want to see peace.

WALLACE: Well, then do it, sir.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Say it. Do it. Say it.

TRUMP: Do you want to call them - what do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name. Go ahead. Who would you like me to condemn?

WALLACE: White supremacists and...

BIDEN: White supremacists. Proud Boys.

WALLACE: White supremacists and right-wing militia.

TRUMP: The Proud Boys - stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what - I'll tell you what...

GOODMAN: And stand by is thought of as a signal to them that's actually quite positive. And very quickly, you know, they take to Twitter and Parler and are celebrating the president's endorsement of them. They say, yes, sir. Standing by, sir.

INSKEEP: Trump later said he meant for them to stand down. By then, a big part of the president's plan was widely understood. He was expected to claim victory on election night before the vote counting was complete.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: OK, time out. This is a big development.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Fox News Decision Desk is calling Arizona for Joe Biden.

INSKEEP: As it turned out, Trump was defeated badly enough that he wasn't even leading on election night. He claimed victory anyway.

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TRUMP: We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.

(CHEERING)

GOODMAN: So he says that on television, and this then gives rise to the mantra of, quote-unquote, "stop the steal."

INSKEEP: Trump supporters mobbed ballot counting sites. News networks, including NPR, accurately declared Joe Biden the winner on November 7. Yet Trump aides launched dozens of baseless lawsuits as most Republicans in Congress stayed silent and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell offered the defeated president cover.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Suffice it to say, a few legal inquiries from the president do not exactly spell the end of the republic.

INSKEEP: Courts rejected dozens of lawsuits by lawyers who did not even allege fraud in court to avoid punishment for lying. They were saving all their lies for you. Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, spoke at the Republican National Committee November 19. To sum, this occasion was memorable because what seemed like hair dye ran down his face.

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RUDY GIULIANI: I know crimes. I can smell them. You don't have to smell this one. I can prove it to you 18 different ways.

GOODMAN: And for me, it was one of the most worrisome moments because it wasn't just some ludicrous fringe person. It was being endorsed by the organization.

INSKEEP: Two weeks later, Goodman says, the president's false claims about Georgia prompted a warning.

GOODMAN: So the date is December 1. And the Republican election official in Georgia, Gabriel Sterling, says to the president directly on camera, quote, "stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence."

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GABRIEL STERLING: Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone's going to get hurt. Someone's going to get shot. Someone's going to get killed.

INSKEEP: On December 14, electoral votes were formally counted after all 50 states with officials from both parties certified the election results.

GOODMAN: There is kind of a bit of a groundswell of support behind Mitch McConnell and others to say game over.

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MCCONNELL: So today, I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden. The president-elect is no stranger to the Senate.

GOODMAN: So it's time for President Trump to come around. But that doesn't happen.

INSKEEP: As his allies talked of military coups, the president focused on one more milestone - January 6, 2021, the ceremonial date for Congress to formally count the electoral votes reported by the states.

GOODMAN: He tweets in advance of the joint session, big protest in D.C. on January 6, be there, will be wild, exclamation point.

INSKEEP: On Saturday, January 2, the president was on the phone to the Georgia secretary of state.

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TRUMP: The people of Georgia are angry. The people of the country are angry. And there's nothing wrong with saying that, you know, that you've recalculated.

INSKEEP: Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger stuck with the accurate results. On the same day...

GOODMAN: The Proud Boys announce that they're coming to the events on January 6, that they will be there in force.

INSKEEP: On January 4, in a speech, the president said he would, quote, "fight like hell." And on January 6, crowds gathered in Washington.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: California, the Palm Springs-Los Angeles area. And I'm out here because two weeks ago, President Trump said the word wild - about January the 6 being wild.

INSKEEP: The Proud Boys and other extremists were there, and many in the crowd wore QAnon shirts. The president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, addressed the crowd...

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GIULIANI: So let's have trial by combat.

INSKEEP: ...As did the president.

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TRUMP: Because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.

INSKEEP: After a brief mention of peaceful protest, the president released a crowd that he had been priming with lies for most of a year.

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TRUMP: So let's walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I want to thank you all. God bless you...

GOODMAN: And at 2:24, which is a really important time, Trump tweets, essentially saying that Pence has betrayed them.

INSKEEP: Vice President Pence, who was overseeing the vote count, had refused to disrupt it.

GOODMAN: The crowd goes wild about calling Pence a traitor.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Oh, Mike Pence, we're coming for you, too, [expletive] traitor.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: Where is Pence?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #4: Bring Pence out.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: Where is Pence?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Bring him out.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: Bring out Pence.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #5: Bring him out.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: Bring out Pence.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #5: Bring him out.

INSKEEP: Later, when many alleged attackers were under arrest, political violence specialist Robert Pape read many of the statements they had made to the FBI and the media.

ROBERT PAPE: A woman from California said - and these are in the court documents and I quote - she "felt called upon by President Donald Trump to travel to D.C. to change the outcome of the election" because she believes it was stolen. We have a man from Arizona who said he was in Washington as part of a group effort with other patriots from Arizona at the request of President Trump. We have another woman from Texas who said she entered the Rotunda because, quote, "He said, be there. And so I went. I answered the call of my president." We have dozens of such statements.

INSKEEP: Lawmakers appealed to the president to call off the attackers. Eventually, he released a video that repeated his election claims but also called for peace.

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TRUMP: So go home. We love you. You're very special.

INSKEEP: The video on Twitter reached the mob, including a QAnon afficionado wearing face paint and horns.

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JACOB CHANSLEY: Oh, Donald Trump asked everybody to go home. He just said - he just put out a tweet. It's a minute long. He asked everybody to go home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Why do you think so?

CHANSLEY: Because, dude, we won the [expletive] day. We [expletive] won.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How did we win?

CHANSLEY: Well, we won by sending a message to the senators and the congressmen. We won by sending a message to Pence, OK?

INSKEEP: Defying that message, Congress reconvened and affirmed the election result, though the president's supporters in Congress still voted to overturn it. Our timeline has one more item, as noted by Ryan Goodman.

GOODMAN: So at 6:01 p.m., Trump tweets to his supporters who have just committed vast federal crimes.

INSKEEP: The tweet read, "Rhese are things and events that happen," unquote, when what he falsely called an election victory is stolen.

GOODMAN: Go home with love and in peace. Remember this day forever, exclamation point.

INSKEEP: Remember this day, he said, though, that's not an instruction all of his supporters followed. In the days afterward, a man seen on video carrying zip ties in the Capitol claimed he'd simply found them there. Lawmakers who voted to overturn a democratic election said they never intended to do what the voting record shows they, in fact, did. Some of those same lawmakers are now jurors in the president's Senate trial. Some have already voted that they feel it is unconstitutional. Despite that instruction to remember, many of the ex-president's supporters seem inclined to forget.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA AND MARLEY CARROLL'S "EUCALYPTUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.