Dec 17, 2021
The first time many Americans learned that a large pro-Donald Trump protest in Washington was planned for January 6 was 18 days earlier when the 45th president tweeted about it--"Will be wild!"
But the wild things Trump and his shrinking, conspiracy-minded inner circle expected weren't only his rabid supporters like the Proud Boys. The then-president knew his tweet would also be read by leftist counter-protesters, his increasing focus.
Team Trump--after months of violent street clashes between Trumpists and counter-protesters--obsessed on so-called "antifa" just before January 6. On January 5 alone, Trump tweeted for antifa to "stay out of Washington" and signed a memo for stepped-up monitoring of antifa, with a press release: "President Trump will not allow Antifa, or any terrorist organization, to destroy our great country."
So when all hell broke the next day, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reached Trump by phone, urging him to call off the insurrection, according to a GOP congresswoman, "the president initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol."
Now, stunning new revelations--as the House Select Committee bears down on the truth of an attempted coup--shine a clearer light on exactly why the White House was so focused on leftist counter-protesters.
How it worked
We now know that Trump's top aide, chief of staff Mark Meadows, had written in an email on January 5--the same day as Trump's tweet and memo about "Antifa"--that the National Guard was on standby "to protect pro-Trump people" the next day. His words only make sense in the context of expected clashes with leftists. Then, at 8:24 a.m. on January 6, a Capitol Police deputy chief and top field commander went on the radio to warn his officers: Be on special lookout for anti-Trump protesters within the large throng.
But here's the thing: There were no anti-Trump protesters in Washington that day--thanks to savvy messaging by activists who sensed a trap. Their absence clearly flummoxed Team Trump, and even the president's allies at the Fox News Channel, who throughout the day blamed violence on "antifa" who clearly weren't there. Critically, the lack of expected street clashes might explain the stunning three-hour failure by the National Guard to respond to officials pleading for troops to help stop the insurrection.
Even more importantly, the central role of the leftist clashes that never happened, and the thwarted mission for the National Guard and Trump-friendly law enforcement--the final, Hail Mary pass in Team Trump's slow-motion coup to undo Biden's election victory--reveals how close a rogue president came to ending American democracy earlier this year. Understanding how the coup was teed up and how it might have succeeded, at least for a time, demands new urgency in punishing the 2021 plotters and ending threats to the 2024 vote.
Why it failed
Perhaps Trump would still be president today, and waging what likely would have become a full-blown civil war over his legitimacy, if three things in the fraught days leading up to January 6 had not thwarted his plans to halt President Biden's ascension on ridiculous and baseless theories of a stolen election. Remember, January 6 was the final fallback after what The Atlantic writer David A. Graham--in a brilliant new piece titled "The Paperwork Coup"--describes as a series of failed efforts in the courts and in statehouses before they sent electoral-vote tallies to Congress.
Arguably the biggest roadblock to Trump's January 6 scheme is the best known: The failure of Vice President Mike Pence to give into days of brow-beating. Team Trump insisted he could use his presiding role over the January 6 proceedings to somehow block the certification of Biden's win and send the contest back to Trump-friendly state legislatures, including Pennsylvania. That failure--after Trump had successfully bullied his No. 2 for four years--seemed to catch POTUS 45 off-guard.
So, too, did the second roadblock: Massive resistance from career leaders in the agencies that could have influenced what happened on Capitol Hill on January 6. The Atlantic's Graham documents the crucial role played by Justice Department officials who--under pressure to announce a high-stake probe into the non-existent voter fraud, possibly with Philadelphia-born-lawyer-turned-Trump-conspiracy-theorist Jeffrey Clark as new Attorney General--threatened to resign en masse and thwarted any action. But perhaps equally critical to the outcome was an unprecedented warning on January 4 from the former chieftains of the military-industrial complex.
Three days ahead of the pro-Trump rally, all 10 then-living ex-secretaries of defense--including Donald Rumsfeld, who died in 2021, and Dick Cheney--published an extraordinary letter in the Washington Post, warning the White House not to engage the military in its election challenge. They wrote: "Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory."
Americans might well wonder what prompted such a stern warning. One of the signers, in fact, was Mark Esper, whom Trump had shockingly fired as Pentagon chief just days after the Nov. 3 election. The supposed lame duck president had not only replaced Esper but--with just nine or so weeks before leaving office--had installed an entire slate of new loyalists at the Pentagon as well as intelligence agencies. Asked the New York Times in a headline: "To what end?"
To what end, indeed?
Although there was understandable speculation about what the moves meant for U.S. troops then in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the then-president had been increasingly focused since the spring of 2020--and the at-times destructive protests over the police murder of George Floyd--on what he claimed was a domestic threat posed by "antifa." In June, Trump promised in a tweet that "the United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization"--even though experts agree such extreme leftist elements are small and lack any umbrella organization.
Although it didn't receive a ton of attention at the time, violence between pro-Trump groups like the Proud Boys and leftist counterprotesters may have peaked on December 12, 2020, at rallies which in hindsight look like trial runs for January 6. A man was shot in Olympia, Washington, while several dozen people on both sides were arrested or hurt in the D.C. fighting that lasted well into the night. In another bit of foreshadowing, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio posted mysterious pictures from the White House portico. Trump previewed the "wild" January 6 rally one week later.
But then something happened that arguably altered the course of history. People on the left who'd spent four years actively resisting Trump in the streets shared a surprising new message in those two weeks ahead of the insurrection: Stay home on January 6. This was reinforced by a number of Democratic officials who pushed out the same message to both traditional leftists and Black Lives Matter activists.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser was typical: "I am asking Washingtonians and those who live in the region to stay out of the downtown area on Tuesday and Wednesday and not to engage with demonstrators who come to our city seeking confrontation." But more important, arguably, were rank-and-file anti-Trump liberals sharing that message on social media sites. There was even a hashtag making the rounds, #DontTakeTheBait.
How close it came
The anti-Trumpers didn't take the bait. We'll never know what would have happened if there had been street battles between the two factions on January 6, but there's a chilling hint in the coup-planning PowerPoint presentation from Trump ally and former Army psy-ops specialist Phil Waldron that circulated both among Meadows and others in the White House as well as their allies in Congress. It called for Trump to declare a "National Security Emergency"--a move that might have aligned with his "antifa" memo of the day before.
Meanwhile, if National Guard troops were--as Meadows stated in his email--indeed on standby to support pro-Trump protesters, military leaders seemed to freeze that Wednesday afternoon when they were asked to do the exact opposite and confront the insurrectionists. D.C. officials who dispatched metro police officers to quell the insurrection pleaded with the Pentagon--which had operational control over the D.C. National Guard--to send in added forces, only to face three long hours of stunning inaction.
More recently, a former high-ranking official in the D.C. National Guard has called two top Army generals "absolute and unmitigated liars" in their efforts to explain the delay in deploying Guard troops positioned at a nearby armory until nearly 5:30 p.m., or when the worst fighting that injured scores of police officers was already over. This discrepancy needs to be answered--but so does the question of whether Guard troops would have been more hastily deployed in the event of leftist protesters, and whether that action would have impeded Biden's certification. (Also, the question of why one of those two generals in that line of command was Gen. Charles Flynn, brother of Trump ally Michael Flynn who was leading efforts to overturn the election.)
While an alarming timeline about the possible role of troops and a national security emergency on January 6 is taking shape, there are, of course, many holes that still need to be filled in by an aggressive House investigation. First and foremost is learning what communications took place between Meadows and other White House staffers with the Pentagon to believe that soldiers were "on standby" to support their cause. Investigators should also ask about Trump's focus on "antifa," right up to the middle of the afternoon on January 6. Increasingly, the question is less whether there were plans for a coup on January 6--clearly, there were--but who needs to be held accountable for the greatest assault on U.S. democracy since 1861.
Keep in mind something else rather shocking that we learned this week--that even knowing that the violent Capitol Hill insurrection was the work of Trump supporters, and horribly wrong, key Fox News hosts like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity went on national TV that night continuing to suggest antifa might somehow be to blame. Because once the script for a coup has been written, apparently it's hard to break character.
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