The Incitement Paper Trail

Donald Trump sent thousands of tweets during his four years as president. None may prove as consequential as the one he sent in the wee hours of December 19, 2020: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild,” the president wrote at 1:42 a.m. ET.

At the time, Trump’s middle-of-the-night missive deepened a sense of growing alarm about a defeated president who appeared to be unmoored and was fomenting chaos during his final weeks in office. But the tweet’s significance was not fully understood until today, when the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol presented an extensive paper trail linking those two sentences to the insurrection that took place two weeks later.

The committee has asserted many times before that far-right extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers took Trump’s encouragement as a directive, even a call to arms. Today the panel presented its evidence for that claim, pulling together a startling collection of contemporaneous public declarations—one right-wing commentator even suggested “storming right into the Capitol”—as well as newly unearthed texts and emails. “We basically just followed what he said,” Stephen Ayres, a Trump supporter who pleaded guilty to entering the Capitol illegally on January 6, testified to the committee.

For more than a year and a half, Trump and his loyalists have disclaimed any responsibility for the insurrection. They point out that neither the December 19 tweet nor Trump’s speech at the Ellipse on the morning of January 6 contain any explicit reference to violence.

Yet today’s hearing also punctured holes in that defense, showing that Trump and his allies intended to summon as large a crowd as they could muster to Washington as a way of pressuring Congress—and then–Vice President Mike Pence—to overturn the election during the formal counting of Electoral College ballots on January 6. Trump sent his December tweet shortly after a heated, hours-long meeting—which the committee presented in colorful detail—where advisers such as Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and General Michael Flynn fought with White House lawyers over how far Trump should go to contest the results.

Two days later, the president met with a group of 10 House Republican allies to strategize for January 6. “Only citizens can exert the necessary influence on senators and congressmen to join this fight,” Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, who later spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally, wrote in an email ahead of that meeting, the committee revealed. Trump also planned to call on his supporters to march to the Capitol, according to a draft tweet that the committee showed during the hearing. The tweet was never sent, but a text sent by the rally organizer Ali Alexander suggested that at least some of those leading the march were aware of the president’s plans.

[Read: Trump gets the January 6 trial he long dodged]

The committee tried to bolster its arguments by demonstrating how concerned some of Trump’s own staffers were about his actions in the run-up to January 6, and how remorseful they were in its aftermath. “A sitting president asking for civil war,” Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale wrote in a text to Katrina Pierson, Trump’s former campaign spokesperson, during the riot.

Like its previous hearings, the committee’s presentation today seemed designed to prod the Department of Justice to do what Congress failed to do a year ago: prove that Trump intentionally incited the January 6 insurrection. “President Trump is a 76-year-old man; he is not an impressionable child,” Representative Liz Cheney, the Republican of Wyoming, said at the outset. “Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions, and his own choices.” (For the second straight hearing, she later suggested that the former president or his allies might have tampered with a committee witness.)

At a minimum, the committee laid bare—for whoever still had doubts—just how closely intertwined Trump was with even his most extreme, dangerous supporters. By the end of his time on Twitter, the punch of Trump’s tweets had seemed to dull, landing more softly into the ultra-loud din of his presidency. But his most ardent fans were still watching them closely, and they were paying attention in the early morning of December 19 when Trump beckoned them to a “wild” day in Washington.

To borrow a phrase that had similarly grown worn from overuse, they took that invitation both seriously, and quite literally as well.