Shortly after 2 p.m. on Jan. 6, supporters of President Donald J. Trump breached the U.S. Capitol, turning the seat of American democracy into the scene of an unforgettable crime.
Inside, lawmakers had been preparing to count the Electoral College votes that would bring Trump’s presidency to a close. Outside, the rioters erected a hanging gallows. They waved “Trump 2020,” “Blue Lives Matter” and Confederate flags. Some were armed.
After marching down Pennsylvania Avenue at Trump’s urging, the rioters had overwhelmed police surrounding the Capitol. They pushed past them, stripped them of their weapons, dragged them to the ground, sprayed them with chemical irritants, beat them, bludgeoned them, or tased them.
Through clouds of smoke, they broke down barricades. They scaled the walls. They shattered windows. Congressional staff took cover in offices and closets, piling furniture against doors as the crowd snaked through the building’s historic hallways. The rioters forced their way into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. They entered the Senate chamber. They reached the dais, where Vice President Mike Pence had sat moments earlier.
Network and cable TV, plus internet sites, broadcast it all live for hours.
Around the nation, people called friends and family as the attack unfolded right before their eyes, expressing a mix of disbelief, horror and fascination:
“Can you believe this?”
Members of Congress, evacuated from their chambers with gas masks in tow, could hardly believe it themselves.
U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., called into CNN as the attack was happening. “I have not seen anything like this since I deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2008,” he said. “I mean, this is America. And this is what’s happening right now. The president needs to call it off. Call it off. It’s over. The election is over.”
On the phone with Fox News that afternoon, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., condemned the attack as “un-American” and “unacceptable.”
“I have been in this Capitol for more than 10 years. I’ve never seen anything like this,” McCarthy said.
As the insurrectionists forced their way into the building, they chanted, “Fight for Trump!” and “Hang Mike Pence!”
Pence, as vice president, had the constitutional responsibility of overseeing the typically quiet certification of state election results by Congress. Although Trump urged Pence to reject results from the battleground states that gave Joe Biden his victory, Pence said he would not intervene, enraging the pro-Trump crowd.
As the chaos unfolded, Trump’s media supporters — who would later downplay and deny what happened in various ways — grew concerned and tried to get messages to the president.
Fox News personalities went through his chief of staff Mark Meadows. ”Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home,” Laura Ingraham of Fox News wrote. “This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.” Sean Hannity and Brian Kilmeade sent similar messages to Meadows.
McCarthy, the Republican House leader, was able to reach the president directly to ask him to put a stop to what was going on. McCarthy would later evade questions about the call, but other House members said Trump told him, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
Around 4 p.m., Trump finally asked his supporters to go home. “This was a fraudulent election. But we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home, we love you. You’re very special.”
By the night’s end, democracy was still standing. But the manipulation of the narrative was already underway.
In the days that followed, Trump, some of the loudest and most influential members of the Republican Party and vocal partisan media personalities offered a deluge of justifications, excuses and conspiracy theories to reframe the events of Jan. 6 as no big deal.
- They said Jan. 6 was instigated by undercover left-wing activists who were part of antifa. That was proved false.
- They said the rioters hadn’t used force and one Republican congressman likened the events to “a normal tourist visit.” Video proved that wrong.
- They claimed the attack on the Capitol had nothing to do with race, even though white supremacists and far-right militia groups were among the most active participants, and many rioters wore racist t-shirts.
- They suggested the whole affair was staged by the government, a false flag operation. Others suggested it was entirely a peaceful protest. All of that was wrong.
- They said that the rioters were political prisoners and shouldn’t face serious charges. A host of federal judges and courts have held otherwise.
The political shapeshifting was striking. McCarthy at first said that “the president bears responsibility” for the riot. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “failed insurrection,” said that “the mob was fed lies,” and argued that Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the event of that day.”