Former President Donald Trump will soon be on trial for inciting insurrection against the United States. Despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt—which played out in front of all of us—plenty of Republicans are scrambling for ways to avoid convicting Mr. Trump for what he has obviously done. As a first step in unraveling the arguments, let’s get a clear picture of what occurred and why Mr. Trump is fully culpable.
The case against Mr. Trump is that he sustained a multi-faceted, multi-year attack on the election system. It is not about whether he literally told the mob to attack the Capitol Building. Rather, as Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Fiona Hill describes, Trump perpetuated a series of actions over time that perpetuated an attempted self-coup.
The storming of the Capitol building on January 6 was the culmination of a series of actions and events taken or instigated by Trump so he could retain the presidency that together amount to an attempt at a self-coup. This was not a one-off or brief episode.
Trump’s multi-pronged attack on the government had many facets, as we will explore below. Did he lift a gun or specifically order an assassination? Probably not. But he did use his formidable power as the President of the United States to unduly influence, threaten, and punish people into performing unconstitutional and illegal actions to keep himself in power indefinitely in spite of losing the election.
Building a Mob
Trump’s power is based on his ability to attract a huge base of angry people who can be directed at enemies. In short, there is a subset of Trump-supporting Republicans who were susceptible enough to Trump’s manipulations that they could be inspired to create trouble or violence. This group can be properly called a mob.
Trump formed this mob through a combination of bald-faced lies, insinuations, insults, and outlandish bragging that heightened many Republican’s existing fears and positioned himself as the only one who could save them. He insinuated that brown hordes filled with rapists and terrorists were swarming the border; he pitted electing him against losing the American dream and freedom itself. As Bloomberg's Laurence Arnold describes, Trump accepted the Republican nomination for a second term by saying:
This election will decide whether we save the American dream or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny.
Trump supporters piled on with similar allegations, some of which are given below.
The Trump Campaign website framed the choice between Trump and Biden as between an “American vs. Socialist.”
Vice-President Mike Pence said electing Biden “would set America on a path of socialism and decline.”
Ken Farnaso, a Trump spokesman, called the election “a binary decision between freedom and socialism.”:
Simultaneously, Trump alleged for years that the election system was rigged and that “deep state” operatives throughout the government were against him and the will of the people. This attempt to undermine public confidence intensified in 2020. As Fiona Hill writes:
Throughout 2020, when his poll ratings faltered, the president laid the groundwork for what would become the Big Lie that he won the election. He said in advance that the ballot was “rigged” and that he could lose only if “they” stole the election. “They” was a domestic enemy that he manufactured in broad strokes for his grassroots base to rise up against: Democrats, liberals, globalists, radical socialists, communists, antifa leftists, the Black Lives Matter movement, the mainstream media, George Soros, various other “bogey” men and women, deep state bureaucrats, and even congressional Republicans, whom he labeled “RINOs” (“Republicans in Name Only”) and “Never Trumpers.”
Was this free speech? No, it was not. Free speech is where you can honestly and safely state your beliefs and perspectives without fearing prosecution by the government. What Trump and his allies did was spread intentional lies designed to undermine public confidence in the government and election process. These were delivered by very powerful people, many of whom had taken oaths to defend the constitution. They were not some old school buddies sitting around having a beer and talking trash.
What was the net effect of this kind of talk? People’s fears were accentuated, and they were made to feel that their situation was hopeless. Then, what choice did they have? They felt they must resort to overthrowing the government by extraordinary action—even by violence—if necessary.
Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.
Or, for a pithier comment, as Savannah Guthrie opined during October 2020 at NBC Townhall with President Trump:
You’re the President, not someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.
Wielding the Mob to Threaten and Punish Detractors
Having galvanized his mob into a weapon, Trump was then able to use them to threaten and punish anyone who openly disagreed with him, thus enforcing loyalty. He did this through multiple means:
Trump sharply criticized his detractors in public appearances and on Twitter, inspiring his followers to take up the cause. This often resulted in vicious attacks, slander, and death threats against Trump’s opponents. Never did Trump call for civility from his followers or disparage these actions.
Trump often threatened to “primary” opponents by using his followers to support opposing GOP candidates. Since the primary voting is more dominated by extremist groups of the type that comprise Trump’s mob, this tended to be an effective attack on the disloyal Republican’s career. Thus, most Republican elected officials put themselves through verbal contortions to avoid contradicting Trump when asked to justify his lies. To be fair, Trump’s endorsement was substantially correlated with winning a primary.
If the disloyal person was in government, Trump often fired them. This included high-level people like former Director of Cybersecurity Christopher Krebs and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
Attracting Coat Tail Riders
Some Republicans were unwilling to sit back and let Trump alone rule the base (and siphon money off them). People like Senator Lindsay Graham jumped into the fray, both showing his support for Trump by perpetuating baseless lies and seeking to benefit from the support of Trump’s base.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) put it bluntly in an open letter to his constituents:
Let’s be clear what’s happening here: We have a bunch of ambitious politicians who think there’s a quick way to tap into the president’s populist base without doing any real, long-term damage. But they’re wrong…Adults don’t point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government.”
Everyone should definitely read Senator Sasse’s superb breakdown of the 2020 Presidential Election situation.
Infiltrating into Public Institutions
The threat to the Constitution and democracy is further clear when we consider that the people who believed these lies were not just a handful of ragtag anarchists out in central Wyoming. They were workers, politicians, police, and military. Trump was aware of this, and he often highlighted it, such as in this interview with Breitbart:
I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. Okay? I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.
Of course, having significant numbers of people supporting baseless conspiracy theories in the military is quite ominous, and the military has been monitoring increasing extremism in its ranks. After the Capitol Riot, this concern compelled the Joint Chiefs of Staff to send a message to the entire US military warning them that interfering in the election would be illegal. The FBI also vetted National Guard troops that were sent to Washington to guard the inauguration
Using Power to Corruptly Influence Elected Officials
Not only did people in civil society become loyalists, but Trump used his political power to install loyalists in positions of authority. He appointed people throughout the government who he thought would be amenable not only to his policies but to his untoward efforts to keep him in power. For example, Fiona Hill describes how he tried to stack the courts:
With the help of Republican lawmakers, Trump stacked federal courts with what he kept calling “his judges.” He successfully pushed through the appointments of three new Supreme Court justices ahead of the presidential election. He made his expectation clear that if the Supreme Court had to settle an election dispute, then “his justices” would tilt the verdict in his favor.
Similarly, Trump installed Attorney General William Barr and used him to quash the Mueller investigation. He then pressured Barr to find election fraud evidence, but when Barr declared that no evidence was found, Trump was furious. Barr then resigned before Trump could fire him.
Trump subsequently attempted to influence Barr’s successor Jeffrey Rosen to launch investigations to cast doubt on the election. When Mr. Rosen rebuffed this idea, Trump mulled replacing Mr. Rosen with someone more amenable.
This follows the pattern of Trump exerting his influence to get officials to do something illegal for him. Here are some of the more well-known examples:
At Trump’s direction, Rudy Giuliani petitioned GOP members of legislatures in battleground states to set aside the election results and put in their own slate of Trump-aligned electors.
CNBC reported that during December, Trump attempted to influence Georgia’s top election investigator to “find the fraud.”
On January 2, 2021, Trump spent an hour pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffsberger to “find” missing votes that didn’t exist.
Trump backed flimsy constitutional challenges, hoping to push them to the U.S. Supreme Court where he would find supportive Justices. When the Supreme Court denied even hearing the frivolous Texas election challenge case, Mr. Trump declared, “The Supreme Court really let us down. No Wisdom, No Courage!”
In the days leading up to January 6, Trump urged Vice-President Pence to violate his constitutional duty by stopping the counting of the Electoral College ballots. When Pence declined, Trump told his supporters that Pence had let them down and they proceeded to break into the Capitol Building chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”
Launching the Mob at the Capitol
On the morning of January 6, 2021, several coat tail riders led by the likes of Mo Brooks, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley attempted to overturn the will of the people by subverting a ceremonial counting the Electoral College results. Meanwhile, Trump spoke to the assembled mob outside the White House. This mob had been called to Washington by Trump with tweets like “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th” and “Be there, will be wild!”
Although it’s hard to say if Trump really thought the protestors were going to be violent, it’s obvious that the conditions were ripe. Either way, Trump certainly intended for his protest to influence Republicans to improperly object to the electoral college certification and thus the will of the people. In fact, Trump was already threatening to primary those elected officials who did not object. During his speech to supporters on the morning of the Capitol Riot, he used language like “be strong”, “fight”, “you’re going to lose democracy.” Later, while the mob was rampaging through the Capitol Building, he appeared to take pleasure in that development and continued to call congresspeople urging them to object to the certification.
Likely, most of the people in the crowd that marched from the White House to the Capitol Building had no intention of storming it. In the videos taken outside, there are numerous people in MAGA gear just milling around, observing, and chanting. Nonetheless, there was also a large contingent who came intending to create violence.
These people had been organized and funded ahead of time by right-wing extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, QAnon, Oathkeepers, and Three Percenters. Many of them arrived with plans, weapons, and tactical gear. Most importnatly, they were by-and-large motivated by Trump’s call and felt emboldended to do it because of him.
We can see the effect Trump had on them in the statements of those later arrested. Analysis has found that it was fervent Trump fans who stormed the Capitol Building. They believed they were called by their President and later asserted they deserved to be pardoned. They wouldn’t have been there except for him.
For example, Jenna Ryan, a Texas real estate broker, posted Facebook messages before the Capitol Riot saying, “ We’re gonna go down and storm the Capitol.” After she was arrested, she defended her actions by saying she was “displaying my patriotism”, and adding: “I listen to my president who told me to go to the Capitol.” She then asked for a pardon from President Trump.
Former Senate-majority leader Mitch McConnell summed up Trump’s involvement succcintly:
The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.
Trump’s apologists are trying all forms of diversion and obfuscation to avoid facing the facts. But it is indisputable that Trump applied every lever he could to usurp the will of the people and remain in power despite the fact that he was fairly voted out.
Did he actually file a fake document to the court or override an Electoral College slate himself? No. As we saw above, he is a master at using his power and influence—mostly legally albeit immorally—to influence other people to do illegal things for him. He thus built a passionate following based on lies. He used his supporter’s anger, money, and votes to bully other Republicans into supporting him. He did his best to pressure government officials into taking unconstitutional actions to support him. In the end, his inciting of a mob led to a physical attack on The Capitol and deaths.
If he was just a private citizen lying about how many floors were actually in his hotels (which he does), maybe we could let it go. But he was the President of the United States, and he was lying about the election system while using veiled threats to elected officials so that they would conspire with him to overturn the will of the people. He was threatening people’s careers and telling them their lives were in jeopardy. That is quite different. This is not an exercise of free speech, it’s insurrection.
Thus armed with the facts, we should be able to remove the question of whether he deserves to be prosecuted off the table. Of course, Trump’s defenders will keep throwing up smokescreens and diversions such as “it’s unconstitutional to impeach a past president” or “it will further divide the country.” But, would they agree with those positions if the situation were reversed? Can a rational person believe that simply letting someone who clearly attempted a self-coup off the hook is really good for the country as a whole?