WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump was “horrified” when violence broke out at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, as a joint session of Congress convened to confirm that he lost the election, according to his defense attorneys.
Trump tweeted calls for peace “upon hearing of the reports of violence” and took “immediate steps” to mobilize resources to counter the rioters storming the building, his lawyers argued in a brief filed Monday in advance of Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. It is “absolutely not true,” they wrote, that Trump failed to act swiftly to quell the riot.
But that revisionist history conflicts with the timeline of events on the day of the Capitol riot, as well as accounts of multiple people in contact with the president that day, who have said Trump was initially pleased to see a halt in the counting of the electoral college votes. Some former White House officials have acknowledged that he only belatedly and reluctantly issued calls for peace, after first ignoring public and private entreaties to do so.
The assertion that Trump acted swiftly and out of genuine horror as his supporters ransacked the Capitol is largely a side note to his lawyers’ defense. In their 78-page brief, they focused on two legal arguments: that the Constitution does not allow for the conviction of an impeached former officeholder and that Trump’s speech to the crowd on Jan. 6 was political rhetoric protected by the First Amendment.
In a test vote earlier this month, the majority of Republican senators indicated that they will be receptive to a defense based on the question of whether the proceedings are constitutional.
But the decision by Trump’s attorneys to also assert a claim about Trump’s reaction that day in a footnote to their legal brief could give the House impeachment managers an opening as they prosecute their case. Among the possible witnesses who could rebut the contention that Trump moved quickly to rein his supporters are Republican senators who will now sit as jurors in the impeachment trial - some of whom have spoken publicly about their failed attempts to get the president to act expeditiously when his supporters invaded the Capitol.
“It took him awhile to appreciate the gravity of the situation,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump’s most loyal supporters, said in an interview with The Washington Post two days after the riot. “The president saw these people as allies in his journey and sympathetic to the idea that the election was stolen.”
That same day, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told conservative radio broadcaster Hugh Hewitt that it was “not an open question” as to whether Trump had been “derelict in his duty,” saying there had been a delay in the deployment of the National Guard to help the Capitol Police repel rioters.
“As this was unfolding on television, Donald Trump was walking around the White House confused about why other people on his team weren’t as excited as he was as you had rioters pushing against Capitol Police trying to get into the building,” he said, indicating that he had learned of Trump’s reaction from “senior White House officials.”
Sasse declined to comment on Monday, saying he was a juror in the trial. Graham did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesman for Trump’s defense team did not respond to requests for comment.
For many White House aides, lawmakers and others who had been ensconced in the Capitol, Trump’s actions after the riots began were particularly offensive - even more objectionable, some said, than what he did to incite the crowd.
“President Trump did not take swift action to stop the violence,” the nine House impeachment managers wrote in their opening brief submitted last week, adding: “This dereliction of President Trump’s responsibility for the events of January 6 is unmistakable.”
‘Time for extreme courage’
Weeks before the joint session of Congress, Trump had summoned the crowd to Washington for a protest to coincide with counting of the electoral college votes. In the days leading up to the rally on the Ellipse, Trump was consumed with the event, former White House officials said, as he met with aides to plan the speakers, music and even staging.
On Jan. 6, Trump spent part of his morning making a final pitch to Vice President Mike Pence to derail the proceedings. The president tried to convince Pence to use his ceremonial role presiding over the joint session of Congress to reject slates of electoral college votes that confirmed Joe Biden’s victory.
“All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!” Trump tweeted at 8:17 a.m.
Trump also kept up the pressure privately, calling Pence before he left his home at the Naval Observatory for the Capitol and making one last effort to push him to try to overturn or delay the election results, former White House officials said.
Instead, Pence informed the president on the call that he would soon be issuing a public statement arguing the Constitution did not allow him to interfere with the counting of the vote.
Trump’s mood immediately soured, aides said.
As the thousands of people gathered on the Ellipse, Trump monitored warm-up speeches by attorneys Rudolph Giuliani and John Eastman from the White House. Around midday, he left the White House and made his way to his a tent set up for VIPs near the stage. In videos posted on social media by his son Donald Trump Jr., the president can be seen intently watching the gathering crowd, surrounded by family members and aides.
A permit filed with the National Park Service for the event explicitly said there were no plans for an “organized march” from the Ellipse after the rally concluded.
But some publicity for events that day, including ads posted to a website called www.marchtosaveamerica.com, urged participants to “take a stand with President Trump” at the Ellipse and then “march to the US Capitol building to protest the certification of the Electoral College.”
And Trump was taken with the idea that he might lead the crowd in a dramatic walk along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol and raised it with aides days before the event, according to an official with knowledge of the discussions, who was among more than 15 advisers, members of Congress, GOP officials and Trump confidants who described his actions to The Washington Post last month, many speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid details.
Even after the Secret Service and advisers around Trump nixed the idea for security reasons, according to former officials, Trump still included several references to such a march in his speech.
“After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you,” Trump said early in his speech. Later, he added, “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” He concluded: “So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue!”
Instead, Trump returned to the White House.
Even before Trump’s speech was over, thousands of his supporters turned and began marching toward the Capitol.
There was already a large crowd gathered around the complex. By the time Trump had finished his 70-minute speech, Pence had gaveled open the joint session inside the Capitol. Outside, crowds were surging toward the building and already overwhelming metal barricades set up outside.
Soon, cable news reports showed rioters clashing with police outside the building.
By 1:49 p.m. - nearly an hour after the Capitol Police chief had urgently requested backup from D.C. police - Trump remained focused on his recently concluded speech.
He tweeted a video of his own remarks, adding the caption, “Our country has had enough, we will not take it anymore, and that’s what this is all about.”
At 2:11 p.m., the rioters broke into the building, smashing a window with a piece of lumber, video footage shows.
Minutes later, Pence was hustled from the Senate Chamber. First the Senate, and then the House, went into recess and lawmakers were hastily evacuated.
A spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has said that around this time Lee received a call on his cellphone from Trump.
The president was not calling to inquire about the well-being of the senators who had been rushed from the chamber. Rather, he thought he had the phone number for Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who had said he would object to the electoral votes of some states. Trump was hoping to persuade Tuberville to expand his challenges and slow the process further.
Lee’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment this week.
Not long afterward, at 2:24 p.m., Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution . . . USA demands the truth.”
Inside the Capitol, the pro-Trump mob had just come within seconds of encountering Pence, who had been rushed into a hideaway by his Secret Service detail.
Speaking Sunday on Fox News, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., questioned whether the tweet, sent as the invading mob was marauding through the Capitol, was “a premeditated effort to provoke violence.”
Belated call for peace
At the White House, Trump’s aides began fielding panicked calls from members of Congress, including close allies who had long been loyal to the president. They had promised they would vote against the counting of the electoral college votes - but begged him now to tell the crowd to stand down.
Graham reached out to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who had gone to the Oval Office as the riot began, to implore her for help, he said in the interview last month.
“They were all trying to get him to speak out, to tell everyone to leave,” Graham said of the aides huddled with Trump that day. The senator said he did not know why it took so long to get the president to respond.
Another close adviser said that rather than appearing appalled, Trump was voraciously consuming the events on television, enjoying the spectacle and encouraged to see his supporters fighting for him.
At some point, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was persuaded by staff to attempt to intervene with the president.
Finally, at 2:38 p.m. - more than 90 minutes after the siege had begun - Trump tweeted, “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”
One person familiar with discussions about what the president should tweet said Trump had resisted adding the final phrase: “Stay peaceful.”
A little after 3 p.m., acting defense secretary Christopher Miller authorized full activation of all 1,100 members of the D.C. National Guard after urgent requests from the Capitol Police.
While Trump’s defense attorneys claim he and the White House “took immediate steps to coordinate with authorities,” the president played no known role in organizing reinforcements that day.
Among those who reached out to Trump that afternoon was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., a close Trump ally, who later told allies he found Trump watching events on television and distracted.
Concerned his request for the president to intervene had not gotten through, McCarthy followed up with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and asked him to get Trump to urge the rioters to go home.
At 3:13 p.m., a little more than an half-hour after his first tweet, Trump tweeted again. This time he wrote more forcefully: “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order - respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!”
Another hour passed. During this time, as rioters surged through the building and reveled on the Senate floor, Trump made no effort to check on the well-being of his vice president or his team, who were sheltering in place in the Capitol complex. Aides said that lack of outreach angered Pence more than anything else Trump did before or after the riot. Five days passed before the two men spoke again.
Trump also did not make contact with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R.-Ky., then the Senate majority leader, who was in constant communication with Pence, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., aides said, along with military and law enforcement officials. Trump did not participate in any of the group calls.
Shortly before 4 p.m., former New Jersey governor Chris Christie went on ABC News and said that he had been trying without success to reach Trump for 25 minutes.
“The president caused this protest to occur; he’s the only one who can make it stop,” Christie, a close Trump confidant, said he had hoped to tell the president.
At 4:17 p.m., more than an hour after his last public comment and as police continued to wage hand-to-hand combat with rioters trying to press into the building, Trump posted a video to Twitter in which he told crowd directly, “You have to go home.”
But he also expressed sympathy for them and their cause. Trump insisted the election had been fraudulent, adding, “There’s never been a time like this when such a thing happened when they could take it away from all of us.”
“Go home. We love you. You’re very special,” he said.
Trump aides later said that the video was considered the best of three separate takes he filmed that day.
As a curfew called by Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, fell over the city at 6 p.m., Trump tweeted again. This time, he went even further in expressing sympathy for his supporters and their actions.
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” he wrote. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
In The Post interview two days after the riot, Graham called the tweet “very unhelpful” and expressed confusion about why Trump had not acted more forcefully during the riot. “I’d like to know more,” he said then.
In the immediate wake of the riot, Meadows was already telling people that Trump had wanted the violence to end immediately, according to an administration official at the time.
The official said it was “not believable” then - or now, when presented by Trump’s lawyers. A spokesman for Meadows did not respond to a request for comment.
The House impeachment managers are expected to argue that Trump could have restrained the mob if he had acted more swiftly and forcefully.
In a new brief filed Tuesday, the impeachment managers wrote: “President Trump barely attempts to justify his abject failure to stop the riot after it began, and confines his entire discussion of the point to a convoluted footnote that hardly offers any response or explanation at all.”
Comments by some of those who allegedly invaded the Capitol support the notion that they would have responded if Trump had told them to back down earlier in the day.
In a video posted to the social media site Parler on the afternoon of Jan. 6, Jacob Chansley - who was photographed in the well of the Senate chamber, wearing a headdress of animal fur and horns - told an unnamed person after he exited the building that he had done so because Trump had tweeted that the rioters should leave.
“Donald Trump asked everybody to go home,” Chansley said. “He just put out a tweet. It’s a minute long. He asked everybody to go home.”
- - -
The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker and Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.