Shortly after 2 pm on Jan. 6, 2021, a violent mob of Trump supporters who believed his false claims that the 2020 presidential election had been “stolen” broke through the security barriers around the U.S. Capitol, attacking security guards and police officers to break into the building by force. The attack began soon after Trump finished speaking at the March to Save America rally just blocks away, where he urged his supporters to proceed to the Capitol and “fight like hell” to stop the certification of the Electoral College results underway in a joint session of Congress. The goal was to prevent the final legal step that would make Biden’s electoral victory official and force Trump to vacate the White House on Jan. 20.
Trump supporters carried Stop the Steal banners, Confederate flags, and weapons, among other items, and once the president tweeted at 2:24 pm that the vice president “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done,” they chanted “Hang Mike Pence!”
In fact, Trump’s tweets from the White House that afternoon guided the mob as they vandalized the Capitol and assaulted police officers, who were overwhelmed while waiting for reinforcements from the National Guard and the D.C. police department. As the violence escalated, members of Congress were forced to flee from their chambers and take shelter in more secure locations. For more than two hours, the president refused to take any action to quell the violence, despite repeated pleas from his family, West Wing staff members, and allies to tell his supporters to stand down. At 4:17 pm, he finally released a video in which he told the rioters “we love you, you’re very special” but that they should “go home.”
During and immediately after the attack, five people died, including a member of the Capitol Police who succumbed to injuries sustained while engaging with the attackers; a rioter who was shot by a Capitol Police officer; and three rioters who died due to various medical issues during the insurrection. At least 140 law enforcement personnel were injured, and as of February 2023, at least 1,003 insurrectionists had been charged with various crimes, including seditious conspiracy.
A variety of people—ranging from members of militarized hate groups to Trump himself—helped facilitate the insurrection at the Capitol.
- On Dec. 19, 2020, Trump set the stage for the insurrection when he tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. on Jan. 6. Be there, will be wild!” Leading up to the protest, he concealed plans to call for his supporters to march on the Capitol, knowing that other government agencies would object to that. According to testimony given to the House Select Committee investigating the attack on the Capitol, Trump had been very eager to join his supporters in storming the building to stop the congressional proceedings underway.
- The attack on the Capitol is closely linked to the March to Save America, which helped fire up the crowd to take action. Primarily organized by Women for America First, a right-wing advocacy group led by Amy Kremer, the event also relied on organizations such as Stop the Steal and Turning Point USA/TP Action to provide logistical support by bussing hundreds of people to the march.
- Numerous Trump supporters discussed plans to storm the Capitol on online forums such as TheDonald.win. One forum member wrote, “If we occupy the Capitol building, there will be no vote.” The top response to that post reads, “GOTTA OVERWHELM THE BARRICADES AND COPS.” The owner of TheDonald.win, an offshoot of a banned pro-Trump Reddit page, later shut down the forum, conceding that conspiracy theories and hate speech went too far.
- Politicians who appear to have helped plan the insurrection include Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Andy Biggs (R–Ariz), and Mo Brooks (R–Ala.). Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander claimed that the three congressmen helped with the rally and were part of planning “something big” for Jan. 6. After the violent attack, he characterized the insurrection as “peaceful.”
- The Proud Boys, a militant fascist organization, developed plans to occupy the Capitol prior to Jan. 6. In a document titled “1776 Returns,” the group plotted to place covert actors inside the Capitol and allow their members inside the building to halt the Electoral College certification and force a new election. The Proud Boys also agreed not to wear clothing that could identify their membership in the group and created a “chain of command” to organize their activities during the day. The group also ran reconnaissance on the Capitol hours before the attack.
- Approximately 10,000 people entered the Capitol grounds and 2,000 entered the building itself. The common thread uniting the rioters was fervent support for Trump and a belief in the Big Lie that the election had been stolen from him.
- Members of white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys, the Groyper Army, and the New Jersey European Heritage Association were among the largest contingent of rioters on Jan. 6 and it turned out that dozens of them had appeared on the FBI’s terrorism watch list. Participants carried Confederate flags, wore antisemitic clothing, and brandished other signs and apparel proclaiming support for white supremacy.
- Members of militias such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters were also among the rioters and were found to have coordinated efforts. At least 11 Oath Keepers were charged with crimes in relation to their role storming the Capitol, including founder Stewart Rhodes, who was found guilty of seditious conspiracy in November 2022 and as of May 2023, faced a possible sentence of 25 years. In January 2023, four other Oath Keepers were found guilty of seditious conspiracy. Six members of the Three Percenters faced conspiracy charges as of June 2021; one was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison in 2022, while another pleaded guilty in 2023, with trials at various stages for the others.
- Many other rioters were not affiliated with any white nationalist or militia group but were acting on Trump’s orders to storm the Capitol and stop the congressional certification of the Electoral College results. In February 2021, analysis by The Atlantic found that of the 193 people who had been arrested due to a connection to the riot, 89% were not part of a larger organization.
- More than a dozen Republican state lawmakers also participated in the riot, including members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Doug Mastriano, then a Pennsylvania state senator and subsequently the 2022 GOP nominee for governor, and Nevada Assemblywoman Annie Black were among the participants. Former West Virginia state lawmaker Derrick Evans resigned from his position and pleaded guilty to a felony disorder charge related to his participation in the attack on the Capitol.
Right-Wing Justification and Spin
- Some on the Right originally tried to blame left-wing Antifa activists for attacking the Capitol while carrying Trump signs. Prominent proponents of this unfounded theory included U.S. Reps. Mo Brooks (R–Ala.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.).
- GOP politicians also tried to minimize the importance of the House Select Committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said he was paying “zero attention” to the hearings, while former Trump administration official Peter Navarro, who was subpoenaed by the Justice Department for his role in the insurrection, said, “It’s something straight out of Stalin and the cultural revolution. It’s a show trial, that’s all it is.” For its part, Fox News initially refused to air the hearings.
- Some far-right activists have attempted to portray the arrested insurrectionists as “patriots” and victims of a tyrannical government. Matt Braynard, a former Trump administration staffer and head of Look Ahead America, tweeted, “January 6th was America’s Tiananmen Square. The regime turned a peaceful protest into an ‘insurrection’ to destroy the lives of patriots who oppose said regime.” Look Ahead America started a campaign called Justice for J6, which held a rally attempting to change the narrative on the insurrection.