In the days since the insurrection at the Capitol, many of those arrested and charged for their roles have said they were simply following Trump’s orders.
“The words of a president matter.”
This was a mantra of sorts for President-elect Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign. He uttered these words over and over again, making clear that President Donald Trump’s embrace of violent, aggressive rhetoric was dividing the country and causing harm.
On Jan. 6, four years of Trump’s dangerous rhetoric resulted in yet another tragic event, as a mob of armed, pro-Trump, right-wing extremists mounted an attempted coup at the US Capitol that led to the loss of five lives.
As the Department of Justice, the FBI, and state and local officials have begun to investigate the deadly riot in recent days, it’s become clear that a far worse catastrophe was only narrowly avoided. Terrorists walked the halls of Congress, assaulting police officers, chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” and searching for lawmakers whom they sought to kill. They didn’t succeed. But if they had, the fault would have largely been at the feet of the most powerful man in the world: the president of the United States of America.
As a bipartisan majority of the House made clear when they voted to impeach Trump on Wednesday, the president—through his months-long lies about election fraud and increasingly angry rhetoric—played a vital role in sparking the mayhem. In the days since the riot, many of those arrested and charged for their roles in breaching the Capitol have said as much: They were simply following Trump’s orders. And those orders were made for the world to see.
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” Trump tweeted on Dec. 18.
He issued similar tweets several more times in the coming days, even using the “StopTheSteal!” rhetoric. The president’s legal team warned of “disruption” and possible “injury” to the nation in a December court filing asking the Supreme Court to overturn Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania.
This rhetoric reached a fever pitch on the morning of the insurrection, when Trump addressed the crowd and once again lied that the election was stolen by Democrats.
“We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved,” Trump said. “Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore, and that is what this is all about.”
Trump took direct aim at his own vice president, Mike Pence, believing falsely that Pence could somehow overturn the election result.
“Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us. And if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country because you’re sworn to uphold our Constitution,” Trump said. “Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country. And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you.”
As his speech went on, he grew even more aggressive in his language. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” Trump said. “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
The president then urged his supporters to march on the Capitol, and so they did. And when many of them were inevitably arrested, they pointed to Trump’s words to explain their conduct.
Albert Watkins, an attorney for Jacob Anthony Chansley, better known as Jake Angeli, a QAnon conspiracy theorist who seemed intent on killing members of Congress, pointed the finger at Trump to explain why his client breached the Capitol and was later arrested and charged.
“He took seriously the countless messages of President Trump. He believed in President Trump,” Watkins told the Washington Post. Chansley bought into Trump’s lies about the election and the “deep state” and went to DC to do what Trump asked.
Larry Rendell Brock, a 53-year-old retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Texas who was photographed in the Senate chamber holding plastic, zip-tie handcuffs, also said he was following Trump’s lead.
“The President asked for his supporters to be there to attend, and I felt like it was important, because of how much I love this country, to actually be there,” he told the New Yorker.
Lee Sanford Jr., a 55-year-old retired firefighter from Pennsylvania who reportedly threw a fire extinguisher at Capitol police officers, told a friend of his that he listened to Trump’s speech, “and then had followed the President’s instructions and gone to the Capitol,” according to FBI Agent Samad D. Shahrani.
Jenny Cudd, a 36-year-old from Texas, became an anti-masker in 2020 and in recent months had only discussed buying ammunition and preparing for the impending “revolution.” On Jan. 3, following two months of lies from Trump, she took to Facebook to write: “No matter what Trump will be President for 4 more years. Enjoy the show.”
On the day of the riot, Cudd broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. She has since been arrested and charged in federal court.
“Our president wants us here,” another man was heard saying during a livestream video that showed him standing inside the Capitol building. “We wait and take orders from our president.”
Trump has since claimed that his speech was “totally appropriate,” even as members of his own party, administration officials, social media platforms, banks, and a majority of Americans agree that he played a key role in sparking the insurrection. Worse, he did little to stop it.
It took Trump several hours to release a half-hearted video in which he requested the angry mob of right-wing extremists go home. But even when he did that, he couldn’t help making clear how he felt about them, even after their actions.
“We have to have peace,” he said. “So go home, we love you, you’re very special.”