The January 6, 2021, Capitol riot in Washington D.C. reflects one of the worst moments for democracy in U.S. History. Estimates indicate 10% of the individuals arrested following the Capitol riot had connections to far right militias and other right-wing extremist groups. To investigate the events that led up to the Capitol riot, this study provides a descriptive analysis of Trump’s public rhetoric between 2015-2020 citing tweets, speeches, and news interviews where his words created an environment for violence among his supporters prior to and throughout his presidency.
Political Rhetoric, Violence, Insurgency, Preparedness
Trump’s Promise to ‘Make American Great Again’
Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States in 2016 and assumed office in 2017. Trump’s victory was fueled by the rhetoric and campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and found support especially with White voters (Baum-Baicker, 2020; Major et al., 2018). The Trump Administration promised to put “America first” and fight for its priorities. One of Trump’s first acts as President was to propose the America First Blueprint Act that created a series of changes to federal spending to advance the safety and security of all Americans. The Act increased federal funding for national defense and to combat drug and violent crime. It also expanded the federal budget for immigration enforcement, including building a border wall along the United States-Mexico border.
Trump pledged to deport thousands of undocumented immigrants who he alleged were “criminal and had criminal records, gang members, [and] drug dealers” (Stahl, 2016, para. 78). In response, Trump signed the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act that instituted immigration restrictions designed to cut the number of undocumented immigrants by half. RAISE, however, allowed for an influx of immigrants who the Trump Administration identified as “skilled.” In 2020, Trump signed Proclamation 10052 to suspend entry of immigrants who were deemed a risk to the U.S. labor market (Trump, 2020).
Border security was the most important campaign promise made by Trump. He pledged to build a wall along the U.S. southern border to stop the influx of undocumented immigrants. Trump proposed a 5.7-billion-dollar federal budget to fund the border wall, which Congress denied as a non-essential operation. This budgetary disagreement led to the longest U.S. government shutdown, for a total of 34 days from December 21, 2018 through January 25, 2019 (Zaveri et al., 2019). Nine federal departments were partially or fully shut down for more than a month, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In addition, about 800,000 federal employees were impacted by the shutdown with most of them being furloughed or forced to work without pay (Wamsley, 2019).
About two months after the shutdown, Trump declared a national emergency to try to fund the border wall. The shutdown triggered several protests in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and other large cities across the country (Kasana, 2019). A public poll conducted by CNN revealed that most Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown. Additionally, about 56% of the individuals surveyed opposed a border wall (Agiesta, 2019). Notwithstanding, Trump continued to push for tighter border security and imposed a “zero tolerance” policy to arrest individuals for unauthorized border crossing and instituted a child separation program that allowed border agents to separate undocumented children from their parents. In addition, the Trump Administration enacted travel bans to stop individuals from certain Muslim countries from entering the United States. Countries impacted by Executive Order 13769 included Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen (Barrett & Frosch, 2017). The executive order also prevented Syrian refugees from entering the country, even though there was a clear humanitarian crisis in Syria. Trump’s executive order was legally challenged in both state and federal courts. A judge in Washington State granted a temporary restraining order for what many considered a Muslim travel ban. In Washington and State of Minnesota v. Trump (2017), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the restraining order issued by the lower court.
Trump was steeped in controversy during his presidency, and he was the first American president to be impeached twice. His first impeachment occurred on December 18, 2019, and was triggered by his attempt to elicit foreign interference in his 2020 re-election bid. Specifically, Trump attempted to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democratic rival Joseph R. Biden in 2019. The impeachment was centered on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The second impeachment occurred on January 13, 2021, and was triggered by his “Save America Rally” speech following his loss in the 2020 presidential election and the subsequent riot at the Capitol by his supporters after his speech, along with his inaction during the riot. Trump questioned the validity of the election results and refused to concede his loss. He claimed that electoral fraud was rampant during the November 2020 elections and as result Biden was declared the winner, when in fact he had won the election. The counter narrative has been called Trump’s claims “the big lie.” Trump condemned the media as “fake news” and encouraged his supporters to “walk down to the Capitol” where Congress was certifying the election. Trump also told his supports that they would not have a country if they did not “fight like hell” (Naylor, 2021, para. 4). Many political pundits considered Trump’s speech to be the direct impetus of the insurgency at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 (Cineas, 2021).
Political analysts as well as news organizations have linked Trump’s public rhetoric to violence among his supporters (Thompson, 2021). In this paper, we provide a descriptive analysis of Trump’s tweets, speeches, and transcripts of news interviews between 2015-2020. The timeframe provides a critical lens through which we add to the body of literature regarding political violence and extremism by examining a broader range of Trump’s communications in which his rhetoric encouraged, provoked, and/or created a climate conducive to violence among his supporters (Harney & Berley, 2021; Williams, 2021).
Researchers have documented how aggression can diffuse throughout a network. For example, in a paper published by Poiitis et al. (2021), the authors provide an empirical framework for understanding aggression diffusion and monitoring, particularly through online social networks, while Terizi et al. (2021) engage in simulation analyses for aggression propagation. Applied substantively, scholars have found that hateful rhetoric has a tendency of spreading farther and to a much larger audience than more neutral content (see Mathew et al., 2019). Based on this lens, any user within a network (i.e., the node) can diffuse hatred to other members (i.e., egos). Donald Trump’s role as an influencer facilitates reach to a vast number of egos. While not actively diffusing violence through the network, Trump’s rhetoric can spread dissent and hostility to a broader audience. However, given preliminary studies on contagion spread in the broader context, such as the diffusion of violence (see Bichler et al., 2019; Green et al., 2017; Papachristos et al., 2013; 2015), also would be applicable to describing the danger that Donald Trump’s rhetoric posed for the broader political system, and, ultimately, the democratic process.
Trump’s Rhetoric about Mexico, Mexicans Citizens, and Immigrants
Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign “was characterized by the remarkable expression of prejudice toward a range of [racial and religious] groups” (Crandall et al., 2018, p. 186). According to Crandall et al. (2018, p. 186), “people often have conflicting motives for expressing prejudice,” although Trump’s motive seemed quite clear—it was a political dog whistle to win the majority vote, particularly the White vote (Caplan, 2018). Following his election, Trump continued his prejudicial rhetoric against a variety of groups, and, as a result, a “wave of racists incidents occurred” (Crandall et al., 2018, p. 187). The Southern Poverty Law Center (2016a, 2016b), for example, reported that over 400 verified bias-related incidents occurred in the week following election day and another 1,000 incidents happened one month after election day, which represented a significant increase over previous months. The election of Trump undoubtedly changed America’s willingness to embrace prejudice and his public rhetoric normalized hate speech and violence among his supporters (Crandall et al., 2018).
Trump openly vocalized his opposition to immigration from Mexico to the United States. During his presidential campaign, he made numerous disparaging comments about Mexico and Mexican citizens. In 2015, for instance, Trump stated that,
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems [with them]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. (Gamboa, 2015, para. 3).
When questioned directly by an NBC News reporter, Trump said he stood by his comments. In fact, in the same interview, he indicated that:
I would build a Great Wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I will have Mexico pay for that wall, mark my words (Gamboa, 2015, para. 5).
Then, he added he “would immediately end Obama’s executive action on immigration that would shield millions of immigrants here illegally from deportation” (Gamboa, 2015, para. 6).
According to Hotchkiss and Quispe-Agnoli (2013), however, the migration of undocumented immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border fell drastically in 2010 under Obama. Trump’s campaign also occurred during a time when criminal justice professionals were trying to address immigration reform (Caplan, 2018). Contrary to Trump’s assertion, Mexican immigrants were less likely to commit crimes than native-born U.S. citizens. In fact, a study conducted by Light et al. (2020) found in Texas between 2012-2018 U.S. citizens were twice as likely to be arrested for violent felonies, two-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for felony drug crimes, and over four times more likely to be arrested for felony property crimes when compared to undocumented immigrants.
Trump’s comments about Mexico, Mexican citizens, and immigrants bolstered inaccurate and negative perceptions about individuals seeking asylum and/or crossing the border into the United States. In response to Trump’s rhetoric in which he claimed a dramatic rise in the percentage of unauthorized immigrants crossing into the United States from the U.S.-Mexico border, many states enacted zero tolerance immigration legislation (Crandall et al., 2018). Such legislation appeared to be predicated on the belief that “unauthorized immigrants impose greater costs than benefits to state and local communities” (Hotchkiss & Quispe-Agnoli, 2013, p. 34) including the unsubstantiated claim that immigrants commit more crime than native-born citizens.
On April 1, 2018, Trump took to Twitter to make the unsubstantiated claim that the Mexican government was encouraging their citizens to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. He tweeted,
Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S. They laugh at our dumb immigration laws. They must stop the big drug and people flows, or I will stop their cash cow, NAFTA. NEED WALL! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump).
In a follow up tweet, Trump used the opportunity to make immigration a political rather than humanitarian issue. He warned that “caravans” of immigrants would be crossing the border if Congress failed to act. He tweeted,
Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release. Getting more dangerous. “Caravans” coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump).
In a follow up tweet, Trump doubled down on his unsubstantiated claim that migrants were motivated to cross the U.S. border in the hopes of benefitting from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Specifically, he tweeted, “These big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA. They want in on the act! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump).” When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Trump Administration and upheld DACA (Department of Homeland Security et al. v. Regents of the University of California et al., 2020), he tweeted the ruling “was a shotgun blast to the face” (Duncan, 2020, para. 3). Trump, however, was largely undeterred by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and he continued to push for stronger border security and immigration reform between the United States and Mexico.
Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ Legislation and Violence Escalation
During his presidential campaign, Trump also ramped up his rhetoric about Muslims and individuals from Middle Eastern countries. Trump openly supported ineffective law enforcement policies based on racial and religious profiling. For instance, Trump indicated a “database is okay, and a watch list is okay, and surveillance is okay” for Muslim Americans (Carroll, 2015, para. 34). He also stated he was in favor of banning the entry of individuals from Middle Eastern countries into the U.S. (Crandall et al., 2018; Diamond, 2015; Saletan, 2016). To further his agenda, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States. The Order banned entry of foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and it also displaced Muslim Americans traveling abroad (DeChalus, 2022).
Executive Order 13769 was challenged as unconstitutional because legal experts argued it infringed on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, and other provisions were thinly veiled as a “Muslim ban” (DeChalus, 2022). In addition, national security experts did not believe Trump’s Order was in the interest of national security, rather, it was based on religious and racial prejudice (DeChalus, 2022). A citizen, Samuel Ouga, sent a tweet to Trump’s Twitter account in response to his “get tough” rhetoric and behavior against Muslims (Cineas, 2021). In his tweet he stated, “Peaceful #American Muslim woman escorted out of @realDonaldTrump rally. Insulted by Trump supporters #GOPHatesMuslims”– @Ougasam
Ouga’s (2016) tweet was in response to an incident involving a 56-year-old American Muslim woman, Rose Hamid. Ms. Hamid was wearing a hijab and a shirt that read, “Salam I come in peace” at a Trump rally (Holpuch, 2016, para. 1). During his speech, Trump asserted that, “Syrian refugees fleeing war were affiliated with ISIS” (Cineas, 2021). Following his comments, Ms. Hamid stood up and silently protested. Trump’s security team escorted her out of the building while his supporters shouted, “Get out! Do you have a bomb? Do you have a bomb?” (Cineas, 2021, para. 30). Their shouts demonstrated their support of the false narrative that all Muslims were terrorists. Later, Ms. Hamid reflected on the behavior of Trump’s supporters and said, “it was a vivid example of what happens when you start using this hateful rhetoric and how it can incite a crowd where moments ago were very kind to me” (Cineas, 2021, para. 30). However, Trump was unphased by the negative media coverage, and he continued his polarizing rhetoric about Muslims suggesting that the “country must scrutinize mosques and newly arrived Muslim migrants” (Cineas, 2021, para. 32).
Researchers and political pundits have labeled Trump’s public rhetoric and its impact on his supporters as the “Trump effect” (Maddalena, 2016; Nienhusser & Oshio, 2019). The Trump effect allowed his followers to justify any behavior that previously had been deemed socially unacceptable, including racialized and religious bullying, discrimination, and physical and sexual assault (Drevitch, 2018). Consistent with the research of Poiitis et al. (2021), the Trump effect demonstrates the diffusion of violence from the nose to the egos.
In one study, participants reported that they lived in constant fear because of their immigration status after Trump was elected to office (Nienhusser & Oshio, 2019). A shared concern among American Muslims during Trump’s Administration was fear of being victims of biased-based crimes (Baum-Baicker, 2020). Their fear was not wholly unfounded considering the proportion of biased-based offenses rose from 17% to 22% under Trump’s presidency (Baum-Baicker, 2020). In an examination of data from 2016, Folley (2019) found hate crimes increased by 226% in locations where Trump hosted campaign rallies. Research testing the Trump effect found violence against persons for crimes such as bullying, assault, and homicide increased (Baum-Baicker, 2020; Treisman, 2019). As Trump continued to “fan the flames of White resentment over immigration and the country’s changing demographics” (Baum-Baicker, 2020, p. 737) the percentage of hate groups operating across America drastically increased from 954 in 2017 to 1,020 in 2019 (Beirich, 2019). Trumps’ repeated pronouncements singling out Muslims contributed to the escalation of violence against them by Trump supporters (Baum-Baicker, 2020).
Trump’s Vilification of Blacks and Asians
The media regularly covered events in which Trump used racial and religious rhetoric to demonize cities like Chicago and Baltimore as criminal, “to support Confederate monuments and actors…in Charlottesville, to attack activists like Colin Kaepernick, and to attack groups, such as BLM protesters” (Graham et al., 2021, p. 3). In a 2015 Birmingham, Alabama rally, Trump ordered Black activist Mercutio Southall Jr. to be escorted out after the young man shouted, “Black lives matter!” (Cineas, 2021, para. 29). While onstage, Trump stated, “Get him the hell out of here! Get him out of here! Throw him out!” (Biank, 2020, para. 29). In reaction to Trump’s words, several White men appeared to kick and punch Southall. Further, as Trump’s security removed Southall from the rally, the crowd chanted, “All lives matter” (Cineas, 2021, para 30). The next day, Trump told Fox News,
Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing. I have a lot of fans, and they were not happy about it. And this was a very obnoxious guy who was a troublemaker who was looking to make trouble (Biank, 2020, para. 22).
Following these incidents, Trump continued to use hate rhetoric at several rallies between 2016-2020 to encourage his supporters to engage in both verbal attacks and physical violence. At a 2016 campaign rally in Sioux Center, Iowa, for example, Trump celebrated the deep loyalty of his supporters stating, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters. Okay?” (Dwyer, 2016, para. 2). At another 2016 campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Trump told the crowd that his security team informed him there may be people throwing tomatoes. He encouraged his followers to
knock the crap, out of them, would you? Seriously. Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you; I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. There won’t be so much of them because the courts agree with us (Biank, 2020, para. 28).
That same year at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Trump said about a protester, “I’d like to punch him in the face” (Diamond, 2015, para. 2). As security guards escorted the protester out, Trump mocked him, saying, “He’s smiling. Having a good time” (Biank, 2020, para. 29). Then, he reminisced about being able to get away with violence by stating that,
There’s a guy, totally disruptive, throwing punches. We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks (Biank, 2020, para. 29).
A CNN reporter covering the event noted that the protester did not put up a physical fight as he was being removed, but Trump characterized the protester as “nasty as hell” (Diamond, 2015, para. 4). On March 10, 2020, police escorted a Black protester, Rakeem Jones, out of a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Jones turned toward the crowd waving his hands in the air, and even though Jones did not do anything to provoke violence, a White Trump supporter punched Jones in the face. Instead of arresting the White man who assaulted Jones, the police wrestled Jones to the ground, handcuffed him, and removed him from the rally (Bixby, 2016).
Again in 2016, three people claimed they were assaulted at a Trump campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky. These individuals sued Trump for incitement to riot, alleging that he riled up his followers and encouraged violence when he repeatedly yelled, “Get ‘em out of here!” (Biank, 2016, para. 31). In 2017, a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs stating there was sufficient evidence proving their injuries were a “direct and proximate result” of Trump’s comments (Simpson v. Trump University, 2018). Therefore, “[i]t is plausible that Trump’s direction to ‘get ‘em out of here’ advocated the use of force. It was an order, an instruction, a command” (Biank, 2020, para. 38). Trump appealed the case, and in 2018, a federal appeals court dismissed the protesters’ claims, saying that Trump’s words were protected under the First Amendment and did not “specifically advocate imminent lawless violence” (Nwanguma et al. v. Donald J. Trump, 2018, p. 2).
On August 12, 2017, protesters held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The evening before the rally, neo-Nazi and White supremacist groups marched at the University of Virginia, carrying lit tiki torches, and chanting anti-Semitic and White supremacist slogans, in response to the impending removal of a statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park (Biank, 2020). During the rally, protesters and counter-protesters violently clashed. James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio intentionally drove his car at a high rate of speed down Fourth Street into a crowd of counter-protesters. Fields’s car struck and killed Heather Heyer of Charlottesville and 19 others were injured (Lord, 2019). That same night, Trump tweeted condolences to Heyer’s family stating, “Condolences to the family of the young woman killed today, and best regards to all of those injured, in Charlottesville, Virginia. So sad! – Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump, 2017).
The media criticized Trump for his lack of a genuine response to the violence in Charlottesville. Addressing the media criticism, he subsequently held a press conference at Trump Tower. When the media pressed him about who was responsible for the violence, Trump asserted,
You had a group on one side, and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs, and it was vicious, and it was horrible, and it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side—you can call them the left, you just called them the left—that came violently attacking the other group. So, you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is (Estepa, 2017, para. 4).
Trump concluded his comments stating there were “very fine people” on both sides, and he ultimately sided with his White nationalists’ supporters in Charlottesville. He said,
You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name (Estepa, 2017, para. 8).
Trump also used this event as an opportunity to further divide people about the historical mistreatment and oppression of Black individuals in the U.S. For example, he pondered about whether the removal of Confederate statues would lead to the erasure of other historical figures whose personal narratives are tainted by White supremacy. Specifically, he mused, “This week it’s Robert E. Lee, I notice Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to wonder, where does it stop?” (Watson, 2017, para. 16). The President of the North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Reverend William Barber stated the removal of Confederate statues is important, but not as important as pulling down the agenda of White nationalists. He went on to imply that Trump fell short on both issues, and that the U.S. would never achieve social justice if discriminatory laws remained unchanged (Johnson, 2017).
Trump had multiple opportunities to condemn White supremacy and unify the country, but he failed to do so (Biank, 2020). During the 2020 Presidential Debates, for example, Chris Wallace, the debate moderator, asked President Trump if he was willing to condemn White supremacist and militia groups. Trump responded, “Sure. I’m willing to do that… [but quickly added], Almost everything I see is from the left wing. Not from the right wing” (Mills, 2021, para. 3). In addition, Trump stated, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by [but] somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem” (Mills, 2021, para. 6).
Not only did Trump provoke anti-Black sentiments among his supporters, but he also incited Anti-Asian sentiments. On March 16, 2020, in response to growing concerns about the coronavirus, Trump described it as the ‘Chinese Virus’ and ‘Kung flu’ in a tweet (Hswen et al., 2021). Researchers from the University of California San Francisco compared anti-Asian hashtags on Twitter the week prior to and after Trump’s tweet to determine what if any impact it had on the social media platform. According to the study, Trump’s tweet about the “Chinese virus” led to a significant increase in anti-Asian hashtags, such as #chinesevirus and the use of terms like ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘kung flu’” (Gover et al., 2020). As Bichler et al. (2019) indicated, Trump’s tweets and the subsequent tweets of his followers is clear example of contagion spread.
In a news interview, Trump insisted his comments about the origins of the coronavirus were “not racist…it comes from China…I want to be accurate” (The Guardian, 2020, 0:19). On June 23, 2020, at a Trump rally in Phoenix, Arizona audience members primed from having heard his speech on the “many names” of the coronavirus at a Tulsa rally, preempted his remarks on the coronavirus and started shouting ‘kung flu’ (Nakamura, 2020). This refrain from his supporters garnered a grin from Trump and prompted him to repeat the slogan. In addition to Trump’s statements, other members of the GOP shared similar sentiments. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), for instance, stated “Anyone who complains that it’s racist or xenophobic to call this virus the Chinese coronavirus or the Wuhan virus is a politically correct fool” (Hswen et al., 2021, p. 957). In the wake of Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric, hate crimes against Asian Americans continued to rise (Hswen et al, 2021). Specifically, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino found anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of the largest U.S. cities increased 145% in 2020. The report also indicated that anti-Asian hate crime incidents significantly surged during the Trump presidency after an overall and continuous drop since the mid-1990s (Gover et al., 2020).
Trump’s Contribution to the Capitol Riot
Trump’s message on January 6, 2021, was consistent with how he had traditionally addressed his followers at rallies where other forms of violence occurred. Moreover, many individuals have carried out acts of violence in Trump’s name in the years leading up to the attack on the Capitol (Cineas, 2021). In fact, a 2020 ABC News report, analyzed 54 criminal cases in which Trump’s name was specifically invoked in connection to violence, threats, and alleged assaults (Levine, 2020). In the same 2020 ABC News report, a search for criminal cases involving former presidents Bush and Obama found no such cases (Levine, 2020).
In a 2020 ABC News clip, Trump denounced his own rhetoric, suggesting his words did not directly encourage the public to engage in acts of violence nor were his words ever intended to harm anyone (Levine, 2020). However, police agencies across the country reported criminal acts that suspects indicated were inspired and/or emboldened by Trump and his call to action. For example, in 2016, an Ohio man told police officers that, “Donald Trump will fix them” after the suspect allegedly threatened his Black neighbor with a knife because Trump had voiced his opposition to the BLM Movement (Cineas, 2021). Also, in 2016, a Florida man threatened to burn down a home because a Muslim family had moved into his neighborhood. In this case, the suspect claimed Trump’s Muslim ban contributed to his belief that it was acceptable to act out against the family (Cineas, 2021). Another Florida man, Cesar Sayoc, mailed pipe bombs to several prominent politicians who were vocal Trump critics. Sayoc admitted that he hoped the bombs would instill fear and stop the politicians from exercising their free speech to criticize Trump (Cineas, 2021). In this case, Sayoc was sentenced to 20-years in federal prison because his actions were deemed to be acts of domestic terrorism (McCoy, 2019).
During several 2019 rallies, Trump repeatedly asserted America was being attacked by immigrants coming across the border. He claimed that “You look at what is marching up, that is an invasion!” (Baker & Shear, 2019, para. 1). Nine months after the rally, a 21-year-old White man, Patrick Crusius, shot and killed 23 people and left several others injured at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Crusius left behind a manifesto lashing out at immigrants and declaring his attack “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” echoing Trump’s rhetoric (Baker & Shear, 2019, para. 2). A federal grand jury returned a 90-count indictment against Crusius under the federal hate crime (18 U.S. Code § 249) and firearm (18 U.S.C. § 924) statutes (U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Texas, 2020). Texas state prosecutors also charged Crusius with 23 counts of capital murder; however, the federal indictment superseded his state charges (Smith et al., 2020).
After the declaration that Biden had been elected president, Trump ramped up his rhetoric that there was widespread voter fraud and the election had been stolen. Trump continued to make the false claim that he had won the election right up to and including the day of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol (Cineas, 2021). Specifically, in Trump’s address to the crowd rallying south of the White House, he instructed his supporters to “walk down to the Capitol,” adding, “you will never take back our country with weakness” (Fins, 2021, para. 9). He also told his supporters that, “We fight. We fight like hell. And if we don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” (Naylor, 2021, para. 4). Following Trump’s call to action, his supporters walked down Pennsylvania Avenue and descended on the Capitol.
Throughout the day of the insurrection, Trump continued to repeat his unsubstantiated claim that the election had been stolen and he refused to intervene when violence erupted. Trump was fully aware his supporters had climbed the walls of the Capitol, and when they reached the Capitol building, they knocked out windows and broke down doors. The insurrectionists were able to breach the Capitol building and, ultimately, enter the Senate Chambers. By mid-afternoon, the Capitol building was under siege, and one member of the mob, Ashley Babbitt, had been shot and fatally wounded by a Capitol police officer after she attempted to breach the broken window of the door leading to the House Chamber. A total of five individuals lost their lives that day, including Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick (Cineas, 2021). In a video message addressing the public, Trump requested the crowd to “go home,” while also telling them he loved them and felt they were “very special” (Cineas, 2021, para. 63). Trump’s speech at the Capitol provides a clear example of how his words created a serious political divide in America, normalized hate rhetoric, which, in turn, normalized violence among his supporters (Thompson, 2021).
In contrast to his inaction at the Capitol, when the BLM Movement swept the country in the summer of 2020, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Trump’s response on June 1, 2020, was to call for and send in military and law enforcement agencies, including the National Guard, Secret Service, U.S. Park police, state troopers, and local police to clear the protesters from Lafayette Park so he could walk through the park and take pictures outside St. John’s Church. He claimed the protesters were rioters although the protest was mostly peaceful, outside of escalation by police. After the deployment of the Department of Homeland Security agents in Portland in the summer of 2020, violent demonstrations increased from 17% to 42% percent (Biank, 2020). Amongst the unrest, Trump also repeatedly failed to identify and call out White nationalists, agitators, and counter protesters who traveled to cities and towns inciting violence. Trump, for instance, declined to denounce the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, a White male teenager who traveled from his home in Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he shot and killed two protesters and injured a third. In fact, Trump defended Rittenhouse claiming that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense (Wise, 2020). In addition, internal Department of Homeland Security documents directed Homeland Security officials to support Rittenhouse by telling media outlets “he took his rifle to the scene of the rioting to protect small businesses” (Ainsley, 2020, para. 2).
Throughout his presidency, Trump was critical of law enforcement, and frequently called on them to “restore law and order” during nationwide protests, but this was not the case regarding the Capitol riot. At noon on January 6, 2021, Trump addressed his supporters and encouraged them to descend on the Capitol. Less than an hour later, Trump’s supporters breached police barricades west of the Capitol. For nearly four hours, Trump refused to call in the National Guard to assist D.C. Capitol Police who were under siege at the Capitol (Tan et al., 2021). Legal scholars and political pundits were quick to point out that Trump’s response to White rioters at the Capitol was vastly different than his response to BLM protests across the country.
Failures in Police use of Intelligence
The response to the Capitol riot also was a failure by law enforcement to take threats to the Capitol and lawmakers seriously. In 2001, in the wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the United States Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT, 2001) Act. The purpose of the PATRIOT (2001) Act was to deter and punish acts of terrorism both foreign and domestic, and to give law enforcement agencies enhanced investigatory tools to detect and prevent terrorist threats and activities. Any law enforcement organization that received a credible threat of terrorist plans or activities were required to share the information with appropriate law enforcement agencies. To facilitate information sharing between law enforcement agencies, President George W. Bush’s Administration created the Department of Homeland Security.
The failure to properly execute the provisions of the PATRIOT Act were central to the Congressional hearings regarding the lack of preparedness of the D.C. Police and other key law enforcement agencies. On January 5, 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Norfolk, Virginia issued a report warning that an attack on the U.S. Capitol was imminent. The report warned extremist had plans to travel to Washington D.C. to perpetrate acts of violence and “war” (Toone, 2021, para. 1). An online thread called on Trump supporters to be prepared commit specific acts of violence stating,
Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Antifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President, or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal (Barrett & Zapotosky, 2021, para. 3, emphasis in the original).
The Norfolk FBI stated that they shared this intelligence with pertinent law enforcement agencies, including the Washington FBI Field Office, D.C. Capitol Police, U.S. Park Police, and other local and federal agencies, which were part of the joint terrorism task force.
Initially, the head of the Washington FBI Field Office, Steve D’Antuono, stated during a news conference that their office had not received any intelligence to indicate the pro-Trump rally would result in the attack on the Capitol. D’Antuono later admitted their office had received the intelligence report and the information was shared with all relevant law enforcement agencies (Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington Office, 2021). However, former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, denied Capitol Police received the Norfolk FBI report. Sund told reporters that, “I did not have information, nor was the information taken into consideration in our security planning” (Barrett & Zapotosky, 2021, para. 12).
A memo from the Capitol Police Intelligence Division dated January 3, 2021, directly contradicted Sund’s assertion, and warned pro-Trump supporters were set to use violence to target members of Congress (Peters, 2021). In addition, the memo warned that, “white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence, may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike” (Peters, 2021, para. 5). Again, law enforcement failed to take the threats seriously even though they were provided the information days in advance. The PATRIOT Act gives intelligence and law enforcement agencies the tools to investigate and disseminate threats of domestic terrorism. Although there is some evidence to suggest D.C. police were advised about the threats to the Capitol, this information should have been shared with the Department of Homeland Security. Any time there is a credible threat of foreign or domestic terrorism, all relevant agencies should be notified, which did not happen during the events leading up to the Capitol insurrection. There should be criminal penalties for any government or law enforcement official who fails to report credible threats to the Department of Homeland Security.
Reports also indicate Trump’s advisors encouraged him to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows presidents to deploy troops to suppress domestic uprisings. Trump declined. The Capitol riot underscores the need for lawmakers to make changes to ensure future acts of violence against the U.S. government can be properly addressed by law enforcement and presidential cabinet members if a president fails to act. The president must not be the sole person with the responsibility of invoking the Insurrection Act. Lawmakers should create a law detailing a hierarchy of government officials and/or cabinet members who have the legislative authority to respond to acts of violence against the U.S. government. Trump’s disregard for the safety of lawmakers, Capitol police, citizens, and Vice-President Mike Pence was on full display in his speech on January 6, 2021. When a president’s judgement is compromised, government officials should have the authority to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens, including lawmakers and police officers.
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