One of the most prescient comments of the year came shortly before midnight on Jan. 6, hours after the U.S. Capitol was overrun by supporters of President Donald Trump in an effort to block the finalization of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory.
“Remember what today was like,” the Atlantic’s David Graham wrote on Twitter. “Someone might try to convince you it was different very soon.”
Hopefully you do remember what that day was like. It began with the tension of Trump emerging from the White House to goad thousands of his supporters by repeating his false claims that the election had somehow been stolen. Then the violence unfolded, slowly, like getting reports from the front in 1943. Protesters had converged on the Capitol. They were scuffling with police. A window was broken. They had entered the building. Lawmakers were rushed to safety. A gun was fired. The House chamber was barricaded. There were no reinforcements. The Capitol was overrun. The Capitol was under the control of Trump loyalists.
Ancillary things were going on, of course, such as Trump giving a tacit thumbs-up from down the street and congressional Republicans doing the same in support of an effort to block the counting of electoral votes. But there’s no denying the central factors of what made the day so alarming and dangerous.
Except that, as Graham predicted, people are trying to.
It is very useful for Republicans, particularly Republicans loyal to Trump and his base, to try to diminish what occurred on Jan. 6. We’ve repeatedly seen lawmakers wave away what happened that day or try to reframe it in ways that are more flattering to Trump specifically and the right more broadly. It’s useful to delineate those efforts – and to contextualize or rebut them – in defense of our collective and accurate memory of what occurred.
The ‘tourist’ argument
In the hours after the attack on the Capitol, some observers on the right pointed to television footage showing protesters walking through the building in an orderly fashion. The suggestion was that many, if not most, of those who entered the Capitol believed that there was no problem with doing so, eroding the idea that this was fundamentally some sort of effort to block the transition of presidential power.
“Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos, pictures,” Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., said during a hearing last month. “You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”
It is true that some percentage of those in the Capitol that day may have followed the crowd inside, not knowing that they were violating the law. In fact, the Justice Department noted this month that, of its 465 arrests by that point, only 130 people had been charged with assault or similar serious crimes. About 440 had been charged with “entering or remaining in a restricted federal building or grounds” – suggesting some overlap but also a lot of people who simply were somewhere they shouldn’t have been.
But what Clyde does is blur the line between those two groups. He uses the relatively placid actions of some to minimize the obvious violence and vandalism committed by others.
The ‘not dangerous’ argument
That’s related to another way in which the violence has been reframed: by saying that the dangerous elements weren’t even all that dangerous.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has been championing this case for months. In February, he told a conservative radio host that he wouldn’t have considered those who stormed the Capitol to have been armed.
“I mean ‘armed,’ when you hear ‘armed,’ don’t you think of firearms?” he said. “Here’s the questions I would have liked to ask: How many firearms were confiscated? How many shots were fired?”
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, offered a similar dismissal: “There have been things worse than people without any firearms coming into a building.”
According to testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray earlier this month, at least one person brought a firearm into the Capitol that day. On Thursday, one of those alleged to have participated in the riot was charged with bringing a handgun into the building.
“For the most part,” Wray explained, “the weapons were weapons other than firearms.”
This assertion from Gohmert and Johnson about firearms is itself a misdirection. Dismissing the day as not comporting with a particular type of threat – that is, one that involved people storming into the building with rifles – is just an attempt to play down the threat. Wray’s clarification that there were nonetheless weapons is important because it reinforces the point that there are weapons besides guns that are dangerous.
“Approximately 140 police officers were assaulted January 6th at the Capitol,” the Justice Department summary indicates, “including about 80 U.S. Capitol Police and about 60 from the Metropolitan Police Department.” At that point, 40 people had been charged with “using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer.”
In that February interview, Johnson did point out that a shot was fired at the Capitol.
“I’m only aware of one [shot being fired] and I’ll defend that law enforcement officer for taking that shot,” Johnson continued. “It was a tragedy, OK? But I think there was only one.”
The one example to which he was referring was the death of Ashli Babbitt. Babbitt was among a group of rioters who’d made their way to a hall outside the House chamber where members of Congress were being evacuated. In a brief period after police officers withdrew but before their riot-gear-clad reinforcements arrived, the rioters broke a window, allowing Babbitt to climb through. A security official shot her as she did so and she later died.
Despite Johnson’s comment, Babbitt’s death also has been criticized as unwarranted.
During a hearing on Tuesday, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., claimed that the “Capitol Police officer that did that shooting appeared to be hiding, lying in wait and then gave no warning before killing her.” He later added that Babbitt had been “executed.”
The implication, again, is that Babbitt posed no danger that demanded such a use of force. That she should have been blocked from entering the secure space in some other way – and that all of those who would have followed her through the window should have been deterred somehow, as well. Exactly how is not clear. Here, as elsewhere, it’s easy after the fact to come up with an alternative solution that may or may not have worked.
At times, the law enforcement officials on the scene did decide to allow people into the building rather than amplify the violence. Michael Fanone, one of the police officers who was beaten by the crowd, later explained that although he could have used deadly force as he was being assaulted, he worried that doing so would have led to his being overpowered and killed.
Fanone is the officer who introduced himself to Clyde in an elevator this week and whom Clyde actively tried to ignore. Clyde is also featured in a photo that shows people barricading the House chamber door on Jan. 6.
Again, in the moment, this was understood to be a dangerous situation and one in which lawmakers were at risk. A number of those who stormed the building, breaking windows and overrunning security, have been identified as part of violent far-right groups that organized in anticipation of attacking the building.
The danger was obvious that day to Clyde, Fanone and anyone watching.
The ‘not Trump supporters’ argument
So another tactic has been deployed: Pretend that those who were violent weren’t actually Trump supporters.
The first effort to redefine the violent actors emerged only hours after the riot. Right-wing media outlets and politicians seized on a claim that members of antifa – a loose-knit, left-wing movement – had been spotted in the building. The claim was quickly debunked, but it continues to live on, both in efforts to highlight the attendance of one person with murky political leanings to the movement and in broad Republican acceptance of the idea that maybe it was antifa’s fault.
This week, another theory emerged. Fox News host Tucker Carlson spoke to a writer who’d worked for the Trump White House and who alleged that charging documents filed by the Justice Department included a number of unindicted co-conspirators who, in his estimation, were necessarily undercover FBI agents. Carlson ate this theory up, suggesting that it showed some sort of “deep state” involvement in the day’s actions.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake walked through the many, many reasons this theory doesn’t hold up, such as the fact that undercover FBI agents wouldn’t be identified in that way, as well as much simpler explanations of who these people were – including, in one case, making obvious that the co-conspirator was the arrested person’s wife.
There have been other, less specific attempts to portray the crowd that day as something other than what it obviously was: thousands of Trump supporters, festooned in pro-Trump gear and carrying pro-Trump flags, acting in support of Trump’s false claims about the election.
The ‘not an insurrection’ argument
Bringing us to our last claim.
Earlier this week, the House voted to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the law enforcement agencies that responded to the Capitol attack. The measure passed overwhelmingly – but with a few Republican holdouts. One, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, expressed opposition because the resolution described the attack as an “insurrection.”
Not to get all “Webster’s defines,” but Webster’s defines “insurrection” as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” Nothing about weapons; nothing about violence. Just a revolt against authority or a government, which would certainly seem to describe an effort to block the final counting of electoral votes by Congress.
This is largely a semantic debate. One could present a case for or against using that descriptor and assign your freshman linguistics class a paper adjudicating it. But the point is simply to call into question the use of that term and its correlated implication of an attempt to derail the government. It’s the rhetorical sibling of saying that this was just a bunch of tourists, the claim that this was something other than an attack on government and the democratic system.
Trump announced his candidacy for president six years ago Wednesday. In the time since, the country has been through a lot and Trump himself has faced criticism for many of his actions. We’ve seen, over and over, how legitimate, clearly defined criticism has been submerged in fog just as the events of Jan. 6 have been. How isolated details have been reassembled into alternative narratives.
We’ve seen how Russian interference in the 2016 election, embraced by Trump, was reframed to focus attention on how the FBI obtained a warrant against a former campaign staff member. We’ve seen how Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine into aiding his campaign has been reshaped into criticism of Biden. We’ve seen how hiccups in Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic have been pinned on government officials. And now we see how the Capitol riot has been played down as unimportant or unexceptional, something no more worrisome than, say, last summer’s protests.
There are a lot of reasons that Republican lawmakers might not want to have a formal investigation of what happened that day, as they clearly don’t. Such an inquiry would certainly elevate Trump’s role in causing it to happen and might draw undue attention to what those lawmakers themselves may have done to encourage what happened.
But more than anything, a formal, bipartisan investigation of the Capitol attack risks cementing as fact what we saw that day and how we understood it. And if that is cemented as fact, it will be much harder to convince people that the reality was something different.