What was he thinking? That’s the only question historians ever answer, even if the answer is always maddeningly complicated, and sometimes that he is a she. But the principle is the same. Conditions and events eventually demand some sort of action. Something must be done. But what? That’s where things get complicated. Historical figures all think differently. That, presumably, is both fascinated and instructive. Those who slept through history class would disagree, but these things are good to know.
So, what was Donald Trump thinking on the day he sent his very own mob down the street to overrun and trash the Capitol building and shut the place down? Presidents don’t usually do that sort of thing. No president has ever done such a thing. This president did. What was going on? The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman worked her sources:
Shortly before leaving the White House on Wednesday morning for the Ellipse, where a stage had been set up for him to address supporters, President Trump had a word with Vice President Mike Pence.
Mr. Pence repeated what he had told Mr. Trump a day earlier: that when he went to Capitol Hill in a few hours to oversee the tallying of the electoral votes that would certify Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory, he would not have the power to do what the president wanted and overturn the results. Mr. Pence was planning to release a letter soon explaining that.
Mr. Trump listened, and stewed and chastised Mr. Pence as soft. He was somber as he got into the presidential motorcade for the short ride over to the Ellipse, where he made clear in his roughly 70-minute speech that he was furious with Mr. Pence and that he wanted the people gathered on the National Mall to go to the Capitol immediately afterward in protest of what he falsely claimed was a stolen election.
So this was simple anger, but distorted by his ambiguous language:
“We want to be so respectful of everybody,” Mr. Trump said, before describing his political opponents as bad people. “And we are going to have to fight much harder. And 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.”
Calling the outcome of the election “this egregious assault on our democracy,” he said his supporters should “walk down to the Capitol.”
“We are going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women,” he continued, “and we are probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them – because you will never take back our country with weakness.”
Yes, cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, no more than that, but also, while you’re there, take back your country, and there, any kind of weakness just won’t cut it. So, which would it be? He left that up to them. He had better things to do:
Mr. Trump did not in fact accompany the supporters he pressed to fight for him; he returned to the White House and berated aides about how the scene had appeared, before attacking Mr. Pence on Twitter for his stand.
Before the president took the stage, his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani addressed the crowd and called for “trial by combat” against the Democrats to win the election.
Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., warmed up the audience by warning of challenges to Republican members of Congress who did not back the pro-Trump efforts: “We’re coming for you,” he said.
Those two could incite a mob too, and this was incitement:
“There’s no question the president formed the mob,” Representative Liz Cheney, Republican from Wyoming, told Fox News. “The president incited the mob. The president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”
People carrying Trump campaign flags – some of them appearing to be armed – swarmed the Capitol complex. They broke into the building and draped a Trump flag over the Capitol balcony, disrupting the process of the vote certification and forcing members of Congress, journalists and other officials to take cover or flee the building. Shots could be heard at one point. Mr. Pence was whisked to a secure location, as were other lawmakers.
Meanwhile, back at the White House:
Mr. Trump monitored the scene as it unfolded on television, according to administration officials and people close to the White House. He holed up in the Oval Office, speaking with Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, who was said to have been rattled by the day, and Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel.
Donald Trump Jr. posted a tweet urging supporters to stop the violence. Ivanka Trump, a White House adviser, denounced the violence and corrected an initial tweet in which her reference to “patriots” made her intention unclear. There was silence from the first lady, Melania Trump, and the president’s son Eric Trump tweeted about how many people at the rally sang to him for his birthday.
Two of the president’s former chiefs of staff criticized the mob. His former counselor, Kellyanne Conway, said on ABC News that the Trump protesters were made up of “extremists.” His former communications director Alyssa Farah publicly urged him to condemn the violent protesters.
But the president resisted repeated appeals from advisers, some made directly to him, others to Mr. Meadows and other aides.
He seemed to be happy with how this was going, but he finally gave in:
As allies of the president began to go public with their disgust about what was taking place at the Capitol and urged him to speak out, White House aides finally coaxed Mr. Trump into a tweet in which he did not condemn the violence.
Then they convinced him he needed to make a video statement. Opening with another declaration that the election had been “stolen,” Mr. Trump told his supporters to “go home,” ending with the words “I love you.” Facebook removed that video, and Twitter later did as well.
Then he made clear that he viewed the day as an expression of his grievances. “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,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
Twitter also removed that tweet and said around 7 p.m. that it would lock his account for 12 hours.
He was inciting violence. He told his mob to go home. And he also told his mob that their anger was completely justified. They stuck around and the rest in history:
Congress moved late Wednesday toward confirming President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory after a mob of loyalists urged on by President Trump stormed and occupied the Capitol, disrupting the final electoral count in a shocking display of violence that shook the core of American democracy.
There was no parallel in modern American history, with insurgents acting in the president’s name vandalizing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, smashing windows, looting art and briefly taking control of the Senate chamber, where they took turns posing for photographs with fists up on the dais where Vice President Mike Pence had just been presiding. Outside the building, they erected gallows, punctured the tires of a police SUV, and left a note on its windshield saying, “PELOSI IS SATAN.”
By the time the Senate reconvened, hours after lawmakers had been evacuated from a Capitol overrun by rebels carrying pro-Trump paraphernalia, one of the nation’s most polarizing moments had yielded an unexpected window of solidarity that briefly eclipsed partisan division. Republicans and Democrats locked arms to denounce the violence and express their determination to carry out what they called a constitutionally sacrosanct function.
In short, they went back to work:
Under pressure from their colleagues, some Republicans who had planned several hours of objections to Mr. Biden’s victory agreed to drop their challenges, though Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri was expected to press forward with a challenge to Pennsylvania’s electors. Lawmakers met into the night to debate and vote on an objection to Arizona’s results lodged just before the violence broke out in the Capitol. The challenge failed in the Senate, 93 to 6, and the House turned it back on a vote of 303 to 121, but more than half of that chamber’s Republicans supported the effort to overturn the election results.
And then the opposition faded and just gave up. All fifty states had certified their vote three weeks earlier. Congress added up the totals and nodded. Yes. Biden won. And that was that, with this twist:
The upheaval unfolded on a day when Democrats secured a stunning pair of victories in runoff elections in Georgia, winning effective control of the Senate and the complete levers of power in Washington.
So, Republicans lost the White House and had now lost the Senate, and they never had the House, and this mob had made them look like dangerous fools:
From the start, Mr. Trump’s allies, acting at his behest, had been determined to use the session to formally contest the outcome. Driving a painful wedge among Republicans, they trumpeted his false claims of voting fraud and initially gave voice inside the Capitol to those who ultimately forced their way in, stopping the process in its tracks.
Lawmakers and Mr. Pence mostly took shelter together near the Capitol, amid violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement, but small groups reported being stranded for a time in offices and hideaways throughout the building.
Who was this supposed to impress? What had Donald Trump been thinking? Anne Gearan and Josh Dawsey work their sources:
Before the rally of thousands of President Trump’s supporters on Wednesday, some aides worried that if Trump spoke at the event not far from the Capitol, it could stoke the crowd and create a volatile scene, a senior administration official said. But Trump, the official said, was determined to do it.
That was unwise:
“He incited violence. He abdicated his responsibility to lead, and he failed to quell violence at the Capitol. It’s straightforward,” said Tom Bossert, who was Trump’s first homeland security adviser.
Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, said the day’s events were a “very predictable” result of Trump’s rhetoric but without presidential precedent.
“There is no parallel. This is a president who has incited a mob insurrection against Congress as it’s trying to finish its constitutional duties,” Zelizer said.
Everyone knew that:
One senior administration official, who said they had considered resigning but decided against it because there were only two weeks left in Trump’s term, called it the worst day of his presidency.
“Today totally undercut all of the accomplishments of the last four years,” the senior administration official said. “It’s incredibly sad. There is nothing else to say about it. It’s the worst day I’ve had in here.”
But it was inevitable:
White House officials and allies had struggled to persuade Trump to condemn the mob, said several people familiar with the discussions. Like others interviewed for this report, they spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the events.
As he watched television, Trump spent much of the afternoon fuming about Vice President Pence instead of worrying about the violence in the Capitol, even lambasting Pence while he was in a secure location, trying to remain safe from the mob. Pence said earlier in the day that he would not intervene to change the outcome of the election.
It took several hours and entreaties by phone and Twitter from Republican allies, former White House employees and other Trump allies before Trump released a video message directly addressing the violence.
He had been too busy for that:
A senior White House aide said Trump wanted his supporters to swarm the Capitol and protest loudly all day. “There was no plan for them to go inside,” this official said. “If you’d had told me this morning that the Capitol was going to be attacked like that, I would have laughed at you.”
As for the rally itself, Trump was unhappy with the staging, which had the crowd spread out over two large expanses of lawn and held back from a raised stage area.
Trump told aides he was pleased so many had come to Washington but was angry that the crowd was not closer to him, a senior administration official said. During his speech, Trump griped that the news media got the best seats in the house.
On Monday and Tuesday, the president spent extensive time discussing with aides the “Save America” rally on the Ellipse, even discussing what songs should be played and how fiery his remarks should be.
Ah, that’s what he was thinking, or it was this:
In recent days, Trump has plotted with others how to get revenge against anyone who did not go along with him, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“Policy doesn’t animate him. Revenge animates him,” said an adviser who had recently spoken with the president.
That does clarify things:
Trump has been fixated on overturning the election for weeks, making hundreds of calls to allies, lawyers, state legislators, governors and other officials and regularly huddling with outside lawyers Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and others.
Some aides have tried to persuade Trump that he should lay off Pence, who is loyal, but Trump doubled down. He lashed Pence by name a half-dozen times during Wednesday’s address to the crowd, all but calling him a coward.
Trump, who was 30 minutes late, told the crowd he had just spoken to Pence ahead of his ceremonial role presiding over the congressional action.
“I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so, because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” Trump said. “All Vice President Pence has to do is recertify, and we become president, and you are the happiest people.”
And if things go wrong in any way, well, that would be Pence’s fault, but very few cared about that now:
A number of advisers and aides, including many who have been loyal to Trump for years, are increasingly despondent and embarrassed by his conduct. Many officials are no longer coming to work, two administration officials said.
“He can’t admit that he lost. He would literally do anything in the world,” one official said.
A second administration official said: “Guy can’t just help himself and go away.”
That’s what Peter Baker finds rather sad:
So this is how it ends. The presidency of Donald John Trump, rooted from the beginning in anger, division and conspiracy-mongering, comes to a close with a violent mob storming the Capitol at the instigation of a defeated leader trying to hang onto power as if America were just another authoritarian nation.
The scenes in Washington would have once been unimaginable: A rampage through the citadel of American democracy. Police officers brandishing guns in an armed standoff to defend the House chamber. Tear gas deployed in the Rotunda. Lawmakers in hiding. Extremists standing in the vice president’s spot on the Senate dais and sitting at the desk of the speaker of the House.
The words used to describe it were equally alarming: Coup. Insurrection. Sedition. Suddenly the United States was being compared to a “banana republic” and receiving messages of concern from other capitals. “American carnage,” it turned out, was not what President Trump would stop, as he promised upon taking office, but what he wound up delivering four years later to the very building where he took the oath.
And now it’s over:
By day’s end, some Republicans discussed removing Mr. Trump under the 25th Amendment rather than wait two weeks for the inauguration of President-elect Biden…
The extraordinary invasion of the Capitol was a last-ditch act of desperation from a camp facing political eviction. Even before the mob set foot in the building on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Trump’s presidency was slipping away. Democrats were taking control of the Senate with a pair of Georgia runoff election victories that Republicans angrily blamed on the president’s erratic behavior.
Two of his most loyal allies, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, broke with Mr. Trump as never before, refusing to go along with his bid to overturn a democratic election after standing behind him or remaining quiet through four years of toxic conflict, scandal and capriciousness.
And following the attack on the Capitol, even more Republicans abandoned him. While most Republicans in the House stuck with him, he lost more than half of the Republican senators who started the day on his side of the battle, leaving him just six on the first Senate vote when deliberations resumed after the rioters were removed.
It was all slipping away:
Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, another senior Republican, said he had no more interest in what Mr. Trump had to say after the events that forced lawmakers to flee their own chambers. “I don’t want to hear anything,” he told reporters. “It was a tragic day and I think he was part of it.”
The cascade of criticism came even from within Mr. Trump’s circle, as advisers expressed deepening concern about how far he has been willing to go to undo an election he lost. At least three aides, Stephanie Grisham, Sarah Matthews and Rickie Niceta, resigned with more expected to follow…
Even Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of his strongest allies, essentially declared the Trump era done as he opposed the attempt to override the election results. “Enough is enough,” he said on the floor. “It is over.”
But wait, there’s more, from Axios’ Margaret Talev:
With 13 days left in President Trump’s term, confidants and Republican officials are considering drastic steps to stop him.
These measures include censure, impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment – a move, long dismissed as a liberal fantasy, in which Vice President Pence would step in if Trump were found to be unable to perform his duties.
This talk is coming from current and former White House and GOP Hill aides, and Republican lobbyists and political consultants – all of whom have either embraced him or quietly tolerated him until now.
Senior State Department officials are encouraging 25th Amendment discussions along with other officials at the White House and other departments, according to two sources involved in the discussions.
Enough is enough:
Republicans are furious with the president for what they see as fomenting an attack on American democracy, disgracing their party and invading the sanctity of their chambers on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
There’s concern about whether the country can withstand another two weeks with Trump at the helm, and what additional chaos and division could be sowed.
There’s also rage inside the GOP at Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and others whose plans to object to Biden’s certification gave oxygen to Trump, the protests and the notion that Congress could be used to overturn the will of voters.
But all of this is just talk so far:
There are many factors to consider before initiating any maneuver: Would it have the support to succeed? Would it chasten Trump or boomerang to make him even more of a folk hero? Would it boost or further damage the rest of the Republican Party?
A censure has little impact. Even if there were the bipartisan will for a second impeachment of Trump, there is not enough time remaining for a trial in the Senate.
The 25th Amendment route would require buy-in from Pence and a majority of Trump’s Cabinet. But many of those Cabinet members also have been loyalists to the president and serve in acting capacities, so it’s not clear that support or will exists.
So wait on that:
No House or Senate Republican leaders are yet championing these ideas – and it’s too soon to know whether those talking about them are just letting off steam after a shock to the democracy, or whether a critical mass exists to proceed.
Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley adds this:
What should be done about this kind of behavior? Twitter and Facebook responded with the extraordinary step of freezing the president’s accounts and taking down the video he posted. Some peripheral administration figures – the first lady’s spokeswoman, the White House social secretary, a deputy press secretary – announced that they are resigning. More consequentially, the national security adviser and deputy national security adviser are reportedly considering doing so as well. There are vague reports that some Republicans are discussing the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment, under which an unfit president can be removed from power, or supporting a second impeachment vote.
The assumption underneath all of this, seemingly confirmed by a leaked Wednesday email in which Jared Kushner’s father told a friend that Trump’s actions are “beyond our control,” is that the president has gotten untethered; there is no longer anyone at all to mediate, even in a craven or enabling way, between his impulses and those of his most delusional, violent supporters. And with his social media accounts shut down, we lack even the usual level of awful access to the pattern of his thoughts. The man who is nothing but performance has been cut off from the audience that gives him shape and meaning.
What is the president doing? Is there a president right now, really? The safety line has gone slack in the cave, and we are all waiting to see what kind of thing will come back out.
What was he thinking? What is he thinking? Historians will tell us, in twenty or thirty years. Maybe it won’t matter then. But it does matter now, as America falls apart. What’s the thinking here?