It was, all in all, a very American attempt at a coup. Or self-coup to be exact.
The world watched its denouement dumbfounded on 6 January 2021 as thousands of Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the heart of US democracy, the Capitol in Washington, with cries to hang the vice-president, in an attempt to overturn an election and keep Trump in power.
But, as the detailed executive summary of the report released by the congressional committee investigating the insurrection lays bare, Trump’s bid to usurp power began while the votes from the November 2020 presidential election were still being counted.
That kicked off what amounted to a rolling coup attempt as an increasingly desperate president sought to compromise and corrupt officials from the US justice department to state election boards in an effort to find a way, any way, to have his defeat declared null and void.
The seeds were sown by Trump as he watched the results roll in on election night. The president’s own campaign manager, Bill Stepien, had told him that the way the count was conducted in several states meant that early results were likely to give Trump the lead but that would be eroded as absentee and other postal votes were tallied.
The count panned out as Stepien predicted and Trump’s aides cautioned the president that, for all his euphoria at the prospect of pulling off another astonishing upset, it was way too soon to be declaring victory. But all Trump saw was his numbers go up and then down. He brushed off his advisers and went on television.
“This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. We did win this election,” he declared.
The following morning, Trump inevitably used Twitter to demand that the results already declared, and showing him ahead, be frozen: “STOP THE COUNT!”
The report notes that almost none of Trump’s aides supported his claims, with the exception of the increasingly erratic former New York mayor and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. But that fed the narrative pushed by the president and his supporters that he was the victim of an establishment conspiracy.
By the time the electoral college met on 14 December to cast and certify each state’s votes, many of Trump’s senior staff, cabinet secretaries and even members of his family, were pressing him to admit defeat. The president preferred to listen to Giuliani’s conspiratorial claims that the voting machines were rigged and suitcases of fake ballots had been used to tip the result against him.
As Trump grew more desperate, he pressured Republican officials in key swing states he had lost to overturn the results. In early January, he called Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to demand he “find 11,780 votes” to reverse Joe Biden’s crucial victory in the state.
“Trump also made a thinly veiled threat to Raffensperger and his attorney about his failure to respond to Trump’s demands: ‘That’s a criminal, that’s a criminal offense … That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer … I’m notifying you that you’re letting it happen,’” the report said.
In Arizona, Trump targeted the Republican speaker of the state legislature, Russell “Rusty” Bowers. The president and Giuliani repeatedly called or met with Bowers to claim that Arizona’s results were fraudulent and to press him to replace the state’s members of the electoral college with ones who would vote for Trump.
Bowers told Giuliani: “You are asking me do something against my oath, and I will not break my oath.”
Trump exerted similar pressure on officials in Michigan, which he had won in 2016 but lost four years later.
The president was pursuing a parallel track with the US justice department. The attorney general, William Barr, grew so exasperated with Trump’s actions that he resigned. The president called or met with Barr’s replacement, Jeff Rosen, nearly every day of the following weeks in an attempt to pressure the justice department “to find factual support for his stolen election claims and thereby to assist his efforts to reverse election results”, according to the report.
When Rosen repeatedly told Trump that there was no evidence for the allegations, Trump replied: “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
When this didn’t fly either, Trump turned to those he could always trust: the men and women in the red Make America Great Again caps. As he saw it, the “deep state” was working to rob him of his rightful victory. Trump would count on the people to save him.
And so the president summoned the faithful to Washington for a rally on January 6, the day his vice-president, Mike Pence, was to preside over a joint meeting of both houses of Congress to count and approve the electoral college votes, a routine affair for much of the US’s existence.
Trump’s efforts to pressure states to withhold their tallies in the hope of delaying the endorsement of Biden’s victory had come to naught and a wave of court challenges to the results failed. Pence made clear to Trump that he would fulfil his duty and that the president’s days in the White House were numbered.
Trump told the world a different story. On the evening of 5 January, he released a statement falsely claiming that his vice-president was “in total agreement” with him that Pence had the power to prevent endorsement of the results by “sending them back” to the states.
In the early hours of the following morning, Trump tweeted: “If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency. Many States want to decertify the mistake they made in certifying incorrect & even fraudulent numbers in a process NOT approved by their State Legislatures (which it must be). Mike can send it back!”
Pence did not agree and, astonishingly, refused to take his own president’s call on the morning of the rally. When Trump finally reached his vice-president by phone, the president called him “a wimp” for refusing to block Congress from approving Biden’s victory.
The crowd that arrived for the Washington rally was already stoked by weeks of Trump’s tweets and conspiratorial claims bolstered by Fox News and other rightwing broadcasters. The committee’s report noted that far-right militia groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters were also instrumental in spreading the false claims of fraud.
“President Trump’s supporters believed the election was stolen because they listened to his words, and they knew what he had called them to do; stop the certification of the electoral count,” the report said.
It noted that supporters tweeted messages ahead of the rally predicting what would happen.
“IF TRUMP TELLS US TO STORM THE FUKIN CAPITAL IMA DO THAT THEN!” said one.
Others circulated flyers proclaiming “#OccupyCongress” over images of the Capitol.
The report records that the intelligence services had wind of all of this, and warned the president and his staff. Some of Trump’s aides urged him to make a public statement disavowing violence.
The president refused. His speech on January 6 instead made clear who he regarded as the real villain of the moment.
As the congressional report recorded, Trump told the assembled crowd: “Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country.” The president added a veiled threat: “If you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you. I will tell you right now. I’m not hearing good stories.”
The report records the reaction of Trump supporters at the rally.
“I’m telling you, if Pence caved, we’re going to drag motherfuckers through the streets. You fucking politicians are going to get fucking drug through the streets,” said one.
And then the mob headed Pence’s way.
The report concluded that the Proud Boys militia led the attack on Congress.
“Multiple Proud Boys reacted immediately to President Trump’s December 19th tweet and began their planning,” it said.
Someone erected an imitation gallows in front of the Capitol. As the mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence”, the vice-president fled his office near the Senate chamber but refused to leave the building. The protesters passed within 40ft.
Pence was not the only target. The report records that one woman was looking for the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, “to shoot her in the frigging brain”.
By the time the crowd broke through the barriers around the Capitol, beating police officers with flag poles and smashing their way into the corridors of Congress, Trump was back in the White House.
Alarmed aides pleaded with him to make a call to stop the violence. Trump instead sent out yet another tweet denouncing Pence for failing to overturn the election result.
Finally, he was pressured into acting.
“As the evidence demonstrates, the rioters at the Capitol had invaded the building and halted the electoral count. They did not begin to relent until President Trump finally issued a video statement instructing his supporters to leave the Capitol at 4:17 p.m., which had an immediate and helpful effect: rioters began to disperse,” the report said.
The self-coup had failed. Biden’s election win would be certified.