January 7, 2021
It was, for many of President Donald Trump’s own allies, the final straw.
What began as a rally intended to support Trump became a permanent and irreversible stain on his presidency Wednesday afternoon, as fans of the outgoing president stormed the U.S. Capitol — shattering windows, prompting evacuations and injuring law enforcement officials in the process — to temporarily halt the certification of his opponent’s 2020 victory.
A distressing scene for many Americans watching from home, the uprising at the Capitol followed two months of provocation from Trump — subversive rhetoric about America’s election, threats against GOP figures who didn’t agree, broadsides against his own vice president. And it followed four years of rabble-rousing by a president intent on keeping a grip on the GOP, resulting in a climactic moment on Wednesday that could come to define Trump’s political future and the direction of the Republican party after he leaves office.
“He screwed his supporters, he screwed the country and now he’s screwed himself,” said a 2016 Trump campaign official, predicting his former boss would cease to remain a popular figure in GOP politics after Wednesday.
“Donald Trump caused this insurrection with lies and conspiracy theories about the election being rigged against him,” said Scott Jennings, a former aide to President George W. Bush who is close to the Trump White House. “The election was not stolen but this madness was fomented by the president and his top advisers.”
For the first time in four years, Trump loyalty seemed to crack. Resignations started at the White House, while even some Republicans called on Trump to resign and other loyalists implored the president to stand down.
Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s chief of staff and one of the longest serving Trump aides, said she would leave over the incident, while the top two national security aides and the deputy chief of staff all considered whether to quit, according to an administration official. Another senior White House official claimed they would have stepped down if they hadn’t already departed. Sen. Tom Cotton, a 2024 Republican hopeful and prominent Trump ally, said it was “past time” for the president to accept defeat.
“Every day, every person chooses to be either part of the problem or part of the solution,” said former White House assistant press secretary Austin Cantrell. “President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders should immediately denounce today’s illegal action as an affront to the American experiment of self-government and take into account the power their words have to heal or harm our Republic.”
The chaos began minutes after the House and Senate returned to their separate chambers to begin debate on the first Republican-led objection to Arizona’s electoral slate for President-elect Joe Biden. Provoked by the president and his allies — who encouraged attendees at a “Stop the Steal” event hours earlier to march on the Capitol as the certification process began — the protesters breached a security perimeter and poured into the halls of Congress as the president watched from the Oval Office.
High-profile Trump supporters, including the president’s eldest son and GOP lawmakers who were forced to shelter-in-place inside while police drew guns and unleashed tear gas in an attempt to clear protesters from the Capitol Building, pleaded with the demonstrators to peacefully disperse and respect law enforcement officials on the scene.
Yet Trump remained largely silent.
At the White House, top aides with Trump inside the executive complex urged the president to release a statement of his own, according to a person familiar with the matter. The group of aides was smaller than usual, however, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic and the recent departure of several senior staffers for other jobs. Meanwhile, Trump’s most important adviser, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, was on his way back from the Middle East and his chief of staff Mark Meadows didn’t respond to questions about Trump’s day.
The result, as one former senior administration official put it, was the improbability of an appropriately forceful response from Trump.
It took approximately two-and-a-half hours from the time protesters first stormed the Capitol complex for Trump to release a video message — hastily taped outside the Oval Office — encouraging his supporters to “go home in peace.” But even then, he continued to feed the false and conspiratorial claims motivating those who had trekked to Washington in the first place.
“Trump’s video was an absolute failure of leadership,” Jennings said. “It was half-hearted [and] completely inadequate.”
The former senior administration official, who was in close contact with advisers around the president on Wednesday, said it was unlikely Trump would be coaxed into saying anything beyond the video message and a few tweets.
“I don’t know who is getting through to him right now,” this person said.
Even after the video message, Trump seemed unrepentant: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away,” he tweeted shortly before Twitter locked his account for 12 hours.
“I don’t want to talk to him, said one Republican close to Trump, echoing a senior administration official who described the effort as futile. “What am I going to say? This is one of those moments when I don’t know if I want to be involved.”
Across the internet, current and former Trump allies raced to condemn the protests as jarring scenes of the demonstrators, many clad in MAGA gear, unfolded on television.
One man was photographed dangling from the Senate gallery after rioters successfully broke into the chamber. Another woman was pronounced dead Wednesday evening after being shot in the chest inside the Capitol Building. World leaders described the break-in as “disgraceful,” “deeply sad” and “shocking” for the United States, which has struggled to maintain alliances and wield significant influence on the global stage during much of Trump’s presidency.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who said he repeatedly tried to get in touch with Trump on Wednesday as National Guard troops were being dispatched to Washington alongside backup law enforcement from Virginia and Maryland — laid the blame squarely on the president for inciting the mob that gathered at the Capitol.
“The president caused this protest to occur,” Christie told ABC News. “He is the only one who can make it stop.”
Tom Bossert, the president’s former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser, said Trump had “undermined American democracy baselessly for months” and was therefore “culpable for this siege.”
After the president released his brief video Wednesday afternoon, a White House official said they did not expect further comments on the protests from Trump or his top aides, even as a 6 p.m. curfew imposed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and increased police presence threatened to give way to potential violent clashes overnight.
The Pentagon also activated 1,100 District of Columbia National Guard troops to other parts around the National Mall to help contain the swarm of protesters — a move that military leaders said they arrived at after discussing the situation with Vice President Mike Pence and congressional leaders.
For Trump, the riots became the second part of a one-two punch after he was widely blamed for the defeat on Tuesday of Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in two Georgia runoff elections.
The outcome of the two races in a once-solidly Republican state raised questions about the president’s drag on the GOP since losing the Nov. 3 election.
Trump spent the weeks leading up to the Georgia contests publicly disparaging the state’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, including at a Monday night rally where he re-litigated the 2016 election and said he wouldn’t like his own vice president as much if Pence declined to exercise unconstitutional powers and help him overturn the election.
The pair of Republican losses will leave the Senate split 50-50 — with incoming Vice President Kamala Harris left to cast tie-breaking votes — and guarantee at least two years of one-party control by Democrats until the 2022 midterm elections.
“This morning I would have told you the Republican Party is in shambles because of Donald Trump. Now the entire country is,” said a senior Trump adviser.
In a matter of days, a Trump 2024 candidacy had gone from feeling imminent to seeming distant. Wednesday’s events only made it seem more far-fetched — although it’s hard to know if that sense will last.
“I think nothing is going to happen,” said a Trump friend, before Wednesday. “He won’t be around in 2024. He’s not going to run.
And even as the protests were unfolding, Trump continued to wreak havoc on the GOP — this time accusing his own unswervingly loyal vice president of failing to exhibit “the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution” after Pence confirmed in a letter Wednesday morning that he did not believe he had “unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted.”
In response to the letter, which was released by the vice president’s team while Trump was still rallying his supporters at the Ellipse outside the White House, one Pence ally said it was “the beginning of the end” of Pence’s loyalty to Trump and “may very well be the end of his political career, too.”
Meanwhile, throughout the day, Pence appeared to take on much of the coordination that would traditionally be led by the president in a moment of crisis. In addition to speaking with defense officials about the deployment of National Guard troops, Pence fielded phone calls from Trump allies who appeared eager to erase the president from the picture.
“I just spoke with Vice President Pence. He is a genuinely fine and decent man. He exhibited courage today as he did at the Capitol on 9/11 as a Congressman. I am proud to serve with him,” tweeted Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien.
“I communicated with the vice president early on,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News, saying Pence played a critical role in working with Capitol Hill police and securing the deployment of the D.C. National Guard.
Pence spokesperson Devin O’Malley said the vice president would return to the Senate chamber Wednesday night to resume the certification process, after congressional leaders announced plans to reconvene at 8 p.m.
“VP was in regular contact [with] House & Senate leadership, Cap Police, DOJ & DoD to facilitate efforts to secure the Capitol & reconvene Congress. And now we will finish the people’s business,” O’Malley wrote, notably omitting any contact between Pence and Trump.
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.