By Ray Collins
The presidential election of November 2020 is more than two years behind us. Yet we are reminded of it daily as TV, newspapers, and other media broadcast the latest developments triggered by the tragedy of January 6, 2021.
Some dates, in the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, are destined to “live in infamy.” The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941 is a classic example. The tragedy ensured US entry into World War II and set the stage for a postwar world order that today is imperiled by Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.
The deaths and destruction inflicted by terrorist hijackers flying planes into the North and South Towers in New York City on 9/11 (September 11, 2001) seared that date into our nation’s collective memory. For the next nineteen years, fear of terrorism inspired by Middle Eastern copycats of Osama bin Laden captured the nation’s imagination. This was upstaged when the Department of Homeland Security, in October 2020, reported: “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists” pose the “most lethal threat” to the US.
The storming of the United States Capitol by violent insurrectionists on January 6, 2021 is such a date. The intent of the rioters was to prevent Vice President Mike Pence from carrying out his constitutional duty to certify the results of the November 3, 2020 election. Only the Vice President’s fortitude in resisting pressure from outgoing President Trump, the mob chanting “hang Mike Pence” while wreaking havoc in the Capitol, and other forces attempting to flout the Constitution served to protect the voters’ decisions on election day.
What Happened January 6
A parallel series of events culminated Wednesday morning, January 6. Paramount were the launching of actions designed to stop the Vice President from certifying the election. Ali Alexander, a veteran organizer of pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rallies, in accordance with his agreement to cooperate with a Justice Department investigation of the insurrection, indicated he collaborated with Representatives Mo Brooks of Alabama, Paul Gosar of Arizona, and Andy Biggs of Arizona to pressure Congress, particularly Republicans, with the threat of violence to prevent validating the election. Similarly, spokespersons for the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers (white supremacist groups whose adherents were often prosecuted for their actions on 1/6) admitted they planned to use force to disrupt the election certification.
Hundreds assembled around the Capitol, even before President Trump was scheduled to speak near the White House.
12:15 to 1:10 p.m.
At the beginning of his speech, the President told rally attendees to walk to the Capitol. Numerous supporters left the rally and headed to the Capitol. At the end of his speech, he concluded his remarks by saying: “. . . if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue . . .” The crowd followed the President’s advice and joined the insurrectionists who had already breached the fencing and other barricades designed to protect the Congress from attack. Trump, however, headed to the White House where he monitored the day’s cataclysm.
A pipe bomb was reported at the Republican National Committee headquarters, only a block from the Capitol. Soon after, a similar bomb was discovered at the nearby Democratic National Committee building. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was in the DNC headquarters while the pipe bomb was in place.
A joint session of Congress convened in the House chamber. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, side-by-side with Vice President Pence, began the proceedings to certify the votes of the 538 electors representing the nation’s voters on November 3.
The House and the Senate moved to their separate chambers to conduct the business of the day.
In reaction to the intensifying riot outside, Chief Steven Sund of the U.S. Capitol Police requested immediate assistance from the National Guard. The imperative for National Guard support was ignored by the White House and stonewalled by Pentagon officials.
Members of Congress and staff received a system-wide text from the Capitol Police instructing them to “move inside your office . . . find a place to hide or seek cover . . . remain quiet and silence electronics.” Everyone began to evacuate. Many were trapped in the building.
The Secret Service was able to shelter the Vice President and members of his family near the scene of violence and, eventually, to remove him safely from the Capitol.
Around four o’clock, the Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller authorized the National Guard’s deployment.
The Guard began to arrive, nearly four hours after the initial request for their help.
After six hours of chaos
Order was restored. Approximately 150 Capitol Police officers were injured during the attack. Seven persons died that day or later from injuries they experienced during the insurrection.
Vice President Pence declared Trump lost the election. Electoral college votes affirmed President Joseph Biden’s election 306 to 232.
What Led Up to January 6
The driving force propelling events toward the denouement of the insurrection was Donald Trump’s determination to hold on to the presidency irrespective of the cost to the nation. This was the inspiration for the “Stop the Steal” rallies from November into January. Nothing served to dissuade Trump from this course of action. Not even when Attorney General William Barr told the President his claims of election fraud were “bullshit.” According to Barr, the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
A second major factor was a memo developed by the lawyer John Eastman, spelling out in detail how Vice President Pence could overturn the state electoral votes. That plan was a central feature of the White House strategy to stir up legal and not so legal actions in selected states to discredit the election process.
Eastman, Rudy Giuliani, and former White House advisor Steve Bannon were among those in the “war room” at the Willard Hotel, which was a home base for instigating activities before and during the January 6 insurrection. The Willard, only a block from the White House, was a major scene for planning events to overturn the election.
A third factor was efforts in several states to discredit the legitimacy of the election. Despite legal gambits being rebuffed repeatedly in the courts (including consistent rulings by Republican-appointed judges), Giuliani continued to spearhead the crusade to “Stop the Steal.”
Foremost among these efforts was the initiative launched by Giuliani to recruit fake electors. This scheme progressed in seven states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Complicit Trump supporters signed false certificates indicating they were electors representing voters in their state. The conspirators hoped state legislators would replace the authentic electors with the substitute GOP slate, supposedly enabling the Vice President to seat the fake electors before the Congress.
Two of the states (Pennsylvania and New Mexico) pushed GOP campaign officials to add caveats to the fake certificates to claim they were only electors-in-waiting, if Trump’s legal challenges prevailed (none did). Electors in the other five states claimed falsely that they were the rightful electors. Both sets of fake certificates were ultimately sent to the National Archives where they are available as evidence in the event decisions are made to prosecute these scams as crimes.
In a court ruling in California, U.S. District Court Judge David Carter wrote that John Eastman and former President Trump “likely” committed federal crimes as they fought the 2020 election results. “The draft memo pushed a strategy that knowingly violated the Electoral Count Act, and Dr. Eastman’s later memos closely track its analysis and proposal . . . The memo is both intimately related to and clearly advanced the plan to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021.”
Judge Carter’s ruling increases the pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland to intensify ongoing efforts (if any) to investigate possible illegal actions by President Trump or other actors who attempted to improperly influence actions by the Congress to certify the 2020 election or otherwise promoted the January 6 insurrection.
Judge Carter ordered the release of 101 emails from John Eastman, rejecting Eastman’s claim of attorney-client privilege. Carter wrote: “If Dr. Eastman and President’s Trump’s plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution.”
What to Expect in the Aftermath of January 6
Key event streams are: Legal consequences for insurrectionists who stormed the Congress; Actions of the House Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol; and Implications for the midterm election in 2022.
Federal prosecutors have charged more than 928 people with crimes relating to the January 6 insurrection, spanning all 50 states. Seventy people have received sentences for criminal activity. While many sentences were for misdemeanors; more serious offenses are also being punished, including obstructing Congress in certifying the election.
Albuquerque Cosper Head was given the second most severe sentence of seven and a half years in prison by Judge Amy Berman Jackson in October 2022 for assaulting police officer Michael Fanone who was guarding a tunnel on the Lower West Terrace of the Capitol. Head, a 43 year-old construction worker from Kingsport, Tennessee, pleaded guilty. He restrained Fanone while rioters beat and shocked the officer with a taser stun gun at the base of his skull. Other rioters yelled “Kill him with his own gun.” Fanone had a heart attack and traumatic brain injury, which forced him to retire from the police.
The most severe sentence to date is ten years meted out to Thomas Webster in September 2022. After viewing video and other evidence, the jury found Webster guilty of assaulting D. C. police officer Noah Rathbun, including pulling Rathbun’s mask off, causing him to choke on tear gas. U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta commented: “It was an intact police line. It’s not until your actions, Mr. Webster, that all hell broke loose. It’s your actions that open up the police line and let people through.” In imposing sentence, the Judge credited Webster’s 25 years of service with the Marines and the New York Police Department.
Not all, and not necessarily the most serious, of the actions that transpired January 6 were the responsibility of individual actors. Two organizations notorious for white supremacy behavior were noteworthy: the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. Both were militia groups with long histories of violent political activities. Both groups had leaders known for supporting Donald Trump.
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, stood trial for seditious conspiracy in the January 6 insurrection in September 2022, together with four other members of the extremist group. Rhodes waived his right to be present during the trial after testing positive for coronavirus in jail.
Rhodes, 56, was born in Fresno, California, part of a multicultural family that includes Mexican and Filipino relatives. After high school, he joined the Army, served honorably for three years, until discharged after breaking his back in a parachuting accident. He got married, graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and distinguished himself at Yale Law School. He launched the Oath Keepers in 2009, and led the group in several highly publicized showdowns, targeting the federal government and, later, in common with other “alt-right” organizations, what he saw as left-leaning groups and racial-ethnic minorities.
When Biden won the presidency in 2020, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers plotted to block the transfer of power. On January 6, two stacks of Oath Keepers stormed the Capitol, along with hundreds of other Trump supporters. Nine of the Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the attack, including three who have pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy.
Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, former national chairman of the Proud Boys, was not part of the group that invaded the Congress in January because he had been arrested two days earlier for vandalizing a Black Lives Matter flag at a church in Washington, DC. Tarrio, however, was indicted in March 2022 for conspiring to attack the Capitol. That indictment was superseded in June 2022 by a federal grand jury charging Tarrio and four other members of the Proud Boys with seditious conspiracy for their actions before and during the breach of the Capitol on January 6.
The defendants include Tarrio, 38, of Miami, Florida; Ethan Nordean, 31, of Auburn, Washington; Joseph Biggs, 38, of Ormond Beach, Florida; Zachary Rehl, 37, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Dominic Pezzola, 44, of Rochester, New York. All pleaded not guilty.
In December 2020, Tarrio created a special chapter of the Proud Boys, known as the “Ministry of Self Defense.” According to DOJ: “On Jan. 6, 2021, the defendants directed, mobilized and led members of the crowd onto the Capitol grounds and into the Capitol, leading to dismantling of metal barricades, destruction of property, breaching of the Capitol building, and assaults on law enforcement. During and after the attack, Tarrio and his co-defendants claimed credit for what had happened on social media and in an encrypted chat room.”
Actions of the House Committee
On June 30, 2021, the House voted to establish the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, after efforts to establish a nonpartisan commission modeled on 9/11 failed due to a Republican filibuster in the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed members. The House Committee is chaired by Bernie Thompson, from Mississippi, and has nine members, including two Republicans (Liz Cheney, the Vice Chairman, from Wyoming, and Adam Kinziger, from Illinois).
The Committee began its investigation with a public hearing on July 27, 2021. The final report, originally targeted for September 2022, is now looking at the end of the year. The Committee may release an interim report.
During a televised public hearing on June 9, 2022, the Chair and Vice-Chair said, “President Donald Trump tried to stay in power even though he lost the 2020 presidential election.” Cheney said the hearings would “present evidence showing that Trump used a seven-part plan, culminating in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.” The second through fifth hearings provided additional evidence, including “appearances by election officials from Arizona and Georgia who testified they were pressured to ‘find votes’ for Trump and change results in their jurisdictions.”
Cassidy Hutchinson, the twenty-six-year-old aide to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, was the exclusive witness in the sixth hearing. She testified that “White House officials knew, days in advance of January 6, that violence was possible.”
She was the first person to publicly describe President Trump’s behavior the day of the insurrection. “Trump blamed Secret Service checkpoints keeping some of his armed supporters out, Hutchinson testified, and demanded metal detectors be taken down even after he was warned some people were carrying weapons. ‘They’re not here to hurt me,’ she recalled him saying, before he took to the stage and told them to walk ‘patriotically and peacefully’ to the Capitol. ‘I’m the fucking president,’ she related Trump saying as he demanded to be taken there himself.” The Secret Service refused to take Trump to the Capitol.
The seventh hearing “showed how Roger Stone and Michael Flynn connected Trump to domestic militias like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys that helped coordinate the attack.”
The eighth hearing “presented evidence and details of Trump’s refusal to call off the attack on the Capitol, despite several hours of repeated pleas by numerous officials and insiders.”
The ninth (and possibly final hearing) presented “evidence that some Trump associates planned to claim victory in the 2020 election regardless of the official results.”
Impact on November 2022 midterm
At this writing, a few clues help to assess the extent to which events associated with January 6 impacted the election held November 8, 2022.
Going into the midterm election, the Democrats’ majority in Congress was razor-thin. The Senate was split 50-50, and what legislative success President Biden’s party had was dependent, in large measure, on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote allowing them to prevail. House Speaker Nancy’s Pelosi’s control of that chamber rested on a slim margin. All 435 of the House seats and 35 of the 100 Senate seats were on the ballot. In addition, governors were up for election in 36 out of 50 States.
The historical pattern in midterm elections is the party in charge of the White House tends to take heavy losses. Media reports speculated that would be repeated in 2022, predicting a “red wave” bringing Republicans into office. Due to an unexpectedly strong turnout of Democrats, that does not appear to be the case. The final outcome of the election may not be known for several weeks, but as of mid-November, the results are as follows:
The Democrats have retained control in the Senate—thanks to the victories of incumbents Mark Kelly in Arizona and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. This ensures that the Vice President will continue to hold a tiebreaker vote in the event of a 50-50 Senate.
On December 6, a runoff election will be held between incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker. If Warnock prevails, the Democrats will achieve 51-49 control.
The Republicans are likely to take control of the House of Representatives. On November 12, the Republicans were in the lead in 221 districts, with 218 needed for a majority.
Democrats had a strong showing at the state level. Laura Kelly in Kansas and Tony Evers in Wisconsin won close reelections. In Oregon, Democrat Tina Kotek won an open seat, formerly held by Democrat governor Kate Brown. Democrats Wes Moore in Maryland and Maura Healey in Massachusetts replaced moderate Republican governors.
Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan was reelected, surviving two years of harassment by the far right. In October 2020, the FBI defeated a plot by a paramilitary group to kidnap Governor Whitmer. Three members of the Wolverine Watchmen were convicted of the kidnap attempt in October 2022.
Secretaries of State
A major threat to democracy in America was a movement among a segment of Republicans to seize control of the voting apparatus at the state level to influence the outcome of future elections. In effect, to plan the type of election subversion the “Stop the Steal” campaigns attributed to Democrats, despite the lack of evidence.
The spear carrier in this campaign was Jim Marchant, Republican nominee for secretary of state in Nevada. Mr. Marchant cobbled together an “America First” slate of election deniers, including candidates from Michigan, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. The effort failed with the extreme partisan election deniers being defeated at the polls in critical battleground states. Cisco Aguilar, Democratic candidate in Nevada, won over Mr. Marchant in that state’s contest for secretary of state.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, that oversees contests for secretary of state, chose to back Brad Raffensperger who rebuffed former President Trump’s request to “find” him enough votes to overturn Mr. Biden’s win in Georgia.
Despite media predictions of a “red wave” midterm, voters tended to reject extremist candidates, including most endorsed by former president Trump. Democrats maintained control of the Senate and may gain a 51-49 edge, depending on the outcome of the December runoff in Georgia. When all the votes are counted, Republicans appear likely to win control of the House of Representatives. At the state level, Governors races went well for Democrats.
A major unknown is to what extent major actors will be held accountable by the criminal justice system. Few of the major players, including Mr. Trump, have faced legal consequences for their actions. Attorney General Merrick Garland has not revealed what steps the Justice Department is likely to take in coming months.
Echoes of the January 6 insurrection continue to reverberate. The final resolution is unlikely to be determined for many years.