In the year and a half since the Capitol Riot of January 6, 2021, the House select committee investigation and various media reports on what Donald Trump and his allies were doing during the attack have cast new light on an important threat to American democracy. But the intense focus on a few wild days in Washington can be misleading as well. Trump’s campaign to steal the 2020 presidential election began shortly after the 2016 election, and arguably the moment of peak peril for Joe Biden’s inauguration had already passed by the time Trump addressed the Stop the Steal rally on January 6.
A full timeline of the attempted insurrection is helpful in putting Trump’s frantic, last-minute schemes into the proper context and countering the false impression that January 6 was an improvised, impossible-to-replicate event, rather than one part of an ongoing campaign. If Congress fails to seize its brief opportunity to reform our system for finalizing presidential election results, the danger could recur in future elections — perhaps with a different, catastrophic outcome.
November 27, 2016 – November 3, 2020
Trump claims “millions” voted illegally in 2016.
Epitomizing the rare phenomenon of the sore winner, Trump insisted in late November 2016 that he would have won the popular vote as well as the Electoral College “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He repeated the lie for years and even claimed falsely in a June 2019 interview with Meet the Press that California “admitted” it had counted “a million” illegal votes.
This wasn’t just a tossed-off random Trumpian fabrication. His insistence that Democrats had deployed ineligible (and probably noncitizen) voters led to his appointment of a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in May 2017. The commission was ostensibly led by Vice-President Mike Pence but was more closely identified with its co-chairman Kris Kobach, the immigrant-bashing, vote-suppressing secretary of State of Kansas. As David Daley explains, it was a wide-ranging fishing expedition that caught exactly zero fish:
Kobach’s plan was easy to discern: The commission was to be the front through which a cabal of shadowy Republican activists and oft-debunked academics, backed by misleading studies, laundered their phony voting-fraud theories into a justification for real-world suppression tactics such as national voter ID and massive coast-to-coast electoral-roll purges.
The commission was soon disbanded empty-handed, with Kobach & Co. blaming its failure on noncooperation from states that refused to turn over voters’ personal information. But in MAGA Land, wild voter-fraud claims become more credible each time they are repeated, so the commission was a sound investment in future lies.
Republicans raise bogus concerns about ballot counting in the 2018 midterms.
In an effort to spin Republican losses in the 2018 midterm elections, House GOP leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy seized on four contests in California in which Republicans led in early vote counting but lost when late mail ballots came in. Without alleging (much less proving) anything in particular, congressional Republicans suggested skullduggery in what was a normal trend in the counting of entirely legal ballots signed and mailed before Election Day but received afterward. I dismissed this GOP spin, which McCarthy was still pushing a year later, but warned that “all this ex post facto delegitimization of elections that [Republicans] lost sounds like a dress rehearsal for how they’ll behave if they do poorly again next year.”
The president himself made similar allegations after the 2018 midterms, though he focused on two races the GOP eventually won. On Veterans Day, Trump declared that Florida’s Senate and governor’s race should be called in favor of the Republicans who were ahead on Election Night, though legally cast overseas military and civilian mail ballots had yet to be counted. He tweeted, falsely, that these “massively infected” ballots had shown up “out of nowhere” and thus must be ignored:
The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!
This did, indeed, turn out to be a dress rehearsal. Trump went on to make almost identical charges about late-arriving (or just late-counted) mail ballots on Election Night 2020.
Trump suggests that voting by mail is inherently fraudulent.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread in 2020, states holding primaries and special elections naturally began liberalizing opportunities to vote by mail. Trump went bananas on Twitter in May, threatening to withhold federal funding from Michigan because its secretary of State had sent absentee-ballot applications to all registered voters.
Twitter, in what was then an unprecedented action, took down two Trump tweets in which he mendaciously attacked California for “sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone … no matter who they are or how they got there.” Actually, of course, the ballots went only to registered voters.
Trump’s goal seemed clear: By asserting that voting by mail is tantamount to voter fraud, he was setting up a bogus justification for contesting election results in any state he lost.
Trump prepares to exploit the “Red Mirage.”
Team Trump’s parallel strategy was to get Republicans to eschew voting by mail to ensure that the votes most often counted first (in-person Election Day ballots) would skew red as forcefully as possible (which is why one analyst dubbed the scheme the “Red Mirage”). As Election Day approached, there were many signs that, simply by attacking voting by mail as illegitimate, Trump was succeeding in discouraging his supporters from voting that way, thus producing the desired Election Night “skew” in his favor.
In September, Trump’s hostility to mail ballots and threats to just claim victory became more intense and regular. In his first debate with Biden, on September 30, the plan to contest any election loss was made plain. Following an incoherent diatribe recapping his unfounded claims of rampant voter fraud, Trump was pressed on whether he would urge his supporters to “stay calm” and “not engage in any civil unrest” during the ballot-counting process, which would likely be drawn out due to unprecedented levels of voting by mail. “Will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?” moderator Chris Wallace asked.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” Trump replied. “If it’s a fair election, I am 100 percent onboard. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”
November 4, 2020 – January 5, 2021
The PostElection Scramble
Trump declares victory on Election Night.
With Trump ahead but giving up ground in a number of states he would ultimately lose, he made his long-awaited play. At around 3 a.m. on November 4, he concluded his remarks to his supporters by saying:
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. So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud in our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list. Okay? It’s a very sad moment. To me, this is a very sad moment, and we will win this. And as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.
It seems plausible that Trump delayed his premature victory claim by a few hours because it initially appeared that he might win legitimately. An “insider” account of Trump’s Election Night activities published in the Washington Post aired the theory that his declaration might have been spurred by a spontaneous suggestion from an inebriated Rudy Giuliani. But the many times Trump himself predicted he would do exactly this would indicate otherwise.
As the House select committee showed, Trump and his inner circle knew he had lost the election, but almost immediately began planning to overturn the results. His campaign’s data analyst told him there was no path to victory a few days after the election. But by then Donald Trump Jr. was telling White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that the campaign had a multi-prong strategy underway to flip the script. It soon began to unfold.
Trump’s “clown show” legal team challenges the election in court.
A steadily changing cast of Trump campaign lawyers, eventually featuring histrionic extremists Giuliani and Sidney Powell, fired off 62 federal and state lawsuits challenging many aspects of the election results. Most were laughably frivolous, and 61 were rejected on widely varying grounds. The one that succeeded, in Pennsylvania, involved a small number of ballots with technical errors that a local judge had allowed voters to “cure” after a statutory deadline.
There were two big opportunities for a Hail Mary from the Supreme Court, but Trump lost both times. On December 8, the Court refused without comment to hear a claim by Republican congressman Mike Kelly that Pennsylvania’s expansion of voting by mail was invalid because it was not enacted by a constitutional amendment. And on December 11, another shot at the claim that state legislatures cannot delegate their election powers was rejected by the Court on grounds that the state bringing the suit had no standing to challenge procedures in the targeted states (Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin).
By then, the Trump campaign’s legal effort had descended into full farce, as became obvious on November 19 when Giuliani and Powell held a wild press conference featuring outlandish conspiracy theories, including communist manipulation of voting machines. Both Attorney General William Barr and White House adviser Jared Kushner reportedly dismissed the Trump legal team’s efforts as a “clown show,” and an internal memo that came out much later also showed the Trump campaign knew most of the allegations made in that presser were bogus.
Trump tries to enlist Republican state legislators.
Arguably the most serious Trump attempt to steal the election involved pleas to Republican legislators in key states won by Biden to dispute the results before they could be certified (the step before the formal award of electoral votes). As of November 21, Trump was publicly making arguments for this extreme remedy, but as Politico observed, it was a long shot from the get-go: “Republican-led legislatures in states Biden won would need to move to overturn their state’s popular vote and appoint a slate of Trump electors when the Electoral College meets on Dec. 14.” The opposition of Democratic governors in Michigan and Pennsylvania would have stopped such maneuvers absent an unlikely court finding that legislatures have sole power to appoint electors. And legislators in those two states didn’t respond to Trump’s requests for assistance.
The Trump campaign convenes fake electors.
In another sign that the Trump campaign was thinking ahead to future coup opportunities amidst all the clownishness, it convened unauthorized “Trump electors” in the seven close states won by Biden on the same day the real electors voted, a plot that is now being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department (and also a local prosecutor in one state, Georgia) for possible criminal liability. It was these fake electors that Trump later demanded that either Mike Pence or state legislatures recognize.
Trump considers plan to use military to seize voting machines.
A narrowly-missed opportunity for truly dangerous mischief was revealed in January 2022 by the New York Times: Trump looked into various avenues for using the Justice Department, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, or even state agencies, to seize voting machines in order to investigate vague allegations of election fraud. The DOJ angle was vetoed by Attorney General William Barr. The Pentagon/DHS scheme was promoted by Trump advisor Michael Flynn and Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell. Ironically, Powell’s legal team colleague Rudy Giuliani was instrumental in talking Trump out of going in this direction on grounds that it would provoke a second impeachment of the 45th president. But a draft executive order eventually surfaced that could have kept the machines in the Pentagon’s hands until after the scheduled inauguration of the next president.
Trump keeps spreading lies about 2020 election fraud.
Before resigning, Attorney General Bill Barr repeatedly told the president that his voter fraud claims were based on “complete nonsense” and even “bullshit,” according to his testimony to the January 6 committee.
As Representative Liz Cheney, the House select committee’s ranking Republican, explained at the opening hearings, this assessment was repeated incessantly by the administration’s top legal advisors.
And after Barr’s resignation on December 23, 2020, the acting attorney general who replaced him, Jeff Rosen, and the acting deputy, Richard Donoghue, told President Trump over and over again that the evidence did not support allegations he was making in public. Many former Trump staffers told the select committee that they knew the evidence did not support the president’s claims. Even Ivanka Trump wasn’t buying it. But Trump kept inciting his most extreme followers to believe the fraud fables, and act on them.
Trump pressures Georgia officials to “find” 11,000 votes.
Trump continued his attempt to find state politicians willing to help him reverse the election results even after passing every deadline established by Congress over more than a century to cut off presidential-election disputes.
On December 5, he called Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who had backed the certification of Biden’s win, to ask him to convene the state legislature to overturn the results and appoint pro-Trump electors (Kemp declined to do so). On December 23, Trump called Bonnie Watson, a lowly election investigator for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, urging her to find fault with mail ballots since “I won [Georgia] by hundreds of thousands of votes. It wasn’t close.”
On January 2, 2021, he concluded this particular line of election tampering by appealing directly to Raffensperger to find him some more votes. “So look. All I want to do is this,” the president said in a recorded conversation. “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.”
A Georgia prosecutor has convened a grand jury to consider criminal charges against the former president in connection with this incident.
Trump deployed some especially unsavory tactics while trying to overturn Georgia’s election results. He repeatedly attacked a Georgia election worker, Shaye Moss, and her mother, Ruby Freeman, based on a debunked conspiracy theory related to footage of Fulton County poll workers counting ballots. As Moss explained in gripping June 21 testimony before the House select committee investigating January 6, she and her mother were subsequently threatened and harassed by Trump’s supporters. The president’s attacks led Raffensperger staffer Gabriel Sterling to publicly tell Trump on December 1: “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.” But it only got worse.
Trump urges Justice Department to declare the election “corrupt.”
Trump was also working the state angle from the other direction, conspiring in particular with Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark to push Republican legislatures to investigate and possibly overturn Biden’s victory.
Clark drafted a letter to Republican officials in Georgia, claiming falsely that the DOJ was “investigating various irregularities” in the 2020 election. The letter urged them to convene a to investigate these voter-fraud claims and consider “issues pertaining to the appointment of Presidential Electors.” Clark reportedly prepared similar letters addressed to GOP legislators in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
None of these letters were ever sent out because Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue refused to go along. “There is no chance that I would sign this letter or anything remotely like this,” Donoghue told Clark in an email obtained by ABC News.
In closed-door testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Rosen said his monthlong tenure as acting attorney general was marked by Trump’s “persistent” efforts to have the Justice Department discredit the election results. For instance, during a December 27 phone call, Rosen told Trump that he needed to “understand that the DOJ can’t + won’t snap its fingers + change the outcome of the election, doesn’t work that way,” according to Donoghue’s notes on the call.
“[I] don’t expect you to do that,” Trump reportedly answered, “just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen.”
Only a wholesale revolt by senior DOJ staff prevented Trump from carrying out the plan. On January 3, the president met with top Justice Department officials to discuss his desire to oust Rosen in favor of Clark, who could then advance bogus voter-fraud claims and pressure state officials as acting attorney general. They told Trump to his face they would resign en masse if he fired replaced Rosen with Clark, with Rosen deputy Richard Donoghue sarcastically telling Clark, a former environmental lawyer with no experience in election law, to “go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.” Trump eventually called off the Justice Department coup; even White House counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputy joined in threatening to quit if Trump followed through on plans to replace Rosen, calling the scheme a “murder-suicide pact.”
Trump attempts to bully Pence into rejecting Biden’s electoral votes.
Trump still had an even more dangerous trick up his sleeve: getting his faithful vice-president, Pence, to steal the election for him when Congress convened on January 6 to perform the routine task of confirming the December 14 Electoral College vote.
This potentially revolutionary maneuver had two prongs. First, Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas filed a lawsuit contending that the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which governs the rubber-stamping of the electoral vote count, was an unconstitutional abrogation of the vice-president’s power to recognize and count electors however he wanted. Gohmert’s claim was quickly dismissed by the federal courts on grounds that he had no standing to sue.
At the same time, Trump lobbied Pence publicly and privately to do whatever he could in announcing electors to deny Biden the 270 electoral votes he needed to become president-elect. Perhaps the sycophant-in-chief would give Trump an outright victory, or maybe he would simply create a dispute that would throw the contest to the U.S. House, where Republicans controlled a majority of delegations.
Peril, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s book about Trump’s plans for January 6, revealed that Trump lawyer John Eastman wrote a memo laying out a blueprint for how Pence could turn the routine counting of electoral votes on that day into a coup. The plot concluded with Pence either declaring that Trump had won, claiming that the election was disputed and thus had to be resolved by the U.S. House, or delaying Biden’s certification until Republican state legislators could be mobilized to replace Biden electors with Trump electors.
A federal judge in California examining Eastman’s subsequent efforts to hide emails he had sent in connection with the campaign to pressure Pence concluded that he and his client Donald Trump “more likely than not … corruptly attempted to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021,” and that Trump and Eastman “more likely than not … dishonestly conspired to obstruct” the joint session.
This conclusion was buttressed in a June 16 hearing of the House Select Committee investigating January 6, which showed that virtually everyone around Trump and Pence consistently called Eastman’s legal arguments outlandish and deeply irresponsible; Trump senior advisor Eric Herschmann accurately told Eastman “you’re going to cause riots in the streets.”
Citing advice from conservative legal luminary J. Michael Luttig, Pence famously refused to claim “unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” earning him the enmity of both the Boss and the January 6 mob.
Trump continued to call on Pence to “do the right thing” by asserting a power to award his own ticket victory on January 6 itself. After a final argument with Pence in which the president reportedly called him a “wimp,” Trump may have hoped the mob he incited to march on the Capitol that day would halt the electoral vote count Pence refused to overturn or adjourn. He clearly dd not care that he had put Pence’s life in peril.
Trump calls on congressional allies to block confirmation of Biden’s win.
The fallback strategy for interfering with Biden’s accession to the presidency was to utilize the procedures in the Electoral Count Act enabling challenges in Congress to individual state certifications. Alabama congressman Mo Brooks announced in early December that he would challenge selected Biden electors.
Trump promptly thanked Brooks publicly and encouraged others to join him, particularly in the Senate since every challenge requires the support of at least one member from each chamber. Mitch McConnell discouraged his troops from joining the rebellion, but soon enough, hard-core Trump supporters like Tommy Tuberville, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and others climbed aboard the Insurrection Express.
This set the stage for the Capitol Riot.
January 6, 2021 – Present
The Insurrection Goes Live
Trump rallies supporters to “stop the steal” on January 6.
For weeks, Trump called on his supporters to descend on Washington on January 6 to protest Biden’s election (and back whatever play he could manage in Congress). On December 20, he tweeted, “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election…. Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
The House select committee uncovered plentiful evidence that this tweet and others represented a call to arms for extremist groups, such as the Oathkeepers and the Proud Boys, who planned to converge on D.C. “Stop the Steal,” a rubric invented by Roger Stone in 2016 in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton victory, became the protesters’ organizing slogan.
As a joint session of Congress was convening to confirm the Biden victory, Trump addressed the faithful gathered on the National Mall. We now know thanks to the House select committee testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, a top aide to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, that Trump was infuriated by the presence of metal detectors that reduced the size of the crowd close to the stage. “I don’t f- - -ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me,” Hutchinson heard him say as he prepared to speak.
Much of the debate over Trump’s subsequent impeachment and Senate trial revolved around exactly what he said to the demonstrators who subsequently broke into the Capitol and temporarily shut down the confirmation of Biden’s victory. Was this the smoking gun from his address?
All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they’re doing. And stolen by the fake news media. That’s what they’ve done and what they’re doing. We will never give up, we will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.
Or maybe this?
We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.
As he spoke, though, White House staff and Republican congressional leaders who had been told Trump would under no circumstances accompany the mob to the Capitol grew very alarmed, and according to Hutchinson, a determined effort to keep him from leading his “people” down Pennsylvania Avenue led to a reported physical altercation between the president and his security detail. Eventually, Trump relented and rode back to the White House:
Over the next few hours, Trump angrily rejected entreaties from White House attorneys, Fox News gabbers including Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, Republicans in the beseiged Capitol, and even his own son and daughter, to call off the mob. Hutchinson testified that when White House counsel Pat Cipollone told her boss that something needed to be done to rein the mob, who had been heard chanting “Hang Mike Pence!,” Meadows noted that Trump sided with the rioters over his VP.
Even when Trump reluctantly filmed a video asking the rioters to go home, he identified with them, saying “We love you; you’re very special.”
The day after the Capitol Riot, Trump was talking about pardoning the insurrectionists.
As Cassidy Hutchinson testified, Trump almost immediately began worrying about being removed from office via the 25th Amendment (two Cabinet members sent word on January 6 that they were resigning in protest of his behavior). On January 7, he agreed to make a videotaped speech condemning the violence. He removed from speech drafts, however, language about prosecuting the insurrectionists; instead he began discussing pardons.
Arizona conducts a fruitless election “audit,” and other states emulate it.
Even after the failure of the January 6 insurrection, and then Biden’s inauguration, cut off even the most remote possibility of an election coup, Trump claimed vindication when Republican senators saved him from being convicted and banned from holding office again after his second impeachment. Then he and his supporters devised another way to keep pointlessly challenging the 2020 results. In Arizona, hard-core Trump activists in the state senate ordered an election “audit” (a legally meaningless term) of votes in Maricopa County, which went solidly for Biden after Trump carried it in 2016.
This strange exercise, conducted by an unqualified consulting firm led by a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist, was supposed to last 60 days but went on for five months without producing any evidence of the kind of irregularities that might call Biden’s Arizona win into question (indeed, the heart of the “audit,” a hand recount of every ballot cast in Maricopa, increased Biden’s lead). The idea seems to be to muddy the waters just enough that those who already believe in a Biden “steal” can nourish their grievances right up until the next presidential cycle.
Though the Arizona audit finally ground to a close in September, similar efforts were initiated by Republican legislators in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and by Texas Governor Gregg Abbott (focusing just on four urban counties, three of them Democratic strongholds). Eventually the audit fever subsided, though talk of reopening the results in Wisconsin persists with Trump’s encouragement.
Trump keeps the Big Lie alive.
There’s been a lot of media derision about Trump’s postpresidential efforts to wave the bloody shirt of the stolen election. It’s easy to assume the 45th president is just trying to stay in the news or stay relevant or give vent to his natural mood of narcissistic grievance and vengeance. However, the damage he is doing to the credibility of democratic institutions among Republican rank-and-file voters and conservative activists is not fading but is being compounded daily.
It’s entirely plausible that Trump or some authorized successor will build on the lies he deployed so regularly during the 2020 election cycle and plan a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose response to whatever happens on November 5, 2024, as I argued in April 2021:
If you begin not with the assumption that Trump’s entire effort to steal the election was absurd but regard it as an audacious plan that wasn’t executed with the necessary precision, then reverse engineering it to fix the broken parts makes sense …
And the really heady thing for Trump is knowing how easy it was to convince the GOP rank-and-file base that his lies were the gospel truth.
Put together shrewd vote suppressors, audacious state legislators, emboldened conservative media, a better slate of lawyers, a new generation of compliant judges, and quite possibly a Republican-controlled Congress, and the insurrection plot could finally succeed.
This post has been updated.