One year ago today, a mob incited by then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, seeking to prevent the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.
The violence of Jan. 6, 2021, resulted in five deaths and at least 175 injuries. In the year since — as the stolen-election lie that fueled the riot has calcified among Trump allies and partisan Republican officials across the country — news outlets, public records, and, especially in recent weeks, congressional investigations have provided new details about one of the darkest days for American democracy.
But there are still many unanswered questions about that day and the days surrounding it, thanks in part to Trump’s characteristic disdain for accountability and several of his top allies’ refusal to cooperate with the House select committee investigating Jan. 6.
American Oversight has been investigating the government’s actions before, during, and after the attack, from how administration officials acted to the hours-long delay in the deployment of National Guard troops to the Capitol. Below is an overview of what we’ve uncovered through public records requests and litigation, as well as what we’re still seeking to learn.
The threat to our democracy did not start or end with the Capitol attack. As we’ve previously outlined, the Big Lie was built on years of conservative activists and lawmakers hyping the baseless threat of widespread voter fraud as a pretext for restrictive voting laws. By 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic resulted in new measures that made voting both safer and easier, there was plenty of fertile ground for Trump’s lies about the election being rigged — ground Trump and his administration exploited in the months leading up to the election.
In November 2020, after all major news networks had called the election for Joe Biden, Trump and his supporters continued to reject reality, adopting increasingly desperate strategies to thwart the will of the American people.
One lawsuit, filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, asked the Supreme Court to reject the results from four swing states that had gone to Biden. The lawsuit was a brazen albeit long-shot attempt to overturn the election: In emails obtained by American Oversight, officials from the Florida Attorney General’s office called the arguments “batshit insane.”
Trump-loyal officials in other states also elevated the lies, holding hearings alleging fraud, submitting phony slates of electors, and gearing up to conduct bogus election “audits.” Trump even contacted officials directly to ask them to push his fraud narrative, including in Arizona and Georgia. We obtained the audio recording of a Dec. 23, 2020, phone call between Trump and the Georgia secretary of state’s chief election investigator, in which he asked her to do whatever she could to help him, referencing Jan. 6 as a deadline. A week later, according to other documents we uncovered, an aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows emailed Georgia’s deputy secretary of state about a recent visit by Meadows to Cobb County.
Although former Attorney General William Barr would later state that the Justice Department had found no evidence of voting irregularities that could have affected the election’s outcome, in the months before the election he had sown the seeds of distrust by promoting baseless claims about the risks of election fraud, even citing a false story about a voter-fraud case. The Justice Department later said Barr had been given false information in a briefing memo. But after American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the memo, the Justice Department was unable to provide any indication that it existed.
After the election, Trump focused much of his efforts on pressuring top Justice Department officials to perpetuate his fraud claims and to file a lawsuit with the Supreme Court to stop certification, a draft of which we obtained through litigation. In the days before the Jan. 6 attack, Trump and his allies hatched a scheme to replace acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen with a loyalist, a plan that was scrapped after top officials threatened to resign. Documents released in response to American Oversight’s litigation revealed text messages sent by Claire Murray, then a principal deputy associate attorney general, saying, “Justice is our client.” Murray added that she would “walk” if Rosen were “fired for not publicly espousing a falsehood.”
We have sued to compel responses to three sets of requests for records that could shed more light on Trump’s ploys to use the Justice Department to cling to power. We’ve also requested records related to the ousting of U.S. Attorney Byung J. Pak in Georgia, who was forced to resign because he refused to support Trump’s claims.
Records released in response to our requests to the FBI and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security have started to shed light on what agencies knew in advance of Jan. 6.
According to a Jan. 5, 2021, Secret Service briefing, the agency was aware of dozens of protests planned around Washington, D.C., for Jan. 6, most of which were related to the Stop the Steal movement or in support of Trump and almost all of which were considered to have “no indication of civil disobedience.” An assessment from the Department of Defense indicated that as of Jan. 1, 2021, the agency was aware of 23 groups planning demonstrations in D.C. for Jan. 5 and 6, with 15,000 to 20,000 attendees.
We have also learned about a Jan. 3 inter-agency call with top officials at the Departments of Defense, the Army, Justice, the Interior, and Homeland Security to discuss the events planned for Jan. 6. The call had not been previously reported, and we have asked for meeting notes from this call and others, including a Jan. 4 call involving those same agencies, and a Jan. 5 call involving the FBI, the Secret Service, the National Guard Bureau, and the Capitol Police.
We’re still investigating what intelligence officials were aware of and acted on (or did not act on). For instance, we have requested records related to an information packet provided to the FBI by the New York Police Department regarding the potential for violence on Jan. 6, which FBI Director Chris Wray has publicly said he did not recall seeing. We have also asked multiple agencies, including Defense, Army, Homeland Security, and the FBI, for militia group threat analyses received ahead of the attack.
In the last year, American Oversight has submitted requests to 15 federal agencies and 24 state or local agencies for records related to Jan. 6, and has filed six lawsuits against several federal agencies for their failure to release the documents. But we have already obtained a number of illuminating documents.
A significant question that has yet to be answered fully is what accounted for the delay in National Guard deployment to the Capitol, and in particular, what role the White House and Trump played in the delay. The National Guard did not arrive until after 5 p.m., hours after the mob had overrun the police around 1:30 p.m.
The timeline of the deployment’s authorization and its communication to the D.C. Guard also remains murky. A Pentagon Inspector General report said that the D.C. Guard was informed of the authorization at 4:35 p.m. on Jan. 6, but the Guard maintains it was not told until 5:08 — a critical half-hour difference. Documents we obtained this month show that acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue sent an email at 4:27 p.m. saying that he had heard from Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy that the troops were on their way to the Capitol. We also obtained emails from the National Guard Bureau from earlier that afternoon regarding the D.C. Guard’s activities. We still have multiple requests in litigation that could shed light on the communications between the White House and federal law enforcement agencies on Jan. 6, and whether and to what extent officials were in direct communication with Trump, then-Vice President Mike Pence, or others regarding the deployment.
Another controversy centers on which agency was in charge on Jan. 6. Defense officials have claimed the Justice Department had been designated the lead federal agency, but the Justice Department officials have denied this. In a Jan. 4 internal Army email thread we obtained, which discussed a letter sent by McCarthy to acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller about National Guard support, Army officials specified the need to designate a lead federal agency “other than DOD.”
On Jan. 7, 2021, Justice Department spokesperson Marc Raimondi responded to a press inquiry about agency responsibilities, saying that the Ellipse near the White House “was [the domain of] the Park Police supported by the [D.C. police] and National Guard” and that the Capitol was “the domain of the Capitol Police and under the chain of command of the Legislative branch leaders.” Raimondi acknowledged that the Justice Department’s role was to make sure that agency coordination and communications ”was being facilitated” through the D.C. police and the FBI. And a Jan. 4 email we obtained indicates that Rosen granted approval to McCarthy’s plan to allow the D.C. National Guard to support the D.C. city government on Jan. 6.
We have also uncovered several call logs and timelines from agencies from the days leading up to and including Jan. 6. Justice Department call logs show a flurry of calls between top department officials and the White House on the afternoon and evening of the attack, and timelines from the Secret Service detail agency activities that day, including those undertaken by agents who were part of Pence’s detail. We also obtained the Jan. 6 call logs of National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson, showing calls beginning at 3:45 p.m. with the adjutant National Guard generals from several nearby states.
Nearly a year after Biden’s inauguration, the Big Lie has continued to spread. Calls for investigations and audits of the election results have proliferated across the country. American Oversight’s investigation of the Arizona Senate’s biased and corrupt “audit” of Maricopa County election results has revealed a process influenced by election conspiracy theorists and partisan actors. Our ongoing work in Wisconsin has already revealed a similarly partisan undertaking, one involving people who have said the 2020 election was stolen or have attempted to overturn its results. And we continue to investigate the work of activists to initiate investigations in Pennsylvania, Texas, and other states.
Behind these unnecessary and election-undermining investigations is an ever-expanding network of activists and state officials who use the banner of election integrity to advance dangerous lies that weaken our democracy. These lies have already led to the surge of anti-voter legislation in multiple states, and we’re investigating the influence voting-restriction activists have exercised on state lawmakers. You can read more about American Oversight’s investigations into threats to democracy here.
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