The unanswered questions about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot

·Chief National Correspondent
·14 min read

The House select committee on the Jan. 6 insurrection has yet to release much information about its findings, which it plans to do sometime this year.

The committee has interviewed around 300 people, has compiled 30,000 records and is closing in on acquiring a vast swath of White House documents from the National Archives. The document issue has been moving through the courts, and federal judges have rejected former President Donald Trump’s claims of executive privilege. Trump has asked the Supreme Court to block the records from being released.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, center
Rep. Bennie Thompson, center, chair of the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, speaks during a committee meeting, Dec. 1, 2021. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Here are the major questions that have emerged as central to the committee’s work, which are likely to be answered at least in part when the panel releases its findings.

Was there planning?

The Jan. 6 insurrection was, on its face, a pretty simple case. Starting in the middle of 2020, Trump claimed without evidence that the election would be rigged against him. He continued to do this after he lost the election by more than 7 million votes, and he summoned his supporters to Washington on the day Congress was set to certify the election results.

Before Trump took the stage that day, other speakers incited the crowd. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said that “today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”

Brooks told the crowd that their “ancestors” had sacrificed many things in the past to preserve the country, including, “sometimes, their lives.” He then said to the thousands of people listening: “So I have a question for you. Are you willing to do the same?”

Brooks is currently running for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, and Trump has endorsed his bid.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani encouraged the crowd to engage in “trial by combat.”

Trump then spoke for an hour to his followers and told them, twice, to march to the Capitol. In his speech, he said everyone should march to the Capitol “peacefully” but also said that “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

Trump used the word “peacefully” once and the word “fight” 23 times. He never explicitly instructed the crowd to violently assault law enforcement. He did tell his devoted followers: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Former President Donald Trump
Then-President Donald Trump speaking at the "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

His followers then marched to the Capitol as he had instructed, and they did fight like hell: They fought with police, battering them with bats, poles and sticks, chemical spray, hockey sticks, metal bike racks, batons, bottles, wooden boards, fire extinguishers, Tasers and flagpoles. They broke through police lines and stormed into the Capitol building, chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” and “Where’s Nancy?” in reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

One Trump supporter, Ashli Babbitt, was shot and killed during the riot by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to lead a mob through a broken window into a room where lawmakers were a few dozen feet away. Three other Trump supporters died during the melee, two by heart attack and one from a drug overdose.

One police officer died the next day of a heart attack, and the medical examiner ruled that his death was from natural causes but also said vaguely that “all that transpired played a role in his condition.” Over 140 police officers were injured, and four who responded that day to the assault have since died by suicide.

So a series of questions emerges that have still not been answered. Is there evidence that Trump meant for his words about fighting to be taken literally? Or is there evidence that he meant it figuratively and didn’t expect things to get out of control? Or is there evidence that he knew it could be taken literally, but wanted to avoid saying anything publicly that would make him legally or criminally liable for any violence that did occur?

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces on Jan. 6, 2021. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

We know more now about the planning inside the White House to try to pressure Pence, Trump’s vice president, to overturn the results and throw out the votes of 81 million Americans. Much of this has come from reporting in books such as “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of the Washington Post. We also know that lawyers advising Trump, such as John Eastman, were circulating memos to try to convince Pence to defy the Constitution and facilitate a coup.

We don’t know if there is evidence of Trump’s intent anywhere in the documents or in evidence from witnesses who were with him that day.

We also don’t know if there was any coordination or communication between far-right militia groups like the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys and the Trump White House. Media analysis of the roughly 650 people federally charged in the riot has found that most of those who were violent were caught up in the moment, but in the crowd there were a few dozen individuals who had planned and prepared for violence.

Did they have any instructions or encouragement from anyone in the Trump administration or orbit, or anyone who was planning the Jan. 6 rally?

What was Trump doing as the attack unfolded?

Trump told the crowd he would be marching with them to the Capitol about 15 minutes into his speech, at 12:17 p.m., and ended his remarks around 1:10 by making the point again. “We’re going to the Capitol,” he said. “So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.”

He then promptly went back to the White House. His instructions to the crowd to march to the Capitol had come as a shock to many of the organizers of the rally on the National Mall, who had fought an internal battle with those who wanted to send the angry crowd down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol.

Rioters at the Capitol
Rioters at the Capitol. (John Minchillo/AP)

The National Archives records will fill in a lot about what Trump did that day. Some of his supporters had already started to clash with police at the Capitol while he was still speaking. By the time he arrived back at the White House, a few minutes after ending his speech, his supporters were violently clashing with police on the West Front of the Capitol. Trump is reported to have been watching TV as footage of the riot was broadcast on cable news.

“The committee has firsthand testimony that President Trump was sitting in the dining room next to the Oval Office, watching on television as the Capitol was assaulted as the violence occurred,” Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who serves as vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee, said Sunday on CBS News.

By a little after 2 p.m., rioters had reached the doors of the Capitol on both the East and West fronts and had fought their way inside the Capitol. Pence was removed from the Senate floor at 2:13. There were thousands of rioters outside the building still engaged in hand-to-hand combat with police. The country had devolved into total chaos, and the president was nowhere to be found or seen.

There are two known phone calls that Trump made that day. One came at approximately 2:15 p.m., just as Pence was being evacuated from the Senate. Trump called Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on his cellphone, but asked to speak with Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. Tuberville informed the president that Pence had been hustled out of the chamber, and in the days after the attack a Lee spokesman said that Trump had asked Tuberville to continue objecting to the certification of election results in order to stall for time as Trump supporters were attacking the building.

At 2:24, as the violent mob continued to storm through the halls of Congress hunting the vice president, Trump egged them on. He tweeted, “Mike Pence did not have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” As Trump reportedly watched TV largely by himself, Pence's national security adviser, Keith Kellogg, urged him around this time to put out a tweet to “help control the crowd” and said it was “out of control,” according to “Peril.”

President Trump
At 4:17 p.m., Trump posted a video message to Twitter telling his supporters at the U.S. Capitol to “go home.” (Donald J. Trump via Twitter)

Trump also had a phone call with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., at some point. McCarthy was shaken and asked the president to call off his supporters, but Trump reportedly dismissed McCarthy's concerns and instead suggested that the people ransacking the Capitol and attacking police officers were justified.

“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump said, according to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.

At 2:38 p.m., roughly 90 minutes after returning to the White House, Trump tweeted, “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay Peaceful!” He did not ask the rioters to leave. Inside the Capitol, the crowd continued to rage. Babbitt was shot at 2:44 p.m. and died shortly thereafter.

At 3:13 p.m., Trump again tried to rein in the crowd he had incited. “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order — respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!” he tweeted. He still did not tell them to leave.

Another hour of violence and mayhem continued, and then at 4:17, Trump finally told his supporters to “go home” in a video in which he continued to falsely claim the election had been stolen. That evening, he again justified the insurrection in a social media post that prompted his suspension from Twitter and Facebook. “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump tweeted at 6:01 p.m.

Police did not begin clearing the Capitol until 5:40 p.m.

Much remains to be known about what else Trump did during this period, especially between the time he returned to the White House and as the assault on the Capitol escalated into a full-blown insurrection.

Is Trump criminally liable for his inaction?

Donald Trump
Trump at a rally in Sarasota, Fla., July 3, 2021. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

“As the violence unfolded that afternoon, nearly one year ago, it was evident to all, not only to those of us who were in the chamber at that time. It was covered in real time by almost every news channel. But for 187 minutes, President Trump refused to act. Let's let that sink in, Madam Speaker. He refused to act when action by our president was required, it was essential, and it was compelled by his oath to our Constitution,” said Cheney on Dec. 14.

Cheney’s 187-minute number is pegged to the period between 1:10 p.m., when Trump told the crowd to go to the Capitol for the second time in his speech, and 4:17 p.m., when he released the video instructing his followers to leave the Capitol.

Cheney questioned whether Trump, “through action or inaction, corruptly sought to obstruct or impede Congress's official proceeding to count electoral votes.”

This was language taken directly from a federal statute, 18 U.S. Code §1512, which says, “Whoever corruptly ... obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.” A “proceeding before Congress” is included in the list of what could be an “official proceeding.”

Last month a federal judge ruled that this statute could be used to charge insurrectionists with a felony.

It’s a sign that the committee may be identifying ways to charge Trump with criminal penalties.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., another member of the select committee, talked about the potential for criminal charges against Trump on Dec. 19.

“I don’t want to go there yet to say, do I believe he has [committed a crime]. I think that’s obviously a pretty big thing to say,” Kinzinger said on CNN. “We want to know, though. And I think we will, by the end of our investigation and by the time our report is out, have a pretty good idea. We will be able to have out on the public record anything the Justice Department needs, maybe, in pursuit of that.

“Nobody is above the law. And if the president knowingly allowed what happened on Jan. 6 to happen, and, in fact, was giddy about it, and that violates a criminal statute, he needs to be held accountable for that,” Kinzinger said. “I’m not ready to go there yet. But I sure tell you I have a lot of questions about what the president was up to.”

What happened with military and law enforcement response?

Trump supporters clash with police
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Questions remain about what role, if any, Trump and the White House played in leaving the Capitol so vulnerable to attack, and in the agonizing delays in getting more police and National Guard members there as the assault unfolded.

The blame here is sure to extend beyond the White House, but much remains unknown about how and why the Capitol was left so exposed for so long on Jan. 6. In particular, why didn't the FBI do more to raise alarms about the very visible online chatter in advance of that day in which some Trump supporters were openly discussing plans to be violent?

A dispute has exploded in recent weeks between leaders of the D.C. National Guard and Army officials who were in charge on Jan. 6. Politico reported on Dec. 9 that two former D.C. Guard officials were calling an Army report written last spring “fiction.”

The D.C. Guard commander at the time, Maj. Gen. William Walker, and Col. Earl Matthews, then the Guard’s top lawyer, have said the Guard troops were ready to be deployed but the Army delayed giving its approval. They say the Army’s internal report seeks to create a false version of events that relieves it of blame for any delay.

Walker has testified that his ability to deploy National Guard soldiers to the Capitol was greatly hindered by limitations placed on him by Christopher Miller, the acting Pentagon chief, who had issued instructions on Jan. 4 that the National Guard could not take any significant actions without his approval. Guard units did not arrive at the Capitol until around 5:30 p.m., even after Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund had placed what Walker described as a “frantic” phone call to him at 1:49 p.m., pleading for troops to come as soon as possible. Trump supporters had already been battling police for roughly an hour by that point, after breaking through the first security barriers just before 1 p.m.

“Chief Sund, his voice cracking with emotion, indicated that there was a dire emergency on Capitol Hill and requested the immediate assistance of as many guardsmen as I could muster,” Walker testified at a Senate hearing in March. He said he immediately relayed this request to Army senior leadership but that he did not hear back from them for three hours, until just after 5 p.m.

Will the committee report have an impact?

Tucker Carlson
Fox News host Tucker Carlson and other commentators of the far right have dismissed the credibility of the panel investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The committee is engaged in a deliberate investigation and is moving quickly. But for the past year, millions of Americans who watch Fox News and other right-wing media channels have been inoculated against taking the committee seriously.

Right-wing media has underplayed the gravity of what happened on Jan. 6 and convinced many that the probe is a partisan witch hunt. Some are even telling their viewers that Jan. 6 was a “setup,” a trap laid for Trump supporters by shadowy forces inside the government. They have no evidence for the claims, as Yahoo News has documented.

So half the country, at least, will likely absorb the findings of the committee. But millions more will have been instructed, over and over, not to pay any attention.

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