The Road to Jan 6 Final

'Stop the Steal' Was a Donald Trump Fans' War Cry Even Before Election Day

Trump had no grand plan and no interest in mapping out what to do if the dog actually caught the car.

In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.

The slogan Stop the Steal was already emerging on election night, even as the votes were still being counted.

Donald Trump was upbeat as polls started to close on November 3. He had locked up 210 electoral college votes and 23 states in the race against former Vice President Joe Biden. As the evening unfolded, many White House aides were giddy with excitement.

TV analysts, though, were saying that Biden voters who were less predisposed to vote in person would swing the vote in many states once the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots was counted. And then, at 11:20 p.m., Fox News called Arizona for Biden. The West Wing was stunned. And the news would get worse; Biden would accumulate 81 million votes, seven million more than Trump.

How would Donald Trump respond to the loss? That was on everyone's minds, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. The president had been telling crowds for months that the election was rigged. There was no telling what the man would do: refuse to leave office, even declare Martial Law.

Poll Watchers Michigan Dominion Lawsuit Trump 2020
A group of 2020 election poll challengers have launched a lawsuit claiming that they were "damaged" by cease-and-desist letters Dominion Voting Systems sent them after they expressed "concerns" about "election" integrity in affidavits. Supporters of former President Donald Trump, including one holding a sign that falsely claims "Trump Won" the election, are pictured protesting a visit by President Joe Biden in Howell, Michigan on October 5, 2021. JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty

No one projected in early November what would happen two months later, and for all the claims being made today that the January 6 riot was pre-planned and well-organized, no one had yet begun to plan or conceive of a march on the Capitol, let alone an assault.

No one projected, and no one anticipated the ferocity of the demonstrations, even up to the eleventh hour. It is a story of many of the same intelligence failures as 9/11—not connecting the dots and focusing on the wrong things; pointing fingers and laying blame.

Jan. 6 Rally
How did we get to the January 6 riots? A Newsweek investigation. The face of President Donald Trump appears on large screens as supporters participate in the rally in Washington. John Minchillo, File/AP Photo

Inside the highest reaches of the national security agencies, the fear that President Trump could do the worst led to the most unusual coup in American history. Right after the election, the president fired many of his Pentagon and homeland security leaders. Attorney General William Barr stepped off the stage. And so General Milley and the permanent national security establishment took over, ultimately ignoring and even conspiring against the commander-in-chief "for the good of the nation"—a satisfying result for many Americans but also a warning of a dysfunction that still grips the country one year later.

The federal domestic agencies, operating more or less autonomously with little input from the White House, also became tangled and blinded in their laser-like focus on some things and obliviousness of others. That cast of characters is vast: 23 federal agencies including the U.S. Capitol Police, U.S. Park Police, FBI, Secret Service, Federal Protective Service, ATF and the U.S. Marshals. They were joined by the Metropolitan Police Department and Metro Transit Police and police officers from Maryland and Virginia.

The collision of definitions and jurisdictions is almost comic. Why wasn't January 6th declared a National Security Special Event, which would have triggered an automatic state of alert and a federal force? Because it wasn't "national security," some in government say. Because it wasn't "special": the electoral count, they have argued, is a regular and scheduled event. (In fact, State of the Union addresses and Democratic and Republican conventions—even the state funeral of George H.W. Bush—were National Security Special Events.) Because the governor has to ask for the declaration, they say. In the District of Columbia there is no governor, and the powers of the mayor are significantly circumscribed. Because the mayor only "asked" for so many supporting troops. Because Capitol Hill itself is sovereign Congressional territory. Because the Ellipse and the National Mall are under Park Service control. Because the Secret Service was focused on Vice President Mike Pence's safety and continuity of government. Because, despite abundant chatter and even evidence, no one thought the crowd would be so big.

Somehow in all of this, the very homeland security organizations created in the wake of 9/11 were absent. This includes the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Northern Command (the military command set up after 9/11 to defend the homeland). Two subordinate Washington area military commands—Joint Forces Headquarters National Capital Region and Joint Task Force National Capitol Region—already active because of COVID, played no role.

And yet at the same time, lurking in the shadows, was the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team and other special operations components of both the Justice Department and the Pentagon, all of them deployed to Washington for the possibility of a catastrophic event on January 6th, an incongruity where the left hand was preparing for the very worst while the right hand was working on a contingency no more severe that some symbolic march on the Capitol.

Donald Trump Holds Rally in Iowa
"Stop the Steal" was already emerging even as voters went to the polls. Donald Trump speaks to his supporters in Iowa after the 2020 election. The former President was banned from multiple social media platforms after he made baseless accusations of electoral fraud during this period. Scott Olson/Getty Images

There was also the National Guard, a controversial absentee that Congress and the commissions and news media have argued about for the past year. Why weren't they moved more quickly? No one predicted the violence until it was too late, and the Pentagon, skittish, did not want to see troops in the streets. They had been soundly criticized for the military's presence during the George Floyd and racial justice protests in June. The brass also feared what Trump might do, never volunteering any resources that weren't the minimum.

The overarching problem, though, was that no agency of government understood who the protestors were. Thus there was no meaningful intelligence warning. No one understood the actual threat to the country they were pledged to protect. When the day came, it was not too late for warning signs.

But the notion that the military would have made a difference is also fallacious and dangerous. There were all of 150 Guardsmen and Guardswomen ready on January 6th. The number of staff officers in Washington intelligence and command centers exceeded that number by a ratio of thousands to one. And even if there were thousands of troops, did anyone really want to see the battleground turned into a battlefield, where guns do the talking?

Stop the Steal protester
A Trump supporter holds a "Stop the Steal" sign while gathering on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol to protest the 2020 presidential election results on January 6 in Denver, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

And then there was the effect of COVID itself. One-hundred-thousand new cases were reported for the first time in a single day on November 4th, the day after the election. New records continued to be broken during the month as cases surpassed 11 million and Americans were urged to stay home for Thanksgiving. A significant group of anti-government and conspiratorial naysayers emerged in 2020, many of them already in the ranks of the disbelieving. (And they are still 30 percent of the population, three out of every ten adults.)

And though it might not have seemed so crucial to the January 6th story at the time, when COVID hit the White House just days after the election, it took two of Trump's key advisors out of the picture, and it sent chief of staff Mark Meadows home for two weeks. The country's leadership was a man watching television and tweeting, his circle of advisors increasingly shrunk to a handful of true believers (and eventually down to a circle of one with Rudy Giuliani). The so-called "adults in the room"—the cabinet, his national security advisor, his own son-in-law—absented themselves.

Vice President Pence emerged as an unlikely (and very lonely) hero. The institution that really proved itself was the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, plus the men and women of the Capitol Police who actually attempted to hold the line—not the leadership.

And then there were the protestors themselves, the MAGA army, some 50 organizations that descended on Washington in a crowd for which there is no established estimate of its size. There were extremist groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters: according to many analysts since, a small seditious band of insurrectionists that hid in a civilian crowd.

On January 6th, about 1,200 people mounted the violent assault or entered the Capitol Building, many of them swept forward with the crowd. That was perhaps two percent of the total of some 100,000 protestors. That leaves 98 percent who are now largely ignored—a vast misunderstood segment of the American public. Who were they? Why were they there in the first place? What do they represent in the broader American society.

A year after the events of January 6, the appetite to rehash the election and its aftermath is as great as ever, with each side convinced that it is saving America. Half the country remains glued to the Donald Trump show, incensed by everything he does. Half believes the election was stolen in some way and they focus their hatred on Joe Biden. They are contemptuous of the Democrats, the liberals, the elite, the news media, and "the swamp" in Washington. They are the force that elected Donald Trump in 2016 and came close in 2020. They didn't just materialize after the 2020 election.

As election night closed, the always impulsive, improvisational president pivoted in the only direction he understood, to continue the Trump show. He had no grand plan and no interest in mapping out what to do if the dog actually caught the car. In the end, Donald Trump would no longer be president. But the show would be renewed—and the cliffhanger of what he would do would hold the audience in thrall.