On cusp of impeachment trial, court documents point to how Trump’s rhetoric fueled rioters who attacked Capitol
In documents charging her with conspiracy and other crimes for her role in the insurrection, they say she began planning such an operation shortly after former president Donald Trump lost the November election, ultimately helping recruit and allegedly helping lead dozens of people who took violent action to try to stop congressional certification of the electoral college vote last month.
In text messages cited in court documents, Watkins was clear about why she was heading to Washington. “Trump wants all able bodied patriots to come,” she wrote to one of her alleged co-conspirators on Dec. 29, eight days before prosecutors say they invaded the building.
The question of what exactly motivated Watkins and other alleged rioters — and when their plans took shape — will be among the central questions of Trump’s impeachment trial this week, when the Senate will consider whether to convict the former president on charges that he incited the crowd to attack the Capitol.
The nine House impeachment managers leading Trump’s prosecution made clear in an 80-page brief filed last week that they will argue that his role in inspiring the crowd to action began long before the 70-minute speech he gave that day.
They assert that the violence was virtually inevitable after Trump spent months falsely claiming that the election had been stolen from him.
“He amplified these lies at every turn, seeking to convince supporters that they were victims of a massive electoral conspiracy that threatened the Nation’s continued existence,” the House impeachment managers wrote.
After refusing to take the “honorable path” and admit defeat in the election, they wrote, Trump “summoned a mob to Washington, exhorted them into a frenzy and aimed them like a loaded cannon down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Evidence to bolster the Democratic case has already emerged in federal criminal cases filed against more than 185 people so far in the aftermath of the insurrection.
Trump’s pull on his supporters is a dominant theme. Court documents show that more than two dozen people charged in the attack specifically cited Trump and his calls to gather that day in describing on social media or in conversations with others why they decided to take action by coming to Washington.
Even when Trump is not cited by name, filings in dozens of other cases show how alleged rioters were broadly motivated by his rhetoric about a stolen election — including his false claims that Vice President Mike Pence could have used his ceremonial role to stop the counting of the electoral college votes.
And some came primed for battle.
According to prosecutors, Pittsburg QAnon supporter Kenneth Grayson wrote to an associate on Dec. 23: “I’m there for the greatest celebration of all time after Pence leads the Senate flip!! OR IM THERE IF TRUMP TELLS US TO STORM THE FUKIN CAPITAL IMA DO THAT THEN!”
Grayson has been accused of trespassing into the Capitol and charged with five felonies. A lawyer for Grayson did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s lawyers have denied that his attacks on the 2020 election can be proved false — or that his comments in the run-up to Jan. 6 or at his rally that day constituted incitement.
“The 45th President exercised his First Amendment right under the Constitution to express his belief that the election results were suspect,” attorneys Bruce Castor Jr. and David Schoen wrote in a response to the trial summons.
In addition to arguing that the Constitution does not allow a former president to be tried in a Senate impeachment proceeding, Trump’s defenders have sought to parse the language of the fiery speech he delivered shortly before the riot. His lawyers argue that while Trump called on the crowd to “march” to the Capitol, he did not urge them to attack and, at one point, asked them to act “peacefully.”
And they have sought to focus just on his remarks that day. In a tweet last month, Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. wrote that if some rioters were planning an attack in advance, then “POTUS didn’t incite anything.”
Barring a dramatic development, House impeachment managers appear unlikely to secure a conviction. A majority of Republican senators have signaled that they plan to vote against such a move.
But Democrats hope to lay out a compelling case to the country of Trump’s responsibility for the insurrection.
They argue that they think Trump’s address on Jan. 6 could be shown to constitute “incitement” under criminal law — which the Supreme Court has held requires showing that speech was “directed” and “likely” to produce “imminent lawless action.”
On Sunday, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who voted to impeach Trump, called the Senate trial only a “snapshot” and said Trump’s actions should be examined as part of ongoing criminal investigations.
“People will want to know exactly what the president was doing. They want to know, for example, whether the tweet he sent out calling Vice President Pence a coward while the attack was underway, whether that tweet, for example, was a premeditated effort to provoke violence,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.” “There are a lot of questions that have to be answered and there will be many, many criminal investigations looking at every aspect of this and everyone who was involved, as there should be.”
In the Senate, House impeachment managers will argue that regardless of the criminal investigation, Trump’s actions before, during and after the riot represent an assault on democracy that amounts to the kind of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that should cause a commander in chief to be convicted by the Senate under the Constitution and barred from holding public office again.
House managers have already cited videos taken in the crowd, which show that after Trump exhorted the group to “show strength,” people could be heard shouting, “Take the Capitol right now!” and “Invade the Capitol!”
In their brief, they quoted from videos taken inside the Capitol, where one rioter exclaimed, “We wait and take orders from our president!” and another taunted a police officer, “We were invited here . . . by the president of the United States!”
Some defense attorneys have echoed those arguments, saying that those who participated in the attack were doing so at the behest of Trump.
“You have these people who were vulnerable, who were receptive, who were euphoric,” said Al Watkins, an attorney representing Jacob Chansley, who was photographed in the well of the Senate chamber, wearing a headdress of animal fur and horns. “What these people heard, including my client, was an invitation, a call to arms by the president.”
Watkins said Trump led otherwise reasonable and law-abiding people like Chansley into an “abyss” through “relentless” use of social media to propagate false information.
“But for the president, they would not have walked down Pennsylvania Avenue,” he added. “They believed the president was going with them. They thought they were helping the president save our country.”
The Federal Public Defender’s Office for Washington, which is representing many of those charged, declined to comment on individual cases. But A.J. Kramer, chief of the office, said he expected that there may be arguments in court that Trump bore “full responsibility for encouraging the rally, inciting them and telling them he would lead them” to overturn the results of the election.
Defense attorneys may argue that Trump “told them to march up Pennsylvania Avenue, and he’d be leading them, and he’s the commander in chief of the military and the nation’s top law enforcement officer,” Kramer said, adding: “I can’t speak for any particular individual, but I certainly think it’s going to play a large role in a number of the cases.”
Indeed, many of those charged indicated that they felt called to duty on Jan. 6, court documents show.
William Wright Watson told an FBI agent that he had driven overnight from his home in Auburn, Ala., to the nation’s capital to “support the patriots, support Trump, support freedom,” documents show.
The day before he allegedly stormed the Capitol, Samuel Fisher posted on Facebook that “At 1 when congress certifies the election . . . Trump just needs to fire the bat signal . . . deputize patriots . . . and then the pain comes.”
Texas winery owner Christopher Ray Grider, who was charged with destruction of government property and other crimes, told a local television station that he went to Washington because “the president asked people to come and show their support. I feel like it’s the least that we can do,” court filings note.
He added that he had been within feet of fellow rioter Ashli Babbitt when she attempted to crawl through a broken window into the barricaded Speaker’s Lobby and was fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer.
Grider’s attorney, Brent Mayr, said it’s “surreal” that Grider is incarcerated while “Donald Trump is sitting there down in Florida doing whatever he feels like he wants to do.”
“He supported President Donald Trump. He went there to support the president. Did he ever anticipate what was going to happen was going to happen? Absolutely not,” Mayr said in an interview.
Trump tweeted repeatedly about the Jan. 6 gathering, exhorting his supporters to come to Washington as a way to pressure Congress — and his rallying cry was effective, court documents show.
On Dec. 19, more than two weeks before the rally, Trump tweeted, “Big Protest in D.C. on January 6. Be there, will be wild!”
Beverly Hills, Calif., salon owner Gina Bisignano quickly responded on Twitter: “I’ll be there.”
Mark Sahady, an organizer from Boston, tweeted that his group “will be in DC once again on January 6th to get wild.”
In Montana, Henry Philip Munzter posted Trump’s tweet to Facebook with a note: “I will be going to Washington DC. Anyone that would like join me let know.”
All three have been charged with storming the building.
Some defense attorneys representing people charged with crimes related to the insurrection have indicated that they plan to use Trump’s words in court to try to argue that their clients could not have known their actions were illegal.
Sahady’s attorney, Rinaldo Del Gallo, said he will argue that Sahady thought he was allowed to enter the Capitol, in part because of Trump’s speech. “The fact that the president said go to the Capitol, and he’s the executive — it’s not like John on the street saying it, he’s the president — is of some relevance,” he said.
As the crowd chanted, “Fight for Trump!” at the rally that day, Trump told the group, “we are going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue — I love Pennsylvania Avenue — and we are going to the Capitol.”
But Trump returned to the White House, while a mob of his supporters stormed metal barricades surrounding the building.
Brandi Harden, a lawyer for Emanuel Jackson, a 20-year-old Pennsylvania man accused of attacking police officers with fists and a baseball bat, wrote in a recent court motion that Jackson is “mentally challenged,” has no criminal history, owns no cellphone and recently lost his home. She wrote that he was “inspired by inflammatory propaganda.”
Arguing that Jackson should be released from jail on bond, she said his actions were “spontaneous and sparked by the statements made during the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally.” Hardin did not respond to a request for comment.
Others who allegedly plotted ahead of time to invade the Capitol also appear to have been influenced by Trump’s nonstop assault on the integrity of the election — and by his depiction of Jan. 6 as a final showdown.
By the time Congress gathered in a joint session that day, Trump had entertained all kinds of extralegal ways of retaining office, including pressuring Republican officials to change their states’ results and weighing a proposal to use the military to rerun the election in key counties. On social media, die-hard supporters were calling for him to invoke the Insurrection Act and mobilize the military and National Guard.
Jessica Marie Watkins, a U.S. Army veteran and volunteer firefighter from Ohio, was charged together with two others with conspiring to “stop, delay, and hinder Congress’s certification of the electoral college vote.”
Prosecutors say she was affiliated with the Oath Keepers, a national self-styled militia group, and founded a smaller, local paramilitary organization called Ohio State Regular Militia. They accused her of helping to train other rioters, organizing their travel and then storming the building in a coordinated fashion, while wearing a bulletproof vest and other tactical gear.
“We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan,” Watkins said via a walkie-talkie software app while the breach was underway, according to court documents.
A lawyer for Watkins declined to comment, and her boyfriend did not respond to requests for comment. An attorney for another man charged with Watkins denied that he was involved with planning or coordinating any action to storm the building.
In her text message exchange with an alleged co-conspirator on Dec. 29, Watkins described her hopes for how Jan. 6 might turn out — and why she felt she had to take part.
“If Trump activates the Insurrection Act,” she wrote, “I’d hate to miss it.”
Alice Crites, Tom Jackman, Matt Kiefer, Ana Álvarez, Tobi Raji, Aaron Schaffer, Maya Smith, Sarah Salem and Sarah Welch contributed to this report.