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A House select committee will soon investigate the Capitol insurrection. What have we learned so far about that day? Here’s everything you need to know:
Who broke into the Capitol building?
At least 800 people smashed their way into the building from eight locations. Most had marched in a crowd of thousands that swarmed the Capitol after then-President Trump held a “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C. During that rally, Trump repeat his false claim that the 2020 election was stolen and urged the crowd to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell” to save the country. Some marchers, court filings reveal, had brought knives, baseball bats, a crowbar, sharpened sticks, bear spray, and tasers. Most of the more than 535 participants now facing a variety of charges appear to have acted spontaneously, but at least 80 have connections with organized extremist groups. The most prominent are the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, a militia that recruits followers from the military and law enforcement. At least 55 current or former members of the military and more than a dozen current or former police officers from around the country have been charged with participating in the Capitol riot.
Was the attack planned?
Videos captured by participants show a core group of dozens of people outside the Capitol wearing riot gear, moving in single-file military-style formations, and shouting directions to the rest of the crowd. For weeks beforehand, there were at least 1 million social media mentions of storming the Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Local and national law enforcement agencies were aware of these threats, and the intelligence arm of the Capitol Police received a tip about “detailed plans to storm federal buildings.” But neither the FBI nor the Department of Homeland Security deemed those threats credible, and the officers stationed on the Capitol grounds were not warned of a possible attempt to invade the building.
What else went wrong?
Few of the badly outnumbered frontline police officers at the barricades had crowd-control tools or riot gear. At least four were dragged into the crowd, including Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone, who was beaten, kicked, and tasered while pleading for his life. “Some guys started getting a hold of my gun,” he said. “They were screaming out, ‘Kill him with his own gun.'” Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell was battered with a flagpole and had his hand sliced open. “We’re going to kill you,” he recalled rioters shouting. “You’re a disgrace. You’re a traitor.” It took three hours for National Guard troops to arrive, and by the end of the day, more than 150 police officers were injured — some suffering broken bones, burns, concussions, and a heart attack. Officer Brian Sicknick, 42, suffered two strokes and died the next day; two officers who defended the Capitol died by suicide days later.
Were GOP officials involved?
At least 57 state and local Republican officials have been identified among the rioters. Among members of Congress, the picture is less clear. Some Republicans have ties to extremist groups: Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar met with members of a local chapter of the Oath Keepers in 2017. Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert has met with members of the Three Percenters militia and tweeted the morning of Jan. 6 that “today is 1776” — a phrase many of the insurrectionists also used. Some congressional Democrats claim they saw Republicans giving Trump supporters tours of the Capitol before the attack, in violation of pandemic restrictions — a claim Republicans deny. Unnamed White House aides told reporters that Trump was gleeful as he watched the riot unfold on television, and for two hours ignored pleas to call the crowd off. He never summoned the National Guard, which the Pentagon finally sent in.
What has happened since?
More than a dozen people have pleaded guilty to, among other charges, picketing in a Capitol building, obstruction of Congress, and conspiracy. Attorney General Merrick Garland has reportedly decided against prosecuting rioters for sedition, the rarely used charge of trying to overthrow the government, believing it will be far easier to get convictions on more concrete violations of law. The most potentially serious charges — assaulting police officers and obstructing an official proceeding — carry prison sentences of up to 20 years, although first-time offenders are unlikely to get maximum terms.
What remains unknown?
The House committee aims to find out why it took hours for the National Guard to arrive, what role militias played, why police were so unprepared, what Trump did during the riot, and whether any Republicans were in contact with the rioters. Far-right activist Ali Alexander said he and Reps. Gosar, Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), and Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) “schemed up” a plan to put “maximum pressure on Congress” not to certify Biden’s victory, but this claim remains unconfirmed. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and most other Republicans have opposed any investigation into Jan. 6, which frustrates those directly affected. “Some things supersede politics,” said Officer Fanone. “This is about right and wrong.”
How the rioters portray their motives
During court hearings and in interviews, participants in the Capitol riot have offered various justifications for their actions. Some have tried to paint themselves as victims: The lawyer for Jacob Anthony Chansley, the so-called QAnon Shaman, claims he was “brainwashed” by QAnon websites and Trump propaganda, while the lawyer representing Anthony Antonio, seen in videos shouting at officers, says he contracted “Foxitis” from Fox News. The lawyer for retired NYPD officer Thomas Webster, seen in a video attempting to gouge a Washington police officer’s eyes out, says that Webster acted in self-defense; he also conveyed Webster’s dismay that he was being jailed alongside “inner-city” criminals. Several defendants have argued that Trump “invited” them into the Capitol, and that they were just following their president’s orders. Many accused rioters, however, resent right-wing conspiracy theories that the Capitol attack was a false-flag operation. “Don’t you dare try to tell me that people are blaming this on antifa and BLM,” Jonathan Mellis posted on Facebook. “We proudly take responsibility for storming the Castle.” He’s been accused of trying to stab police officers with a sharp stick.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.