Democracy & Government

Insurrection Timeline — First the Coup and Then the Cover-Up

The House has impeached President Trump for inciting an insurrection. What's next? (Updated: January 18, 2021)

Insurrection Timeline – First the Coup and Then the Cover-Up

TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump speaks to supporters from The Ellipse near the White House on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. - Thousands of Trump supporters, fueled by his spurious claims of voter fraud, are flooding the nation's capital protesting the expected certification of Joe Biden's White House victory by the US Congress. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note, January 18, 2021 — The story keeps getting worse. Since the January 13 Update to our Insurrection Timeline, we’ve added new items (or revisions to previous items) that appear with an asterisk (*).

Trump’s Original Narrative Collapses

The Department of Defense’s January 8, 2021 initial press release purported to “memorialize the planning and execution timeline” of the deadly insurrection that it called the “January 6, 2021 First Amendment Protests in Washington, DC.”

The title was a ruse. Even so, Trump’s defenders are sticking with that false characterization and trying to convert it into a defense to his impeachment. But there’s no First Amendment right to incite an insurrection. And the First Amendment does not apply to whether Trump committed an impeachable offense anyway.

Late in the afternoon on January 11, 2021, even the Defense Department changed the title of its January 8 memorandum and reissued it “to more appropriately reflect the characterization of the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.” The retitled summary is the “January 6, 2021 Violent Attack at the U.S. Capitol.”

Substantively, the memo’s minute-by-minute account created a false illusion of transparency. In truth, its most noteworthy aspects are the omission of Trump’s central role in the insurrection and the effort to shift blame away from Trump and his new Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller.

Who is Christopher Miller?

*November 9, 2020: Every news organization has declared that former Vice President Joe Biden won the election. Trump fires Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and replaces him with Christopher Miller, an Army retiree who worked for a defense contractor until Trump tapped him as his assistant in 2018. Miller’s promotion is the beginning of a departmental regime change.

Under pressure from the White House, Defense Department general counsel Paul Ney names former GOP political operative Michael Ellis to be the top lawyer at the National Security Agency – the US government’s largest and most technically advanced spy agency. Ellis had been chief counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) before joining the White House in 2017 as a lawyer on Trump’s National Security Council and then senior director for intelligence. During Trump’s first impeachment, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified that Ellis had the idea of moving the memorandum of Trump’s infamous phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to a highly classified server.

Unlike a political appointee, Ellis’s position as general counsel to the NSA would make him a civil servant with accompanying employment protections. NSA Director Paul Nakasone opposes Ellis’s selection and tries to delay the process of installing him.

*Nov. 10, 2020: Miller embeds three fierce Trump loyalists as top Defense Department officials: Kash Patel (former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA)), retired army Gen. Anthony Tata (pro-Trump Fox News pundit), and Ezra Cohen-Watnick (former assistant to Trump’s first national security adviser, Mike Flynn).

At such a late date in Trump’s presidency, many ask, why the shake-up at the Department of Defense? We may be learning the answer.

Prior to the Attack

The department’s January 8, 2021 memo ignores Trump’s central role in igniting and then encouraging the January 6 insurrection. In fact, the only reference to Trump appears in a January 3 entry when Miller and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Milley meet with him and he concurs in activation of the DC National Guard “to support law enforcement.”

Other than that, Trump is conspicuously absent, along with the most important parts of the story. In the date and time entries that follow, only those in italics and preceded with “(DoD Memo)” summarize items from the Defense Department’s January 8 memorandum. The memo ignores every other fact set forth in this Timeline.

*Nov. 4, 2020: Throughout the summer and fall, pre-election polls have indicated that Trump will lose to Biden decisively. But Trump has claimed repeatedly that he will lose only if the election is “rigged” and “stolen” from him. During an interview with far-right commentator Alex Jones, Trump ally Roger Stone says, “We’re calling it a fraud or we’re calling it a steal — stop the steal.” Stone had first used the “Stop the Steal” slogan during the 2016 primaries, claiming that a “Bush-Cruz-Kasich-Romney-Ryan-McConnell faction” was attempting to steal the Republican nomination from Trump. Stone had used the slogan again in the 2016 general election against Hillary Clinton.

*Starting Nov. 9, 2020 and continuing past Jan. 6, 2021: Trump refuses to concede. Relentlessly, he attacks the election as “rigged” and “stolen.” Trump and his allies then lose more than 60 lawsuits seeking to invalidate the results as he pressures election officials to reverse vote totals in key swing states that he lost, including Georgia. “Stop the Steal” becomes a rallying cry.

*Dec. 12, 2020: Trump tweets: “Wow! Thousands of people forming in Washington (D.C.) for Stop the Steal. Didn’t know about this, but I’ll be seeing them! #MAGA” 

*Dec. 19, 2020: Trump tweets: “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

*Dec. 27, 2020: Trump tweets, “See you in Washington, DC, on January 6th. Don’t miss it. Information to follow.”

*Jan. 3, 2021: Replying to a #StoptheSteal tweet from one of the rally organizers, Trump tweets: “I will be there. Historic day.”

*Also on Jan. 3: An internal Capitol Police intelligence report warns of a violent scenario in which “Congress itself” could be the target of angry Trump supporters in the upcoming rally.

“Supporters of the current president see January 6, 2021, as the last opportunity to overturn the results of the presidential election,” the memo states. “This sense of desperation and disappointment may lead to more of an incentive to become violent. Unlike previous post-election protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counter-protesters as they were previously, but rather Congress itself is the target on the 6th.”

Jan. 4: The National Park Service increases the crowd estimate on the January 6 rally permit to 30,000 – up from the original 5,000 in December.

*Also on Jan. 4: DC Police Chief Steven Sund asks the Senate and House sergeants at arms for permission to put the National Guard on emergency standby. They reject that idea and suggest instead that he informally seek out his Guard contacts, asking them to “lean forward” and be on alert in case the Capitol Police need help.

*Jan. 5: The FBI office in Norfolk, Virginia issues a warning that extremists are preparing to travel to Washington to commit violence and “war.” The office shares the information with its counterparts in the Washington, DC office.

Also on Jan. 5: Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) receives a call from White House Political Director Brian Jack asking him to speak at the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6. Brooks agrees.

January 6, 2021

8:17 a.m.: Trump tweets: “States want to correct their votes, which they now know were based on irregularities and fraud, plus corrupt process never received legislative approval. All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”

*10:00 a.m.: Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally is underway. Addressing the crowd, Donald Trump Jr. says, “If you’re going to be the zero and not the hero, we’re coming for you, and we’re going to have a good time doing it.”

*11:15 a.m.: A mile-and-a-half from the rally, a group of 200 to 300 protesters arrives at the Capitol reflecting pool area near the west side of the building.

*10:50 a.m.: Speaking at the rally, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani says, “Let’s have trial by combat.”

Noon: Trump begins to address the mob and continues speaking for more than an hour.

  • “We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.”
  • “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide. This was not a close election.”
  • “I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so, because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election… All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify, and we become president, and you are the happiest people.”

*12:30 p.m.: As Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) enters the Capitol for the joint session of Congress that will certify Biden’s election, he gives a thumbs up, a fist pump, and a wave to Trump’s mob.

1:00 p.m.: While Trump continues his rant to the mob, some members of Trump’s crowd have already reached the US Capitol building where Congress assembles in joint session to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. An initial wave of protesters storms the outer barricade west of the Capitol building. As the congressional proceedings begin, Pence reads a letter saying that he won’t intervene in Congress’s electoral count: “My oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority.”

*1:09 p.m.: DC Capitol Police Chief Sund tells his superiors – House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger — that he wants an emergency declaration and to call in the National Guard.

1:11 p.m.: Trump ends his speech by urging his followers to march down Pennsylvania Avenue: “We fight like hell. If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore… Our exciting adventures and boldest endeavors have not yet begun… We’re going to the Capitol. We’re going to try and give them [Republicans] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”

The Attack

If the District of Columbia were a state, its governor alone could have deployed the National Guard to crush the riot. Instead, Trump and his Defense Department had that responsibility, and an unprecedent assault on a sacred institution of government succeeded, if only for a few hours.

(DoD Memo) 1:26 p.m.: The Capitol Police orders the evacuation of the Capitol complex.

1:30 p.m.: The crowd outside the building grows larger, eventually overtaking the Capitol Police and making its way up the Capitol steps. Suspicious packages – later confirmed to be pipe bombs – are found at Republican National Committee headquarters and Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.

*As the attack unfolds, Trump is initially pleased and disregards aides pleading with him to intercede. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) later says that, according to Trump aides, he is “delighted,” while “walking around the White House confused about why other people on his team [are]n’t as excited.” Trump initially rebuffs and resists requests to mobilize the National Guard.

(DoD Memo) 1:34 p.m.: DC Mayor Muriel Bowser asks Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy – who reports to Miller – for more federal help to deal with the mob.

Bowser is told that the request must first come from the Capitol Police.

(DoD Memo) 1:49 p.m.: The Capitol Police chief asks the commanding general of the DC National Guard for immediate assistance.

Also at 1:49 p.m.: Trump retweets a video of the rally, which includes his previous statements that: “our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore and that’s what this is all about. To use a favorite term that all of you came up with, we will stop the steal. . . You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

*1:59 p.m.: Sund receives the first report that rioters have reached the Capitol’s doors and windows and are attempting to break at least one window.

Shortly after 2:00 p.m.: While the senators are in a temporary holding room after the Senate chamber is evacuated, Trump tries to call Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), but mistakenly reaches Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who hands the phone to Tuberville. Trump then tries to convince Tuberville to make additional objections to the Electoral College vote in an effort to block Congress’ certification of Biden’s win. The call is cut off because senators are asked to move to a secure location.

*2:10 p.m.: Text and email alerts to all congressional staff warn those inside to stay away from windows and those outside to seek cover.

*2:11 p.m.: Trump’s mob breaches the Capitol building – breaking windows, climbing inside, and opening doors for others to follow.

*2:13 p.m.: Pence suddenly leaves the Senate floor and is moved to a nearby office.

*2:14 p.m.: Rioters chase DC Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman up a flight of stairs and arrive on the landing near the office where Pence and his family are hiding. Goodman runs in the opposite direction – luring them away from Pence and the Senate chamber.

*2:18 p.m.: Another text alert goes out to Capitol staff: “Due to security threat inside: immediately, move inside your office, take emergency equipment, lock the doors, take shelter.”

*Around 2:20 p.m.: Hiding in a barricaded room, members of Congress and their aides make pleas for outside help. Among them is a senior adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who reaches a former law firm colleague, Will Levi. Levi had served as Attorney General William Barr’s chief of staff. From his home, Levi then calls FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich at the command center in the FBI’s Washington field office. Bowdich dispatches the first of three tactical teams to the Capitol, including one from the Washington field office and another from Baltimore.

(DoD Memo) 2:22 p.m.: Army Secretary McCarthy discusses the situation at the Capitol with Mayor Bowser and her staff.

They are begging for additional National Guard assistance. Note the time. It’s been almost an hour since Bowser requested help.

2:24 p.m.: Trump tweets: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”

After erecting a gallows on the Capitol grounds, the mob shouts, “Hang Mike Pence.” Rioters create another noose from a camera cord seized during an attack on an on-site news team.

2:26 p.m.: Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund joins a conference call with several officials from the DC government, as well as officials from the Pentagon, including Lt. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, director of the Army Staff. Piatt later issues a statement denying the statements attributed to him.

“I am making an urgent, urgent immediate request for National Guard assistance,” Sund says. “I have got to get boots on the ground.”

The DC contingent is flabbergasted when Piatt says that he could not recommend that his boss, Army Secretary McCarthy, approve the request. “I don’t like the visual of the National Guard standing a police line with the Capitol in the background,” Piatt says. Again and again, Sund says that the situation is dire.

*2:28 p.m.: Rioters storm House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) suite of offices, pounding the doors trying to find her.

(D0D Memo) 2:30 p.m.: Miller, Army Secretary McCarthy, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff meet to discuss Mayor Bowser’s request.

*2:33 p.m.: A broadcast on the emergency management agency channel in DC requests that all law enforcement officers in the city respond to the Capitol.

*2:42 p.m.: As lawmakers are evacuating the House chamber using the Speaker’s Lobby, rioters breach the Lobby threshold.

*2:52 p.m.: The first FBI SWAT team enters the Capitol.

*2:53 p.m.: The last of a large group of House members has been evacuated and is headed for a secure location.

(DoD Memo) 3:04 p.m.: Miller gives “verbal approval” to full mobilization of the DC National Guard (1,100 members).

It has now been more than 90 minutes since Mayor Bowser first asked Army Secretary McCarthy for assistance. It took an hour for Defense Department officials to meet and another half-hour for them to decide to help. And Bowser still doesn’t know the status of her request.

(Memo) 3:19 p.m.: Pelosi and Schumer call Army Secretary McCarthy, who says that Bowser’s request has now been approved.

(Memo) 3:26 p.m.: Army Secretary McCarthy calls Bowser to tell her that her request for help has been approved.

The Defense Department’s notification of approval to Bowser came two hours after her request.

While Miller and his team were slow-walking Mayor Bowser’s request, she had sought National Guard assistance from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R). At about the same time, Speaker Pelosi called Northam directly for help and he agreed.

3:29 p.m.: Governor Northam announces mobilization of Virginia’s National Guard. But there’s a hitch. Federal law requires Defense Department authorization before any state’s National Guard can cross the state border onto federal land in DC. That approval doesn’t come until almost two hours later.

(DoD Memo) 3:47 p.m. Governor Hogan mobilizes his state’s National Guard and 200 state troopers.

The Defense Department “repeatedly denies” Hogan’s request to deploy the National Guard at the Capitol. As he awaits approval, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) calls Hogan from the undisclosed bunker to which he, Speaker Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have been evacuated. Hoyer pleads for assistance, saying that the Capitol Police is overwhelmed and there is no federal law enforcement presence.

4:17 p.m.: Trump tweets a video telling rioters, “I know your pain, I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side… It’s a very tough period of time. There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened where they could take it away from all of us — from me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil.”

(DoD Memo) 4:18 p.m.: Miller gives voice approval to notifying surrounding states to muster and be prepared to mobilize their National Guard personnel.

(DoD Memo) 4:32 p.m.: Miller gives verbal authorization to “re-mission” DC National Guard from city posts where most have been directing traffic and monitoring subway stations “to conduct perimeter and clearance operations” in support of the Capitol Police force. 

4:40 p.m.: More than 90 minutes after Governor Hogan had requested federal approval to send his state’s National Guard troops to DC, Army Secretary McCarthy calls and asks, “Can you come as soon as possible?” Hogan responds, “Yeah. We’ve been waiting. We’re ready.”

5:40 p.m.: The first DC National Guard personnel arrive at the Capitol.

(DoD Memo) 5:45 p.m.: Miller signs formal authorization for out-of-state National Guard personnel to muster and gives voice approval for deployment to support the Capitol Police.

The first Maryland National Guard personnel don’t arrive at the Capitol until January 7 at 10:00 a.m. The first Virginia National Guard members arrive at Noon.

6:01 p.m.: Trump tweets: “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. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”

7:00 p.m.: Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, intends to call Sen. Tuberville but, like Trump five hours earlier, he reaches Sen. Lee. Unaware that he has reached the wrong number, Giuliani leaves a voicemail message saying, “Sen. Tuberville? Or I should say Coach Tuberville. This is Rudy Giuliani, the President’s lawyer. I’m calling you because I want to discuss with you how they’re trying to rush this hearing and how we need you, our Republican friends, to try to just slow it down so we can get these legislatures to get more information to you. I know they’re reconvening at 8 tonight, but it … the only strategy we can follow is to object to numerous states and raise issues so that we get ourselves into tomorrow — ideally until the end of tomorrow.”

When Congress resumes the session at 8:06 p.m., Tuberville votes in favor of objections to certifying Biden’s election.

(DoD Memo) 8:00 p.m.: The DC Capitol Police declare the Capitol building secure.

The Aftermath of the Attack

8:31 p.m.: After widespread media reports that Pence, not Trump, had actually given the order to deploy the National Guard, Kash Patel – Miller’s chief of staff and former top aide to Rep. Nunes – tells the New York Times, “The acting secretary and the president have spoken multiple times this week about the request for National Guard personnel in D.C. During these conversations, the president conveyed to the acting secretary that he should take any necessary steps to support civilian law enforcement requests in securing the Capitol and federal buildings.”

But according to the Defense Department’s January 8 memo, the only such conversation with Trump occurred on January 3.

*Jan. 7: Amid growing criticism over his fist pump to the mob shortly before it attacked the Capitol and his continuing objections after the attack to certifying Biden’s victory, Sen. Hawley issues a statement saying, “I will never apologize for giving voice to the millions of Missourians and Americans who have concerns about the integrity of our elections. That’s my job, and I will keep doing it.”

Jan. 7: Trump releases a video in which he lies, saying, “I immediately deployed the National Guard and federal law enforcement to secure the building and expel the intruders.” Defense Department officials confirm that they did not speak to Trump on January 6.

Jan. 8: Trump tweets: “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”

Shortly thereafter, he tweets again: “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”

Jan. 9: Twitter issues a statement saying that it has banned Trump because his “statement that he will not be attending the Inauguration is being received by a number of his supporters as further confirmation that the election was not legitimate… and encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending.”

Twitter’s statement continues, “The use of the words ‘American Patriots’ to describe some of his supporters is also being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the US Capitol. The mention of his supporters having a ‘GIANT VOICE long into the future’ and that ‘They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!’ is being interpreted as further indication that President Trump does not plan to facilitate an ‘orderly transition’ and instead that he plans to continue to support, empower, and shield those who believe he won the election.”

The statement concludes: “Plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.”

Jan. 12: Preparing to board Marine One for Andrews Air Force Base en route to a speech in Alamo, Texas, Trump says, “And on the impeachment, it’s really a continuation of the greatest witch hunt in the history of politics.  It’s ridiculous.  It’s absolutely ridiculous. This impeachment is causing tremendous anger, and you’re doing it, and it’s really a terrible thing that they’re doing.  For Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to continue on this path, I think it’s causing tremendous danger to our country and it’s causing tremendous anger.”

Also on Jan. 12: As he prepares to board Air Force One, Trump says, “So if you read my speech — and many people have done it, and I’ve seen it both in the papers and in the media, on television — it’s been analyzed, and people thought that what I said was totally appropriate.

And if you look at what other people have said — politicians at a high level — about the riots during the summer, the horrible riots in Portland and Seattle, in various other — other places, that was a real problem — what they said. But they’ve analyzed my speech and words and my final paragraph, my final sentence, and everybody, to the T, thought it was totally appropriate.”

Also on Jan. 12: Speaking to his Texas audience, Trump says, “Before we begin, I’d like to say that free speech is under assault like never before. The 25th Amendment is of zero risk to me but will come back to haunt Joe Biden and the Biden administration. As the expression goes: Be careful what you wish for. The impeachment hoax is a continuation of the greatest and most vicious witch hunt in the history of our country, and it is causing tremendous anger and division and pain — far greater than most people will ever understand, which is very dangerous for the USA, especially at this very tender time.”

Also on Jan. 12: The House Judiciary Committee issues a 76-page report of the events before, during and after the January riot that culminated in the deaths of five Americans, including a US Capitol Police officer. It concludes, “President Trump has falsely asserted he won the 2020 presidential election and repeatedly sought to overturn the results of the election. As his efforts failed again and again, President Trump continued a parallel course of conduct that foreseeably resulted in the imminent lawless actions of his supporters, who attacked the Capitol and the Congress. This course of conduct, viewed within the context of his past actions and other attempts to subvert the presidential election, demonstrate that President Trump remains a clear and present danger to the Constitution and our democracy.”

Jan. 13: As the article of impeachment and House Report head to the House floor for a vote, CNN reports that members of Congress, under pressure from Trump, are “scared” and “fear for their lives and their families.” Appearing on MSNBC, Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) says, “I had a lot of conversations with my Republican colleagues. … A couple of them broke down in tears … saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.”

*Later that day, 10 Republicans join all House Democrats to impeach Trump for “incitement of insurrection” by a vote of 232 to 197.

*Jan. 16: Acting Defense Secretary Miller orders National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone to install former White House official Michael Ellis as the NSA’s top lawyer by 6:00 p.m. Later that afternoon, Ellis formally accepts the NSA’s job offer.

The fight to save American democracy is now down to a single defining question:

Which side are you on?

Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper launched his acclaimed Trump-Russia Timeline on BillMoyers.com and it now appears regularly on Dan Rather’s News & Guts and Just Security, where it first appeared in December 2018. Harper is a lawyer who teaches at Northwestern University Law School, and the author of several books, including The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis and Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (a Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”). Follow him at stevenjharper1

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