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What Were They Thinking About Insurrection?

The hopes and fears of the participants in the Capitol attack, government officials, and Donald Trump.
June 7, 2021
Donald Trump left the White House on foot to go to St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

On January 6, 2021, members of the Oath Keepers, high on conspiracies and disinformation, went to Washington, D.C. to support then-President Donald Trump. They anticipated that they would be providing “security” for “patriots” attending his Stop the Steal rally and, should the need present itself, that they would put down an insurrection.

In reality, their group, which explicitly recruits former military service members and law enforcement officers, helped spur an insurrection of its own. And today, some of the Oath Keepers are defendants at the center of the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history.

What were they thinking? And who came up with this deranged plan in the first place? Why didn’t anyone stop them?

The only way to answer those questions to the public’s satisfaction would be via an independent commission empowered to conduct a full investigation of what happened on January 6—as well as of the lies and incitement that led up to that day. But short of that, Department of Justice court filings for the various arrestees offer crucial insights into what the participants in the insurrection hoped would happen. Read in conjunction with contemporaneous public statements from Trump and his allies, as well as comments from Pentagon officials, it is possible to assemble a rough timeline of what the various players on January 6 had in mind.

As it turns out, they were all talking and thinking quite a lot about insurrection long before it happened.

To understand January 6, 2021, we must first look back to June 1, 2020.

That was the day Donald Trump delivered a terse Rose Garden speech threatening to deploy the U.S. military to any city or state that “refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents.” The speech was prompted by the protests that began on May 26 in Minneapolis and spread throughout the country after George Floyd was killed by police. Trump’s staff argued that the threatened military deployment would have been permitted under the Insurrection Act of 1807, which empowers the president to deploy federal troops for domestic law enforcement under certain circumstances.

As Trump spoke, federal law enforcement officers, joined by officers from other local jurisdictions, clashed with protesters near Lafayette Square, just north of the White House. Officers outfitted in riot gear pushed protesters away from the square, firing rubber bullets at them. Tear gas was used. Army helicopters buzzed the crowds. Trump then marched across the square, flanked by officials and aides, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. All so Trump could have a photo op in front of St. John’s Church.

The message was clear. Trump had a military and was willing to use it. But the backlash from the military community came quickly. Admiral Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said he was “sickened” to “see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church.” Gen. James Mattis, the respected Marine general who had preceded Esper as Trump’s defense secretary, said he was “angry and appalled.”

Secretary Esper soon distanced himself from Trump, albeit after the fact. He told reporters at a June 3 Pentagon briefing, “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.” Gen. Milley later reportedly got into a “heated discussion” with Trump over whether to send active-duty troops to the streets, and in July he publicly apologized, saying, “I should not have been there” for Trump’s photo op.

But Republican politicians and conservative commentators supported Trump’s move. Sen. Tom Cotton wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Send in the Troops”; it was so controversial that the paper later said it should never have been published and one of the responsible editors resigned.

Through it all, Trump never let go of the idea. And as summer changed into fall, talk on the right of an “insurrection” that might be met with a military response shifted from the George Floyd protests and civil unrest to the 2020 election. The same terms and the same proposed action, just a new target.

In a Fox News appearance in September, host Jeanine Pirro asked Trump how he would react if he won the 2020 election and Democrats rioted. “We’ll put them down very quickly if they do that. We have the right to do that. We have the power to do that if we want,” Trump said. “Look, it’s called ‘insurrection.’ We just send in, and we do it, very easy. I mean, it’s very easy.” That same month, in an appearance on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s InfoWars program, Trump’s longtime ally Roger Stone—who would later be pardoned by Trump for witness tampering in the Russia investigation and lying to Congress—also talked up the idea of Trump invoking the Insurrection Act.

Although Trump and his allies were in disagreement with the military community about the Insurrection Act, Trump seemed to have other ideas about whom he could call for backup.

During the September 29 debate, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he was willing to “condemn white supremacists and militia groups and . . . say that they need to stand down.” Trump replied “sure” but then said the Proud Boys groups should “stand back and stand by” for the election.

“But I’ll tell you what,” Trump continued, “somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.”

After the press called the election for Joe Biden on November 7, Trump quickly fired Esper, who had openly opposed invoking the Insurrection Act, and installed Christopher Miller as acting defense secretary. And, as “Stop the Steal” efforts gained steam through November and December, Trump’s allies Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, and Michael Flynn often advocated using the Insurrection Act as a catch-all solution to any number of problems Trump faced. One disturbing Politico headline makes the point: “MAGA leaders call for the troops to keep Trump in office.”


If anyone was primed to take marching orders about insurrection from Commander-in-Chief Trump, it was Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes. To him, it must have sounded like a bugle call directly in his ears.

Rhodes, who founded the group in 2009, has been talking about insurrection for years. And the combination of COVID lockdowns and BLM protests apparently triggered his militant aspirations more than ever. He wrote on Facebook in August 2020 that “Civil war is here, right now” and warned there would be “open warfare with Marxist insurrectionists by Election Day.” Shortly after the media called the election for Biden, Rhodes said in a livestreamed speech that viewers should “stand up now and call on the president to suppress the insurrection.”

He meant it.

Court filings from the Department of Justice containing communications from Oath Keeper militants—some of whom are said to have acted as personal security for Roger Stone at “Stop the Steal” rallies, including on the eve of the January 6 insurrection—show how clear Rhodes’s thinking was about it.

According to prosecutors, Rhodes held a planning meeting for the attack on November 9, 2020. During it, he said:

  • “We’re going to defend the president, the duly elected president, and we call on him to do what needs to be done to save our country. Because if you don’t guys, you’re going to be in a bloody, bloody civil war, and a bloody—you can call it an insurrection or you can call it a war or fight.”
  • He told his followers they needed to be prepared to fight Antifa, which he characterized as a group of individuals with whom “if the fight comes, let the fight come. Let Antifa—if they go kinetic on us, then we’ll go kinetic back on them. I’m willing to sacrifice myself for that. Let the fight start there. That will give President Trump what he needs, frankly. If things go kinetic, good. If they throw bombs at us and shoot us, great, because that brings the president his reason and rationale for dropping the Insurrection Act.”
  • He continued, “I do want some Oath Keepers to stay on the outside, and to stay fully armed and prepared to go in armed, if they have to. . . . So our posture’s gonna be that we’re posted outside of D.C., um, awaiting the president’s orders. . . . We hope he will give us the orders. We want him to declare an insurrection, and to call us up as the militia” (emphasis added).

Similarly, the head of the Florida Oath Keepers, Kelly Meggs claimed in a December 19 Facebook post that he had organized an “alliance between Oath Keepers, Florida 3%ers [Three Percenters], and Proud Boys. We have decided to work together and shut this shit down” on January 6.

On December 26, Meggs told someone on Facebook that “Trumps staying in, he’s Gonna use the emergency broadcast system on cell phones to broadcast to the American people. Then he will claim the insurrection act.” Meggs’s Facebook interlocutor asked when this would take place. Meggs said “next week” and to “wait for the 6th when we are all in DC to insurrection.”

On January 3, Meggs told another person that more than two hundred Oath Keepers were “called” to the nation’s capital because recent action taken by Vice President Mike Pence “checks all the boxes.” The January 6 event, Meggs warned, was not going to be a “rally.”


As the Oath Keepers secretly made their pre-January 6 preparations, the military community was growing increasingly worried that Trump might use the armed forces to interfere with the certification of the election that he was claiming had been stolen.

All ten living former defense secretaries, including Mark Esper, made a dramatic statement in a January 3 Washington Post opinion piece warning that “efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory” and any civilian or military officials who helped carry out such measures could face criminal penalties.

Esper’s successor, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, later said that this opinion piece and many other warnings about military use for political purposes—including those that came out after the Lafayette Square incident—influenced his decision to keep troops away from the Capitol on January 6. As a result, the attack by the pro-Trump mob went on for more than three hours before the National Guard was deployed to assist Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police.

Miller told Congress in May that:

My concerns regarding the appropriate and limited use of the military in domestic matters were heightened by commentary in the media about the possibility of a military coup or that advisors to the President were advocating the declaration of martial law. I was also cognizant of the fears promulgated by many about the prior use of the military in the June 2020 response to protests near the White House and fears that the President would invoke the Insurrection Act to politicize the military in an anti-democratic manner. And, just before the Electoral College certification, ten former Secretaries of Defense signed an Op-Ed piece published in the Washington Post warning of the dangers of politicizing and using inappropriately the military. No such thing was going to occur on my watch but these concerns, and hysteria about them, nonetheless factored into my decisions regarding the appropriate and limited use of our Armed Forces to support civilian law enforcement during the Electoral College certification.

What about Trump? Well, he made it clear to Miller on January 5 that he wanted boots on the ground:

I also want to address questions that have been raised in regard to the President’s involvement in the response. He had none with respect to the Department of Defense efforts on January 6. . . . On the afternoon of January 5, I received a call from the President in connection with a rally by his supporters that day at Freedom Plaza. The President asked if I was watching the event on television. I replied that I had seen coverage of the event. He then commented that “they” were going to need 10,000 troops the following day. The call lasted fewer than thirty seconds and I did not respond substantively, and there was no elaboration. I took his comment to mean that a large force would be required to maintain order the following day.

Who was “they”? And why did Trump believe there would be such a need for troops—because he expected the troops would have to fend off Antifa, or because he anticipated that his own supporters would cause trouble? Miller said he didn’t follow up on the request because, “At the time, I had been advised by our domestic law enforcement partners that based on their experience with protests and crowd control, as well as their intelligence information, that they were confident that they had sufficient personnel assigned to maintain order.”


The fight that the self-appointed militia of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers apparently expected to have with Antifa on January 6 never materialized. Ironically, their actions as part of the mob attack on the Capitol offered a defensible reason for invoking the Insurrection Act—but Donald Trump didn’t invoke it against his own supporters. Meanwhile, the Defense Department appeared paralyzed with concern over what to do if Trump did invoke the act.

The contrast between Trump’s behavior on June 1 and January 6 is telling. Last summer, he was enthusiastic about using force to put down his political opposition and he relished the chance to do it again. When his supporters were the ones causing mayhem, however, Trump reportedly watched “with pleasure.”

Very little is otherwise known about Trump’s mindset on January 6 and his involvement in the events that led to the violence that resulted in five deaths, 140 injured police officers, and $1.5 million in damage to the U.S. Capitol. More than 460 arrests have been made in connection to the attack, and the ensuing trials will presumably take years to complete.

Sixteen Oath Keepers have been charged with federal conspiracy, among other offenses, for their actions that day. Prosecutors have started discussing plea deals with some Oath Keeper members, which will presumably lead to more information about who else was involved in their activities. Absent an independent commission or the creation of a serious congressional investigation, that may be the only hope of finding out how high and wide the planning for this entire operation went.

Amanda Carpenter

Bulwark political columnist Amanda Carpenter is a CNN contributor, author, and former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz and speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint.