WASHINGTON — Former president Donald Trump formally responded Tuesday to the charges filed by House Democrats in his second impeachment, denying that he incited a mob to violently descend on the Capitol building to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s win.
But court records in the 175-plus criminal cases filed so far in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection reveal that’s exactly what at least some of Trump’s supporters thought he was directing them to do.
“[T]oday President Trump told Us to ‘fight like hell,’” Troy Smocks, a Texas man charged with making threats, posted on Jan. 6 on Parler, quoting Trump’s speech to supporters before the insurrection, according to the government’s court filings. Smocks appeared to admit to participating in the attack on the Capitol in his posts, although he isn’t charged with that; he urged his followers to get weapons and prepare to “hunt” Democrats, tech executives, and others he considered “enemies of Our constitution,” writing, “We now have the green light.”
“[Trump] said that Our cause was a matter of national security, and that these people behind the massive fraud must be arrested and brought to justice. And that task, falls on the shoulders of We The People…. the American Patriots,” Smocks wrote, court documents say. A judge ordered him to be held in jail pending trial, citing his posts on Parler.
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Trump’s lawyers are contesting the constitutionality of impeaching a former president, as well as disputing whether he really meant it when he had repeatedly told his supporters to “fight.”
“It is denied that the phrase ‘if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore’ had anything to do with the action at the Capitol as it was clearly about the need to fight for election security in general, as evidenced by the recording of the speech,” Trump’s lawyers wrote in his official response papers.
But court filings in many cases showed that the former president’s supporters came to Washington spoiling for a fight and that they broadly took calls from Trump and his allies to “stop the steal” — a reference to baseless claims of widespread voter fraud — to be an appeal for violence. Social media posts, FBI interview summaries, and publicly available interviews that prosecutors included in charging papers also lay out the extent to which Trump’s supporters were waiting to take orders from him and understood his words as a direction to act.
Robert Bauer, charged with unlawfully entering a restricted area (the US Capitol) and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, spoke with two FBI agents on Jan. 8. He “reiterated that he marched to the U.S. Capitol because President Trump said to do so,” according to his charging papers. The FBI affidavit includes a screenshot of a selfie found on Bauer’s phone that shows him and his cousin (and codefendant) Edward Hemenway II, both wearing “Trump 2020” hats, smiling and posing with their middle fingers up inside the Capitol building.
“According to BAUER, after President Trump told the crowd, ‘We are going down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol,’ the crowd began moving towards the Capitol,” an FBI agent wrote in the affidavit.
Robert Sanford, a Pennsylvania man charged with throwing a fire extinguisher at police officers at the Capitol, similarly told the FBI when he was interviewed on Jan. 12 that he was part of a group that “had gone to the White House and listened to President Donald J. Trump’s speech and then had followed the President’s instructions and gone to the Capitol.”
In charging papers for Kenneth Grayson of Pennsylvania, the FBI quoted a private message that he allegedly sent to an unidentified person on Dec. 23 about his plans to go to DC on Jan. 6 and take direction from Trump. Grayson, who allegedly livestreamed video on Facebook of himself going into the Capitol and who prosecutors believe is a follower of the QAnon mass delusion, is charged with being a restricted area, disorderly and disruptive conduct, and obstructing an official proceeding.
“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! We don’t want any trouble but they are not going to steal this election that I guarantee bro!!” Grayson allegedly wrote.
Samuel Fisher, a New York man charged with illegally going into the Capitol and disorderly conduct, wrote in a lengthy post on his personal website dated Jan. 6, apparently before the attack, “Trump just needs to fire the bat signal… deputize patriots… and then the pain comes.”
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It’s too early in most cases for people charged with participating in the insurrection to have had a chance to offer a defense — but in a few court fights over whether defendants should be kept in jail or allowed to go home pending trial, their lawyers have highlighted the connection between Trump’s words and the violence at the Capitol. In opposing pretrial detention for Emanuel Jackson, who is charged with assaulting police officers as well as illegally going into the Capitol, his lawyer wrote that “the nature and circumstances of this offense must be viewed through the lens of an event inspired by the President of the United States.” A judge ordered Jackson kept in custody.
A judge is scheduled to hear arguments on Feb. 3 on whether to order pretrial detention for Dominic Pezzola, a New York man and member of the Proud Boys identified in videos breaking a window at the Capitol and who the government alleged had instructions at his home to make guns and bombs. In a recent interview, Pezzola’s lawyer told Reuters that the “logical thinking” to Trump’s supporters was that the president had “invited” them to Washington.
Reuters also noted that during a Jan. 21 court hearing, a lawyer for Riley Williams of Pennsylvania told the judge that her client “took the president’s bait and went inside the Capitol.” Williams is charged with illegally going into the Capitol as well as stealing or helping to steal a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office; Williams, through her lawyer, has denied any involvement in the theft.
The House voted to impeach Trump for a historic second time on Jan. 13 for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol. A trial in the Senate is expected to begin next week. The Senate voted last week against a Republican attempt to reject the impeachment effort as unconstitutional, which means a trial will take place, but enough Republican members supported the measure that it’s unlikely Democrats can win the two-thirds majority needed to convict Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors.