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Trump still says his supporters weren't behind the Jan. 6 attack — but I was there

A protester holds a Trump flag inside the U.S. Capitol near the Senate Chamber. [Win McNamee / Getty Images]
A protester holds a Trump flag inside the U.S. Capitol near the Senate Chamber.

Editor's note: This story contains language that may be offensive.

"I was standing amid thousands of Trump supporters on the lawn rising up to the Washington Monument," says NPR's Tom Bowman. "Then Trump came on stage to raucous applause."

Bowman was reporting from the "Save America" rally in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. Up until the point when former President Trump began speaking, the rally held a festive air, almost like a football game, he said. "Some Trump supporters were singing YMCA but using the letters M-A-G-A."

But things were different at the Capitol building, where I was standing with Hannah Allam, NPR's extremism reporter. The far-right group the Proud Boys had just shown up and were organizing a crowd to head for the rally. We had quietly embedded ourselves with them as they began to walk west on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Then suddenly, they stopped. And turned around. The rally was on its way to us.

Moments earlier, Trump had claimed election fraud, called the results "bull****" and told the crowd to meet him at the Capitol. Thousands complied, many not even waiting for Trump to finish his speech.

What happened next is still a bit of a blur. Hannah and I saw a roaring sea of people and flags moving toward us. I barely had time to change the batteries in my recording equipment before we were surrounded.

And everyone knows what happened next.

A makeshift gallows. A changing narrative

It's been a year since that pro-Trump mob broke through the Capitol doors and windows, attacked law enforcement and media and vandalized the building as lawmakers were rushed to secure locations. Five people died in or as a result of the attack and 140 police officers were assaulted, along with members of the media.

As it was unfolding, we asked one of the rioters, who called himself "Joe from Ohio," what the goal was.

"The people in this house, who stole this election from us, hanging from a gallows out here in this lawn for the whole world to see, so it never happens again," he said. "That's what needs to happen. Four by four by four, hanging from a rope out here for treason."

A makeshift gallows with a noose was actually built on the Capitol grounds that day but was never used.

On another side of the Capitol, Tom Bowman was talking to Natalie O'Brien and Chris Scalcucci, a couple from Detroit. He asked them why they were doing this.

"The Republic falling," O'Brien said. "And becoming corrupt and unmanageable. And our vote not mattering at all whatsoever."

"Because we love our country," Scalcucci added. "And we don't want it to fall in the hands of these evil people. The stuff that they do, it's unforgivable."

"Our tax dollars pay for this monument. This is kind of our property," O'Brien said.

For many who participated in the siege, it felt like a patriotic act. They were loyal Americans protesting what they had been told was a stolen election.

But as arrests continue and jail sentences begin, how have the consequences reshaped the narrative?

Last month, news broke that Mark Meadows, Trump's then-chief of staff, texted with Fox News hosts on Jan. 6. They were asking Trump to make a public statement to his supporters and call off the riot. But by that evening, the same hosts had a different story.

"There are some reports that Antifa sympathizers may have been sprinkled throughout the crowd," Laura Ingraham said on her show that night.

And that narrative spread.

We know who was there

Months later, Tom Bowman and I went back to the Capitol grounds in Sept. for the "Justice for J6" rally. A lot of the people we spoke to had also been there on Jan. 6. And yet, they were echoing the story they had heard on Fox News.

"Those weren't Trump supporters," said a man named Phil from Kentucky, claiming the only people breaking in were dressed all in black.

"So they were black helmets, black clothes, black backpacks who started busting the windows first," said Janie, a nurse from South Carolina, who said she saw members of Antifa and Black Lives Matter committing the violence. She also claimed the Trump supporters were actually trying to fight them off. But when we mentioned we were on site that day, she admitted that she never actually came close enough to the Capitol to see any violence.

We let her know that the Proud Boys were dressed in all black that day, having planned to forego their usual colors of black and yellow in order to be "incognito."

"I didn't know that," she said.

But the thread attempting to blame Antifa and Black Lives Matter was repeated by former President Trump himself as recently as two weeks ago. In an interview with Candace Owens on Dec. 21, he also said it was FBI informants instigating the crowd.

But we know who was there.

So far, more than 700 people have been charged. The defendants are largely white, and 13% of them have ties to the military or law enforcement. More than 100 of them have alleged ties to known extremist or fringe organizations, like the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters, a part of the anti-government militia movement. But the bulk had no ties to extremist groups.

'An American insurrectionist movement'

Tampa Bay attorney Bjorn Brunvand represents several people who were at the Capitol that day, including Robert Scott Palmer, who was recently sentenced to five years in prison for assaulting law enforcement officers with a fire extinguisher, a wood plank and a flagpole. His is the longest such term yet.

"He believed in the lies that were being professed by former President Trump and his accomplices," Brunvand said.

But he said his client has had a major change of heart since his arrest.

"It went from 100% support for President Trump and the idea that the election was fraudulent at the beginning ... to the recognition that he was misled. He's sitting in a detention facility here in Washington, D.C. and this big powerful former president who said 'meet me at the Capitol', he's too busy playing golf and has no interest in any of the guys that have been arrested," Brunvand said.

He said Palmer took President Trump's words that day as a directive. That he did it for him. And now he feels abandoned.

"Not only did he not show up, he's not there for anyone who were there and supposedly were there to save democracy and save the country. When in fact, they were doing quite the opposite," Brunvand said.

But the idea of Jan. 6 did not die with the day. The University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats has been tracking insurrectionist sentiment in the U.S. for a year now. It found that 21 million share the same beliefs that motivated rioters that day.

In other words, millions of Americans support the idea of political violence. Researchers call it "an American insurrectionist movement" that, a year after the attack on the Capitol, is still alive and well.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.