On Sunday night, Rolling Stone dropped a bombshell story. Two witnesses considered key to the investigation of the January 6 Committee had been speaking extensively for weeks to reporter Hunter Walker about their role in organizing the pro-Trump rallies that took place on January 6. For the first time, these organizers named congressmembers as well as some key White House aides who had been part of the planning.
The names should sound familiar: Along with QAnon-associated Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), “the members who participated in these conversations or had top staffers join in included Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).” Among the White House staff named were former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Katrina Pierson, who had worked on Trump’s campaign in 2016 and 2020 and acted as “a key liaison between the organizers of the protest against the election and the White House.”
At the time these meetings were happening, what was being planned wasn’t yet known to the public, but the fact of some kind of planning actually was known. Rep. Greene, for example, seemed quite proud of her involvement, as she demonstrated to her followers in a video right after one of the meetings. She stated, “Just finished with our meeting here at the White House this afternoon. We had a great planning session for our January 6th objection. We aren't going to let this election be stolen by Joe Biden and the Democrats!”
While this is the first time the public is hearing from ordinary citizens on the inside of the White House efforts to stop the election—and there are already calls for the congressmembers to be expelled and prosecuted—the unnamed witnesses and certain congressmembers are already seeking to draw a big and likely crucial distinction: They claim that their organizing was for a peaceful protest to take place at the Ellipse near the White House, and that they were somehow duped when the rally took a turn, quite literally, and headed to Congress where the votes were being certified.
In this version of events, the congressmembers who were involved intended only to raise legitimate objections to the count based on alleged evidence of fraud that they would recite from the floor of Congress, with the hope that more GOP members, especially in the Senate, would rise to join them. Instead, they claim, the protest unexpectedly became violent and turned into a crowd bent on physically stopping the vote count, something they swear they never intended. The article quotes a spokesperson for Rep. Greene, for example, who stated, “Congresswoman Greene and her staff were focused on the Congressional election objection on the House floor and had nothing to do with the planning of any protest.”
This is probably a flat-out lie. But those accused of planning the insurrection apparently will now claim that they never intended to foment a violent one and instead merely met innocently to plan how they would rally their followers peaceably. Thus, when former president Trump told the crowd on January 6 that they were going to walk from the Ellipse to the Capitol, the two witnesses felt they had been betrayed. “I was like, ‘Let’s get the f*ck out of here,” said one. “I do feel kind of abandoned by Trump,” said the other. “I’m actually pretty pissed about it and I’m pissed at him.”
Let’s unpack this. Even taking their rather self-serving story at face value, two big questions emerge.
First, even assuming the witnesses were unaware of the violent turn the protest would take, were others inside the White House and Congress in the know? It is important to establish what the White House was aware of, even if we accept (only for the sake of argument) that the Trump Administration and the representatives did not “plan” to have Congress stormed. Note that this would not let them off the hook legally: Knowledge of a planned, violent attack could give rise to a charge of aiding and abetting (i.e. helping or encouraging the insurrection), or of being an accessory to it (i.e. giving assistance to someone else who actually commits the crime).
The witnesses themselves claim that they had voiced their concerns about the possibility of violence to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, with whom they met directly many times. “Meadows was 100 percent made aware of what was going on,” said one witness. “He’s also like a regular figure in these really tiny groups of national organizers.”
In particular, they raised concerns with Meadows about another protest that would take place at the Capitol itself, organized by “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander. Initially, they claim, Alexander agreed not to hold his “Wild Protest” at the Capitol and that there would be only a single demonstration at the Ellipse. But Alexander went ahead with his plans for a Capitol Hill demonstration anyway, even after the witnesses had raised concerns with the White House about his close association with paramilitary groups like the Oath Keepers and the 1st Amendment Praetorians.
Alexander had even made a video, which he had attempted to delete (but as they say, the Internet is forever), in which he bragged that he and three congressmembers—Reps. Gosar, Brooks, and Biggs— “schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting so that who we couldn’t lobby, we could change the hearts and the minds of Republicans who were in that body, hearing our loud roar…” Given his prior appearance with and organizing of armed paramilitary groups, he certainly understood that this “roar” was going to be more than a vocal one.
Rep. Mo Brooks apparently knew well enough ahead of time to don body armor, even though he was allegedly only speaking at the protest at the Ellipse. Investigators and the Committee will want to know if Brooks had firsthand knowledge of the planned violence or if someone had tipped him off for its potential later at the Capitol. If the witnesses in the Rolling Stone report are to be believed, it was common knowledge, and raised several times, that the protest could turn deadly violent. (Given this apparent knowledge, it is critical also to ask why no steps were taken by lawmakers or the White House to warn law enforcement or the national guard about the danger; the common-sense answer is of course that they did not want the violence to be contained.)
Key insider and pardoned felon Steve Bannon also appears to have had advance knowledge of the plan to attack the Capitol, stating on his podcast on January 5, “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow. It’s going to be moving. It’s going to be quick. All I can say is strap in, the War Room, a posse. You have made this happen and tomorrow is game day.” Likewise, Trump advisor and pardoned felon Roger Stone, just hours before the attack, was captured on video flanked by Oathkeepers on January 6, the same paramilitary group with which Ali Alexander was associated, raising the obvious question of why they felt the need to protect him.
Second, there appears already to be evidence that many of the named congressmembers and staff were not only aware of the possibility of violence but were deeply in on the planning. This matters a great deal: If they were in on the scheme, the charge in theory rises from aiding and abetting to actual seditious conspiracy, and the stakes and possible range of criminal charges grow even greater.
According to the Rolling Stone piece, Rep. Paul Gosar, for example, apparently dangled the prospect of presidential pardons for the two witnesses and others in exchange for their assistance organizing the protest. It is unclear at this time for what crimes the witnesses were under potential or actual investigation or prosecution—or whether this actually referred to a post-rally pardon—but the prospect of presidential pardons, if true, at the very least demonstrates that the planning and status of the protest were being discussed regularly at very high levels within the White House, including presumably with the president. It also suggests that the witnesses’ success in terms of drawing big crowds to the rally was important enough to offer juicy quid pro quos (likely illegally) of pardons in exchange. It seems unlikely in the extreme that such a coveted prize would be offered merely for organizing a rally, especially one that would remain peaceful and distant from Congress with zero chance of changing the outcome of the count.
There is also evidence that certain representatives knew exactly what was coming and were part of the execution of the attack. There is a trove of suspicious, albeit circumstantial, evidence of coordinated planning, including reports of representatives giving prohibited private Capitol group tours before the assault, the curiously quick way certain offices such as Nancy Pelosi’s were located by the rioters, and how the insurrectionists apparently knew which windows were unreinforced so they could gain quick entry. Rep. Lauren Boebert even tweeted tell-tale messages that day aimed directly at the insurrectionists, including “Today is 1776” (referring to a common refrain among the more violent paramilitary groups who favored taking the government by force) and “The Speaker has been removed from the chamber” (disclosing the whereabouts of one of the key targets of the insurrectionists just as she was being transferred to a secure location).
Perhaps the most impactful development revealed by the Rolling Stone story is a schism between the protest organizers and the Trump White House itself. If witnesses, for whatever reason, are now prepared to throw the prior administration under the bus, that will be a welcome development for investigators. It will provide a direct channel of information about what went on in those “back to back” meetings with the congressmembers, the protest organizers, and the former administration. It will also, as discussed above, tie the White House to advance knowledge of, if not outright conspiracy to commit, the insurrection.
If you recall, efforts by the January 6 Committee to obtain the phone and email records of key witnesses or suspects were met with outrage, including a letter signed by 11 representatives to the telecommunication and tech platform companies warning them not to comply with subpoenas. It is no coincidence that the letter was signed by all of the members named in the Rolling Stone story and other key allies of the former president.
Right now, House staffers and named congressmembers and White House aides are individually weighing whether to come forward willingly and cooperate. Many may be lawyering up if they have not already. They cannot freely communicate with one another or try to “get their story straight” at this time without risking additional charges of obstruction of justice or witness tampering. Visits with or by the Department of Justice are likely already occurring with some of the key civilian actors, and subpoenas likely will issue for some politicians. Be prepared to see sitting congressmembers refuse to cooperate with subpoenas or plead the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
As Steve Bannon famously said, “Strap in.”