Byron York: What were rioters thinking?
It’s one of the most basic questions of the U.S. Capitol riot investigation: What was the rioters’ plan? What did they think was going to happen when they stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, as Congress certified the results of the Electoral College?
For the rioters who are alleged to have committed serious criminal acts, more information is coming out in court papers filed in the Justice Department cases against them. And now, specifically, there is a new indictment against nine people who are said to be members or associates of the Oath Keepers militia. It’s a revealing document.
The Oath Keepers are visible in many photos from the riot. They were dressed in military-style outfits and pushed their way up the Capitol steps in what is called a “stack” formation. (They were not the ones who initially broke into the building.) The indictment shows what they were saying to each other on social media in the days and weeks before the riot. Their social media posts suggest people living in a kind of fantasy world in which they could take the Capitol — while carefully obeying Washington D.C.’s strict gun control laws and carrying no firearms — and change the course of U.S. history, and then head home.
The social media posts suggest that some of the Oath Keepers thought Trump was specifically calling on them to storm the Capitol. For example, on Dec. 19, 2020, when Trump tweeted, “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6. Be there, will be wild!” it appears they took that as Trump telling them specifically to make it “wild” through paramilitary action.
“He wants us to make it WILD that’s what he’s saying,” defendant Kelly Meggs wrote on Facebook on Dec. 22, 2020. “He called us all to the Capitol and wants us tomakeitwild!!!!” (All the quotations from the Oath Keepers’ social media posts include their original punctuation, capitalization and spelling.)
The Oath Keepers discussed among themselves whether they should bring guns to the event. On Dec. 25, Meggs wrote on Facebook: “We are all staying in DC near the Capitol we are at the Hilton garden inn but I think it’s full. Dc is no guns. So mace and gas masks, some batons. If you have armor that’s good.”
A few days later, on Dec. 31, Meggs wrote: “You guys gonna carry? Ok, we aren’t either, we have a heavy QRF 10 min out though.” By QRF, Meggs apparently meant a “quick reaction force” that would be stationed nearby and be ready to support the Oath Keepers whenever needed. On Jan. 3, defendant Jessica Watkins wrote to another defendant, Bennie Parker: “We are not bringing firearms. QRF will be our law enforcement members of Oathkeepers.” Parker responded: “Good to know.”
So the Oath Keepers would take the Capitol basically unarmed. Indeed, the indictment states that on Jan. 6, the group “prepared themselves for battle before heading to the Capitol by equipping themselves with communication devices and donning reinforced vests, helmets and goggles.” It does not allege that they took weapons to the Capitol, and certainly not guns. The Oath Keepers’ idea, apparently, was that if there was trouble, they would be backed up by the quick reaction force.
But it is unclear what that force would be. In the government’s memo seeking to jail Watkins, prosecutors wrote that on Dec. 30, Watkins messaged Thomas Caldwell, another defendant, about the plan. Caldwell mentioned “a quick reaction force bringing the tools if something goes to hell. That way the boys don’t have to try to schlep weps on the bus.” In another exchange, Watkins said that, “If it gets bad, they QRF to us with weapons for us.” If there was no problem, “we can have mace, tasers, or night sticks. QRF staged, armed, with our weapons outside the city.”
But who was going to be in the force? There was vague talk of buses full of Oath Keepers arriving outside Washington to back up the small group at the Capitol. But nothing was specific.
Taken together, the court papers portray the Oath Keepers as a ragtag group living in a delusional world, planning a delusional operation to bring about some sort of delusional outcome. They imagined themselves saving the country with their reinforced vests, helmets and goggles. It would be the understatement of the year to say that they had not thought things through.
Still, their cases are critical to understanding the Capitol riot. Was Trump responsible for their actions? Did he incite them? Or did they hear something other than what he actually said? Were they like the unbalanced characters in history who have taken violent actions in the false belief that some charismatic figure, say a rock star or a religious leader, had ordered them to?
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.