We’re Just Finding Out How Bad the Riot Really Was

More than a week after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, video recordings, news reports, and federal charges are revealing a situation even more dire than it seemed at the time.

Insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol on January 6
Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET on April 23, 2021.

As terrifying as it was to watch the attempted coup unfold on January 6, the news that afternoon offered some cause for relief. Although the U.S. Capitol was overrun, few injuries were initially reported. At first, it appeared that only one woman died in the melee. No lawmakers were harmed. The Electoral College certification went forward, despite some delay.

Every day since, as more videos and reporting have emerged, it’s become clear how dangerous the insurrection truly was. As my colleague Elaine Godfrey, who was in the crowd, wrote, “The violence could have been even worse. Some of the rioters clearly wanted it to be.” This was more than a group of people swept up in the emotions of the moment. Within the mob were radicals plotting to kill or kidnap the vice president and members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The rioters came within moments of catching up to Vice President Mike Pence.

And the violence was far worse than first reported. One Capitol Police officer died by suicide soon after the assault, and dozens of officers were injured, some seriously.*

We also now know more about President Donald Trump’s response. While it was clear from the start that he had incited the crowd, further reporting has indicated that he watched the attempted coup with delight. He actively resisted calling out the National Guard, a task that reportedly fell to the besieged Pence. He was induced by his horrified staff to condemn the mob, but reportedly regrets doing so.

In short, January 6 not only could have been much worse—it was much worse than was initially apparent. Sometimes real-time coverage of news events leans toward the sensational and overstates what happened. But because reporters were unprepared for the violence, and because of the fog of war (and tear gas), the horror of this event has emerged slowly. Many people were able to see the stakes on January 6, but it was much harder to see how close a larger catastrophe was to occurring, much less how much harm was actually done.

To begin with, the attempted coup was not some spontaneous event. Much of the planning occurred more or less in plain sight on the internet. According to one analysis, the phrase storm the Capitol was used 100,000 times online in the month before it occurred. Some law-enforcement agencies picked up on this chatter. The Capitol Police were inadequately prepared, but the request from the agency’s former chief for National Guard backup ahead of the event was denied.

There seem to have been at least three groups, in descending order of size, mixed together on the Mall last Wednesday: people who were there to protest and who just protested peacefully; people who were there to protest but decided to join the mob as it surged up to the Capitol; and people who came with specific plans to commit violence, or who hoped to carry out chillingly elaborate plots.

Reporters heard cries of “Hang Mike Pence!” A Reuters photojournalist heard people inside the Capitol searching for Pence, saying they wanted to kill him. A witness told the FBI about another group that hoped to murder the vice president. “Execute the traitors! I wanna see executions!” Godfrey heard a demonstrator yell through a megaphone. Another man said of journalists, “Start makin’ a list! Put all those names down, and we start huntin’ them down, one by one!”

Apologists say this is mere hyperbolic rhetoric, which would be easier to believe if protesters hadn’t erected a gallows on the National Mall. Federal prosecutors wrote in a brief about Jacob Chansley, a.k.a. Jake Angeli, the shirtless, fur-hatted man often depicted in coverage, that “strong evidence, including Chansley’s own words and actions at the Capitol, supports that the intent of the Capitol rioters was to capture and assassinate elected officials in the United States Government.” One man allegedly stockpiled ammo and came prepared to assassinate Nancy Pelosi.

As the crowds began to overrun barriers and push into the building, police found themselves on their heels. They weren’t just facing an unruly protest, and they weren’t just underprepared—they were in a battle against a more organized and coordinated force than they had realized. A stunning Washington Post report lays out the scene. “Everything they did was in a military fashion,” a D.C. police commander said. One officer was overcome by protesters and heard rioters shout, “We got one! We got one! Kill him with his own gun!”

Critics often accuse police of overstating or overreacting to the danger they face and using that to explain the use of lethal force. That makes what happened at the Capitol so much more surprising. One protester, Ashli Babbitt, was shot and killed as she attempted to enter the Speaker’s Lobby, but few shots were fired on January 6. While it is true that police initially responded to the largely white crowd far less aggressively than they often responded to Black Lives Matter protests this summer, some officers say they held their fire because they were afraid to start a shoot-out they couldn’t win.

“I didn’t want to be the guy who starts shooting, because I knew they had guns—we had been seizing guns all day,” Daniel Hodges, a D.C. police officer, told the Post. “And the only reason I could think of that they weren’t shooting us was they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a firefight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand demonstrators, we would have lost.”

Once inside, some putschists were prepared. They came with schematics and maps of the building, and set about their work with purpose. Some wore tactical gear and carried flex ties, which would have been useful for kidnapping and hostage-taking. If not for the quick thinking of the Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, who drew a column away from the Senate floor, they might have walked through the unlocked doors and into a chamber still filled with lawmakers.

Only on Friday did it become clear how much danger Pence had been in. Secret Service officers whisked Pence and his family to a hideaway in the Capitol—but just one minute before Goodman made his stand, and only about 100 feet from the stairs up which the officer was chased by the mob, according to the Post.

Under almost no circumstances would the insurrection have succeeded at overturning the election, though that doesn’t lessen the gravity of the attempted coup. But it could have been much worse. A firefight could have broken out between police and putschists. Members of Congress could have been taken hostage or killed. Pelosi could have been shot and killed. Pence could have been lynched. The insurrectionists were there because the president of the United States lied to them, claiming that the election had been stolen and that Pence could save Trump’s presidency, and because he had demanded that they act. “We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he said that day.

Yet this slow realization comes even as many conservative media outlets and politicians attempt to gaslight the public, as I warned they would. One leading voice of Trumpism, Tucker Carlson, insists, “What happened last week was not new or unusual.” While some Republicans have sought to spread baseless conspiracy theories about leftist agents provocateurs, many others have simply tried to minimize what happened. During debate over Trump’s historic second impeachment this week in the House, most Republicans did not defend Trump, but instead claimed that what happened was more like the civil unrest over policing this summer.

One Republican member was more circumspect. As the House prepared to impeach Trump, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas condemned the president’s actions but said he didn’t feel that impeachment was warranted.

“I did not come to this decision lightly,” he said in a statement. “And I truly fear there may be more facts that come to light in the future that will put me on the wrong side of this debate.”

Two days later, the facts are rapidly accumulating. And as we learn more, the picture will only darken.


*This article originally stated that Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick died of injuries sustained in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, based on reporting in The New York Times and The Associated Press citing two unnamed law-enforcement officials. On April 19, Washington, D.C.'s chief medical examiner released a report finding that Sicknick had experienced two strokes and died of natural causes.