An attempted bank robber who doesn’t hurt anybody is still guilty of attempted bank robbery. If someone gets hurt, though, the penalties are greater even if the robber didn’t intend harm.
This is how I think about what Donald Trump did last week. Of course the violence makes everything worse. But whatever blame he deserves for inciting a mob—and I think he deserves quite a lot—the ransacking of the Capitol should be understood as merely compounding the original caper: to steal the election he lost.
Let’s look at the record.
For months, Trump dodged answering whether he’d respect the results of the 2020 election. Why? Because, as he often says, he likes to keep his options open.
Recall that Trump claimed the election was stolen before his cronies invented evidence of the theft. On Election Night, he said: “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”
This was always the plan. Even liberals downplayed the outrage. They said Trump was “undermining the legitimacy of the election.” He was. And yes, it’s true many Democrats have questioned elections in the past.
The difference is that Trump’s questioning of election results was a means to an end, not the end in itself.
Trump assaulted the election’s legitimacy as a necessary first step toward stealing the election. As University of Illinois political scientist Nicholas Grossman laid out, the Trump campaign expected the race to be closer, with Pennsylvania playing the role Florida played in the 2000 election. Months before the 2020 election, Trump thundered that votes counted or received after Election Day shouldn’t count, knowing full well that absentee and early votes would be in Joe Biden’s favor. (He also knew that Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature barred counting early votes before Election Day).
The plan was to declare victory on Election Night while he appeared to be ahead. That’s why the campaign was so furious at Fox News for calling Arizona early—it undercut the ability to claim victory that night. In the days after the election, they wanted the Democrats to be the ones going to court to overturn the election results, not them.
But they tried anyway. The original idea was to have the Supreme Court hand Trump the election. This is why he repeatedly insisted that Amy Coney Barrett needed to be on the court before the election.
“This scam will be before the United States Supreme Court,” Trump said on September 23, over a month before the election. “And I think having a 4-4 situation is not a good situation, if you get that.”
The “scam” he was referring to was early and absentee ballots. The court rightly rebuffed him, which explains why Trump felt betrayed by appointees whom he thought owed him loyalty. At the January 6 rally, he hammered his own appointees. “I fought like hell for them …” Trump said. “And you know what? They couldn’t give a damn.”
So much for Plan A. Plan B was to have state legislatures steal the election for him or have officials “find” enough votes to overturn it. That failed, too.
Plan C ended last Wednesday. At his “Save America” rally, Trump repeatedly called on Vice President Mike Pence to “do the right thing” and reject the certified Electoral College votes, under an insane theory that Pence had such authority.
“Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us,” Trump told the crowd. “If he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country because you’re sworn to uphold our Constitution.”
He then asked the crowd to show “strength.” The mob promptly marched on the Capitol to intimidate Pence and Congress to go along with Trump’s demand.
Trump and his team were open about their intent to intimidate Congress into overturning a lawful election. They claim rioting wasn’t part of the plan. Maybe. But after months of Trump and his circle telling supporters that the Democrats were not only stealing the election, but that Biden was a corrupt Chinese puppet bent on destroying America, they negligently did nothing to prepare for it, never mind prevent it. A literal lynch mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” A police officer was beaten with American flagpoles. Another was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher.*
It’s fine to say Trump didn’t intend the utterly foreseeable violence. But that’s like a bank robber saying he didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. The intended theft was bad enough. The violence only makes it that much more heinous.
*Update: This article was written one week after the assault on the Capitol. At the time, numerous news outlets, relying on official statements from Capitol Police, and the family of Officer Brian Sicknick, reported that Sicknick’s death was caused by wounds received in the line of duty on January 6. These claims were not refuted or meaningfully amended until February. In April, a medical examiner’s report concluded that Sicknick died from a stroke. The Capitol Police have not changed their position that he died in the line of duty. Experts debate whether the naturally occurring condition could have been triggered by the events of January 6. Nothing about the new information since this writing changes the author’s views of the events of that day or the decisions that led to it.