By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune
“How Texans helped scheme, foment and carry out the Jan. 6 insurrection” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection would not have been possible without the help of a number of key Texans.
That much is clear on the two-year anniversary of the attack and in the wake of a massive congressional report that exhaustively details how former President Donald Trump sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, despite knowing there was no evidence of widespread fraud.
Released late last month, the report and accompanying interview transcripts — which together span more than 10,000 pages — read like a who’s who of Texas conspiracy theorists, conservative activists and extremists.
From those who planted the seeds of Trump’s strategy to try to challenge the election to others who sowed doubt and anger by spreading baseless theories on election fraud, Texans played major roles in fomenting, planning and, eventually, carrying out the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.
And yet, two years later, it’s unclear if anything has changed. The House Select Committee has referred Trump to the Justice Department for charges including conspiracy to defraud the government and inciting or assisting an insurrection, and more than 900 people — including at least 75 Texans — have been charged with crimes related to the Capitol breach. But most Republican leaders have been, at best, reticent to speak out against Trump, if not outright defending his actions and endorsing his lies.
Others have continued to court the type of extremist groups and figures that played central roles in the riot or pushed the baseless election fraud myths that were the pretext for their violence.
“Jan. 6 has continued to be highly polarized,” said Catrina Doxsee, an expert on domestic terrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on national security. “There is no one, single consensus or condemnation of the events. And the fact that these conspiracies continue to take hold — that that rhetoric is still so prevalent — is very concerning, especially as we start to turn our attention to a high-profile 2024 presidential season.”
Many of those conspiracy theories have Texas roots. In 2018, Sidney Powell, a Dallas-based lawyer with no expertise in election law, first met Russell Ramsland, a wealthy Dallas businessman and failed congressional candidate, in an airplane hangar outside of Dallas, Powell told the Jan. 6 congressional committee. Ramsland was joined by Laura Pressley, who had claimed in a 2014 lawsuit that voter fraud caused her to lose her bid for Austin City Council — and who, more recently, has tried to sue Gillespie County over the results of a referendum to put fluoride in the water.
At the meeting in the hangar, the two pushed the theory that voting machines were being rigged and told the group, which reportedly included prominent Texas conservatives, that challenging election results could force audits that would prove as much.
Powell told the committee she kept in touch with Ramsland after the 2018 Dallas meeting.
“I knew he understood aspects of it that I don’t have knowledge of,” Powell told the Select Committee. “I knew he had worked in the area.”
Their relationship would prove crucial two years later, as Trump desperately looked for evidence to prove that the 2020 contest was stolen from him — despite objections from top advisers, including his then-Attorney General William Barr. According to the Select Committee, Trump found his answer in a report by Ramsland’s Dallas-based cybersecurity company, Allied Security Operations Group, that alleged there were inconsistent vote tallies in numerous states that used voting machines by Dominion Voting Systems.
The Select Committee said Powell and former U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, helped get the report in front of Trump, who later offered Powell a position as Special Counsel for election-related meetings. White House lawyers “vehemently opposed” Powell’s appointment, and so it was never made formal.
Ramsland’s work, the Select Committee found, was “very amateurish,” “false and misleading” and was “widely ridiculed” by the public after it was discovered he’d confused Michigan and Minnesota precinct data, among other errors.
“I told him that the stuff that his people were shoveling out to the public was bullshit, I mean, that the claims of fraud were bullshit,” Barr recalled. “And, you know, he was indignant about that. And I reiterated that they wasted a whole month of these claims on the Dominion voting machines and they were idiotic claims.”
Nevertheless, Trump “was adamant that the report must be accurate, that it proved that the election was defective, that he in fact won the election, and the [Department of Justice] should be using that report to basically tell the American people that the results were not trustworthy,” Richard Donoghue, then the acting deputy attorney general, told the Select Committee.
The president and his allies, including Powell and Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, continued to push Ramsland’s report as proof that there was widespread fraud. In the following weeks and months, they routinely alleged that Dominion was part of a plot to overturn the election — perhaps at the direction of the Venezuelan government or a shadowy network of “global interests.”
The Dominion conspiracy was a key plank of Trump’s strategy and was cited in a fruitless lawsuit by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that challenged the outcome of the 2020 contest in four states outside of Texas. Dominion has since filed a $1.3 billion defamation suit against Powell. And both she and Paxton have fought efforts to be disbarred after being reprimanded by the State Bar of Texas for making false claims about election fraud.
In her closing remarks to the committee, Powell stood by her actions — and suggested much of the Capitol siege was orchestrated by people other than Trump supporters, including “antifa” or the FBI. “I think there are definitely some people that did some things wrong that they should not have done, but, yes, I think there was a huge set-up factor contributed to by the FBI and others,” Powell said.
She added: “I don’t like the turn any of our politics and activities have taken generally in the last two decades.”
Powell was not the only Texan to play a crucial role in Trump’s attempts to overturn the election. Around the same time that the then-president was seizing on the Dominion conspiracy, two Austin-area businessmen pitched him on a fringe theory that state legislatures could overturn the 2020 contest by sending separate electors.
The two men, Morgan Warstler and John S. Robison, did not respond to requests for comment, and so it’s unclear how they were able to secure the meeting with Trump. But they had earlier ties to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who later served as Trump’s energy secretary and reportedly endorsed a similar plan in text messages to Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. The idea to use alternate electors became central to Trump’s alleged plot to overturn the election.
Another Texan, retired Army Col. Phil Waldron, was enlisted by Trump allies to disrupt the election’s certification. Waldron, of Dripping Springs, declined to answer most of the Select Committee’s questions during his interview, but circulated a 38-page PowerPoint presentation that, among other things, called for Trump to declare a state of emergency and seize voting machines, the Select Committee said. The plan was dismissed by most White House officials but intrigued Trump, who “was very interested in keeping pathways to victory open,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien told the Select Committee.
Extremism experts say the insurrection was a case study in the fusion of extremist groups that once had relatively disparate goals but eventually coalesced around broader conspiracy theories — including those that borrow from white supremacist worldviews.
“Their ideologies are bleeding together,” said Freddy Cruz, who studies militia movements at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “A lot of these groups are basically picking off core messages from different movements and adopting them to recruit new members and stay alive.”
Cruz noted that the Oath Keepers, the far-right anti-government militia that was founded by Granbury resident Stewart Rhodes, was primarily focused on anti-immigration issues when it began to grow during the early years of the Obama administration. But he said that messaging changed as Trump, who the Oath Keepers saw as an ideological ally, increasingly infused election-fraud myths with nativist conspiracy theories such as Great Replacement Theory, which claims that there is an intentional effort to dilute white, often Christian, power in America through immigration, interracial marriage and other means.
Throughout the Trump era, such radical conspiracies were increasingly mainstreamed by figures such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson. And they were intensified amid COVID-19 lockdowns that drew protests from far-right activists and, according to the Jan. 6 congressional report, became a nexus point for some who played key roles in the insurrection.
Rhodes, for example, told the committee that he met a key Oath Keepers figure, Granbury lawyer Kellye SoRelle, at an anti-lockdown protest in Austin. SoRelle, who unsuccessfully ran to represent Texas House District 60 in the 2020 Republican primary, eventually became the group’s lawyer and was indicted last year for her alleged role in the Capitol riot. Attorneys for Rhodes and SoRelle did not respond to requests for comment this week.
The Jan. 6 report also shows how protest events brought the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, a violent far-right street gang, together with conspiracy theorists such as Austin-based Alex Jones and Ali Alexander, a Fort Worth activist who was instrumental in the “Stop the Steal” movement. Those relationships would prove crucial to Trump’s ability to mobilize loyalists after he lost the November 2020 election, the report found.
As Trump continued to push his baseless claims of widespread fraud, “Stop the Steal” groups mobilized at protests in or outside state capitol or other government buildings — a preview of the eventual violence at the U.S. Capitol, the Select Committee said. The report outlines how those groups, galvanized by Trump’s support and emboldened by the GOP’s widespread proliferation of conspiracy theories, steadily escalated their rhetoric and planned for violence.
“These events provided an opportunity for radicals and extremists to coalesce,” the report said. “Stop the Steal events and other protests throughout 2020 helped build the momentum for Jan. 6.”
In Atlanta in mid-November 2020, Jones, Alexander and white supremacist Nick Fuentes led supporters into the state Capitol. “We’ll light the whole shit on fire,” Alexander told the crowd that day. “Storm the capitol,” he said at another point.
Other groups, including the Proud Boys, similarly capitalized on Trump’s baseless election fraud claims.
“It’s time for fucking war if they steal this shit,” one leader, Joe Biggs, posted on social media. Another leader, Ethan Nordean, referenced the “Day of the Rope” — an allusion to the fictionalized day on which “race traitors” are lynched en masse in “The Turner Diaries,” a white supremacist novel that has inspired numerous murders and attacks by far-right groups.
At a November rally in Washington, D.C., Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was photographed with Alexander and shared a stage with Jones. He also said on social media that he had a meeting at the White House that, according to the congressional report, “appears to have been facilitated” by Bianca Gracia, a Harris County resident who was then-head of the Latinos For Trump group, and who lost her 2022 primary bid for Texas’ 11th State Senate district.
Gracia, Tarrio, Jones and Alexander did not respond to requests for comment this week.
Things only escalated in December 2020, after Trump called for supporters to descend on Washington for what he promised would be a “wild” protest on Jan. 6. Soon after, Jones’ website asked readers if they “would answer President Trump’s call to defend the Republic?”
“He’s calling you, he needs your help, we need your help, we need 10 million people there,” Jones said on a Dec. 20 episode of his show, InfoWars. “We need martial law and have to prevent the police state of foreigners from taking over.”
“It’s literally in our hands,” Jones said at another point. “It’s literally up to us.”
Meanwhile, leaders of the Oath Keepers continued to prepare for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act — a 200-year-old law that would allow him to suspend civil liberties and deputize militias such as the Oath Keepers to enforce the rule of law. On a November episode of InfoWars, Rhodes told Jones they had established a “quick reaction force” to do as much. And, in the days before the Jan. 6 insurrection, Rhodes bought more than $10,000 in guns and tactical gear that were stashed in various spots just outside of Washington in anticipation of violence.
Rhodes and SoRelle arrived in Washington on Jan. 5; Gracia, the Texas-based leader of Latinos For Trump, later facilitated a meeting in a parking garage between the two and Tarrio, the Proud Boys leader, according to the Jan. 6 report. There, Tarrio said that he and Rhodes “don’t get along,” but that situations like Jan. 6 called for the groups to “unite regardless of our differences.” Tarrio left Washington soon after under the terms of an arrest the day prior for stealing and burning a Black Lives Matter flag from a church months earlier, as well as for having a high-capacity magazine.
The next day, leaders of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers allegedly led separate attacks on the Capitol that resulted in five deaths and an estimated $1.5 million in damage. Rhodes and numerous other Oath Keepers were found guilty in November of seditious conspiracy, among other charges.
Tarrio and other Proud Boys leaders were charged last year with similar crimes. Prosecutors say the group was part of a special unit that intended to breach and occupy the Capitol. That trial begins this month.
Jones has not been charged with any crimes connected to the Jan. 6 insurrection but was required to pay nearly $1.5 billion in lawsuit judgments to families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that he accused of being crisis actors — claims that led to years of harassment and threats by his followers.
Alexander, meanwhile, has sought to distance himself from the violence at the Capitol. In testimony to the congressional committee, he said he was being scapegoated in part because he is Black and his legal name, Ali Abdul-Razaq Akbar, sounds foreign. And he has increasingly adopted bizarre claims — including that he could use time-travel to “will” a victory for Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed Arizona gubernatorial candidate who continues to claim that the 2022 election there was stolen from her.
Politics as usual
In the wake of the Select Committee’s year of work detailing the moments before and during the Capitol attack, Texas Democrats on the Hill have called for accountability and framed the insurrection as part of a broader normalization of conspiracies and fraud myths that was perpetuated by Trump.
“This was so much more than a single day’s deadly, destructive riot,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said in a statement. “Like other insurrectionists already convicted of seditious conspiracy, Trump attempted to overthrow the government — to throw a dagger in the heart of our democracy.”
Most Texas Republicans serving in Congress did not respond to requests for comment. But those who did framed the Jan. 6 committee’s work as a partisan witch hunt.
“Their singular focus has been to attack President Trump and punish anyone associated with him on the taxpayer dime,” Sugarland Rep. Randy Weber said. “If they genuinely wanted to make bipartisan efforts to know the truths behind that day, they wouldn’t have restricted Republicans like Kevin McCarthy and Jim Jordan from the committee.”
But Republicans did serve on the committee and accounted for virtually all of the interviews the committee conducted for the report. Many Republicans, including Jordan and McCarthy, refused to comply with subpoenas from the committee; and McCarthy, then the minority leader, was initially allowed to fill five seats on the committee but reportedly pulled his nominations after two of them were vetoed because they were 2020 election-deniers.
Nonetheless, in Texas and nationally, the election-fraud myths continue to be spread by top Republicans. Last year, the Texas GOP officially codified election denialism into its platform after delegates at the state convention voted to declare that Joe Biden was not the president.
And top Republicans have continued to stoke election-fraud myths, particularly in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections. Last summer, Powell, whose claims about the 2020 election had by then been discredited ad nauseum, was featured alongside Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller at a Dallas screening of “2000 Mules,” the debunked film on election fraud. Paxton’s office also screened the film. And a recent NPR investigation found that, since the insurrection, more than two dozen conservative groups in the state have hosted election-deniers — including Seth Keshel, who appeared in the Jan. 6 report and is scheduled to speak next month to a Houston-area group that previously hosted Ramsland and Waldron, the retired Army colonel who pitched Trump on martial law.
Meanwhile, Trump is running for president again, no less hellbent on convincing voters he was robbed and even suggesting the Constitution should be terminated so he can be reinstated as president. Last year, Trump met at Mar-a-Lago with Fuentes, the avowed fascist and Holocaust denier who was a staple at “Stop the Steal” rallies and was interviewed by the Jan. 6 committee; and, while the group’s top leadership has gone quiet ahead of their criminal sedition trial, Proud Boys remain a fixture at GOP events across the country, including drag show protests that have been promoted by conservative elected officials.
Doxsee, the domestic terrorism expert, said the sedition charges against the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys may lead to a fracturing of some far-right groups. But that may just push America’s extremist movement back toward the “leaderless resistance” model that was its norm until recently, when far-right views were increasingly normalized.
What’s clear, Doxsee said, is that more people of influence need to speak out against such groups and the myths that they’ve seized upon post-Trump.
“When individuals in positions of power, either intentionally or inadvertently, make comments that extremists interpret as condoning their actions or advocating for their beliefs, they are more likely to be empowered to actually take action, to rally in the public eye, and to incite or conduct violence,” she said.
Matthew Choi contributed to this reporting.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/06/texans-jan-6-insurrection/.
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