Americas

‘I Answered the Call of My President’: Rioters Say Trump Urged Them On

In the two weeks since a raging mob stormed the Capitol, President Trump has shown no sign that he believes he shares responsibility for the worst incursion on the halls of Congress in more than two centuries. Shielding him further, his loyalists have started shifting blame for the attack to an array of distracting bogeymen: far-left anti-fascists, Black Lives Matter activists, even vague conspiracies of a setup involving Vice President Mike Pence.

But one group of people has already come forward and directly implicated Mr. Trump in the riot at the Capitol: some of his own supporters who were arrested while taking part in it. In court papers and interviews, at least four pro-Trump rioters have said they joined the march that spiraled into violence in part because the president encouraged them to do so.

In the past few days, a retired firefighter charged with assaulting members of the Capitol Police force told a friend he went to the building following “the president’s instructions,” according to a criminal complaint, and a Texas real estate agent accused of breaching the building told a reporter that by protesting in Washington, she had “answered the call of my president.”

A Virginia man has told the F.B.I. that he and his cousin marched on the Capitol because Mr. Trump said “something about taking Pennsylvania Avenue.” And a lawyer for the so-called QAnon Shaman — who invaded the building in a Viking costume — said that Mr. Trump was culpable, and he planned to ask the White House for a pardon.

“Does our president bear responsibility?” the lawyer, Al Watkins, told The New York Times. “Hell, yes, he does.”

The nationwide dragnet for those accused of breaking into the Capitol is only in its early stages, and it is likely to take weeks until the full scope and contours of the investigation are known. But with dozens of people now in custody and starting to appear in court, the accounts they give about Mr. Trump could end up not only as fodder in criminal proceedings but also at an impeachment trial to bolster charges that the president incited the assault.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump was impeached for a second time after the House voted to approve a single charge, citing his part in whipping up the mob that descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6 after attending a rally where Mr. Trump and his allies repeated his baseless assertions that the election was rigged against him. He now faces a trial in the Senate that could disqualify him from future office.

While it would be unusual if any of the defendants charged in the Capitol attack were called as witnesses in the impeachment drama, it is possible that Democrats could cite statements about Mr. Trump that those defendants have made in public or to investigators.

At the very least, the emergence of a “Trump-made-me-do-it” defense could serve to undercut the baseless narrative by some of the president’s congressional allies and his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who have sought to push the story that outside agitators or disloyal servants were responsible for the Capitol attack.

As the criminal cases stemming from the riot move through the legal system, they also could put some of Mr. Trump’s most ardent followers in the awkward position of having to publicly lay blame at the feet of the man they came out to support.

The approach is formally known as a public authority defense, and in using it, lawyers can try to argue that their clients are not guilty because a government official permitted them to commit the crimes.

Legal scholars have questioned the viability of the defense in the case of the Capitol breach, noting that anyone who seeks to blame Mr. Trump for their part in the assault would have to prove not only that they believed he had authorized their actions, but also that such a belief was reasonable.

But even if trying to offload responsibility onto Mr. Trump may not be effective at a trial, it could ultimately help lighten the punishment for anyone convicted of a crime in connection with the attack, said Judith P. Miller, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

“The fact that our country’s highest leader is promoting this grand lie and giving millions of people a sense of righteousness, and that they’re on the side of the angels, that seems like it could be potentially strong mitigating evidence,” Ms. Miller said.

Mr. Trump began promoting his Washington event well before it happened, urging his allies to join him for a speech outside the White House. During the address, attended by thousands, he told the crowd “to walk down to the Capitol” where Congress, overseen by Mr. Pence, was certifying the final count of the election results.

“You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he admonished the throng. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

Shortly after Robert Sanford, a retired firefighter from Boothwyn, Pa., heard those words, he joined the growing mob that was marching on the Capitol. There, federal prosecutors say, Mr. Sanford heaved a fire extinguisher at a group of police officers, striking and injuring three of them.

When Mr. Sanford got home, according to a criminal complaint filed last week, he told a friend he had gone to Washington to hear Mr. Trump, then “followed the president’s instructions” and moved on to the Capitol.

The Trump Impeachment ›

From Riot to Impeachment

The riot inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, followed a rally at which President Trump made an inflammatory speech to his supporters, questioning the results of the election. Here’s a look at what happened and at the ongoing fallout:

    • As this video shows, poor planning and a restive crowd encouraged by Mr. Trump set the stage for the riot.
    • A two hour period was crucial to turning the rally into the riot.
    • Several Trump administration officials, including cabinet members Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao, announced that they were stepping down as a result of the riot.
    • Federal prosecutors have charged more than 70 people, including some who appeared in viral photos and videos of the riot. Officials expect to eventually charge hundreds of others.
    • The House voted to impeach the president on charges of “inciting an insurrection” that led to the rampage by his supporters.

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