Thousands of Trump supporters are expected to gather Wednesday in the nation’s capital to hear a defeated president and his allies amplify false claims of election fraud during a rally steps from the White House.
Local authorities have enhanced security and warned residents in and around the city to steer clear of potentially violent agitators.
The scene taking shape on the grassy elliptical park just behind the White House is extraordinary. A grand bandstand was erected, huge speakers were attached to tall scaffolding, and thousands of chairs were unfolded on muddy grass ahead of rallies to proclaim victory for a president who lost soundly in November.
President Donald Trump will be leaving office in two weeks, all protests aside.
But he plans to make an appearance Wednesday at one of the events near the White House that he has promoted relentlessly for weeks as a show of force as he struggles to overturn the legitimate election results.
The events and vitriol had already begun on a rainy Tuesday in Washington, a day before Congress’ formal counting of the Electoral College votes. Some of Trump’s allies, including conspiracy theorist and conservative radio host Alex Jones and some associates who recently received a pardon from the president, spoke to hundreds of people who crowded into the city’s Freedom Plaza on Tuesday evening.
Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser whom Trump pardoned last month, thanked all of the “digital soldiers” – a clear-cut reference to the convoluted pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon – who were fighting to keep the president in office. Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com and a vocal Trump backer, spoke of a White House meeting that he and Flynn attended last month, suggesting that the idea of claiming foreign interference as a way to invalidate the election was discussed with the president.
Although Trump supporters at Freedom Plaza and elsewhere in Washington were peaceful and largely upbeat throughout the day, as the rally wound down after dark, groups of men wearing body armour and helmets began showing up. Some were with the Proud Boys, while others wore insignia identifying them as members of the Three Percenters, a far-right militia group. A few carried baseball bats and clubs.
Asked why they were at the rally in helmets and body armour, a man who appeared to be leading the Three Percenters said, “You know why we’re wearing helmets.” He refused to give his name, angrily dismissing the news media as “traitors” who “gave up on this country.”
By Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Police Department recorded the arrests of five people on charges of assault and weapons possession, including one person who was charged with assaulting a police officer.
Organizers were preparing for an expected crowd of 5,000 on Tuesday and more than 30,000 throughout the week, according to permits issued by the National Park Service. Local government officials warned that the events could turn tumultuous. Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington requested assistance from the Army National Guard on Monday, and local police warned that anyone who intended to arrive in Washington with a firearm, as some on social media sites promised to do, would be arrested.
The hundreds of demonstrators who showed up Tuesday for the “March to Save America” and “Stop the Steal” rallies were relatively tame, although many chose not to wear masks to prevent transmission of the coronavirus. Some of the speakers during the rally at the Freedom Plaza delivered aggressive speeches claiming the groups were “at war,” targeting Republicans in Congress who have refused to protest the results of the election.
Dan Couture, 51, who drove to Tuesday’s rally from Colorado with two of his brothers, Pat and Dave, said they arrived “to make sure that all the votes that were legal are the votes that were counted.”
Just feet away, Richard Morris, 63, of Eaton Rapids, Michigan, began to accept the outcome of the election that has already been affirmed by each of the states and the nation’s top election officials.
“If he doesn’t win it tomorrow, then this is over,” said Morris, an architect, although he said he believed Trump would still find a path to victory.
The president also confirmed Tuesday on Twitter that he would speak at the event at 11 a.m. Wednesday, while continuing to point the finger at Democrats, Republicans who refused to support his baseless claims and Antifa, a loose-knit anti-fascist movement with some followers who have been prone to commit acts of violence.
“I hope the Democrats, and even more importantly, the weak and ineffective RINO section of the Republican Party, are looking at the thousands of people pouring into D.C. They won’t stand for a landslide election victory to be stolen,” Trump said, using the acronym for “Republican in Name Only.”
Wednesday is expected to be an arduous and confusing day on Capitol Hill as Trump’s Republican allies move to challenge Joe Biden’s victory, but those efforts will ultimately fail.
Yet despite Biden’s clear win, many of Trump’s allies were slated to speak at the protests this week and continue to promote the president’s false claims, including Roger Stone and George Papadopoulos, former Trump campaign advisers who recently received pardons.
Some local officials directed residents to avoid downtown Washington altogether.
Marc Elrich, executive of neighbouring Montgomery County, Maryland, said the demonstrations could turn violent with some of Trump’s supporters looking to disrupt the vote count.
“Protest organizations and the groups they represent have shown an alarming affinity for violence. Sadly, they have not been shy about suggesting the need for violence,” Elrich said in a statement. “There is talk of disrupting the counting of votes in Congress, which would require extreme actions.”
The leader of the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results, was ordered by a judge to stay out of Washington after he was arrested Monday on charges of destruction of property stemming from an episode in the city last month. Upon his arrest, the chairman of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, was found to have two high-capacity firearm magazines and was charged with possession.
In December, violent clashes in Washington between Trump supporters and counterprotesters left four people with stab wounds. Preparing for similar brawls, the National Guard said Monday that it would dispatch about 340 troops to the rallies, responding to Bowser’s request for additional security.
“We’re asking D.C. residents and people who live in the region to avoid confrontations with anybody who’s looking for a fight,” Bowser said Monday during a news conference.
Capitol Police also increased the number of officers present on the Capitol grounds and encouraged lawmakers to arrive early and use underground tunnels to travel to the Capitol from their offices. That way, they can avoid walking or driving in the open.
Protesters have trickled to the Capitol since Monday, many without masks and crowded close together as they carried Trump flags and “Stop the Steal” banners. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., was seen speaking with Trump supporters who had come from his home state, repeatedly explaining why he had chosen not to object to the certification of electors. At one point, Cramer read them the entirety of the 12th Amendment, which outlines the elector process.
Such long-distance travel was not unusual. At least 10 busloads of Trump supporters from Michigan were planning to be in Washington on Wednesday to protest the election results, although Biden won the state decisively by more than 155,000 votes. Rocky Raczkowski, chairman of the Oakland County Republican Party in Michigan, said the supporters were simply heeding Trump’s call to protest the election.
Cajun Guilbeau, 65, drove to downtown Washington from Louisiana in a truck covered with signs stating, “Stop the Steal” and “4 More Years!” He said that while some individuals may turn aggressive, those he knew to be gathering for the demonstrations only wanted to show their support for Trump.
“We’ve got jobs, we’ve got careers, we’ve got houses, we’re not going to do any of that nonsense,” said Guilbeau, who rents his old fire truck to production crews. “If Donald Trump secures a second term in the White House, I wanted to be here to support that.”
He said if he saw Biden move into the White House, he would feel less compelled to engage with the government on any level. “There’s no way I’m taking any vaccines,” he said.
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