TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. There are still so many questions surrounding the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Some of those questions are answered in a three-part series published this week in The Washington Post, investigating what happened before, during and after the insurrection. The report says Trump was the driving force at every turn as he orchestrated what became an attempted political coup. He called his supporters to Washington, D.C. He encouraged the mob to march on the Capitol and froze in place key federal agencies whose job it was to investigate and stop threats to national security.
That last part about how federal agencies failed to stop the attack and how Trump contributed to that failure, that’s the part that was reported by my guest Carol Leonnig, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. She also co-wrote, with the Post’s Philip Rucker, two books about the Trump presidency, “A Very Stable Genius” and “I Alone Can Fix It.” Her recent book, “Zero Fail,” is about the rise and fall of the Secret Service. We recorded our interview yesterday.
Carol Leonnig, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on this Washington Post series. So let’s just start with a little bit of framing. What was the mission of this three-part series, and what was the approach the Post took to doing it?
CAROL LEONNIG: Terry, thanks for having me. This whole huge, enormous months-long, 75-reporter-strong project began basically with some frustration inside our newsroom. At the time – and it might be hard to remember – but at the time, a series of Republicans and Republican leadership in Congress were stalling and blocking the idea of asking any questions about what happened on January 6. They were stalling the idea of a bipartisan commission and effectively said, no, we don’t want to know anymore; we don’t need to know anymore. It would be overkill.
And in our newsroom, editor Matea Gold – my editor – said, OK, well, we are going to do it then. The Washington Post is going to find out what happened to the best of our ability, realizing, of course, that we don’t have the subpoena power that federal prosecutors and Congress have. But we were going to dig as hard as we could. Our national editor, Steven Ginsberg, had another brilliant idea, which was, let’s organize this into a narrative so that people understand what happened before January 6. What do we know? What happened during January 6, this unbelievable historic assault on our democracy, an attempt to basically overturn the results of one of the most closely monitored and carefully watched elections in history? And what happened after? And that’s what we set out to do, and that’s what we delivered on Sunday.
GROSS: Well, your focus, your part in the reporting was largely based on what happened before, what were the failures in intelligence and security. So let’s start with that. There was so much organizing being done online in the open where people were saying they were going to bring guns. Did intelligence agencies not believe what they were reading?
LEONNIG: You know, it’s so interesting, Terry. It’s almost as if the world of intelligence before January 6 was divided into two unequal camps – one camp that was like, oh, yeah, that’s just chatter; that doesn’t mean anything – and one camp that was like, this is real; these people are planning to come to Washington with guns and overturn the election. The second group was the smaller one. Many, many, many incredible professionals in the post-9/11 infrastructure we have set up to stop terror, to get in front of a terror attack before it happens failed. They failed to see that this chatter, this online plotting, this discussion of a criminal plot right in front of their faces just wasn’t really going to ever amount to anything.
GROSS: Well, you were told by somebody at the FBI that most of the tips that the FBI received contained vague and primarily First Amendment-protected speech. Can you expand on that?
LEONNIG: This has been one of the most confounding elements of our investigation. The FBI told us – numerous officials inside told us that this was just aspirational conversation and it was protected First Amendment speech that wouldn’t be appropriate for them to investigate until it reached a really dangerous level. It’s such a mystery to me because the FBI, after 9/11, was deputized with this exact assignment – to watch and monitor extremism and interrupt it before it led to a criminal plot.
And many, many FBI agents have told me, hey, look at all these other plots we intercepted based on online chatter that references violence and criminal activity. And that’s exactly what all of this domestic chatter involved. Here’s how we’re going to get weapons into D.C. without being detected, the protesters said. Here’s how we’re going to break the law and use secure communications to storm up to the Capitol. Here’s how – many of the protesters urged each other to be prepared to draw down and shoot police. There couldn’t be anything more unlawful about their discussions than what was in their plots before January 6.
GROSS: There were concerns way before January 6, like, concerns for the past few years that the FBI wasn’t paying sufficient attention to domestic terrorism. And I’m wondering if that proved to be true on January 6 and if you think that, in general, this reflects a lack of concern about domestic terrorism at the FBI.
LEONNIG: You know, I think that the attack on the Capitol came at a particularly stressful, high-tension moment for the FBI. You know, let’s put ourselves in the shoes for a moment of FBI Director Chris Wray and his leadership team. Everyone in that team was on tenterhooks for President Trump to fire Chris Wray, the director. They thought it would happen any day. They often prepared day to day for him to be fired and what they would do.
So the notion of Wray being able to just say exactly what he wanted to say, raise the concerns or the alarms that he wanted to raise – the notion that he could do that is sort of dubious because the FBI was in a bit of a defensive crouch. In addition to that, the FBI gave a lot of lip service to caring about domestic terrorism, but it did not devote the kind of attention, resources and, you know, aggressiveness that it said. You know, multiple times starting in 2019, Chris Wray said domestic terrorism is one of the leading threats to our national security. He testified before Congress that this was a big deal, but the the words and the actions did not match.
GROSS: Domestic terrorism, as you point out in the article, those cases are the only type of terrorism that require explicit authorization and regular reauthorization from the senior lawyer in an FBI field office to proceed. And that’s probably for really good reasons. You don’t want the FBI just spying on everybody (laughter) in America, so you want safeguards. But what did we learn about how those safeguards work when there is a genuine threat to American democracy?
LEONNIG: They didn’t work. I mean, I think it’s fair to deduce after five months of reporting, looking at multiple threats that should have triggered – and FBI agents themselves have told me should have triggered an investigation. After seeing all of this information, it’s fair to deduce it just failed.
GROSS: One of the lessons of 9/11 was that the intelligence agencies weren’t communicating sufficiently with each other. What about this time around? Was that one of the problems, a lack of communication, in spite of all we were supposed to have learned after 9/11?
LEONNIG: You know, sadly, yes. I mean, they did not coordinate. We found so many examples of people, because they were the decision-makers, who should have been given key information to make those decisions, to prepare security for January 6. They didn’t have it. We found so much slipshod coordination.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. The head of the DC fusion center – a fusion center is created by the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of 9/11 for all of the regions and states of America. And these are supposed to be collection sites where they’re monitoring, close to the ground, what’s happening in our extremist community, what’s happening in criminal networks. Let’s find out what people are up to, and let’s keep a close eye on them. That’s the point of the fusion center. The head of the fusion center in D.C., his hair is on fire in the last two weeks of December. He can tell that caravans of people are plotting how they’re going to get to January 6 to Washington. They’re talking about guns. They’re talking about the kinds of guns they’re going to bring in. He’s collecting it ’cause his staff is collecting it. And what he learns is that all across the country, multiple fusion centers are finding the same thing. And some of them are alerting the FBI but not getting a lot of sort of communication from the FBI. They’re not getting a lot of feedback in terms of the FBI saying more than, thank you for that memo.
Another example is the chief of police for the U.S. Capitol Police, Steven Sund, his intel division internally is also collecting information from that same fusion center, by the way, and also from NYPD and MPD and federal intelligence agencies. And that Capitol Police intel unit is preparing an assessment on January 3 – remember; just a few days before the storming of the Capitol – which says, OK, warning, we expect our police to have a higher likelihood of being attacked. We expect the Capitol itself to be the target. These people who are coming to Washington are desperate. They see this as their last chance to change the results of the election. And Donald Trump himself is urging them to come. It’s like a yelling from the ramparts. The chief of police doesn’t know his team has made this assessment on the morning of January 3. When he goes to ask for an emergency declaration so that he can have National Guard on emergency standby, he is turned down on the 3 and still doesn’t know that this warning has been sounded by his own intel unit.
GROSS: So the Capitol Police concerns about January 6 weren’t communicated to their chief, and therefore, when the chief asks for the National Guard to be on standby, he didn’t have the evidence to back up his request – was that the problem?
LEONNIG: That was one of many problems. I mean, eventually, he gets a copy of the report, the full report. He is not invited to a briefing where the intel chief, who works for him, is explaining, you know, what the seriousness of this warning is, so he misses that briefing. He gets a copy of the report on the – late on the 3, but it’s unclear whether or not he ever gets to the 13th or the 15th paragraph of a multipage document. The last paragraph is the one that sounds the alarm. So, you know, the chief doesn’t remember even seeing this worrisome alarm of – hey, these folks are desperate. They want to be armed. The likelihood of violence for our own police force and for our campus is extremely heightened.
GROSS: And who turns down the request for the National Guard to be on standby?
LEONNIG: Chief Sund asks his bosses, who happen to be political appointees of Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, the speaker and the Senate majority leader at the time. They are former Secret Service executives Paul Irving and Mike Stenger. They’re called sergeant at arms for the House and the Senate. They work for these two political leaders. And their response to Chief Sund’s request for emergency National Guard standby is, you know, the intel doesn’t support it, and we’re worried about the optics of this. You know, we don’t – we’re not sure the bosses – meaning, the leaders – will go for this. And historically, to be fair, congressional leadership has resisted fencing and other, you know, sort of strict security ringing the Capitol, believing that it looks like we’re barring people from the people’s house.
But it was – you know, it ended up being a tragic decision because having National Guard on standby that day could have made a very significant difference when, you know, dozens of protesters around noon on the 6 started storming up the Capitol and trying to breach the poorly guarded barricades.
GROSS: But Nancy Pelosi was, in fact, very worried about what was going to happen on the 6, right?
LEONNIG: She was very worried. But to be fair, what she was worried about was what she described as, you know, partisan high jinks. She thought the president and the Republican Party were going to try to pull something to stop the certification of the election, almost like, you know, a violation of “Robert’s Rules Of Orders” (ph). You know, she did not envision a mass attack on the home of democracy. That’s not what she was considering. She was worried about skirmishes. She was worried about the protesters coming to Washington. But she wasn’t planning on having people climbing the scaffolding while they were trying to certify the results of a free and fair election that day.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Washington Post national investigative reporter Carol Leonnig, one of the reporters who contributed to this week’s three-part series in The Post investigating what happened before, during and after the attack on the Capitol on January 6. We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN’S “WHEN WAR WAS KING”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Carol Leonnig, one of the Washington Post reporters who contributed to this week’s three-part series in the Post investigating what happened before, during and after the attack on the Capitol on January 6. She’s also the co-author, along with fellow Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker, of two books about Trump, “A Very Stable Genius” and “I Alone Can Fix It.” And she’s the author of a recent book about the Secret Service called “Zero Fail: The Rise And Fall Of The Secret Service.”
So, Carol, as, you know, all this, like, social media is building about, like, coming armed to the Capitol on January 6 and Trump is kind of tweeting, like, come, be there, meanwhile, the National Park Service had given a permit for about 5,000 people to rally at the Ellipse on January 6 and then, in response to a request for more people, they upped it to tens of thousands of people. I forget whether it’s 30,000 or 50,000 people the permit changed to.
LEONNIG: Well, it went up sequentially a couple of times, and I believe the final number was 30,000. And other permits also were increased. You know, there are various groups that were asking for additional space. It’s really stunning. The morning of January 6, by the way, the Secret Service had already screened 10,500 people, and they knew they had tens of thousands more waiting to get in.
GROSS: Were those requests for increases in permits considered a red flag? And was security and intelligence in on the decisions to increase the number of people requested in the permits?
LEONNIG: You know, such a good question, and really actually goes right to the heart of what we were discussing a moment ago. Chief Sund of the Capitol Police learns or gets wind of the fact that these permits are increasing and also that hotel reservations are echoing that increase. So in D.C., hotels are filling up rather rapidly, which is another indicator of what’s going to happen on the 6th. And it’s the reason he makes the request for an emergency declaration.
Something I forgot to say earlier – I should’ve emphasized it’s the first time that we know of that a Capitol Police chief has made such a request. It was unprecedented to seek emergency sort of backup, if you will, from the National Guard. And, of course, he was unsuccessful in that. But it’s the first time we know of that anybody’s ever made that request.
GROSS: So getting back to the question of whether intelligence and security were in on the decision to, or at least informed about the decision, to increase the number of people included in the permit to rally on January 6 – increase it by tens of thousands.
LEONNIG: It doesn’t feel to me from our reporting that security professionals were even considered in that upping of that permit. It was almost handed out, you know, like a gift. Like, sure, OK. You want more? That’s good. We can do that. There wasn’t a lot of pushback. We don’t know why.
GROSS: So you write that Pentagon leaders were afraid about widespread violence, and some Pentagon leaders were afraid that Trump could misuse the National Guard on January 6 to remain in power. Tell us more about that.
LEONNIG: Yeah, it’s a stunner because I can’t think of a time in American history when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military adviser to the president and the secretary of the Army are concerned that the president may try to unlawfully use military resources as the commander in chief to maintain his grasp on power. And that’s exactly the fear that Mark Milley, the chairman, and the secretary of the Army, McCarthy, had. Milley was much more worried about it than McCarthy was, and he was convinced that there was an ongoing effort among Trump’s allies, if not Trump himself, to try to figure out a way to use the military to keep him in his job, whether it be creating chaos, whether it be creating the impression that he was the tough guy in charge, whether it was actually siccing the National Guard on protesters and creating, you know, a wag-the-dog moment domestically.
They – Milley believed that he had a personal responsibility to keep Trump from getting his hands, essentially, on the National Guard. And that led to a pretty fateful decision, which Kevin (ph) McCarthy agreed with and, ultimately, Secretary of Defense Miller agreed to sign. And that was they agreed to an order that would make it a requirement that any use of the National Guard – any use of them in Washington that day would have to come back to the top Pentagon leaders for sign-off and specifically to the secretary of defense.
GROSS: Well, let’s take a break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Carol Leonnig. She’s a Washington Post national investigative correspondent and one of the reporters who contributed to this week’s three-part series in the Post investigating what happened before, during and after the attack on the Capitol January 6. We’ll be right back after a short break. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GARY PEACOCK, JAN GARBAREK, PALLE MIKKELBORG AND PETER ERSKINE’S “INTROENDING”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Washington Post national investigative correspondent Carol Leonnig, one of the reporters who contributed to this week’s three-part series in The Washington Post investigating what happened before, during and after the attack on the Capitol on January 6. She’s also the author of two books, along with Philip Rucker, a fellow Washington Post reporter, two books about Donald Trump. One is called “A Very Stable Genius” and the other “I Alone Can Fix It.” She’s also the author of the book “Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall Of The Secret Service.”
So I want to quote a line from the article – from the series of articles in the Post. And it’s that Trump called his supporters to Washington, D.C., encouraged the mob to march on the Capitol and froze in place key federal agencies whose job it was to investigate and stop threats to national security. What did Trump do to freeze those agencies in place?
LEONNIG: Donald Trump was at war with all of his executive agencies in one respect or another, but especially those that we call the – those that Mark Milley told people were the guys with the guns. He was at war with his Department of Justice. Keep in mind, the Department of Justice is the entity that should be coordinating the overall response of law enforcement to any real security concern on January 6. It’s also the home of the FBI, which is the premier intelligence collection and assessment agency that should help us decide what’s the threat level on January 6.
But at that moment in time, as we walk up to this rally that the president has called his friends and allies to be there, it’ll be wild – as we’re walking up to that moment, he is putting the Department of Justice under his own siege. He’s considering firing Rosen, who is then the acting attorney general. The attorney general, Bill Barr, has just walked out the door in late December.
He’s furious that Rosen will not agree to dispute the results of the election and specifically to raise questions about investigating alleged fraud – it’s not fraud – alleged fraud in the Georgia state election. He’s considering firing him if he doesn’t agree to do it. That makes it pretty hard for Rosen to apparently be very aggressive about coordinating response to a protest that Donald Trump himself is sort of emceeing. It also makes it a little difficult for the FBI to say that they’re investigating Donald Trump’s invitees. Now, there were many behind-the-scenes situations in which the FBI was taking in information and individuals were growing alarmed. But as a body, one of the most powerful agencies in our government was frozen.
At the Defense Department, the president had made clear only those who are loyal to him were going to be in leadership positions there. He just fired Mark Esper, the secretary of defense. He’d installed a person who didn’t have the real sort of CV for becoming a secretary of defense, but somebody that he believed would be loyal to him, and then a couple other individuals he elevated in that place. He wasn’t listening to his top military adviser, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley. He was disappointed and had begun to question whether Mark Milley was on his side, so to speak.
And so he wasn’t really having many more conversations with the chairman unless it was absolutely necessary. At the Department of Homeland Security – forgive me – another entity created – remember – specifically to stop terror to get left of bang, you know, the code for interrupting a criminal plot, a terrorist plot beforehand so that they could stop it, that entity was one where he had put everybody in an acting position. Everyone serving him was at risk of being removed at any moment, and he’d made it clear that he was going to do just that if people were acting against his interests and his wishes.
GROSS: So you’re painting a picture where a lot of the leaders in charge of intelligence and security were afraid they’d lose their job if they were investigating this Stop the Steal movement and the planned January 6 protest?
LEONNIG: Absolutely. I mean, there were people inside – to give you an indication of how bad it was, the FBI officials we spoke to on background told us that Chris Wray did not believe it would be a good idea for him to say anything publicly because it would be an invitation to a desperate president to fire him. To give you another indication, Chad Wolf, the still acting secretary of Homeland Security as they walk up to January 6, his own employees told us that they had concluded it would be a bad idea to directly involve him in security decisions because he was so compromised and unable or incapable of really countering and contradicting the president.
GROSS: Trump’s own national security adviser was most concerned not about the Stop the Steal folks who were planning to come on January 6. He was concerned about the counterprotesters, the people Trump always describes as antifa.
LEONNIG: That’s right. It’s interesting too to me that in those conference calls, you know, Robert O’Brien is the White House representative on those calls. He knows when he’s talking to Chad Wolf at Homeland Security, Rosen at Department of Justice, Milley, McCarthy and Miller at Defense, he’s the conduit for their input back to the White House. But he’s also the representative of the White House, in a sense, on those calls. And his No. 1 commentary is, A, Secret Service has got the White House locked down. We feel like the White House is safe. But we’re really worried about counterprotesters.
GROSS: And that’s probably one of the messages that Trump got. Like, we’re really worried about the people who are against you. We’re not worried about your own supporters.
LEONNIG: (Laughter) That’s right. There is a funny – not-so-funny conversation in the Oval Office on January 3, which, if I remember correctly, is a Sunday. And it’s really a Defense Department meeting in the Oval to talk about a host of national security worries foreign and domestic, but foreign mostly. And at the end of this conversation, the president turns to his new secretary of Defense, Chris Miller, and says, hey, on January 6, you got everything locked down? Is everything going to be OK? Everything good? It seems like a strange thing to bring up. And Miller says, oh, yeah, yeah, we’ve got it. We’ve got it under control. And Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you know, hustles to catch up with Miller as they leave the meeting and says, what did the president mean by have you got that locked up? What are we talking about here? Milley, remember, is really worried about the president trying to abuse his authority to stay in power. And he just wants to know, is there anything special going on I don’t know about, any special military force, reaction force you have on standby that I’m not aware of? And Miller says to him, no, no, no, he’s just trying to make sure that, you know, his protester, his teams, you know, those people are going to be safe. That’s all. And Milley takes from it that it’s true, that it’s just an innocuous comment, but Trump is mostly worried about his people.
GROSS: So let’s take a short break here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Washington Post national investigative correspondent Carol Leonnig, one of the reporters who contributed to this week’s three-part series in the Post investigating what happened before, during and after the attack on the Capitol on January 6. We’ll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY’S “SEEDS OF DOUBT”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Washington Post national investigative correspondent Carol Leonnig, one of the reporters who contributed to this week’s three-part series in The Washington Post investigating what happened before, during and after the attack on the Capitol January 6.
Carol, one of your recent books is about the Secret Service. It’s called “Zero Fail,” and it’s about the rise and fall of the Secret Service. What role could the Secret Service have played to help stop the attack on January 6 – what role, if any? And what role, if any, did they play?
LEONNIG: Good question. So, you know, the Secret Service, thanks to President Clinton, was put in charge of all special national security events. That means that the Secret Service, in addition to protecting the lives of the president and other senior officials and their families, was also put in charge of huge, huge events that could be the target of terror. And, you know, there are people who, in the aftermath of January 6, have asked the question, why didn’t Congress or the administration decide that January 6 should be such a national special security event? It would have – very likely, I shouldn’t say would have – it very likely would have increased and elevated the security information collection, security coordination. You know, the Secret Service protects and organizes security for inaugurations, other joint sessions of Congress. So it’s conceivable that could have happened here. The only downside to that or the only odds against that is nobody thought January 6 apparently was going to be so dangerous, nobody in key leadership positions in the administration. And so it wasn’t designated that way.
What role they actually did play is very interesting. They were in charge of Vice President Pence’s security when he was literally under attack. A detail was with Vice President Pence as there were bands marauding through the Congress, and they were trying to hide him in a Senate office and eventually begging to evacuate him. Vice President Pence refused to leave the building. Initially, he refused to leave his Senate hideaway. They convinced him to go to a secure subterranean area, but he would not get into his car because he did not want them to drive him away. And he believed that they would. He wanted to stay and certify the election. He felt like that was the right thing to do.
The Secret Service has a special intel unit that sort of wanders around the White House to make sure it’s safe. And their intel unit at 8 a.m. in the morning on January 6 – we only learned this very recently just before we published – that intel unit noticed – they’re undercover, basically, police. They noticed that many people waiting to be screened to come into the ellipse that morning were wearing essentially battle gear, ballistic helmets, military-grade backpacks, secure communications systems and other canisters that they thought looked like possibly chemical spray. These were big, fat, red warnings. The intel unit for the Secret Service alerted their Secret Service bosses, but apparently that word didn’t go very far because what the intel unit said was, hey, you know, we’re not seeing any civil disobedience at this point. But that was a real warning about what this group was planning, if all the other chatter prior to January 6 hadn’t already made that abundantly clear to the FBI and others.
GROSS: So what you’ve described is systems failures every step of the way in every agency.
LEONNIG: Yes. I – you know, we hate to say it, but there, like, are no great heroes here. A lot of people who were concerned didn’t yell loud enough. A lot of people who were trying to stay on top of this didn’t stay enough on top of this. And a lot of people who were – whose sworn mission was to protect the nation by gathering, collecting and assessing the threat really downplayed the threat. It was right in front of them. There are so many instances, you know, where I’ve read the anonymous tipster who calls in or writes into the FBI and says, I’m very concerned. The group that I am part of, a domestic extremism group, is talking about killing cops. I want to alert you to this. Chatter about killing cops should set off every alarm bell there is for cops, for national security. It should have been something that created a real security shield, a real security plan for the Capitol that day because all of the red lights were blinking. Everybody should have been aware. If I can read and my colleagues at the Post can read these documents and see it, we know that they have these – this same information. We know that they looked at it, and they either dismissed it or passed it off as improbable.
GROSS: What else would you like to find out that you don’t already know?
LEONNIG: I think one of the most critical things to learn is the degree to which members of Congress were coordinating, fomenting and planning some of what we saw on January 6. This is not to be an accusation that anyone encouraged violent attacks on police on January 6. This is to say there is a lot we don’t know about what members of Congress, specifically in the Freedom Caucus, were doing when they met with President Trump on December 19 to discuss how they were going to effectively block the certification of the election, what they called Stop the Steal. Some lawmakers came out about December 19 meeting crowing – Marjorie Taylor Greene was one; Mo Brooks was another – crowing that they had met with the president and they had a plan. We don’t really know exactly the contours of that plan and what the president encouraged or endorsed.
GROSS: Well, let’s take another short break here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Washington Post national investigative correspondent Carol Leonnig, one of the reporters who contributed to this week’s three-part series in the Post investigating what happened before, during and after the attack on the Capitol January 6. We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD’S “SAMBA DE PARIS”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Washington Post national investigative correspondent Carol Leonnig, one of the reporters who contributed to this week’s three-part series in the Post investigating what happened before, during and after the attack on the Capitol on January 6.
The Washington Post series has a chronology of what was happening at the Capitol during the attack and what Trump was doing at the same time. Mostly what he was doing was watching TV during the first about three hours. Aides were coming into his office. Some of them were urging him, like, do something to stop this. This is dangerous. This – you know, Congress is under attack. The Capitol is under attack. And Trump was basically ignoring it and continuing to watch TV.
So it took hours before he did anything to try to stop what was happening. And what he did to try to stop it was basically to say, oh, go home peacefully. And you know, you’re all great guys. I’m paraphrasing here, but I think – would you agree, that’s the gist of it? Do we know if he did anything to stand in the way of the attack being stopped?
LEONNIG: Almost nothing. You know, for more than a 150 minutes, the president of the United States, the commander in chief, watched TV and shrugged his shoulders as serious, important aides of his pleaded with him to try to do something. There were people begging the White House chief of staff – you know, people are going to get killed; get the president to say something. Get him to call off the dogs. President Trump’s reaction was initially one of, oh, this is great. My people are going up there. They’re storming through the barricades. Keep in mind. It’s a crime to break through a barricade of police and push past them. But the president was cheering that from his personal, you know, television room.
And then his next reaction was, oh, violence. You know, somebody comes in to report shots had been fired a little after 2:20 when a Capitol Police dignitary officer shoots a protester who is trying to break through the glass into the speaker’s lobby. And then the president’s reaction is one of, oh, darn; this isn’t looking so good. But it doesn’t spur him to action.
And Terry, there are two things that my great colleagues at The Washington Post revealed anew about what the president did. As people beseeched him to take action, he issued two draft tweets that were ultimately rejected by his team as woefully insufficient (laughter). Those two tweets essentially were different versions of the same thing, saying this is all a lot of violence by antifa. My people are lovely. You know, please go home so the cops can collect the real criminals. I’m paraphrasing here. He essentially tries to add more falsehoods to the narrative at a moment that it’s so crystal clear on national television that all of his Ellipse supporters have now begun attacking the Republicans and Democrats on Congress.
GROSS: You know, it seems the whole Stop the Steal movement has only increased after January 6 after seeing the siege on the Capitol, after all this reporting that’s been done about how there’s absolutely no evidence of the kind of election fraud that the Stop the Steal movement is talking about, reporting on how all of these crazy conspiracy theories are nothing but crazy conspiracy theories. After all that, the movement seems to only be growing and growing within the Republican Party, both in terms of people in or running for office or in appointed positions and in terms of just voters in the Republican Party. And I’m wondering if you can elaborate on that.
LEONNIG: It’s been a really stunning thing to watch as, you know, a journalist based in fact and trying to deliver facts – especially hard-to-get facts – to the public. It – this is not a hard-to-get fact that the election was free and fair, that Joe Biden won and that people who stormed the Capitol were overwhelmingly Trump supporters who planned violence, who planned to come armed and who broke the law in a historic fashion.
What’s also stunning to watch is the dramatic, emotional roller coaster of Republicans who themselves were running for their own lives that day. Republicans in the House and the Senate were genuinely fearful for the lives of their staff and themselves. Some of them were dashing, without knowing where they were supposed to go, through subterranean tunnels to get away from marauding bands with weapons who had just broken through the Capitol windows and doors.
That night, you saw people on that floor of Congress – finally now cleared of the bands of marauders, cleared of the rioters – returning to certify the election. You saw lawmakers say, OK, this cannot stand – Lindsey Graham explaining, you know, I was on a ride with the president, and that’s over now because this was an attack on our country; Mitch McConnell insisting on returning to the Senate that night to finish the work of certifying the election and saying what a terrible attack this had been.
But in the hours and days that followed, a series of Republicans sort of wiped away reality, decided that thing never happened – at least in their public commentary – and decided to get lock, stock and barrel behind former President Donald Trump’s constant insisting that this was not a violent attack, full of loving and warm people, Capitol Police officers who welcomed them with open arms. You know, this is just not reality. This is not what happened. But it is now what Republicans have agreed to embrace because Donald Trump’s supporters ultimately decide whether they will continue to have their jobs.
GROSS: Carol Leonnig, I want to thank you for your reporting and thank you for coming back to our show. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
LEONNIG: A pleasure for me too, Terry. Thanks for focusing on this.
GROSS: Carol Leonnig is a national investigative reporter for The Washington Post and contributed to the Post’s three-part series published this week about what happened before, during and after the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
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GROSS: If you’d like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week’s interviews with Paul McCartney or Edgar Wright, director of the new film “Last Night In Soho,” or novelist Gary Shteyngart, check out our podcast. You’ll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today’s show. I’m Terry Gross.
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