Trump was 'shocked' by Capitol attack — but his presidency has been marked by acts of domestic terror

Dylan Stableford
·Senior Writer
·9-min read

In a video released by the White House after his impeachment Wednesday, President Trump said he had been “shocked” by last week’s deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob of his supporters.

“Mob violence goes against everything I believe in and everything our movement stands for,” he said. “No true supporter of mine could ever endorse political violence.”

Yet throughout Trump’s time in office, acts of political and racially motivated violence have been carried out by his supporters and can be tied directly to his rhetoric. And domestic terrorism has been a tragic hallmark of his presidency.

There have also been random attacks at schools and in public places, and at least one shooting by a left-wing activist that injured Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. There have been no significant instances of state-sponsored or foreign terrorist attacks on U.S. soil during this time.

“We didn’t get to Jan. 6 overnight,” Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., said on CNN Thursday. “This just didn’t happen in one day. This happened over years. The president has been building this. He has been radicalizing his most fringe supporters.”

Below is a list of domestic terror cases and events that came before and ultimately led to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.

Plot to kidnap Michigan governor

Armed protesters stand in front of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office at the state capitol in Lansing, April 30, 2020. (Seth Herald/Reuters)
Armed protesters in front of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office at the state Capitol in Lansing on April 30. (Seth Herald/Reuters)

One of the most recent documented cases of domestic terrorism fomented by the president’s rhetoric occurred last year when federal authorities charged 13 men in connection with an elaborate plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had become a target of right-wing rage over her implementation of coronavirus safety measures.

According to the FBI, the men met repeatedly over the summer for firearms training and combat drills and practiced building explosives. They spied on Whitmer’s vacation home and surveilled nearby highway bridges looking for places they could position and detonate a bomb to distract the authorities. The New York Times reported that the men “also gathered several times to discuss the mission, including in the basement of a shop that was accessible only through a ‘trap door’ under a rug.”

The plot appeared to be at least partly inspired by Trump’s anti-lockdown rhetoric. In April, when armed protesters gathered in the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing, Trump tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” At least two of the men charged in the kidnapping plot participated in the armed protest.

El Paso Walmart massacre

Antonio Basco arranges flowers at a memorial for the victims of the shooting in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 15, 2019. Basco's wife, Margie, was killed in the massacre. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
Antonio Basco arranges flowers at a memorial for the victims of the shooting in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 15, 2019. His wife, Margie, was killed in the massacre. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

On Aug. 3, 2019, a gunman opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 23 people and injuring 23 others, many of them Latinx. According to authorities, the 21-year-old white gunman, Patrick Crusius, drove more than 600 miles from his home in Allen, Texas, to carry out the massacre. In a manifesto that authorities say was posted on the online message board 8chan shortly before the attack, Crusius mimicked some of the president’s anti-immigration rhetoric, saying his planned murders were “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me.”

“I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion,” he wrote in the manifesto, which also referred to the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand and the white supremacist conspiracy theory known as the Great Replacement.

The shooting in El Paso came just 13 hours after a deadly mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, where a gunman killed nine people and injured 17 others outside a bar. The shooter, 24-year-old Connor Betts, was killed by police. Betts had reportedly retweeted messages supporting antifa, the left-wing protest movement, but authorities could not find any racial or political motive for the attack.

In a televised address to the nation two days later, Trump said Americans must stand up against “racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” but took no responsibility for his own anti-immigrant rhetoric.

And speaking to reporters before visiting Dayton and El Paso a day after his address, the president refused to unequivocally condemn white supremacy.

“I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate,” Trump said, “whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it’s antifa.”

Tree of Life mass shooting

President Trump places a stone as he stands with first lady Melania Trump and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Oct. 30, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump, with first lady Melania Trump and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, places a stone at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Oct. 30, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman opened fire at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and injuring six others, including four police officers.

The alleged gunman, Robert Bowers, 46, of Pittsburgh, had a long history of white supremacist and anti-Semitic social media posts. He was an active user of Gab, a Twitter alternative that promotes itself as supporting free speech. An account appearing to belong to Bowers was littered with anti-Semitic messages.

In a post published shortly before the shooting, Bowers criticized the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for its resettlement of refugees.

“HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people,” he wrote. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughters [sic].”

Bowers was also critical of the president. In a post two days prior to the killings, Bowers declared that Trump is “a globalist, not a nationalist.” It used language associated with the so-called QAnon conspiracy theory.

Trump called the massacre a “wicked act.”

“The vile hate-filled poison of anti-Semitism must be condemned and confronted everywhere and anywhere it appears,” the president said.

Pipe bomb mailer

A van belonging to pipe bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc arrives at the FBI's offices in Miramar, Fla., Oct. 26, 2018. (Photo by Johnny Louis/Getty Images)
A van belonging to pipe bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc arrives at the FBI's offices in Miramar, Fla., Oct. 26, 2018. (Johnny Louis/Getty Images)

During a 10-day period in October 2018, Cesar Sayoc, an ardent Trump supporter from Florida, mailed 16 pipe bombs to prominent Democratic politicians and media figures across the country. The improvised explosives, which never detonated, were sent to Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, California Rep. Maxine Waters and the New York headquarters of CNN — all frequent targets of Trump’s Twitter feed.

At a rally in Wisconsin amid the bomb scare, Trump decried politically motivated violence.

“Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective,” he said, reading from a teleprompter.

Later in his speech, Trump made it clear that his demeanor was itself scripted. “By the way, do you see how nice I am behaving tonight?” he asked the crowd. “Have you ever seen this? We are all behaving very well. Hopefully we can keep it that way, right? We are going to keep it that way.”

Sayoc pleaded guilty to charges including “using a weapon of mass destruction, interstate transportation of an explosive, conveying a threat in interstate commerce, illegal mailing of explosives with intent to kill or injure another and carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony,” and was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

Charlottesville

President Trump answers questions about his response to the violence in Charlottesville as he talks to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, Aug. 15, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump, in the lobby of Trump Tower on Aug. 15, 2017, answers questions about his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Perhaps no event defined Trump’s divisive presidency more than the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, when white nationalists and neo-Nazis clashed with counterprotesters, leaving a young woman and two state police officers dead.

Trump was denounced by commentators and officials, including members of his own administration, for blaming “both sides” for the deadly violence.

During a previously scheduled press event at his golf club in New Jersey on the day of the clashes, Trump insisted “many sides” were to blame.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides,” Trump said. “On many sides,” he repeated. He did not specifically condemn the demonstrations by the alt-right and neo-Nazis.

At a press conference in Trump Tower three days later, the president placed equal blame on the counterprotesters.

“You had a group on one side that was bad,” Trump said. “You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.”

White nationalists participate in a torch-lit march on the grounds of the University of Virginia ahead of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Aug. 11, 2017. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)
White nationalists in a torchlit march on the grounds of the University of Virginia ahead of the "Unite the Right" rally, Aug. 11, 2017. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

The president also defended those who had gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis; I’ve condemned many different groups,” Trump said. “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”

“You have some very bad people in that group,” he added, “but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”

Trump’s response to Charlottesville was repeatedly cited by Joe Biden during the 2020 campaign as the reason he decided to run.

“It was a wakeup call for us as a country,” Biden said during the Democratic National Convention. “And for me, a call to action.”

Congressional baseball shooting

FBI technicians examine a baseball field where shots were fired during a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., June 14, 2017. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)
FBI technicians examine a baseball field in Alexandria, Va., where shots were fired during a congressional baseball practice, June 14, 2017. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

One of the first instances of politically motivated terrorism in the Trump era came on June 14, 2017, when a gunman opened fire while members of Congress were practicing for a charity baseball game in Alexandria, Va. Four people, including Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., were wounded in the shooting.

The gunman, James Hodgkinson, was a 66-year-old left-wing activist from Belleville, Ill., with a record of domestic violence. He died in a shootout with police.

In his Facebook posts, Hodgkinson had railed against Trump and other Republicans

“Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co,” he wrote in one post three months before the shooting. In another, after Trump’s election, Hodgkinson declared: “We Don’t Need or Deserve a Billionaire for President.”

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