Like 9/11, Jan. 6 needs no year attached to convey its dark place in American history. On that Wednesday afternoon, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump assaulted the Capitol, resulting in what Vice President Mike Pence had refused to do: disrupting the ceremonial certification of the electoral votes confirming that Joseph R. Biden Jr. would be the next president of the United States.
But Jan. 6 has also become a somewhat misleading shorthand for something bigger: a monthslong campaign by Mr. Trump and his allies to subvert American democracy and cling to power by reversing an election.
Over the past year and a half, much has come to light about how they went about it, embracing one tactic after another in a way that led a federal judge to conclude that elements of it likely amounted to a criminal conspiracy.
The story so far has been pieced together through the prosecutions of rioters, the early stages of a broader Justice Department investigation, the work of the House select committee examining the attack and its origins, and the work of journalists.
At its heart is a grievance-filled, insecure president, unable to face the fact of his defeat, working with a cabal of loyalists in and out of government to pursue an evolving plan that unfolded in successive chapters, each in effect taking aim at a pillar of democracy.
There was a failed legal strategy that clogged the courts with fantastical conspiracy theories. It was followed by a plot to twist the Justice Department into backing Mr. Trump’s repeated lie that the election had been rigged and stolen from him, and consideration of proposals that he direct the military or the Homeland Security Department to seize voting machines.
Those were followed by a strong-armed attempt to subvert the Electoral College process and bludgeon Mr. Pence into taking part, all leading to the violent effort to keep Congress from formally affirming Mr. Trump’s loss on Jan. 6.
Taken as a whole, the narrative that has emerged — elements of which the House select committee on Jan. 6 will begin setting out on Thursday evening in the first of a series of hearings — is as chilling as it is audacious.
This story is part of an ongoing examination by The Times of challenges to democratic norms in the United States and around the world. Read more from our Democracy Challenged coverage.
For years, Mr. Trump had railed against contests in which he failed, disliked the outcome or feared he might be defeated.
He objected nearly two decades ago to the results of the Emmys and falsely claimed that President Barack Obama had not won the popular vote. He asserted that Senator Ted Cruz “stole” a primary victory from him in Iowa in 2016 and predicted, before he defeated Hillary Clinton that year to win the presidency, that the general election would be “rigged.” In the months leading up to the 2020 election, trailing in the polls, he again predicted that he would be cheated out of a victory, and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
But what might once have been seen as political bluster or a character defect metastasized in Mr. Trump’s case into a grave test of American democracy, what the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol now calls “the Big Lie” — a sprawling undertaking that extended from the West Wing to the far-right fringe and culminated with a violent mob laying siege to Congress.
Mr. Trump encouraged the lie in its various forms, indulging in increasingly outlandish fictions, spreading disinformation about the election results and encouraging his followers to challenge the vote at every step — in the courts, at state houses and in the streets. As his legal defeats stacked up, he became more vitriolic in his condemnations of Republicans who failed to support his false claims of having been the true victor in the election, and he lavished praise on those who parroted his accusations.
Mr. Trump’s simple lie found an eager audience in a broader movement fueled by hard-right groups who believe the United States, with its increasing racial and ethnic diversity, is being stolen from them. The message of a stolen election was not entirely new.
For years, allies of Mr. Trump had promoted the false “Stop The Steal” narrative that elections were being stolen in districts across the country, particularly in cities with large numbers of Black and Latino voters that are typically won by Democrats. In 2016, an organization called Stop The Steal, affiliated with the political operative Roger Stone, encouraged Trump supporters to swarm city voting locations in search of fraud, sparking alarm about voter intimidation.
That narrative gained steam months before the 2020 election when some of Mr. Trump’s staunchest allies raised doubts about the security of mail-in ballots — an option that grew more popular during the pandemic — and began to spread claims that China or other nations would interfere in the election, to Mr. Trump’s detriment.
After Mr. Trump lost, the “Stop the Steal” narrative became a self-fulfilling prophecy and then a movement, promoted by a cast of lawyers, provocateurs, ideologues and others with an interest in keeping him in power — including some who had received, or would benefit from, a presidential pardon.
Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, under federal investigation for his pro-Trump activities in Ukraine, was perhaps the biggest promoter of the lie, traveling around the country to hold hearings and collect dubious affidavits about how the election was purportedly stolen.
But Mr. Giuliani had plenty of help.
Among those who emerged as the biggest promoters of the lie were the lawyers Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood, against whom a federal judge has ordered sanctions; the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was pardoned by Mr. Trump weeks after the election after twice pleading guilty to lying to the F.B.I.; Patrick Byrne, the former Overstock chief executive; the MyPillow executive Mike Lindell; a retired Army colonel named Phil Waldron; and Ron Watkins, the administrator of the online message board 8kun, who played a major role in spreading the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, whose adherents believe that top Democrats worship Satan and run a child-trafficking ring.
At Mr. Wood’s estate in South Carolina, and at offices and hotels in the Washington area — including the Willard Intercontinental and the Trump International hotels — assorted Trump allies met to plan strategies to overturn the election.
Their strategies relied on a range of conspiracy theories: that fraud had been perpetrated by dead voters in Philadelphia and election workers in Georgia; that defense contractors in Italy had used satellites to flip votes; that the former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, was somehow involved.
Some were especially tangled and outlandish, but would play an outsize role in the effort to convince not just the courts but also the American public that the election was tainted.
In August 2020, before a single presidential vote was cast, Mr. Waldron, an information warfare expert with a longstanding interest in China’s purported involvement in election interference, developed a relationship with a Texas cybersecurity firm, Allied Security Operations.
Mr. Waldron has claimed that Allied had just discovered that the Chinese Communist Party had developed a way to flip votes on American tabulation machines, particularly those built by Dominion Voting Systems. Those allegations about Dominion became the centerpiece for four federal lawsuits, laced with conspiracy theories, that Ms. Powell filed in late November and early December 2020, seeking to reverse election results.
But as Mr. Trump worked to overturn the election, he was told repeatedly — including by his own Justice Department — that his various claims were false.
In the chaotic postelection period, a hotline Mr. Trump’s legal team set up for fraud allegations was flooded with unverified claims. A Postal Service truck driver from Pennsylvania asserted without evidence that his 18-wheeler had been filled with phony ballots. Republican voters in Arizona complained that some ballots had not been counted because they were marked with Sharpie pens that could not be read by voting machines.
Mr. Trump appeared to be aware of many of these reports, and spoke about them often with aides and officials, raising various theories about voting fraud even as they debunked them one by one.
“When you gave him a very direct answer on one of them, he wouldn’t fight us on it,” recalled Richard P. Donoghue, a former top Justice Department official, in an interview with the House committee. “But he would move to another allegation.”
Mr. Donoghue recalled, for instance, telling Mr. Trump that Justice Department investigators had looked into, and ultimately discounted, a claim that election officials in Atlanta had wheeled a suitcase of phony ballots into their counting room on Election Day.
Mr. Trump abruptly switched subjects and asked about “double voting” and “dead people” voting, then moved on to a claim about how, he said, “Indians are getting paid” to vote on Native American reservations.
The Trump team’s first stop would be the courts.
Mr. Trump made no secret of his plan to wage a legal battle in his bid to hold on to the White House. Two days before Election Day, he stood in front of reporters at a North Carolina airport and declared that as soon as the election was over, “We’re going in with our lawyers.”
For the next six weeks or so, the lawyers did go in — again and again and then again — filing suits challenging the voting results. The relentless attacks took place in city courts, county courts and federal courts in key swing states from Georgia to Nevada. More than 60 lawsuits were ultimately filed by an army of lawyers, some employed by Mr. Trump’s Republican allies, others working directly for the Trump campaign.
All of this unfolded as several people close to Mr. Trump were telling him that he had been soundly — and legally — defeated.
According to testimony provided to the House committee by Jason Miller, a senior campaign adviser, a campaign data expert informed Mr. Trump “in pretty blunt terms” shortly after the election that he was going to lose. A week or so later, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, announced that there was no evidence of fraud in the election.
That finding was backed up by Attorney General William P. Barr, who alerted Mr. Trump privately in November and acknowledged publicly on Dec. 1 that the Justice Department had not found any evidence of fraud “on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
In the end, Mr. Trump’s legal scorecard was abysmal. He won only one case, on a minor technical point affecting a small batch of votes in Pennsylvania.
Using the courts was Mr. Trump’s first, and in a way his most conventional, method of trying to stave off defeat. While the wide-ranging effort was a failure, it did accomplish something that eventually assisted him: The sheer scope and number of cases helped to sow doubts about the vote-counting process and to keep alive the falsehood that the election had been rigged.
As early as August 2020, Mr. Trump turned to a well-known Republican lawyer named Cleta Mitchell to assemble an election litigation team, according to recent court papers.
After the election, a team of lawyers that was led by Mr. Giuliani and included Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis oversaw the basic strategy being used to manage the far-flung cases handled by local lawyers in courts across the country.
The cases fell into three broad categories.
The first were suits alleging what could be called traditional voting fraud. In Michigan, for instance, claims were made that poll workers had altered the dates on absentee ballots. In Georgia, accusations arose that phony ballots had been sent to counting stations after hours. In Arizona, in what some of Mr. Trump’s allies would come to call “SharpieGate,” Republicans complained that dozens, maybe even hundreds, of ballots had not been counted because voters had been told to fill them out with felt-tipped Sharpies instead of ballpoint pens.
A second batch of lawsuits focused on highly technical procedural issues related to changes made to the voting process during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these suits raised questions about arcane matters like the deadlines by which mail-in voters had to submit materials confirming their identities or about the legitimacy of ballot drop boxes. Often, they hinged on complex arguments about the scope of state lawmakers’ power to establish election rules.
The third batch focused on a bizarre and baseless conspiracy theory that Chinese software companies, Swiss bankers, Venezuelan officials and the liberal financier George Soros had joined forces to hack into Dominion voting machines in a secret plot to flip votes away from Mr. Trump. Filed in the Democratic strongholds of Detroit, Atlanta, Phoenix and Milwaukee, these suits became known collectively as the Krakens — a reference by Ms. Powell to a mythological, havoc-wreaking sea beast.
Even before the suits were filed, officials inside Mr. Trump’s campaign looked into some of the claims about Dominion and found that they had no merit. Eventually, the Kraken cases were laughed out of court.
Still, despite their outlandish content, the lawsuits played a role in subsequent events.
Mr. Trump even mentioned the Dominion conspiracy theory several times in his Jan. 2, 2021, phone call with Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, whom he asked to “find 11,780” votes to help him win the state. (That call is now the subject of a criminal investigation in Georgia.)
After scores of cases were rejected — often with scathing words from judges — the State of Texas tried a Hail Mary, filing an unusual request directly to the U.S. Supreme Court that challenged election procedures in four key swing states: Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The Texas lawsuit asked the court to block those states from casting their electoral votes for Mr. Biden and to shift the selection of electors to the states’ Republican legislatures. That would have effectively handed Mr. Trump the election and required the justices to throw out millions of votes.
The Supreme Court — in the hands of a conservative majority bolstered by three Trump appointees — rebuffed the effort in a brief unsigned order, saying Texas lacked standing to pursue the case.
With the courts closing off as an avenue to keep Mr. Trump in power, he and his allies moved on to a series of largely ad hoc but stunningly anti-democratic efforts to reverse the election outcome.
It was Dec. 17, 2020, three days after electors in state capitols across the country cast their votes in the Electoral College to formally confirm that Mr. Biden had been elected the 46th president of the United States. Under ordinary circumstances, that would have been accepted as the end of the election.
But appearing on Newsmax, the conservative news channel, Mr. Flynn, the onetime national security adviser, had other ideas.
Mr. Trump, he said, “could immediately on his order seize every single” voting machine in the country.
“He could also order, within the swing states, if he wanted to, he could take military capabilities and he could place them in those states and basically rerun an election in each of those states,” said Mr. Flynn, whose pardon for lying to F.B.I. agents investigating his ties to Russia had been issued less than a month earlier.
“It’s not unprecedented,” he said, adding that while he was not advocating the use of martial law, it had been used dozens of times in American history.
A day later, Mr. Flynn was in the Oval Office, pressing his case directly to the president — an extraordinary episode that underscores how Mr. Trump was willing to at least consider steps associated with autocracies.
Throughout Mr. Trump’s presidency, informal advisers and allies used their television appearances to try to bring his attention to outlandish claims and influence how he used his power. Often, a group of aides inside the White House worked to keep him from pursuing those ideas.
But as Mr. Trump listened less and less to his staff, he proved receptive to the ideas put forth by Mr. Flynn. On the evening of Dec. 18, 2020, Mr. Flynn, Ms. Powell and others joined Mr. Trump in the Oval Office, armed with draft executive orders that they wanted him to sign — based in part on the baseless conspiracy theories about voting machine fraud promoted by Mr. Waldron.
What ensued was among the most heated clashes of Mr. Trump’s presidency, one in which he weighed the viability of employing his commander-in-chief powers to baldly political ends: his own survival in office. For hours, first in the Oval Office and later in the White House residence, Mr. Trump openly entertained ideasfrom the fringes of politics, even as appalled White House aides maneuvered furiously to try to head off a decision to act on them.
It was typical of the chaos of the Trump-era West Wing that the meeting took place only through a kind of subterfuge. A young aide to Peter Navarro, a Trump adviser who was particularly aggressive in promoting efforts to keep the president in power, went around senior West Wing officials to sneak Mr. Flynn, Ms. Powell and others onto the White House grounds.
As Ms. Powell and the others walked into the Oval Office, Eric Herschmann, a top White House lawyer in the final year of the administration, wondered aloud, “How the hell did Sidney get in the building?”
On one side in the meeting were Ms. Powell and Mr. Flynn, who complained in front of White House staff members, including Mr. Herschmann, that they were failing to fight hard enough for Mr. Trump. Ms. Powell and Mr. Flynn, asserting that foreign adversaries including Iran, China and Venezuela had used Dominion voting machines to flip votes for Mr. Biden, said the president should use his authority to defend the country to seize the machines, preserve them as evidence and rerun the election.
On the other side were staff members including Mr. Herschmann, who initially took the lead in pushing back against Ms. Powell and Mr. Flynn and then called out for West Wing aides to have the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, join them.
The meeting became so contentious that some people left in tears of frustration, after shouting in the face of demands pressed for hours by the outside supporters, recalled two people with knowledge of the proceedings.
The showdown came at a time when similar ideas were swirling among the president’s allies. The House committee has heard witness testimony that, in the lead-up to and in the days after that moment, there were discussions in the White House about Mr. Trump asking about invoking martial law or the Insurrection Act, which would allow him to use active-duty troops for a specific purpose, according to a person familiar with the committee’s work.
Mr. Giuliani was among those arguing against Mr. Flynn and Ms. Powell in the meeting. Though he had become the face of Mr. Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, he was wary of their plan. After initially listening in on the meeting by phone, Mr. Giuliani went to the White House, where he told Ms. Powell that Mr. Trump had no basis to use the military.
Yet around the time of the meeting, at Mr. Trump’s direction, Mr. Giuliani called the Homeland Security Department to ask whether a civilian agency could serve the same purpose in seizing the machines. The prospect was dismissed by Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting deputy secretary, but Mr. Trump continued to ask about it in the days that followed.
In the end, the draft executive orders that Ms. Powell had brought to Mr. Trump went unsigned. But the president and his allies had still more — and more disturbing — ideas in mind for keeping power.
At 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, Jeffrey Clark, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division and an expert in environmental law, strode into the conference room of his boss, the acting attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, who had taken over weeks earlier from Mr. Barr.
Mr. Clark was there with some remarkable but by that point not entirely surprising news for Mr. Rosen: Mr. Trump had offered Mr. Clark the job of running the Justice Department, effective that day. Mr. Rosen, according to an account he gave the Senate Judiciary Committee, could stay on as the No. 2 if he wished. Mr. Rosen replied that he was not about to be fired by a subordinate and said he would take the matter directly to Mr. Trump.
The maneuvering for control of the Justice Department was a closely held secret at that point, but it underscored the lengths to which Mr. Trump was willing to go to forestall his defeat.
Over the span of several weeks, a battle raged among camps inside the administration and among allies of Mr. Trump over who would lead the Justice Department at a moment when it was under intense pressure from Mr. Trump to do more to investigate and validate his wide-ranging and unsupported claims that he had been robbed of re-election by fraud.
And over a few tense days, Mr. Trump brought to a head a plan that would have pushed aside Mr. Rosen, who had refused the president’s entreaties, in favor of Mr. Clark, a loyalist who was eagerly promoting steps including having the Justice Department send Georgia officials a letter stating that voter fraud allegations could invalidate the state’s Electoral College results — a message with no basis.
Mr. Barr had earlier dismissed allegations of widespread fraud, but Mr. Trump was not about to give up. He and his allies, including a band of Republican House members and several conservative lawyers, contacted Justice Department leaders nearly every day leading up to Jan. 6, sometimes multiple times a day, with demands for fraud investigations and other steps to overturn the election.
Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, for instance, worked with Mr. Clark to try to persuade Georgia officials to withdraw the state’s results. Others pushed the department to bring the fight to the Supreme Court.
The pressure campaign ramped up on Dec. 14, the day Mr. Trump announced that the department’s then-No. 2 official, Mr. Rosen, would replace Mr. Barr. An aide to Mr. Trump emailed Mr. Rosen talking points about voter fraud in Michigan and problems with Dominion Voting Systems machines, the first of many fraud conspiracy theories that Mr. Rosen and his team would examine and debunk.
The next day in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump pressed Mr. Rosen to appoint a special counsel to investigate Dominion’s voting machines and other issues. He wanted the department to support lawsuits that sought to overturn the election. Mr. Rosen rebuffed the requests, as he would for the next 19 days, reiterating Mr. Barr’s statement that there was no widespread fraud.
Mr. Trump said that the Justice Department was not fighting hard enough for him.
Mr. Rosen and other department officials hoped that the facts would eventually persuade Mr. Trump to acknowledge his loss. They had no idea that Mr. Perry had secretly introduced the president to Mr. Clark as the Justice Department ally he had longed for, one who would put the department to work disputing the election results.
Inklings of deeper trouble came on Dec. 27, when Mr. Rosen and his top deputy, Mr. Donoghue, told Mr. Trump that no evidence supported the lawsuits he had filed in an attempt to overturn the election. Reports of corruption in swing states had not been borne out.
Mr. Trump countered that the department could “just say that the election was corrupt,” and leave the rest to him “and the R. Congressmen,” according to notes from the call. Mr. Donoghue testified that the “R” referred to Republicans, some of whom were already working to undermine public faith in the election.
Giving a hint of his intentions, Mr. Trump said that “people tell me Jeff Clark is great, I should put him in,” Mr. Donoghue later testified. That day, Mr. Perry also called Mr. Donoghue to tell him that Mr. Clark could “do something” about the president’s claims.
During tense conversations with Mr. Clark, Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue learned that he was working on a plan with Mr. Trump’s allies to overturn the Georgia results. He asked Mr. Rosen to send the proposed letter falsely informing Georgia state officials that a federal investigation could invalidate the state’s results. Mr. Rosen refused.
At the White House, the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, briefed Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue on a conspiracy theory known as Italygate, which baselessly claimed that people in Italy had used military technology to remotely tamper with voting machines in the United States.
By New Year’s Eve, Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue had grown deeply concerned. They had rebuffed outlandish demands to lobby the Supreme Court, appoint special counsels and give credence to wild conspiracy theories. But they struggled to handle Mr. Clark, who wanted a department official to falsely say at a news conference that fraud inquiries had cast doubt on the election result.
Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue forbade him to talk to Mr. Trump.
On Jan. 2, Mr. Clark revealed that he had secretly conducted a witness interview in connection with an already-disproved election fraud allegation. And he raised the prospect with Mr. Rosen that Mr. Trump could install him as acting attorney general, but he offered a deal: He would decline any such offer if Mr. Rosen would send the sham letter to Georgia state officials. Mr. Donoghue shut down the plan.
Mr. Clark then secretly spoke with Mr. Trump, in defiance of orders. On Jan. 3, he informed Mr. Rosen that the president intended to replace him with Mr. Clark.
Unwilling to be pushed out without a fight, Mr. Rosen worked with Mr. Cipollone, the White House counsel and an ally, to convene a meeting with Mr. Trump for that evening, a Sunday. Before going to the White House, Mr. Donoghue hosted a conference call with the department’s top seven or eight leaders, laying out Mr. Clark’s machinations and Mr. Rosen’s upcoming fight for his job.
Should Mr. Rosen be fired, he asked, what would the group do?
Shocked, the officials unanimously agreed to resign en masse if Mr. Rosen was forced out. Their plan brought to mind the Nixon era’s so-called Saturday Night Massacre, when Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and his deputy resigned rather than carry out the president’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating him.
The showdown that played out at the White House that evening was extraordinary even by the standards of the Trump administration. Mr. Trump opened the Oval Office meeting around 6 p.m. with a blunt statement: “One thing we know is you, Rosen, aren’t going to do anything to overturn the election,” Mr. Trump said, according to Mr. Rosen’s later testimony.
Mr. Cipollone called Mr. Clark’s plan to send the proposed letter to Georgia a “murder-suicide pact,” participants in the meeting later testified. The officials warned that firing Mr. Rosen would spark a mass resignation, and that Mr. Clark would lead a depopulated agency.
In a heated moment, Mr. Donoghue said that Mr. Clark “wouldn’t even know how to find his way” to the F.B.I. director’s office and was “not even competent to serve as the attorney general,” he later told investigators.
When Mr. Clark protested, Mr. Donoghue told investigators that he snapped. “You’re an environmental lawyer,” he recounted saying to Mr. Clark. “How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.”
Only in the final stages of the roughly three-hour meeting did Mr. Trump relent. The plan to install Mr. Clark atop the Justice Department was shelved, and the letter to Georgia officials was never sent.
But Mr. Trump was still not ready to let go of his election fraud claims. He said that he would fire the U.S. attorney in Atlanta, who quit upon hearing about the threat. Soon after the end of the Oval Office meeting, Mr. Donoghue recounted to Senate investigators, Mr. Trump alerted him to a report that a Department of Homeland Security agent had found a truck filled with shredded ballots near Atlanta.
The Justice Department, the F.B.I. and the Homeland Security Department later concluded that the only ballots to have been destroyed were from previous elections, and had been cleared out to make room for storage of the 2020 ballots.
Thwarted in his attempt to execute a hostile takeover of the Justice Department, Mr. Trump and his team still had another strategy to turn to.
On Nov. 5, 2020, as his father waited for key states to finish counting their votes, Donald Trump Jr. relayed over text message a series of suggestions to Mr. Meadows, the White House chief of staff, for how President Trump could stay in power.
One message referred to Jan. 6, 2021, when the vice president would oversee the congressional certification of the Electoral College votes — typically a routine process. The message described the date as a last-ditch option, one that would be meaningful only if the Trump forces could engineer a situation in which neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Biden, the election’s winner, was found to have amassed enough electoral votes to win and the race was sent to the House of Representatives to decide.
That plan had been pushed by Mr. Trump’s informal adviser Stephen K. Bannon, and a person familiar with the younger Mr. Trump’s text message identified Mr. Bannon as being the source of the information.
This tactic would involve two strands: pressing Mr. Pence to agree to flout the Constitution on the critical date of Jan. 6, and creating at least the appearance that there were alternate slates of pro-Trump electors from swing states that had clearly been won by Mr. Biden. The electors plan is now under scrutiny by federal prosecutors.
Between Nov. 5 and Jan. 6, Mr. Pence was subjected to an intense pressure campaign from a range of Mr. Trump’s associates outside the government, including John Eastman, a lawyer working with the president, and from Mr. Trump himself. During that time, Mr. Pence had his counsel research what his powers were with regard to Jan. 6, and then, over time, made clear to Mr. Trump that he did not believe he had the authority that the president insisted he did.
But before Mr. Pence gaveled in the proceedings on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, the Trump forces would need to promote the notion in state legislatures that there should be legitimate slates of alternate electors ready to swing the election in Mr. Trump’s favor should Mr. Biden’s victories there be called into question.
The plan to replace legitimate electors for Mr. Biden with alternate electors for Mr. Trump ramped up just days after the election when the pro-Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell emailed Mr. Eastman, a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, to assign him the task of producing a memo to create a legal framework to challenge the electoral certification in Congress.
“Why couldn’t state legislatures reclaim that constitutional duty, and designate the electors,” Ms. Mitchell wrote to Mr. Eastman on Nov. 5, adding: “A movement is stirring. But needs constitutional support.”
Mr. Eastman, Ms. Mitchell and others had been preparing to fight the election results well before Election Day, but the effort “kicked into high gear” four days afterward, on Nov. 7, when Mr. Eastman met with Mr. Trump’s campaign team in Philadelphia to assist with the preparation of an election challenge, according to a filing by Mr. Eastman in a civil case.
Within days, members of Mr. Trump’s legal team were exchanging written ideas about how to submit to Congress slates of pro-Trump electors in states won by Mr. Biden.
One lawyer, Kenneth Chesebro, wrote a series of memos in November and December describing how the plan could be carried out, though he said various state laws made it “somewhat dicey” and “very problematic” in some jurisdictions. A federal judge has found that one of those memos — a Dec. 13 missive sent to Mr. Eastman and Mr. Giuliani advising how the Senate could reject Mr. Biden’s victory — “likely furthered the crimes of obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy to defraud the United States.”
As lawyers were working to put the alternate elector plan into action, so were other members of Mr. Trump’s team.
Michael A. Roman and Gary Michael Brown, the director and deputy director of Election Day operations for Mr. Trump’s campaign, began participating in the efforts to encourage state legislators to appoint false “alternate” slates of electors, according to the House committee.
Angela McCallum, the Trump campaign’s national executive assistant, made calls to lawmakers, telling them there was an effort underway in multiple states to keep Mr. Trump in power and asking for their support. “You do have the power to reclaim your authority and send us a slate of electors that will support President Trump and Vice President Pence,” she told one in Michigan, according to a voice mail message made public in December 2020.
Mr. Trump personally called Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers amid an effort to rescind the certification of the county’s election results.
Around the same time, the White House Counsel’s Office told Mr. Meadows and Republican members of Congress that the plan to use so-called alternative electors was not “legally sound,” but they pressed on.
On Jan. 2, Mr. Eastman and Mr. Giuliani joined Mr. Trump on a call with hundreds of state lawmakers. Mr. Trump told the legislators they were the best chance to change the certified results of the presidential election in certain states. “You’re the ones that are going to make the decision,” he said.
Ultimately, groups of Republicans in seven states signed documents presenting themselves as either authorized or alternate electors. The plan is now under investigation by the Justice Department as part of its growing criminal inquiry.
But no state legislature or governor agreed to certify those slates as authentic. Out of options, Mr. Trump was left trying to pressure Mr. Pence to unilaterally reject electoral votes for Mr. Biden in his role as president of the Senate when Congress met on Jan. 6 to certify the election results.
On Jan. 4, 2021, Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman met with Mr. Pence and his team in the Oval Office. That meeting was followed by another on Jan. 5, during which Mr. Eastman sought again to persuade Mr. Pence’s top lawyer, Greg Jacob, to go along with the scheme.
As Mr. Trump became more aggressive toward a number of officials, Mr. Pence told the president directly that he did not believe he had the power to delay the certification.
That day, Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, called the lead Secret Service agent on the vice president’s detail to his office in the West Wing to warn him that the tensions between Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence, which aides had tried to tamp down, was about to become public. Mr. Trump was going to turn on Mr. Pence and they might have a security risk because of it, Mr. Short said, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
The next morning, Jan. 6, with his adult children and aides milling around the Oval Office, Mr. Trump called the vice president’s residence to push one last time. Just before Mr. Pence headed to the Capitol, people familiar with the discussion said shortly afterward, Mr. Trump told him: “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy.”
Outside on the Ellipse, a fervently pro-Trump crowd was waiting.
Like so many things during Mr. Trump’s time in the White House, it started with a tweet.
On Dec. 19, 2020, six weeks after losing the election, Mr. Trump took to Twitter and issued a call to his supporters to join him in Washington for a last-ditch rally to protest the results of the vote. A date was set for Jan. 6, 2021 — the day Congress would oversee the final certification of the count.
The response online was huge and instantaneous. Within hours, the president’s words had been amplified by a network of right-wing activists and hard-core conservatives in Congress. In the offline world, pro-Trump organizers set to work obtaining permits and Port-a-Potties, and people across the country started to mobilize, making travel plans and arranging for hotel rooms.
Ultimately hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters descended on Washington that day and many listened to the president deliver an incendiary speech at the Ellipse near the White House. They heard his claims that the election had been stolen and his encouragement to “fight like hell” to save the country. Thousands heeded his call to march from the Ellipse to the Capitol.
While only a fraction of these people eventually took part in the riot that erupted, investigators — both in Congress and in the Justice Department — have been focused on an array of questions that concern the crowd. How did it come together? Who, aside from Mr. Trump, helped direct it toward the Capitol? And how was it transformed into a violent mob?
The inquiries remain ongoing but have touched on a sprawling cast of characters: figures in the White House and the Trump campaign; Stop the Steal activists; members of Congress allied with Mr. Trump; and far-right extremist groups that placed themselves at the forefront of the action. As prosecutors have repeatedly pointed out, a significant role was also played by more ordinary people who had no affiliations with right-wing organizations. Court records show, in fact, that those who acted most violently on Jan. 6 were in many ways those with the most ordinary backgrounds.
One of the earliest public calls to march on the Capitol was posted on Twitter on Dec. 16, 2020 — three days before Mr. Trump’s more famous tweet — by Tina Forte, a self-described “America First Patriot” running in this year’s Republican primary in New York for the chance to face the Democratic congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ms. Forte’s post — she said it was a screenshot of a Facebook invitation — announced what was billed as a “Patriots United March on Congress” at noon on Jan. 6, well before most organizers were discussing such a thing. The invitation, which has since been removed from Facebook, appears to be connected to an organization called the Patriot Party Inc. in Florida. A representative listed in the group’s incorporation papers did not return a phone call seeking comment.
While Ms. Forte’s post got only a couple of hundred retweets, Mr. Trump’s announcement of a Jan. 6 event shot around the internet.
Ten minutes after it went up, Michael Coudrey, an associate of the Stop the Steal activist Ali Alexander, reposted it with more than 5,000 retweets. The right-wing media outlet Gateway Pundit soon published an article about the tweet and a similar video that Mr. Trump released that night. Mr. Trump’s social media guru, Dan Scavino, posted the article on Twitter and soon had more than 20,000 retweets.
The amplification continued all that day with posts from groups such as MAGA Drag the Interstate (“Beyond Ready!”) and pro-Trump figures including Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia (“I’m planning a little something on Jan. 6 as well.”) On an online forum called TheDonald.win, reactions to Mr. Trump’s tweet were particularly violent. In the days that followed, people on the site posted information on how to bring guns to Washington, maps of tunnels under the Capitol, even specifications for a guillotine.
Among those who reacted most forcefully to Mr. Trump’s tweet were members of far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters militia movement. Court papers show that many of them sprang into action within days, even hours, acquiring protective gear, setting up private channels of communication and, in one case, readying heavily armed “quick reaction forces” to be staged outside of Washington. (Leaders of both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have been indicted on federal charges of seditious conspiracy for their roles on Jan. 6.)
Mr. Trump’s announcement of the Jan. 6 event also ignited a scramble among organizers who quickly broke into two broad camps with very different views about how to plan the rally.
On one side was a group called Women for America First that was loosely allied with the White House and had played a central role in two previous large-scale pro-Trump rallies in Washington, in November and December 2020. Women for America First, led by a mother-and-daughter team, Amy and Kylie Kremer, wanted to situate the Jan. 6 event at the Ellipse and focus on speeches by Mr. Trump and members of Congress.
On the other side was a group of organizers led by Mr. Alexander and one of his chief allies, Alex Jones, who runs the conspiracy theory media outlet Infowars. Mr. Alexander and Mr. Jones had appeared at a series of their own events around the country in the run-up to Jan. 6 and often used a more aggressive style of rhetoric.
They ended up amid the crowd that marched from the Ellipse to the Capitol that day, using a bullhorn to encourage people with shouts of “1776!” Mr. Jones later claimed that “the White House” had informed him three days before the Ellipse event that he was supposed to lead the march and that Mr. Trump would follow.
While these two warring factions have often been the focus of attention, another group of lesser-known organizers also had rallies planned at the Capitol on Jan. 6. That group included the organizations Latinos for Trump and the Virginia Freedom Keepers, which oppose vaccine and mask mandates. The anti-vaccine activists Ty and Charlene Bollinger were also involved in the same event on the east side of the Capitol.
All of these activists had a few things in common: They were all participants in a private group chat on the encrypted app Signal called F.O.S. or Friends of Stone, a reference to Roger J. Stone Jr., Mr. Trump’s longtime adviser. Their joint event at the Capitol was protected by members of the Oath Keepers, who were also guarding Mr. Stone that day.
Moreover, a week before Jan. 6, some members of these groups took part in a conference call where a communications expert named Jason Sullivan had encouraged them to “descend on the Capitol” and pressure lawmakers inside not to certify the election. Mr. Sullivan, who once worked briefly for Mr. Stone, told his listeners during the call that Mr. Trump intended to impose a “limited form” of martial law on Jan. 6 and that Mr. Biden would never enter the White House.
Mr. Stone has denied any involvement in the Capitol attack.
Soon after Mr. Trump told the crowd on the Ellipse that “you will never take back our country with weakness,” rioters, believing Mr. Trump’s lie of a stolen election, stormed the Capitol with Mr. Pence inside, erected a gallows, and forced lawmakers to evacuate in a scene of violence and mayhem.
As a mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” Mr. Eastman, the lawyer who had been pushing the plan to block or delay the certification, sent a hostile message to Mr. Jacob, Mr. Pence’s counsel, blaming the vice president for the violence.
“The ‘siege’ is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary to allow this to be aired in a public way so that the American people can see for themselves what happened,” Mr. Eastman wrote.
Even though Mr. Trump had promised the crowd that he would join them at the Capitol, he instead returned to the White House. As he watched the riot unfold on television, Republican members of Congress, former administration officials, Fox News personalities and even the president’s own son sent Mr. Meadows text messages imploring the president to stop the violence.
“Fix this now,” Representative Chip Roy of Texas wrote.
“TELL THEM TO GO HOME !!!” said Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff.
As the riot played out, Mr. Meadows left the dining room off the Oval Office where Mr. Trump was watching on television, walked into his own office and told colleagues that Mr. Trump was complaining that the vice president was being whisked to safety.
Mr. Meadows, according to an account provided to the House committee investigating Jan. 6, then told the colleagues that Mr. Trump had said something to the effect of, maybe Mr. Pence should be hanged.
It took more than three hours for Mr. Trump to tell the mob to disperse.
In a video posted on Twitter, Mr. Trump told his supporters that there had been “an election that was stolen from us,” but that it was time for them to go home peacefully. “We love you,” he said. “You’re very special.”