Clara Hendrickson , Ashley Nerbovig | Detroit Free Press
Members of Congress share chilling tales of pro-Trump riots at Capitol
Republicans and Democrats share firsthand accounts as pro-Trump supports stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Michigan Trump supporters who convened in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday united by a shared belief that the election was stolen, headed home divided on what transpired when pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol and uncertain where Trump’s movement goes from here.
For months, President Donald Trump has peddled disinformation about the election, claiming there was widespread election fraud and that he won in a landslide. Trump’s unfounded lies motivated his supporters to converge on Washington at his urging the same day Congress met to certify the Electoral College results.
Some heralded the day as a success despite the fact that hundreds of Trump supporters breached the perimeter around the Capitol building and many made their way inside, leading an insurrection that forced lawmakers to seek safety. The raid of the Capitol building left five people dead. At least six Michigan residents have been arrested.
Some who went said the violence didn’t occur, others claimed that the militant leftist antifa movement led the insurrection and Trump supporters simply were swept up amidst the chaos in a planned insurrection designed to make Trump supporters look bad.
On Friday, the FBI said it had found no credible evidence of antifa involvement.
“We have no indication of that at this time,” Washington Field Office assistant director Steven D’Antuono said during a briefing.
One Trump supporter even pointed to the lack of security to claim there was no widespread planned attack by Trump supporters. A few condemned the actions by Trump supporters inside the Capitol building and said the bulk of Trump supporters who converged in the nation’s capital were protesting peacefully.
Suzanne Hall, a retiree from Birch Run Township who organized a charter bus to Washington from Bridgeport and denies Trump supporters willingly participated in the insurrection, said: “It was exciting to see all the people. … The enthusiasm was beautiful and the enthusiasm was there, the purpose was in the hearts of everyone that was there.”
She called the insurrection “unfortunate.”
Katherine Sponseller, a 70-year-old from Ann Arbor, who was in Washington with her husband Wednesday to hear Trump’s speech and march to the Capitol, acknowledged that Trump supporters were inside the Capitol building. She said “the trashing of parts of the Capitol is totally unacceptable,” in a text message Saturday to the Free Press.
Sponseller said she and her husband are “very strong, staunch Donald Trump supporters,” which she says is “very difficult” in Ann Arbor.
Sponseller said she marched from Trump’s rally to the Capitol grounds and departed soon after she saw people climbing the steps of the Capitol and scaling the walls. She said she didn’t learn that people had made their way inside until later. She said what she saw was Trump supporters gathering peacefully. “It was just an incredible experience.
“The movement was so massive that people had to be truly amazed at the support and love for this president,” she said.
“I think it definitely accomplished that goal, to show the world.”
But Sponseller said she was disheartened by the media’s accounts. “The news media turned it around and made it into this awful thing that did not happen,” she said.
“I am not discounting what happened inside the Capitol,” she wrote in an email Friday, but she said that what she saw at Trump’s rally at the Ellipse and the march down Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol was peaceful.
Sponseller said the media “wanted to present a case that everyone who attended was angry and out to cause trouble — 99.9% of those in attendance were peaceful demonstrators like myself, with no intention of causing trouble or harm,” she wrote in an email Friday.
Greg Stuchell, a city council member from Hillsdale who was at the Capitol, said he left that day feeling disappointed. “What I saw was small-town America,” he said. “It was just a group of small-town folks going to the Capitol and saying, ‘Hey, don’t steal our country from us.’ It was very, very peaceful, but it just ended on a very sour note.
“It was not a success.”
Stuchell said he traveled to Washington with his teenage daughter and fellow Hillsdale Council Member Robert Socha on a bus arranged by the Hillsdale Republican Party.
Michael Clinesmith, a 45-year-old who previously served as the Vassar Township clerk in 2011-19, traveled to Washington with Hall.
Clinesmith said he was concerned by what he saw standing outside the Capitol building. “You just see that there’s so much disrespect and so much lawlessness, and I’m very concerned about that,” he said.
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Trump supporters provide different accounts of mob that stormed the Capitol
Michigan Trump supporters who marched down Pennsylvania Avenue after hearing Trump give a speech in which he repeated debunked conspiracies about the election and told his supporters to “show strength” and “demand that Congress do the right thing” provided different accounts of what occurred when they arrived outside the Capitol building.
Steve Guza, a 56-year-old farmer from Huron County, said he didn’t witness any violence. “We were up there; we were right at the Capitol. I didn’t witness any kind of violence or aggressiveness at all.”
When asked Wednesday whether he heard about the mob that stormed the Capitol, Guza said, “I’m sure somewhere in there there’s probably some truth, but I don’t know what’s true.”
Many Trump-supporting Michiganders denied that the people who stormed the Capitol building were Trump supporters.
“All of what the media is saying is not true,” Tamrya Murray, a 57-year-old from Saginaw who was at the Capitol Wednesday wrote in a text message to the Free Press. “I think the fighting inside (the Capitol) is fake.”
Some acknowledged that the insurrection occurred but claimed that the mob was made up of members of antifa, a loosely affiliated group of far-left activists willing to use militant tactics against neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Hall denied that any Trump supporters willingly stormed the Capitol building, claiming instead that antifa members stormed the building as part of a planned attack designed to make Trump supporters look bad.
“I know that Trump supporters were rallied in amidst of the antifa people, and we had someone on the bus that was just pushed into it. I think that was a strategic plan. So he didn’t want to do it. It was a powerful movement, shoulder to shoulder, all strategized to get our people in with them,” Hall said.
This conspiracy has been promoted by elected Republicans, including Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who led the Republican charge to challenge the Electoral College results and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose lawsuit seeking to overturn the election was rejected by the Supreme Court last month. There is no credible evidence that antifa was involved in the insurrection. In fact, specific individuals identified online as antifa to buttress this conspiracy are known Trump supporters.
Some Michigan Trump supporters said the president’s supporters participated in the insurrection and entered the Capitol building, but claimed that they only followed after antifa members broke in.
Stuchell said that when he got on the bus to Washington, the group was told that antifa members, wearing MAGA hats backward, were rumored to have infiltrated the group of Trump supporters.
But unlike those who left the city denying Trump supporters’ involvement in storming the Capitol building and presence inside, Stuchell said that’s not true.
“All those people that stormed the Capitol were not antifa,” he said. “The people who broke the barrier and were the first wave in, the first 20, 30 people in, were.” He believes Trump supporters then followed.
Expressing a sense of betrayal by Republican lawmakers in the aftermath, Stuchell said: “The thing that really hurts me the most is now the Republicans are all rushing to the microphone and they’re blaming the Trump supporters for this chaos. I don’t think it was led by them.
“Of course, it’s speculation,” he added.
Stuchell pointed to what he saw as a mismatch between Trump supporters’ enthusiasm and a lack of coordination to explain what unfolded Wednesday.
“When all the people went to Washington, D.C., there was really no organization or leadership to that, it was just a group of concerned citizens and they honestly got caught up in the fray,” Stuchell said.
“I guess a true democracy is mob rule, and that’s what you got at that moment. There wasn’t any intellectual discussion going, ‘Hey, what are you going to do when you get up there?'”
Joe Farkas, a real estate agent from Powell, was about 100 yards away from the “excitement” at the Capitol Wednesday.
Farkas said he saw people breaking into the Capitol. At the time, he said he was surrounded by Trump supporters, whom he described as “a large group, not a mob, not a destructive mob” and said he couldn’t know for sure who was breaking the windows. What he saw around him was Trump supporters, he said. In his opinion, the insurrection included both outside organizations and Trump supporters, Farkas said.
Sponseller, like Stuchell, believes that antifa infiltrators broke into the Capitol followed by Trump supporters who she says “got swept into the whole thing.” Sponseller recalled the moment she heard about what occurred inside the Capitol building. “After we found out what happened, I said to (my husband) I really feel that was totally an inside job,” she said.
“The reason why I’m saying that is because it was ridiculous that there was so few Capitol Police around.”
On Wednesday, police were overwhelmed and unprepared to meet the mob. During a news conference Thursday, D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee said there was “no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol,” according to a report by Politico. But leading up to Wednesday, Trump supporters openly planned the insurrection online, multiple reports have found.
On online groups and forums, the phrase “occupy the Capitol” was used well over 100 times in the two days leading up to Wednesday, according to a report in the New York Times.
Posts on MyMilitia.com, a social media website that connects individuals to local militias, called for violence if Congress certified Joe Biden’s win, according to investigative news organization ProPublica. Ahead of Wednesday, one poster on the website wrote, “It’s already apparent that literally millions of Americans are on the verge of activating their Second Amendment duty to defeat tyranny and save the republic,” ProPublica reported.
The Capitol Police has come under fire by Democratic lawmakers for its treatment of the rioters comparedwith how Black Lives Matter protesters were treated by law enforcement during the summer.
In a speech Thursday, Biden said, “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol.”
There is some evidence that members of law enforcement were sympathetic to their cause. A video circulated online appeared to show a Capitol police officer taking a selfie with a Trump supporter who breached the Capitol building. One Trump supporter who says he broke into the capitol building, told CNN, “Cops were very cool, they’re like, ‘ok guys, have a good night,’ well some of them, which is crazy. It’s really weird. You can see that some of them are on our side.”
Elsewhere, Capitol police officers fought for their lives. A video shared on CNN shows a Capitol police officer crushed between a door and the mob, bloodied and screaming for help. Another officer, Brian Sicknick, died Thursday from injuries sustained defending the Capitol against the rioters, according to a statement from the Capitol Police.
In an expansive report published in August, Michael German, a former FBI special agent documented the ways in which white supremacist groups have infiltrated law enforcement.
“The harms that armed law enforcement officers affiliated with violent white supremacist and anti-government militia groups can inflict on American society could hardly be overstated,” he wrote.
The Department of Homeland Security’s threat assessment published in October found that white supremacist extremists are “the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”
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Michigan Trump converge in the nation’s capital
While Trump supporters headed home with dueling accounts of what happened, unable to coalesce around a single narrative, they started the day united in their quest to show their anger about an election they believe was stolen.
They spent weeks mobilizing to converge in the nation’s capital. In Michigan, Trump supporters boarded buses and planes, joined car caravans and carpooled to travel to Washington.
Buses organized by county Republican parties and individual Trump supporters leaving from Bridgeport, Muskegon, Novi, Petoskey, Taylor, Traverse City, Shelby Township and elsewhere carried hundreds of Trump supporters to the nation’s capital from Michigan. Meshawn Maddock, a Michigan GOP activist poised to become co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, helped organize the effort.
On Tuesday, she and her husband, Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, spoke during a pro-Trump rally. “We never stop fighting,” she told the crowd, but did not expressly advocate entering the Capitol by force.
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Some Michigan Trump supporters boarded planes. A photo on Facebook posted Tuesday by Anne Vanker, who identifies herself as a Grosse Pointe resident on her profile, showed dozens of Trump supporters at the Detroit airport. “Me and my fellow deplorables, off to fight for America!” the post reads.
Others carpooled. When the Free Press reached Farkas Thursday, he was passing through Pennsylvania on his way back from D.C. Also in the car was Bob Cushman, a conservative political activist. Cushman said he was in Washington for the Stop the Steal rally earlier in the day, but was not there when people broke into the Capitol.
Cushman worked to elect Patrick Colbeck, the former state senator and Trump ally who has peddled false allegations about Michigan’s election, when Colbeck ran for governor. Cushman submitted an affidavit about election fraud in a lawsuit that sought to stop the certification of the Wayne County’s election results, void the Nov. 3 election and order a new one.
Some joined a car caravan organized by a QAnon conspiracy theorist who says he’s from Michigan and goes by the name Dr. ENoCH on Twitter. QAnon adherents believe in an unfounded conspiracy theory that a global “Deep State” cabal of Satanic pedohpile elites holds responsibility for all the evil in the world.
Dr. ENoCH coordinated with Trump supporters on Twitter and used the hashtag #MidnightRide to put together caravans carrying Trump supporters across the country to the nation’s capital. In a tweet posted Thursday, he said he helped hundreds get to D.C. Twitter suspended his account Friday.
The “Michigan Riders Caravan Route,” according to a post on the MeWe group “Stand Up Michigan” began in Lansing, with stops in Toledo, Columbus, Pittsburgh and Gettysburg.
One woman who organized the caravan leaving from Lansing reported on Twitter that she was among the group of hundreds of Trump supporters who breached the perimeter of the Capitol.
A woman named Amelia coordinated the group leaving from Lansing, which she called Dr. ENoCH’s “Michigan caravan fam” in a Dec. 27 tweet. According to an article published by the Epoch Times, a pro-Trump media outlet, Amelia is a 22-year-old from Fenton.
She posted videos Thursday on her Twitter showing flash bombs going off on the steps of the Capitol. “We were literally pepper sprayed every 30 seconds and multiple flash bombs went off right in front of me,” she wrote in a tweet.
In a tweet Amelia posted after Trump told his supporters to “go home” Wednesday in a video removed by Twitter, Amelia responded, “Respectfully, we will not go home, Mr. President.”
Other Trump supporters from Michigan did not feel the insurrection helped their cause. Farkas said he left when he saw people breaking into the Capitol after he decided nothing was being accomplished.
On Thursday, Trump acknowledged that Biden will be the next president of the United States in a video posted on Twitter, which permanently suspended the president’s account Friday. But QAnon conspiracists, including the organizers of the Michigan caravan to Washington, do not believe Trump’s remarks amounted to a concession.
“To the citizens of our country, serving as your president has been the honor of my lifetime, and to all of my wonderful supporters, I know you are disappointed but I also want you to know that our incredible journey is only just beginning,” Trump said.
But his supporters don’t know what the future holds.
Farkas said recounting Wednesday’s events, “My thought was that actually, and this is me, I’m not speaking for anybody else. … We are no longer a country of rule of law. People have committed treasonous acts that have been swept under the rug. We are no longer a country with free transparent elections, and we no longer have freedom of speech. If you don’t believe that, put a Trump sign in your car and see what happens to it.”
Farkas wonders what action the Trump movement should take moving forward. “My thought process leans toward going along to get along, playing by the rules, it’s not getting us very far,” he said.
“I’m quite perplexed at what the next move should be.”
Clinesmith similarly feels the future is uncertain, but worries about the prospect of more violence. “I don’t want violence,” he said. “It seems this last year, everything’s just become lawless.
“I want what’s best for the country.”
In a Facebook post recapping the day’s events, Clinesmith wrote, “There are so many things yet unknown… What is clear is that this is no longer a government of ‘We the People.'”
Sponseller believes Trump’s movement will “prevail,” but she doesn’t know what that will look like and said she’s also worried about the potential for violence. “There are crazy people out there,” she said.
Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-296-5743 for comments or to suggest a fact-check. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen.
Ashley Nerbovig previously worked as the mis- and dis- information reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Contact her at email@example.com.