As the Senate prepares for Donald Trump’s impeachment trial over the Capitol riot, the ex-president’s allies in the right-wing media remain hard at work creating a range of defenses that absolve him from the violence triggered by months of lies and deception.
In the logic of an argument that’s been embraced by pro-Trump cable networks, it was impossible for the first wave of rioters to hear Trump’s speech on the White House Ellipse in person because they started attacking before he was finished speaking. Therefore, Trump couldn’t have incited them to attack the Capitol.
Unless, that is, everyone carries cellphones that can livestream speeches as they happen.
“The people who were storming the Capitol could not have been the people in front of the president when he was speaking,” Newsmax host Greg Kelly said in an interview with Steve Bannon associate Raheem Kassam on Jan. 12, in a typical statement of the argument.
“Nobody could have both heard the president and breached the perimeter of the Capitol in the time we’re told that it took place,” Kassam said, adding that rioters would need “either a time machine or a teleportation device” to see both Trump’s speech and start the riot.
This claim that Trump could only incite rioters who saw him speak in person has plenty of flaws, including statements from alleged rioters themselves and the fact that Trump promoted the Jan. 6 rally weeks in advance, promising at one point that it would be “wild.”
But the increasingly popular Trump defense has an even bigger problem: the existence of internet-connected cellphones, which can play speeches live even when they’re being given in another location.
Despite the fact that internet-connected phones have existed for nearly two decades, the theory that only people who saw Trump speak in person could have been incited by his remarks has proved to be a hit in right-wing media. Tweets obsessing over the timeline of the riot, which started shortly before Trump finished speaking, have gone viral in an attempt to prove that Trump couldn’t have been involved in a riot that he promoted and was carried out by his supporters.
In reality, people were watching Trump’s speech live outside the Capitol shortly before the riot. A reporter for The Daily Beast on the east side of the Capitol witnessed people listening to the speech on a speaker, providing just one example of protesters following Trump’s speech despite not physically being located at the Ellipse. Hours of livestream footage of the riot, much of it taken by the rioters themselves, also demonstrate that rioters could have had enough cellphone service to hear Trump’s speech.
Still, the idea that the riot starting before Trump’s speech ending exonerates the former president has been embraced by websites like Christianity Daily and The Gateway Pundit, which cited the fact that police started using flashbangs on rioters before Trump finished his speech as proof that the rioters couldn’t be Trump supporters.
“CNN even admitted that flashbangs were going off at 1 PM,” one Gateway Pundit post read. “President Trump was still speaking at 1 PM!”
On Saturday and Sunday, pro-Trump cable network One America News even aired a special, “One America News Investigates: Inside January 6,” devoted to the theory that only people who saw Trump’s speech on the Ellipse could be incited to riot.
The special, which starred OAN personality and Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, revolved around the idea that the rioters couldn’t have been influenced by Trump because they couldn’t have seen Trump’s entire speech in person.
“There were people who had already been there, probably couldn’t have attended the president’s speech, and that were pre-planning to commit this activity, regardless of what the president said,” Posobiec said.
As in the Newsmax segment, Kassam appeared in the OAN special to bolster the claim that the first rioters could not have heard Trump’s speech. Kassam declared that it was “impossible” to get cellphone service before the riot, meaning Trump could not have incited the rioters.
“I’ve seen people say, ‘Oh well, maybe they were listening to the president’s speech,’” Posobiec said.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what you do while you’re smashing (inaudible) windows and causing havoc outside the U.S Capitol, you have a speech on your phone in front of you while you’re doing it,” Kassam said.
“It wasn’t possible,” Posobiec said.
“It doesn’t make sense, it’s a total nonsense,” Kassam agreed. “And so what we have to do is treat these two events as completely separate events.”
The OAN special even included a segment devoted to cellphone service at the riot, with a chyron declaring “reports of no cell phone service.”
“How was cellphone service that day?” Posobiec asked Kassam.
“Impossible, impossible!” Kassam said. “Could barely get any, could certainly not livestream the president’s speech and get ‘incited’ that way.”
Much of the rest of the OAN investigation focused on interviews with other OAN reporters remarking on how little violence they witnessed during the riot, which Posobiec described mildly as “an altercation that is still under investigation.” But both of the OAN reporters portrayed as on the scene during the riot were inside the Russell Senate Office Building across the street from the Capitol, making it physically impossible for them to have witnessed any violence inside the Capitol building itself.
The focus on those who weren’t physically present for the Ellipse speech seems meant to present the violence that ensued as the work of what Kassam has called “troublemakers,” rather than Trump supporters riled up by the president’s voter fraud rhetoric.
But identifiable pro-Trump groups were already present outside the Capitol before the speech. For example, the pro-Trump Proud Boys, who Trump once told to “stand by,” had already gathered outside the Capitol hours before Trump spoke. Members of the group were caught on tape discussing an attack on the Capitol before they led some of the first attacks on Capitol Police.
Despite whatever airs on Newsmax or OAN, the alleged rioters themselves have identified Trump as their inspiration. Jacob Chansley, the “Q Shaman” pictured breaking into the Capitol in horns and animal skins, told the FBI that he came to Washington at Trump’s request.
Other riot suspects and their lawyers have echoed that reasoning.
Riot suspect Kenneth Grayson summed up his motivation in a message sent to a friend ahead of the riot and later published in court documents: “IF TRUMP TELLS US TO STORM THE FUKIN CAPITAL IMA DO THAT THEN!”