Is the FBI telling us the truth about the Jan. 6 coup attempt? Because it doesn't feel that way

Reports from FBI and DHS suggest a dangerous rift in law enforcement over the Jan. 6 coup plot. We need the truth

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 26, 2021 10:30AM (EDT)

Person waving "Trump 2020" flag at the January 6th, 2021 riot at the US Capitol (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Alex Edelman)
Person waving "Trump 2020" flag at the January 6th, 2021 riot at the US Capitol (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Alex Edelman)

The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Donald Trump's followers is the most documented crime scene in history.

On that day, Trump and his agents attempted to overthrow American democracy. We now know his conspiracy to nullify the results of the 2020 election was well underway. 

The world watched as Trump's attack force, possessed by white rage and Christian nationalist fervor, and fueled by a willingness to kill and die for Trump in the name of "patriotism," viciously attacked police who were protecting the Capitol and the people inside. A core group of Trump's attack force acted with military precision as they breached the Capitol building's defenses.  

Once inside, Trump's attack force continued to battle with police while running amok and chanting "Hang Mike Pence!" Some of Trump's followers hunted for Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats and Republicans deemed to be "traitors," with the apparent goal of capturing and then executing them.

A potentially functional gallows was assembled in a park across the street from the Capitol. Homemade bombs and a cache of firearms were also found in a vehicle parked nearby outside. Trump's attack force was armed with an assortment of lethal weapons.

During the battle, a Capitol police officer was forced to shoot and kill one of Trump's political cultists. An internal investigation has exonerated the officer for his actions, noting that he

potentially saved Members [of Congress] and staff from serious injury and possible death from a large crowd of rioters who forced their way into the U.S. Capitol and to the House Chamber where Members and staff were steps away. USCP Officers had barricaded the Speaker's Lobby with furniture before a rioter shattered the glass door. If the doors were breached, the rioters would have immediate access to the House Chambers. The officer's actions were consistent with the officer's training and USCP policies and procedures.

A total disaster and mass casualty event was averted largely thanks to luck and the quick thinking and courage of the Capitol Police and other law enforcement agents. Otherwise, it's entirely possible that members of Congress would have been killed or seriously injured by Trump's attackers, potentially making a quorum impossible for the vote to certify Joe Biden's electoral victory. Trump could then have declared a national emergency, imposed martial law and remained in power for an indefinite period.

Hundreds of people who were part of Trump's attack force have been arrested by the FBI. Most will not face serious charges such as criminal conspiracy or sedition. Most important, Trump and his high-level confederates have not been arrested or charged with any crime. The Trump-controlled Republican Party and larger neofascist movement are instigating even more political violence and acts of right-wing terrorism. The coup attempt continues.

Yet, despite all of the public and other evidence about the events of Jan. 6, the FBI is now suggesting it was all something "spontaneous," not coordinated as part of a larger plot to overthrow American democracy. It almost seems the FBI is now following Donald Trump's Orwellian command not to believe your lying eyes. As Reuters reports:

The FBI has found scant evidence that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was the result of an organized plot to overturn the presidential election result, according to four current and former law enforcement officials.

Though federal officials have arrested more than 570 alleged participants, the FBI at this point believes the violence was not centrally coordinated by far-right groups or prominent supporters of then-President Donald Trump, according to the sources, who have been either directly involved in or briefed regularly on the wide-ranging investigations.

"Ninety to ninety-five percent of these are one-off cases," said a former senior law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation. "Then you have five percent, maybe, of these militia groups that were more closely organized. But there was no grand scheme with Roger Stone and Alex Jones and all of these people to storm the Capitol and take hostages."

FBI investigators have reportedly found that "cells of protesters, including followers of the far-right Oath Keepers and Proud Boys groups, had aimed to break into the Capitol," the report continues, but have found no evidence "that the groups had serious plans about what to do if they made it inside."

These findings strain credulity and must be viewed with suspicion. Who are these four "unnamed sources?" Are they Trump loyalists? Who was involved in completing this new FBI report?

And why would these "unnamed sources" specifically mention Trump's "prominent supporters," who by definition are allies and agents of the Big Lie and the campaign to overthrow democracy? In that sense, this report provides some degree of cover for the Trump movement's claims that his followers are "patriots" and "victims" of "unfair" persecution.

What about those members of Trump's inner circle who reportedly knew that the rallies and other pro-sedition events of Jan. 6 would become violent? What about the role of Trump's Republican allies in Congress who have expressed sympathy and support for Trump's attack force and the overall goal of nullifying the 2020 election? Were they in communication with the organizers of the Jan. 6 attack?

What role did the Trump regime's systematic placement of key allies in critical positions at the Department of Justice, the Pentagon and in other parts of the federal government play in the coup attempt?

When FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the Senate in March, he said there was evidence of coordination among die-hard members of the Trump attack force. Has his assessment changed? As CNN reported two weeks after the Capitol attack, the details of conspiracy charges filed against members of the Oath Keepers are highly disturbing: 

Jessica Watkins, the alleged founder of an Ohio militia, had instructions to make explosives out of bleach printed out at her home, according to the court document.

Chilling messages sent between the militants during the siege that are quoted in the complaint appear to indicate they were searching for lawmakers inside the building as they sought to stop Congress from certifying the presidential election.

While at the Capitol, one alleged member of the conspiracy, Thomas Edward Caldwell, allegedly received a Facebook message reading "All members are in the tunnels under capital seal them in. Turn on gas."

What about the wealthy right-wing funders who transported Trump's attack force to Washington and paid for rallies and other events in support of the Big Lie, which then led to the Capitol attack? If their goal was not a coup meant to overturn the results of the 2020 election, what were they hoping to achieve?

In plain English, something in this new FBI report stinks. On the same day that details about the FBI report became publicly known, the Daily Beast reported on a similar investigation conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, which describes "advanced preparations" by Capitol rioters, "and appears to go further than recent descriptions of the FBI's characterization of the Capitol riot":

"The tactics used by domestic violent extremists (DVEs) to assault law enforcement and security personnel and ultimately breach the US Capitol suggests that some of the participants engaged in pre-operational coordination and planning activities," reads the April 8 DHS document, entitled "Tactics Used to Breach the US Capitol Building on 6 January 2021 Highlight Advanced Preparations." ...

The document's focus on alleged pre-planning adopts stronger language than recent descriptions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's characterization of pre-planned violence. ...

The DHS document ... does not allege a specific plot to unseat the government. It also does not name [Roger] Stone or [Alex] Jones, and neither man is facing criminal charges for his involvement in the events of Jan. 6. Instead, the DHS document emphasizes alleged actions of organized groups that helped accelerate the day's violence.

The report highlights the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, two organized groups involved in the attack. The Oath Keepers, the report notes, allegedly planned armed "quick response forces" based in off-site locations…. "Flex cuffs and other restraints were observed during the event, suggesting preparation for detaining government personnel or perceived enemies," the report continues, also pointing to guns and tasers observed before or during the attack.

These dueling reports suggest something very dangerous for American democracy and the battle against Trumpism and neofascism: There is no consensus among law enforcement agencies about an obvious attempted coup and terrorist attack against the United States government.

As we have seen with President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland, there appears to be no urgent effort (and perhaps none at all) to investigate the Trump regime and its allies for their apparent crimes against democracy and the American people. "Bipartisanship" and "healing" are somehow deemed to be more important than justice.

Richard Painter, former White House chief ethics counsel under George W. Bush, spoke about this in a recent interview with Salon:

If I were Joe Biden, ...  I would have said, "We're going to bring in an independent counsel who will make this decision. It's not a political decision." If Donald Trump committed crimes, he should be prosecuted. That should not be a political decision. I do not believe that Joe Biden or any appointee of Joe Biden should be making that decision.

Again, if someone commits a crime they should be prosecuted. They should go to jail if they committed a felony. The second part of the Mueller report shows that there was obstruction of justice by Trump and his inner circle. Part two of the Mueller report is an outline of an indictment. But the Department of Justice does not want to do it.

If Donald Trump committed crimes, he should be indicted. It is pretty clear to me that is in fact the case.

Another troubling possibility is that the Biden administration and senior Democrats, along with Garland and the leaders of other law enforcement agencies, fear that a proper investigation of the Trump regime and its many apparent crimes could lead to a backlash and produce even more right-wing terrorism and acts of violence. 

In a new essay for the Boston Globe, Laurence Tribe, the eminent constitutional law expert and professor emeritus at Harvard Law, issued this warning about America's democracy crisis, the events of Jan. 6 and Biden's miscalculations about "healing" and "moving forward":

Any president or attorney general who failed to pursue with unrelenting zeal the mission of uncovering and holding perpetrators accountable for crimes fitting within that category, perhaps guided by a tradition of giving past presidents in particular an implicit pass, would not only be derelict in their duty to defend the rule of law, but would be lethally endangering the very survival of the American experiment in self-government.

We cannot know for sure, given the way federal criminal investigations are typically shrouded in secrecy, but it could well be that Attorney General Merrick Garland is approaching the possible prosecution of the former president in this hesitant way, especially in light of how much else — from legal issues spawned by the coronavirus pandemic to immigration controversies arising from the tragedy in Afghanistan — bedevils him and the entire administration today. My conclusion: Despite all this, the attorney general should not treat the task of holding those who tried to engineer a coup as anything less than Job One. …

Trump's apparent crimes, which he and his supporters openly insist were patriotic acts that they would gladly repeat, have the potential to leave him in power indefinitely. The only antidote is vigorous investigation and prosecution, not for purposes of retribution but for purposes of deterrence. …

Trump's relentlessness has laid bare the defects in many of those accountability mechanisms. Now Garland stands as the final line of defense for our constitutional democracy. No prior attorney general has confronted so daunting a challenge. For what might be the first time in his life and what will surely be the last, Garland could hold the future of the last best hope on earth in his hands.

Historians, political scientists and other democracy experts have warned about the consequences of not punishing the Jan. 6 coup plotters and those who followed their commands to the maximum extent of the law. To do that is almost to ensure that another coup attempt occurs in the near future. In conjunction with a neofascist insurgency, which terrorism and security experts predict will last for years, American democracy faces an existential crisis.

Biden and Garland can choose to exercise the proper leadership, or can instead pretend that America's "better angels" will somehow prevail. The former choice could lead to saving American democracy and improving it for future generations. The latter leads to surrender and a "managed democracy" modeled on Russia or Hungary — or even apartheid South Africa. The moment for that decision is now.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega