Steve Bannon evoked the beaches of Normandy. Michael Flynn drew comparisons to Civil War battlefields and spoke of Americans who died for their country. Roger Stone called it a struggle “between the godly and the godless, between good and evil.” Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat.” Ali Alexander said it would be a “knife fight.”
As 2020 faded into 2021, some of President Donald Trump’s most influential supporters – among them members of his inner circle who were in direct contact with the President – spoke in ominous and violent terms about what was coming on January 6.
Even as anxious eyes turn toward the Inauguration Day on January 20, the words of these firebrands in the leadup to the riots at the Capitol raise crucial questions about the relationship between the rhetoric of far-right figureheads and the violence that unfolded on January 6.
“All hell is going to break loose tomorrow,” Bannon, Trump’s former top White House adviser, promised listeners of his podcast – called “War Room” – on January 5.
The next day, Trump himself gave a rambling speech near the White House where he claimed the election “was stolen from you, from me and from the country,” and called on supporters to “walk down to the Capitol.”
“We are going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women,” he added, “and we are probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you will never take back our country with weakness.”
Soon after, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, killing a police officer and assaulting others before charging inside – some carrying weapons and zip-tie handcuffs.
“What we have is influential, powerful people influencing the President and pushing out messages that are radicalizing large chunks of the population,” said Heidi Beirich, chief strategy officer for the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, a nonprofit organization that monitors extremism around the world. “It’s very dangerous.”
To be sure, as a rule most speech that doesn’t convey a direct threat or incite “imminent lawless action” is protected under the First Amendment.
But experts told CNN they believe Trump and his most visible allies bear a great deal of responsibility for stoking the flames that led to the January 6 uprising.
“When you are an adviser to a President, formal or informal, you need to think about the impact of anti-democratic rhetoric,” said John Hudak, an expert on governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “And the President himself, and a lot of the President’s supporters and certainly his children, seem to believe that it is responsible for a President and his advisers and family to be anti-democratic. That’s a real problem. And we haven’t really experienced that in our history.”
Trump has already paid a historic price for his words, with the US House on Wednesday voting to make him the only American president to have been impeached twice – this time for “incitement of insurrection.”
But while much attention has been paid to Trump’s words in the run up to the breach of the US Capitol, less talked about is the fiery rhetoric of his most high-profile champions.
Bannon and Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment. Stone rejected CNN’s questions as “defamatory attempts to say that my belief in God and my view of the last election in apocalyptic terms is somehow inciting violence.” Alexander argued he had “no involvement in the breach of the US Capitol.”
Flynn attorney Sidney Powell, who herself is facing a defamation lawsuit over her claims about the election (she’s denied the allegations), insisted that Flynn “encourages patriotism and lawful political action,” and to suggest otherwise is “absolutely ludicrous.”
Bannon’s menacing metaphors
In the weeks between the election and that day, Bannon and his guests and co-hosts on his “War Room” podcast relentlessly promoted conspiracy theories of election fraud and cast the fight to overturn the election results in war-like and often apocalyptic terms.
Bannon’s menacing metaphors first landed him in hot water a few days after on Election Day, when he suggested in a video that posted to several of his social media accounts that, if he were in charge, he wouldn’t merely fire FBI Director Christopher Wray and Anthony Fauci – the US government’s top infectious disease expert – but would put their heads on pikes “as a warning to federal bureaucrats.” Twitter permanently suspended his account.
In December, Bannon’s co-host tweeted a video of Bannon speaking on “War Room” overlaid with cinematic music and dramatic images from the famous D-Day battle scene of “Saving Private Ryan.” In it, he spoke of the “moral obligation” Trump supporters have to “the kids that died at Normandy.” He added that if they allow Biden – “that feckless old man” – to win, “I want you to explain that to the 20-year-old kid in the first wave on D-Day.”
On December 28, Bannon insisted that patriotic Trump supporters had to be ready to fight in the spirit of George Washington’s soldiers during the American Revolution and American soldiers on D-Day in World War II. “That’s our DNA, that’s where we come from,” Bannon said.
Bannon began promoting the upcoming DC protests of January 6.
“l’ll tell you this,” Bannon said the day before the riot. “It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen. OK, it’s going to be quite extraordinarily different. And all I can say is, strap in … You have made this happen and tomorrow it’s game day. So strap in. Let’s get ready.”
The podcasts also pointed to close coordination with Trump’s team. “You and me were talking almost every day, many times, you know, 10 times a day,” Trump campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn said to Bannon on December 28.
Meanwhile, a senior Trump adviser confirmed that the President and Bannon have been in communication in recent weeks, discussing Trump’s conspiracy theories about the election.
‘You either fight with us or you get slashed’
Just before Christmas, Alexander – a political activist who has organized pro-Trump rallies, including one of the demonstrations that converged on the Capitol lawn on January 6 – used violent metaphors to hint at what was to come in January when speaking to followers of his livestream channel on the social media platform Periscope. In his freewheeling monologue, Alexander credited Roger Stone, a veteran Republican operative and self-described “dirty trickster” whose 40-month prison sentence for seven felonies was cut short by Trump’s commutation in July. (He was given a full pardon in December).
“This is something Roger and I have been planning for a long time,” Alexander said. “And finally, he’s off the leash. So, you know, it’s a knife fight and your two knife fighters are Ali Alexander and Roger Stone, and you either fight with us or you get slashed. So I’ll let you guys know more about what that means as we evolve.”
Alexander has helped turn the “Stop the Steal” slogan that Stone launched on Trump’s behalf during the 2016 primaries into a rallying cry for conservatives around the country.
After repeating the falsehood that the election was stolen from Trump, Stone, 68, rallied the faithful with an us-versus-them battle cry.
“This is nothing less than an epic struggle for the future of this country between dark and light, between the godly and the godless, between good and evil,” he said. “And we will win this fight or America will step off into a thousand years of darkness. We dare not fail. I will be with you tomorrow shoulder to shoulder.”
Stone also has bumped elbows with extremist groups, most notably the Proud Boys. In September he endorsed the congressional candidacy of Nick Ochs, who founded the Hawaii chapter of the far-right organization. Ochs, whose bid for the US House came up short, was arrested for his role in the Capitol siege. Law enforcement was alerted to it by the photo Ochs posted on Twitter of himself enjoying a cigarette in the building, and by the comments he made to a CNN reporter.
Long a dispenser of supercharged rhetoric, Stone was not muted by his recent run-in with the law, and was talking about election fraud even before November.
In September, he went on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ show, InfoWars, and the two mused discursively about “fake ballots,” Big Tech and the Clintons.
“If someone will study the president’s authority in the Insurrection Act in his ability to impose, impose martial law,” Stone said, “if there is widespread cheating, he will have the authority to arrest (Mark) Zuckerberg, to arrest Tim Cook, to arrest the Clintons, to arrest anybody else who can be proven to be involved in illegal activity.”
War analogies abound
For his part, Jones has joined “Stop the Steal” efforts since the November election and used inflammatory, dark rhetoric to bolster the movement’s false claims.
Two days after election day, Jones said, “We are in the attempted overthrow of our country.” When a guest on the show mentioned people showing up in person to protest the counting of votes, Jones drew a comparison to World War II.
“It’s like when Hitler was bombing London, most Brits were against a war because they had World War I. But once Hitler bombed them, over 95% said let’s go to war,” he said. “This is a war. This is not regular times.”
Jones did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Also employing war analogies is another beneficiary of Trump’s pardon powers – Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
Speaking to a fired-up crowd at the DC rally on January 5, Flynn – who was pardoned by Trump in November after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with a Russian diplomat – managed to pack election-fraud conspiracy theories, violent innuendo and a call to action into a couple of sentences.
“In some of these states, we have more dead voters than are buried on the battlefields of Gettysburg, or the battlefields of Vicksburg, or the battlefields of Normandy,” he said. “Those of you who are feeling weak tonight, those of you that don’t have the moral fiber in your body, get some tonight because tomorrow, we the people are going to be here, and we want you to know that we will not stand for a lie.”
Much of the rhetoric leading up to the riot has been draped in the language of existential threat.
Speaking at a January 6 rally just before the siege, Rudy Giuliani – Trump’s personal attorney – spoke in grandiose terms about the stakes at hand.
“This is bigger than Donald Trump,” he said. “It’s bigger than you and me. It’s about these monuments and what they stand for. This has been a year in which they have invaded our freedom of speech, our freedom of religion, our freedom to move, our freedom to live. I’ll be darned if they’re going to take away our free and fair vote. And we’re going to fight to the very end to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
His mention of “trial by combat” was cited by the New York State Bar Association, which has launched an inquiry into Giuliani to determine whether he should be expelled from the group.
“Mr. Giuliani’s words quite clearly were intended to encourage Trump supporters unhappy with the election’s outcome to take matters into their own hands,” the group said in a statement. “Their subsequent attack on the Capitol was nothing short of an attempted coup, intended to prevent the peaceful transition of power.”
Experts concerned that incitement is far from over
John Scott-Railton, a researcher at University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who now works with others to identify extremist groups who were part of the Capitol mob, said the rhetoric plays into the fantasies of armed protesters who have been gunning for a civil war.
“They’re ready – it’s what they’ve been prancing around in the woods, playing dress up, preparing for,” he said. “I’m just terribly worried that they weren’t satisfied with what happened on the sixth, and they’re going to come back for more.”
As for Bannon, the tenor of his podcast took a turn once the violence started unfolding.
On the morning of January 6, before the rally and march on the Capitol, Bannon echoed Stone’s words by saying the day would be a battle between “the children of light and the forces of darkness.”
But the podcast’s tone shifted sharply as footage of the violence at the Capitol was broadcast nationwide. Even as Bannon and his co-podcasters continued to describe Vice President Mike Pence as a traitor, they absolved Trump and themselves from any responsibility for fomenting violence.
“What’s going on right now was choices made by individuals who are fed up with what they’ve seen happen,” said right-wing activist Ben Bergquam on a War Room episode later that same day. “When I’m talking to people on the ground, that is what I’m hearing over and over and over again, it has nothing to do with President Trump’s words.”
Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, said anyone paying attention knew the events on January 6 would be a magnet for angry people. The violence of extremists, he added, has historically been sparked by a fear that something is being taken away – be it a White majority, guns or a way of life.
“Whether it’s illegal or not, people have gotta know better,” he said. “You don’t have to be a genius to know how people are incited by words.”
CNN’s Nelli Black, Scott Bronstein, Bob Ortega, Benjamin Naughton and Yahya Abou-Ghazala contributed to this report.