WASHINGTON — Shortly after thousands of Trump supporters descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6, Joshua Haynes of Virginia texted a selfie in front of a pile of mangled metal camera gear, bragging that he’d assaulted the “fake news.”
“We attacked the CNN reporters and the fake news and destroyed tens of thousands of dollars of their video and television equipment here's a picture behind me of the pile we made out of it,” Haynes wrote, according to an FBI affidavit.
He added: “i Kicked the fake news ass.”
In the days after the insurrection, alleged rioters urged friends and family to regard media coverage as “fake news,” notwithstanding the mountain of video footage from inside and outside the Capitol. On Jan. 7, Karl Dresch of Michigan insisted via text that news reports about violence at the Capitol were “fake,” even as he described the day in the same message as a “good show of force.”
“Bro you shoulda been there....the news is all fake...and just to correct shit..we wasn’t violent but we took the capitol,” Dresch wrote, according to messages quoted by prosecutors.
Donald Trump didn’t invent the phrase “fake news,” but he’d made it his own by the time he left the White House. He deployed it countless times since 2016 in speeches and tweets to discredit critical or unflattering media coverage — particularly when it was not, in fact, fake. By Jan. 6, Trump’s supporters had absorbed his full roster of reality-defying linguistic devices and used them to distort facts or justify their participation in the assault on the Capitol.
The most common Trumpism on display on Jan. 6 was “stop the steal,” the rallying cry among Trump and his allies referring to the lie that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. But the language that Trump supporters used in social media posts, interviews, and messages to friends and family explaining why they traveled to Washington on Jan. 6 underscores that they weren’t all there simply to protest the election. The riots were a convergence of four years of grievances and conspiracy theories, from anger at pandemic lockdowns and “cancel culture” to the QAnon collective delusion.
The 500-plus criminal cases filed so far in connection with the insurrection are peppered with Trumpian turns of phrase going back to the 2016 campaign. They underscore his yearslong influence on the right-wing lexicon — and, as a result, how his supporters engage with politics, culture, and the world around them — that’s likely to far outlast a single term.
Capitol riot defendants railed online against the “deep state.” They approvingly described the physical takeover of the Capitol as part of a bigger movement to “take back” the country, a frequent Trump theme.
Some of these words and phrases have evolved way beyond their original meaning. When Trump spoke in 2016 about wanting to “drain the swamp,” it was usually a reference to political operatives in Washington. When Garret Miller, a Texas man charged in the riots, sent a message claiming he’d identified the police officer who shot and killed Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt at the Capitol, he wrote that the officer was “part of the swamp,” according to the government. (US Capitol Police have declined to identify the officer, and the Justice Department announced in April that they would not face charges.)
One defense lawyer called the investigation into the insurrection “the largest political witch hunt” in Justice Department history, echoing one of Trump’s favorite attacks on the Russia probe. Even Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state made an appearance — the mother of two men charged with joining the riots, Matthew Klein and Jonathanpeter Klein, texted to suggest that one of them “[p]ull a Hillary and use a hammer” to destroy his phone, according to prosecutors.
The insurrection brought together a broad spectrum of Trump supporters, including some of the more dangerous elements emboldened under him — QAnon believers, members of right-wing extremist groups like the Proud Boys and anti-government militias, and self-proclaimed white supremacists. Court filings show how members of these factions took Trump’s expressions of tacit, if not explicit, support — like when he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” — as permission to descend on the Capitol.
Even out of office and kicked off mainstream social media platforms, Trump still has a megaphone. In speeches and in statements via email, he still rails against “fake news” and the “swamp,” maintains that he’s the victim of a “witch hunt,” and insists the election was “rigged” — another word that’s repeatedly cropped up in the texts and online posts quoted in charging papers against alleged rioters. His continued influence over the conservative movement has had consequences for his supporters in court. Judges have ordered several defendants to stay in jail while their cases are pending based in part on the fact that they’re still listening to him.
When US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered Dresch in May to remain behind bars, she noted that he’d told someone after the insurrection that Trump was “the only big shot [he] trust[ed] right now.”
“Defendant’s promise to take action in the future cannot be dismissed as an unlikely occurrence given that his singular source of information … continues to propagate the lie that inspired the attack on a near daily basis,” Jackson wrote.
The term “fake news” originally was used to describe information that was completely manufactured; former BuzzFeed News reporter Craig Silverman popularized it starting in 2014. But by 2016, Trump had co-opted it to refer to any critical reports.
When Dona Bissey of Indiana posted on Facebook about her time at the Capitol on Jan. 7, she thanked people for checking on her and told them to “turn off the #FakeNews,” according to her charging papers. Bissey is set to enter a guilty plea later this month.
“We are Home [heart emoji]. Thank You to ALL that messaged checking in and concerned [kiss face emoji]. It was a day I’ll remember forever [hug emoji]. I’m proud to be a part of it! No Shame [eight American flag emojis]. BTW turn off the #FakeNews,” Bissey wrote, along with a photo of someone holding a sign that read, “Do It Q.”
Bissey had traveled to the Capitol on Jan. 6 with Anna Morgan-Lloyd, who pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of illegally demonstrating inside the Capitol. Morgan-Lloyd was conciliatory at sentencing and told the judge that she was “ashamed that it became a savage display of violence”; she was sentenced to three years of probation and no jail time.
Appearing on Fox News the next day, she struck a different tone.
“When they call it an insurrection, what do you say?” host Laura Ingraham asked.
“I can only talk about the area I was in, and I don't believe it,” Morgan-Lloyd replied. “But as I said, that's only from the area I was at.” Her lawyer, Heather Shaner, told BuzzFeed News that Fox had “limited her response.”
Stephen Ayres of Ohio recorded a video about his experience at the Capitol after he returned to his hotel, according to the government. He spoke about how the “fake news” wouldn’t accurately report what had happened but that he and people he was traveling with had “seen it all” and recorded their own footage to share.
On Jan. 7, Daryl Johnson of Iowa posted on Facebook repeating a lie pushed by some prominent Republicans that members of the “antifa” movement had infiltrated the crowd, per charging papers.
“You need to look more deeply into what actually happened - what the media is saying is completely false,” Johnson wrote, according to messages the FBI says it found after a judge signed off on a search warrant for his account. “It was antifa causing the damage. I was there!”
The government identified some defendants based on distinctive, fake news–themed clothing. Charging documents feature photos of Daniel Warmus of New York inside the Capitol sporting a sweatshirt that says “CNN is fake news.” Duke Wilson of Idaho wore a purple and white hat that read “CNN Fake News” as he allegedly joined a mob pushing the police officers guarding one of the tunnels into the building. Surveillance cameras inside the Capitol captured a person identified by prosecutors as Kene Lazo of Virginia carrying around a plaque with what appeared to be custom stenciled slogans, including “FALSE MEDIA = COUP.”
Like “fake news,” Trump didn’t invent the term “deep state,” but it became a staple of his linguistic toolbox to try to undermine the investigations that he and his administration faced and to attack law enforcement for not prosecuting his political foes. The late linguist Geoffrey Nunberg summed up Trump’s definition of it as “a cabal of unelected leftist officials lodged deep in the government who are conspiring to thwart the administration’s policies, discredit its supporters and ultimately even overturn Trump’s election.”
Samuel Fisher, a self-described “dating coach” from New York who ran a website under the name “Brad Holiday,” put up a post early on Jan. 6 before going to the Capitol, in which he offered several theories about what might happen as the day unfolded, according to the government.
“Trump has an Ace card up his sleeve. He plays it. The Deep State is arrested and hanged on the White House lawn for the High Treason,” Fisher wrote, explaining one of his predictions of what could happen.
If Joe Biden were ultimately sworn in, he continued, his theories were that either “we live under the rule of the elite pedophiles and chinese communist party” or “Patriots show up in the millions with guns. They execute all treasonous members of government and rebuild.”
Alleged Capitol rioters charged with being part of a conspiracy involving the far-right militant group the Oath Keepers used the “deep state” narrative, too, according to the FBI. Jessica Watkins of Ohio, one of the defendants in the case, allegedly messaged someone listed as a “recruit” a few weeks after the November election warning that the “deep state” was behind Biden’s win. Watkins is accused of organizing members of the conspiracy to travel to Washington to try to disrupt Congress’s certification of the Electoral College results on Jan. 6.
“I don’t underestimate the resolve of the Deep State,” Watkins told the person on Nov. 17, 2020. “Biden may still be our President. If he is, our way of life as we know it is over. Our Republic would be over. Then it is our duty as Americans to fight, kill and die for our rights.”
Two months after the insurrection, another alleged member of the Oath Keepers conspiracy, Kenneth Harrelson, brought up the “deep state” in a text exchange cited by the government about tactics to avoid government surveillance. He allegedly told an unidentified person to avoid discussing plans near phones, TVs, “or anything plugged in,” and to use protective cases for electronic devices while traveling.
“I hope the Deep State feels this pain!” he wrote on March 5; he was arrested less than a week later.
Former president Ronald Reagan is usually credited with popularizing the phrase “drain the swamp” in the early 1980s. It generally refers to tamping down on the influence of lobbyists and other traditional power brokers in Washington. Politicians from both parties have used it to pitch themselves as political outsiders, and Trump carried on that tradition during his 2016 campaign. His supporters picked up on it as a stand-in for referring broadly — and pejoratively — to Democrats and official Washington.
Alan Hostetter of California, charged in another conspiracy case, posted on Instagram on Dec. 19 about his plans to follow Trump’s directive to come to DC on Jan. 6. According to the government, he wrote: “I will be there, bullhorns on fire, to let the swamp dwellers know we will not let them steal our country from us.”
“Hitting DC in the 5-7th..you should pop thru! We gonna Storm the Swamp,” Anthony Williams of Michigan posted on Facebook on Dec. 30, according to his charging papers.
The day after the riots, the government says, Bruno Cua of Georgia posted a message on Parler addressed to “swamp rats,” writing, “The events at the capital were a reminder that WE THE PEOPLE are in charge of this country and that you work for us. There will be no ‘warning shot’ next time.”
The FBI cites screenshots of tweets by defendant Brandon Straka of Nebraska defending the breach of the Capitol. “Perhaps I missed the part where it was agreed this would be a revolution of ice cream cones & hair-braiding parties to take our government back from lying, cheating globally interested swamp parasites. My bad,” he wrote.
“Take back our country”
When Trump called on his supporters to “take back our country” in 2015, it tended to go hand-in-hand with campaign rhetoric around his hardline stance against immigration. The phrase evolved into a catch-all for supporting GOP-backed policies and conservative causes.
On Jan. 6, speaking to a crowd of his supporters shortly before many of them marched to the Capitol, Trump said, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength.” Near the end of the speech, he again encouraged the crowd to go to the Capitol to give Republican lawmakers who planned to certify his election loss “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
Trump has denied that his words incited the assault on the Capitol; he was impeached for that by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and then acquitted by the Republican majority in the Senate following a trial. Defendants charged with participating in the riots repeatedly expressed that they saw their involvement as part of a larger movement to “take back” the country.
In the lead-up to Jan. 6, the government says Dresch (the Michigan man who told a friend to disregard news reports about violence) posted on Facebook about his plans to travel to Washington, writing: “NO EXCUSES! NO RETREAT! NO SURRENDER! TAKE THE STREETS! TAKE BACK OUR COUNTRY! 1/6/2021=7/4/1776.”
In a video allegedly recorded from a terrace outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, Bradley Weeks of Florida taped himself saying: “We’ve had to break things to get through, but we’ve gotten through. We’ve gotten through, and we are going to take back the Capitol! We’re taking back our country!”
Corinne Montoni of Florida posted on Parler throughout Jan. 6, according to the government, including one message that stated: “Storming the Capitol to take back our country from traitors! This is OUR HOUSEEEE!”
The next day, an anonymous tipster alerted law enforcement that Kevin Cordon of California had given an interview to a Finnish news outlet talking about participating in the insurrection.
“We’re standing up and we’re taking our country back,” Cordon said. “This is just the beginning.” ●