'Anyone Who Opposes Trump Supporters' Could Disrupt Capitol Rally, Planners Feared

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In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.

The original permit application, filed on November 24, set the demonstration in Washington for January 22 and 23, the days after the Inauguration and long after the electoral vote count in Congress. The setting: Freedom Plaza and the Lincoln Memorial. The expected attendance, the application said, was 5,000, even though 11,000 people had attended the November 14 event, also sponsored by Women for America First.

In the requisite federal form filed that day, the organization said that the “First Amendment Rally” might be disrupted by “anyone who opposes conservatives, Trump supporters, or Republicans.” That was the only mention of Donald Trump. It seemed simple and straightforward, except no one in the federal or District of Columbia governments ever believed it would be.

The National Park Service, responsible for security of the Mall and monuments, including the Ellipse, started corresponding with demonstration organizers on November 14, the day of the first Trump demonstration in Washington, with 11,000 attending. “Right now,” an NPS official wrote in an email, “it sounds like there may be more internet traffic than actual attendees but they are expecting pro-Trump groups and counter groups.”

On December 21, Women for America First, stated in an email to the NPS that they were relinquishing January 22-23 for the Lincoln Memorial and Freedom Plaza and instead were requesting January 5-7. Those who might disturb the demonstration were now listed as “anyone who opposes election integrity, conservatives, Trump supporters, or Republicans.”

Internal documents reveal worries about porta-potties, food trucks, and the like—not violence. Crowds gather outside the U.S. Capitol for the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Just two weeks away, the organizers now predicted 15,000 attendees. The Park Service wrote in an internal email that they needed to find “a location suitable for 15,000,” telling the organizers that Freedom Plaza and the Lincoln Memorial were no longer available.

It is not clear in any of the documents released by NPS or leaked to the press since January 6 how the Ellipse, just south of the White House and adjacent to the Mall, emerged as the prospective venue. Officially, another application update was filed on December 29, the venue now moved to the Ellipse. Organizers said that the demonstration would run from approximately 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Prospective speakers included representatives from various pro-Trump organizations, members of Congress, Rudy Giuliani, and Roger Stone. (Donald Trump hadn’t yet declared that he would speak).

“Women for America First will not conduct an organized march from the Ellipse at the conclusion of the rally,” the permit issued stated. It was expected that some participants might leave the Ellipse to attend additional rallies at the Capitol “to hear the results of Congressional certification of the Electoral College count.”

The organizers and the Park Service agreed that the event would take place in the southwest quadrant of the Ellipse, south of the Christmas Tree Lighting Site. During the period of the rally, the Park Service stated, “All areas are always to remain open to the general public.”

The demonstration organizers said that they recognized “the significant concerns to public health resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.” They pledged to use CDC guidance and best practices, to wear masks and practice social distancing.

The National Park Service Record of Determination blithely stated that the event: “will not adversely affect the park’s natural, aesthetic or cultural values and is not of a highly controversial nature.”

Thousands of emails about the rally were exchanged inside the Park Service, within the federal government and with the District of Columbia government, all the responsible agencies—there were many—and the event organizers. There is no evidence that any of the coordination included the FBI or the Pentagon. It was all very friendly.

All of the internal correspondence regarded concerns about the structures that might be built on the Ellipse, from the stage to the Jumbotron screens, about seating, tents, lighting, flags and bunting, fire and safety of the participants, what would and would not be allowed on Park lands, the provision of porta-potties and hand-washing stations, crowd flow into and out of the event, the presence of vendors, street closures and parking, emergency medical preparations, food truck permits, recycling and trash containers, photographers at the top of the Washington Monument, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, protection of the grass on Park lands, protection of the steam lines that ran underneath the Ellipse, protection of the “sanctity of the National Mall,” particularly the preservation of the sightline that existed between the White House and the Jefferson Memorial, which by law could not be blocked.

One Park Service internal email, worrying about the structures being built, sums up the federal government’s concern. “I can’t help but think if we authorize (permit) erection of hazards on our land and don’t make reasonable effort by qualified staff to assure a minimum level of safety of applicable fire rules and regulations, we are liable.”

Liable to be sued, not liable for the outcome.