What led Trump to turn his back on the Capitol Hill rioters?

Analysis: President makes surprise denunciation of own supporters for ‘defiling seat of American democracy’. But why risk their wrath?

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 08 January 2021 19:58 GMT
Trump admits election challenge over, but tells supporters ‘journey is only just beginning’
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Donald Trump executed a surprising about-face on Thursday night when he issued a short video statement explicitly condemning the mob of his own supporters who stormed the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC on Wednesday.

“Like all Americans I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem,” he said, adding that the MAGA faithful who looted and vandalised congressional property had “defiled the seat of American democracy”.

“To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country… To those who broke the law, you will pay.”

Since losing both the Electoral College and popular vote to Joe Biden in November’s presidential election, Mr Trump has doggedly pushed the bogus narrative that a second term in the White House was “stolen” from him as a result of “mass voter fraud”, despite his legal team, led by Rudy Giuliani, failing to find any evidence to prove his conspiracy theories and losing more than 60 local court cases in the process.

Having promised his supporters a “wild” rally in DC to protest the official certification of the election results in a joint session of Congress, the president duly riled up the crowd on Wednesday by again refusing to concede and reciting his menu of lies, sparking the chaos that ensued and left five people dead.

President Trump is not usually a man to heed criticism and seldom admits to being wrong, so why make a U-turn now?

Here are four possible explanations for last night’s extraordinary volte face.

Fear of personal and criminal repercussions

Donald Trump is much more than a preening egotist vain about his hair.

He is entirely convinced of his own greatness and uniquely concerned with public image and media projection. That’s why he plastered his name in gold lettering across his buildings and hosted The Apprentice on NBC for all those years – so that we are never permitted to forget the glitzy splendour of his achievements.

He is also heavily invested in the idea of his own legacy.

“You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you,” he advised French president Emmanuel Macron when the pair toured George Washington’s Virginia plantation estate in April 2018.

That remark explains many of his major policy decisions in the Oval Office, from commencing his absurd, racist US-Mexico border wall to attempting to bring Kim Jong-un in from the cold and starting a trade war with China, none of which have worked out as promised, incidentally.

As Dr Brian Klaas, associate professor in global politics at University College London, sees it: “Donald Trump acted like an arsonist for months, stoking the flames of violence. This week, the flames got out of control – so he’s trying to dress himself up as a firefighter. But it shouldn’t fool anybody: he caused the violence at the Capitol this week.

“He has likely realised, quite accurately, that the violent assault on the Capitol will define a significant part of his legacy and severely damage his political standing.”

Mr Trump is also a man accustomed to getting away with things, from cheating his way into Fordham University in 1964 by paying a brighter student to take the entrance exam for him, to securing draft deferrals from the Vietnam War, to the Zelensky call.

But now, finally, events appear to be catching up with him, hence the reported talk behind the scenes of his considering a self-pardon, a happening that would represent another dubious historical first.

As The New York Times investigations into his tax affairs have shown, he already has several hundred million dollars of loan repayments awaiting him when he leaves Washington and Manhattan’s district attorney is also taking a keen interest in his murky personal finances.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi has meanwhile wasted no time in calling on surviving Trump administration cabinet officials to invoke the 25th amendment of the US constitution to remove him from office, threatening to commence a second round of impeachment proceedings if they refuse.

Even a president as bullish and at war with reality as Mr Trump might think twice before allowing either of these scenarios to play out, especially if criminal charges relating to sedition or other offences committed in office looked likely to follow.

Removal from office or a second impeachment might be too black a mark against his name in the history books, which already look set to list him as the president who incited the first storming of the Capitol since 1814 and presided over more than 365,000 coronavirus deaths but otherwise achieved little else in a disastrous and divisive reign.

Whether incoming president Joe Biden has the appetite to see his first term dominated by the sideshow of Trump’s prosecution or concludes – like Gerald Ford before him – that the country needs to move on, is another matter.

“One thing that is clear is this,” says Dr Klaas. “[Mr Trump] was not motivated by a sincere desire to uphold the principles of democracy and maintain the peaceful transition of power. Trump was all too happy to torch American institutions to try to save himself.”

Desertion by key political allies

Another reason for the president’s U-turn could be a loss of nerve after 10 White House officials (and counting) handed in their notice from his administration in the wake of Wednesday’s disturbing scenes, including the first lady’s top aide Stephanie Grisham and his own former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, now US envoy to Northern Ireland.

Long-serving cabinet members Elaine Chao and Betsy DeVos also resigned, which, as Bloomberg’s Jennifer Epstein has pointed out, means they “get out of having to take a position on the 25th amendment”.

Mulvaney’s predecessor, John Kelly, told CNN on Thursday that, if he were still a member of the administration, he would have voted in favour of Trump’s removal from office under these circumstances.

Trump of course has burned more bridges than a barbarian horde in his time and, even before the exodus, he had alienated such once-powerful allies as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and attorney general William Barr for refusing to support his unsubstantiated election claim, capping it all by falling out with his own vice president Mike Pence when the latter refused to overturn the certification of results in the Senate.

For Professor Ian Scott, lecturer on American history at the University of Manchester, “the danger is to think that Trump has ‘road to Damascus’ moments where he realises it was all a mistake.

“History has taught us over the last four years that he doesn’t have those moments, he only ever has a never-ending need to be the centre of the news cycle and draw the spotlight on himself, even if it means countermanding his previous position.

“It is his position that is at stake, his authority, his popularity with a base that, if there is any plan at all to what he has done, has tried and successfully pulled in more moderate Republican members to a ragtag set of wild beliefs and unsubstantiated assertions.”

Johanna Maska, director of press advance in Barack Obama’s White House, agrees that his motives are entirely selfish, telling The Independent: “President Trump is – as he has for four years – planning his own escape pod. It seems he’s worried about legal liability and reportedly has been consulting with his lawyers on pardoning himself. He has proven over and over he will do whatever is best for him, rather than America.”

Loss of key media allies

The president had been at odds with Fox News – which has served as a largely uncritical propaganda unit for much of his presidency – during the campaign, regularly complaining about its polling placing Mr Biden out in front.

When the network called the red state of Arizona for the Democrat on election night, Trump reportedly blew his top and called owner Rupert Murdoch personally to demand it be withdrawn, only to be rudely rebuffed.

The president has since busied himself attacking the broadcaster and promoting off-brand alternatives like Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN) on Twitter instead.

Murdoch-owned newspapers including The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post came out strongly against “the Trump mob” on their front pages on Thursday before the former’s editorial board called on him to resign.

“It is best for everyone, himself included, if he goes away quietly,” they concluded.

One of Fox’s most prominent big beast anchors, Tucker Carlson, also turned against the president on Thursday night.

Shelving Fox’s own culpability for the mess he describes temporarily, Mr Carlson’s remarks are worth quoting at length.

“We've gone from being this big continental country with an enormous span of concerns and interests to a sweaty chat room of 300 million people all of whom are focused on a single man, Donald Trump. That is not healthy, no matter how you feel about Trump.

“At some point you’ve got to wonder about where our country is putting all of its energy. Is any single president, anyone, worth all of this time and attention? All politicians whether you agree with them or not come with a shelf life, they are people.

“They don’t last forever, none of us do. In Trump’s case, the expiration date arrives in 13 days and after that he will not be president.”

Without support from crucial enablers like Carlson – and with even Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs visibly losing patience on air with his team’s indefensible and evidence-free claims – this president is left with only the loopiest of media advocates like OANN’s Chanel Rian to promote his cause. This support alone would hardly be sufficient should he choose to mount a fresh presidential bid in 2024, as he has threatened.

Social media suspension

Twitter is arguably the true source of Donald Trump’s power, the president able to broadcast to 88.7 million followers with every post, more than most national governments.

But the Silicon Valley giant has grown more and more uncomfortable hosting his unproven and often dangerous counter-factual statements since the campaign and has increasingly stepped in to censor his tweets, particularly during the George Floyd protests last summer and in the aftermath of the election.

It suspended his account temporarily on Thursday and threatened a permanent ban, as Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat also took temporary action.

Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter told Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain on Thursday that the Capitol riots mean an end to Trump’s media ambitions post-Washington, his credibility so dashed even with the MAGA crowd that the prospect of a “Trump TV” channel to challenge his erstwhile friends at Fox is a non-starter.

Whether that is accurate remains to be seen but the loss of the platform social media has provided would mean a death blow to his brand, perhaps the real reason for his condemnation video on Thursday night, which, as one angry Trump supporter commented on Reddit, looked “like a hostage reading a prepared script”.

His lack of enthusiasm for the gesture was obvious.

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