Researchers at Harvard University who conducted the largest study yet of what motivated Jan. 6 rioters say the data is clear: The most common responses focused on former President Donald Trump and his lies about the election.
The study, which was shared with NBC News ahead of its publication, logged and analyzed the motives of 417 Capitol rioters, all of whom have been charged in relation to Jan. 6. The motives were derived from 469 documents filed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, including charging documents and sentencing memoranda.
The researchers from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University wrote that the documents make clear that Jan. 6 committee member Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., “was mostly correct in her assessment” that “Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.”
“Far and away, we find that the two most commonly-cited reasons for breaching the US Capitol were a desire to support Trump on January 6th in DC and concerns about election integrity,” the report reads.
The report adds to evidence from thousands of court documents in the more than 840 cases brought forward so far that many of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol and committed violent acts were motivated by their support for Trump and their belief in lies about the 2020 election.
A plurality of rioters cited either their support for Trump (20.6%) or Trump’s false belief that the election had been stolen (also 20.6%) as their primary motivation for their actions that led to charges on Jan. 6.
The third most frequently listed reason defendants gave to law enforcement for entering the Capitol was their belief that they were participating in “revolution, civil war, or secession.”
About the same number of defendants in the study claimed they were at the Capitol to “peacefully protest” (7%) as those who claimed they were there because of a “general interest in violence” (6.2%).
The report, written by Joan Donovan, director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and Kaylee Fagan and Frances Lee, research assistants at Shorenstein, is an analysis of “the largest and most far-reaching publicly available archive of social media posts, private messages, and direct quotes attributed to the members of the mob: their court documents.”
The report includes specific social media posts from rioters in the days before Jan. 6 that pinpoint Trump as a primary cause of mayhem. The Harvard study also notes the most-shared links among the more than 400 Capitol rioters included in the analysis.
The second-most-shared link by defendants was a Dec. 22, 2021, Facebook video posted by then-President Trump, in which he makes baseless accusations of voter fraud for over 14 minutes.
“When we were crafting a research question, we really wanted to answer, ‘What motivated Jan. 6 defendants to go inside the Capitol?’” Donovan said.
The documents were produced by either FBI agents or law enforcement and include both people’s stated motivations for going to the Capitol that day, as well as some of their social media history that the officers believed was relevant to their arrest.
Kelly Meggs, a member of the far-right militant group The Oath Keepers, cited then-President Trump’s tweet on Dec. 18 telling fans to “be there, will be wild!” in a Facebook post the same day.
“Trump said It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!!” Meggs wrote. “He wants us to make it WILD that’s what he’s saying. He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!!”
Meggs was later charged with seditious conspiracy by the Department of Justice for storming the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Daniel “D.J” Rodriguez, the California Trump supporter who was captured on multiple videos driving a stun gun into the neck of D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Mike Fanone, admitted to the FBI that he did what was shown on video.
After Rodriguez was arrested by the FBI in late March 2021, he waived his Miranda rights and gave the FBI an in-depth view into how he ended up committing a violent act on an officer. (After he confessed, Rodriguez’s attorneys unsuccessfully attempted to get his confession suppressed from a potential trial. He has entered a not guilty plea in his case, but remains held until trial because of the overwhelming evidence against him.)
“It’s very stupid and ignorant, and I see that it’s a big joke, that we thought that we were going to save this country, we were doing the right thing and stuff,” Rodriguez explained.
Rodriguez said that he’d knocked on doors in support of the Trump campaign, attended numerous rallies, and even attempted to sign up for the Army after Trump became president, walking into a recruitment station while wearing a Trump shirt.
“Trump called us. Trump called us to D.C.,” Rodriguez told the FBI, explaining why he went to D.C. on Jan. 6. “If he’s the commander in chief and the leader of our country, and he’s calling for help — I thought he was calling for help, I thought he was I thought we were doing the right thing.”
The sizable trove of evidence released in connection with Jan. 6 criminal cases illustrates the motivations of Capitol riot defendants in other ways. Recently released police body camera footage, presented as evidence in connection with Jan. 6 case, shows members of the mob chanting “Fight for Trump” inside the Capitol as they try to fight past police officers attempting to remove them from the building after the mob broke through the door on the eastern side of the Capitol.
Additional footage filmed by Capitol rioter Nolan Cooke, recently released following a request from NBC News, shows the mob chanting “Stop the steal” and “We want Trump!” after breaking a police line and chasing overwhelmed cops up the stairs of the Capitol.
Donovan said she hopes her research can help show social media companies and authorities when they need to act before a similar flash point occurs in the future.
“What we’re trying to understand is really the new potent forms of political violence that can come from agitation online, that creates this kind of fervor. And then, once the match is lit by a politician, we have to have appropriate responses by other actors, including not just law enforcement, but journalists and technologists,” Donovan said.
“I do believe that the only way to come at this problem of networked incitement is with a whole of society solution.”