What Makes a Person Storm the Capitol?

An investigator on the January 6 committee on how Trump supporters became “foot soldiers.”

This content comes from the latest installment of our weekly Breaking the Vote newsletter out of VICE News’ D.C. bureau, tracking the ongoing efforts to undermine the democratic process in America. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.

James Sasso is a lawyer who served as an investigator on the January 6 committee. This week he published an op-ed arguing for broad political reforms to address some of the deep distrust he found while interviewing witnesses who stormed the Capitol. Sasso says chronic, long-term trends in American politics are making people vulnerable to the cynical tactics former President Donald Trump represents. That may be true, but it also can distract from the urgency of violent authoritarianism, like the time this week Trump boosted more calls for violence in his name. I called up Sasso to chat about the lessons of the committee’s work and about what he sees as the long-term path out of Trumpism. 


You and I have been fumbling around with our Zoom call here for about seven minutes. Please tell me high-profile depositions didn’t go like this in the January 6 committee.

Sometimes at the beginning of the deposition, we had to spend 10 to 15 minutes dealing with witnesses trying to get their microphones to work. Or trying to get the screen to work. We’d have to pause in the middle to figure out why a screen froze or someone started echoing or their screen went blank, in the middle of very important answers. Somebody would just freeze and you throw your hands up in the air, but that's the world we were operating in.

That’s not the world I envisioned when I was watching (former White House lawyer) Eric Herschmann say, “I told him, ‘Get a great effin’ criminal defense lawyer, you’re gonna need it.’” But anyway, you spent most of your time looking at the actual attack, as opposed to the broad coup attempt? 

We were divided up into color teams. I was on the “red” team, where we focused on the riot itself. But part of that was the domestic violent extremist groups, like the Oathkeepers and Proud Boys, Three Percenters. They were there planning to storm the Capitol no matter what happened. We also looked at the rally planners. I also looked at President Trump’s speech and how it came together. But mostly I looked at what you’d call foot soldiers in the game that the former president was playing.


The committee’s report is narrowly focused, mostly on Trump and his deep role in the riot and the coup. It sounds like you put yourself in the camp of people who say the committee missed a vital opportunity to address the deeper issues in American society that led to the insurrection?  

I wouldn’t put myself in that camp. I think we were right to focus on President Trump. We didn't have the time or the resources to conduct a thorough, historical, sociological political sciences report for 50 years to explain all of the different things that have enabled someone like Donald Trump to become president in the first place, and then to convince so many millions of Americans that the election was stolen, and then push several thousand of them to storm the Capitol. It wasn’t as if we were ignoring these broader themes. Our hope is that historians, the public, reporters, will be able to keep answering those larger questions.

You’re concerned about the regular, everyday people who distrusted government so much they followed Trump and attacked. We have a long history of distrust in government in this county. But it doesn’t always result in a mob trying to stop the peaceful transfer of power, or the bombing of a federal building. So what’s different here? 

You’re right, distrusting government isn’t new at all. But what’s changed that can make it worse? Clearly social media, the way algorithms amplify information, has warped and heightened distrust. If you lean conspiratorial, this model will keep pushing you further down a rabbit hole and eventually, you believe in QAnon. On top of that, income inequality is as bad or worse than in the Gilded Age. And there’s a lot of research that shows income inequality drives polarization and it drives people who feel left out to distrust what government is doing. Racial animus is layered on top of that, clearly.  So there’s all these things happening at once to make people open to being hijacked by opportunistic politicians like Donald Trump.


The lazy media diagnosis of “economic anxiety” to explain Trumpism died a while ago. To be honest, I’d be surprised if that’s what your investigative work found was driving rioters. 

I could see how people would react that way. That's not what I’m trying to do. But I don’t think we can afford to ignore people who do feel left out in that way. It’s just that the explanation for why they’re left out isn’t always as simple as “blue collar worker in Ohio lost a job to globalization.” It’s also very likely a rich person in Georgia, who harbors racial animus for a long time and found an outlet. And it was for someone who has seen the system as rigged, even if they are people who are benefiting from it.

A rich white person from Georgia with an authoritarian streak who manages to feel left out. I see what you did there. Marjorie Taylor Greene is a big coup backer, to put it mildly. By the way, how are you feeling about the various grand juries and special grand juries that are operating now?

That is the ultimate question. I am happy that law enforcement agencies are doing their job at the state level and it seems from my armchair view that the DOJ is moving forward. I have not been a prosecutor so I don't have much experience there. I am glad that our investigation sort of came to light a spark to get them moving perhaps a little faster.

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Here’s the steal

Trump’s aides and allies have testified over and over that they knew he’d lost the 2020 election while he was lying about it in a bid to hold onto power. Now hear it for yourself.

The AP takes you back to Nov. 5, 2020, just one day after Wisconsin was called for President Joe Biden. That’s when the head of his Wisconsin campaign consoled his troops that Democrats had won a close one. In newly-obtained recordings, Andrew Iverson can be heard praising Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts. Then, this

“Here’s the deal: Comms is going to continue to fan the flame and get the word out about Democrats trying to steal this election. We’ll do whatever they need. Just be on standby if there’s any stunts we need to pull,” Iverson said.

AP had called Wisconsin for Biden the day before. Later on the tape you can hear campaign operatives lamenting and joking about their fecklessness in reaching Black voters. 

Of course, all this is just backdrop to Trump’s national campaign of lies that two months later would fuel his attempted coup. As for Iverson, he’s now an official in the Republican National Committee, which, as you’ll read below, is laying the groundwork to permanently weave stolen election propaganda into the party’s infrastructure. 


Admittedly, Trump campaign aids admitting defeat and planning to lie while Trump dragged the country through an anti-democratic nightmare is hardly surprising anymore. It’s just nice to hear them say it in their own words.

T.W.I.S.™ Notes

Scott’s plots 

Rep. Scott Perry was apparently one of the most prolific coup plotters in Congress (pg 48). He also, totally coincidentally, happens to lead the House’s most powerful Trumpist GOP faction. Perry had his phone seized by the feds last August pursuant to a warrant as part of their coup investigation. They thought there might be evidence of crimes on it. 

But they still haven’t unlocked and searched that phone, and they may not any time soon. Perry is locked in a largely secret dispute to keep the DOJ out of his phone, and now a federal appeals court has overturned a lower court ruling that would have let the feds in. Part of the dispute has to do with Perry’s contention that his communications are guarded by the Constitution’s “speech and debate” protections. Even the House’s “Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group” weighed in on Perry’s behalf, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries


- Stay classified

FBI agents searched President Biden’s house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware this week, looking for any stray classified documents that could be lingering there. According to Biden’s lawyer, none were found. Last week I was on the NPR show “1A,” where I talked about how journalists fail to do their jobs when they presume the public isn’t equipped to differentiate between Biden and Mike Pence’s behavior, and what Trump is suspected of doing at Mar-a-Lago (it’s here at about 26:10).

Meanwhile, two hired investigators who found a pair of classified documents at a storage facility for Trump appeared before the federal grand jury investigating the Mar-a-Lago case. That probe, now under Special Counsel Jack Smith, appears to be in full swing even while a separate special counsel investigates Biden. 


- Matt fink

Rep. Matt Gaetz would like you to know that the three people who testified that he asked for a pardon after Jan. 6 all committed perjury under oath, while he is being truthful on TV

- The Fifth element

“Very little,” Trump said when asked by an investigator what he did to prepare for his deposition in front of the New York attorney general last August. Here’s 22 minutes of Trump taking the Fifth Amendment in the lead-up to NY’s $250 million lawsuit accusing Trump, his family and his business of fraud against insurance companies, tax agencies and banks.  

In this image from video provided by the New York State Attorney General, former President Donald Trump listens during an Aug. 10, 2022, deposition, in New York. Trump was deposed as part of state Attorney General Letitia James' civil investigation. (New York State Attorney General via AP)

In this image from video provided by the New York State Attorney General, former President Donald Trump listens during an Aug. 10, 2022, deposition, in New York. Trump was deposed as part of state Attorney General Letitia James' civil investigation. (New York State Attorney General via AP)

Can’t stop won’t stop

The Republican National Committee is looking to build a permanent election disinformation infrastructure on the foundation of Trump’s lies. A new RNC report proposes building out permanent “election integrity” operations in all 50 states, complete with poll watchers and “election integrity officers” assigned to amplify “concerns” about election fraud—not to combat the cause of those beliefs from within the party. Reminder from the Breaking the Vote guy you love to talk to at parties: Voters’ “concerns” about election fraud were hammered into place by a concerted and relentless lying campaign that Republicans largely support and that led to a deadly riot and attempted coup.

Stop the zeal

Read about the COVID-denying, election-undermining, Christian-nationalist revival organization that’s expanding to try to be an important part of Trump’s bid to recapture the imagination of the GOP base for 2024. ReAwaken America started with seed money from Overstock.com’s former CEO Patrick Byrne, who attended the now-infamous Dec. 18, 2020 Oval Office meeting with coup supporters. Pardoned and retired Gen. (what the hell happened to) Michael Flynn was there too, and he also happens to be a recurring star on the ReAwaken circuit. 


Don’t miss the part where ReAwaken is planning a big event next month at Trump’s Doral golf resort.

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“I’ve heard from a lot of people who will go onstage and put on the red hat, and then give me a call the next day and say, ‘I can’t wait until this guy dies.’” — Former GOP Rep. Peter Meijer, on Republicans’ conclusion that Trump will be the leader of the party until the very end.

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Kari’d too far — Did losing GOP governor candidate Kari Lake go overboard when she tweeted out a claim that 40,000 Arizona ballots were invalid because of non-matching signatures? Election officials sure think so. Lake’s tweet included images of more than a dozen voter signatures. Newly-elected Secretary of State Adrian Fontes says that’s a felony, and referred Lake to the state AG for investigation. Fontes told this newsletter back in November that he was done coddling anti-democracy forces in his state. “Call the authoritarian an authoritarian,” he said. 


“Totes Legit Votes” — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made a big deal out of his Office of Election Crimes before the 2022 election. Now the office is “a shambles,” according to some watchers in the state. Four of the 20 voter-fraud cases stemming from DeSantis’ photo-op arrests collapsed. One place where DeSantis didn’t send his voter fraud cops was The Villages, the Republican-leaning grand ville of grandparents in central Fla. And wouldn’t you know it, a fourth Villages resident has just pleaded guilty to voting twice in 2020. They were turned into authorities by an anonymous tipster calling themselves “Totes Legit Votes.”

VICE News’ Liz Landers happened to ask Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd why DeSantis pumped up those 20 arrests while never mentioning the ever-growing list of voter fraud at The Villages. Check out his unsatisfying answer!

Pay troll before exit — Antisemitic artist and Trump dining buddy Ye paid a pair of notorious white nationalist trolls (and Trump dining buddies) Milo Yiannopoulos and Nick Fuentes tens of thousands of dollars to help with his yet-to-be-realized 2024 presidential campaign. Turns out the money was left over from Ye’s last tragically weird presidential bid. VICE News’ Tess Owen has the story from Ye’s campaign disclosures.  

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A conservative judge helped stop Trump. He wants to finish the job.


Bias and human error played parts in the F.B.I.’s Jan. 6 failure.


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