One question that inquiries into January 6th seek to answer is the extent to which former President Donald Trump and his close associates were aware of the potential for violence against Congress when Trump urged his supporters to march to the Capitol. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a member of the House Select Committee, emphasized this line of inquiry:
“The one thing that, if I could wave a magic wand and have more information on, it would certainly be what did the president know about January 6th leading up to January 6th. And I think what’s important is, it’s the difference between was the president absolutely incompetent or a coward on the 6th when he didn’t do anything or did he know what was coming? And I think that’s the difference between incompetence with your oath and possibly criminal. That’s where I want to get more information.”
A potentially highly fruitful indicator of the President’s awareness of the detailed planning for violent assaults on the Capitol is what he and his closest aides knew about the discourse on a publicly available messaging board. In this essay, I discuss the available information about the nexus between the Trump team and that messaging board – The Donald, an online forum favored by some of the most zealous and militant Trump supporters.
While a high volume of calls for political violence could be found on major social media platforms such as Facebook after the election, The Donald is notable because of the sheer amount of detailed coordination, planning, and logistics it hosted. The sharing of specific techniques, tactics, and procedures for the assault on the Capitol started on The Donald in earnest on December 19, 2020, the day Trump tweeted “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th … Be there, will be wild!” The ensuing weeks of communications on the site included information on how to use a flagpole as a weapon, how to smuggle firearms into DC, measurements for a guillotine, and maps of the tunnel systems under the Capitol building.
To understand the likelihood that such communications were known to the Trump team, and how that knowledge might be proven, it is important to understand the history of The Donald, and how Donald Trump, his presidential campaigns, and his closest advisors interacted with it.
Relationship to Trump, the White House and His Campaigns
The Donald is an online message board community that got its start in 2015 as a subreddit at /r/The_Donald devoted to “Following the news related to Donald Trump during his presidential run.” By the summer of 2016, just as the general election for president kicked into high gear, the site had amassed more than 170,000 subscribers and garnered millions of page views, quickly becoming the largest pro-Trump message board on the popular social media site. Candidate Donald Trump nurtured the community by participating in an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A session with the site’s users in July 2016, cementing a close relationship that would help propel him to the White House and follow him once there.
During the 2016 campaign, then-digital media director Brad Parscale publicly announced that he checked the site “daily” during that campaign.
@reddit Yes. Visit there daily.
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) June 23, 2016
Explaining the campaign’s digital success following the 2016 election, Politico Magazine made it known that in fall 2016 “a team in the war room at Trump Tower was monitoring social media trends, including The_Donald subreddit…and privately communicating with the most active users to seed new trends” (emphasis added). In May 2017, The Atlantic pondered, “Is Donald Trump a Secret Redditor?” “Probably not, but his staffers might be,” the article concluded, identifying as examples when content the President tweeted had appeared on The Donald just before he tweeted it.
During the Trump Presidency, Dan Scavino–Director of Social Media from 2017 to 2021 and White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications from 2019 to 2021–was known to engage with The Donald regularly. Multiple journalists reported that Scavino tracked the site closely and mined it for content to share on Trump’s Twitter feed. In one notable incident in July 2017, Trump tweeted a crude video that depicted him attacking “CNN” and wrestling it to the ground – a clip that first appeared on r/The_Donald. A user of the subreddit later apologized for the video and for other “racist, bigoted and anti-semtic” posts he made, but moderators took down the apology. In a 2019 report Politico noted that Scavino, who “met Trump as a 16-year-old golf caddie and has spent much of his adult life by his side,” monitors r/The_Donald closely:
Asked directly whether Scavino helps write his tweets, Trump said, “Generally, I’ll do my tweets myself,” but he allowed that his aide helps shape his missives “on occasion.”
Scavino — who regularly monitors Reddit, with a particular focus on the pro-Trump /r/The_Donald channel — has helped craft some of Trump’s most memorable social media moments.
Even so, Scavino has developed a following among tech-savvy Trump supporters online, especially in the pro-Trump corners of Reddit, where his tweets and videos often catch fire.
The willingness of the Trump White House to engage The Donald was glaring, given that from its earliest days the site was a haven for extremist, highly bigoted and violent content.
“The Donald always was far right,” said Alex Kaplan, Senior Researcher at Media Matters, a nonprofit organization that tracks far right extremism. Kaplan noted that the site helped to recruit participants to the deadly Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, where a Neo-Nazi rammed his car into a group of counterprotestors, killing Heather Heyer. By the summer of 2019, Reddit decided to quarantine r/The_Donald for violent content, restricting some functionality on the site and how its posts propagated elsewhere on the platform. Anticipating the subreddit may get banned, the site’s volunteer moderators made a backup plan, creating a clone of Reddit at a new domain, TheDonald.win.
Ultimately, The Donald’s moderators had a year to migrate the community off of Reddit, since r/The_Donald was not permanently banned until June 2020. Researchers who studied the migration of the community from the subreddit noted the newly constituted group of users “showed increases in signals associated with toxicity and radicalization,” as presumably the most engaged users self-selected into the new standalone domain.
“Eyes and Ears”: Trump Engagement with The Donald before January 6
But such company did not scare off the Trump campaign or the Trump White House. On the contrary, Trump’s White House and campaign team boosted content shared there throughout Trump’s Presidency and campaign for reelection. So when it came to fall 2020, that background was likely widely understood within the community. It became a virtual call and response. In the runup to the election and in the period afterward, Trump’s Twitter account amplified content posted on The Donald, according to material gathered by the nonprofit nonpartisan research organization Advance Democracy. Examples include:
- September 22, 2020: a user posted a link to a YouTube video praising Donald Trump. Two days later, Donald Trump tweeted out the same video. The user noted the video had only double-digit views on YouTube when they first found it and posted it at The Donald.
- November 18, 2020: a user posted a screenshot of a New York Times chart of a vote tally from Wisconsin. Hours later, Trump tweeted out the chart. In a post, The Donald users celebrated bringing the chart to the President’s attention.
- December 17, 2020: a user posted a link to a tweet with a video that ended in the phrase: “FIGHT FOR TRUMP!- SAVE AMERICA- SAVE THE WORLD.” Two days later, Trump tweeted the same video.
- December 19, 2020: a user posted a tweet with a video the user apparently created called “How to Steal an Election.” The video suggested that COVID-19 was created to ensure Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. After it was retweeted by a prominent QAnon account, the video was retweeted by Trump. The Donald user celebrated, noting “Meme magic is real my friends.”
When Trump tweeted his Dec. 19 exhortation to his followers to join a “wild” protest in the Capitol on January 6, users of The Donald took it as “marching orders” and one user interpreted a video from Dan Scavino as “literal war drums.” It is clear from material that was publicly available on The Donald that a significant contingent of the pro-Trump community gathered on the site went beyond protected free speech activities to organize efforts to infiltrate the Capitol and carry out acts of violence.
Just after the insurrection, The Independent’s Andrew Feinberg reported that “White House insiders say Trump knew what was about to happen at the Capitol — because of his social media guru Dan Scavino,” who one White House staffer reportedly said served as Trump’s “eyes and ears” on far right message boards:
The ex-White House and campaign insider, who has known both Scavino and the president for years, said there was no way that Scavino and the Trump social media operation would not have been aware of plans circulating online to storm the Capitol. That’s because the operation closely monitored the web’s darkest corners, ranging from mainstream sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, to fringe message boards like 4chan and 8chan (now called 8kun) to TheDonald.win, an offshoot from a banned Reddit community dedicated to rabidly supporting all things Trump. (emphasis added)
Another account suggests Trump was attuned to the potential for violence among his supporters. In the book Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost, Wall Street Journal senior White House reporter Michael C. Bender provides details of a meeting in the Oval Office on the evening of Jan. 5 attended by Scavino and Judd Deere, the White House deputy press secretary and other staffers. Bender reports that the discussion turned to the mood of the protestors– who could be heard gathering across the South Lawn. Trump reportedly asked his aides if the following day would be peaceful. Assured by Deere that it would, barring any interaction with counter protestors, Trump responded, “Don’t forget these people are fired up.”
There is no doubt that whatever his intentions, Donald Trump’s actions before and on January 6 resulted in his supporters’ engaging in violence at the US Capitol. But if Scavino, his White House staff or social media teams working for the Trump campaign were regularly engaged with The Donald–or indeed in communication with its users or moderators as they had been during the 2016 campaign–it would go a long way to establishing prior knowledge of the likelihood of violence.
Here are five questions investigators and reporters should be asking:
1. How were Dan Scavino, the White House, and the Trump campaign digital teams tracking The Donald? What analytics tools did they use to monitor the dialogue on the site, and how did they share such information?
2. How did Scavino or others in the White House or campaign communications and digital teams share information with Trump about the discourse on The Donald, particularly after the election and in the weeks leading up to January 6? Did Scavino or anyone else in these positions communicate with Trump regarding the content at The Donald on plans for violence at the Capitol on January 6?
3. What was Trump’s reaction when he was criticized for circulating content from the site?
4. Was anyone with whom Trump regularly communicated or were other close Trump associates in private communication with the most active users or moderators of The Donald to seed new trends, suggest ideas, or otherwise encourage certain actions or behaviors on the site as they had reportedly done during the 2016 election?
5. Did any member of the Trump family, the White House or Trump campaign teams maintain user accounts on The Donald, and what did they post publicly in the weeks after the election?
One year since the attack on the US Capitol, there are some signs that users of The Donald are less enthralled by the former President. But should Trump seek reelection, he may again engage with this community. “Trump doesn’t need more supporters, he has a fucking army, but he just won’t use it,” wrote one user this week, while another noted, “Im tired of people pretending jan 6th wasnt glorious. Shame the building wasnt burned down and that ashley babbitt died and not some pedo politicians [sic].” It is imperative that the connections between the site and the former President are understood – to adequately comprehend what happened on January 6, 2021, and to understand the kinetic potential on the far right that remains at Trump’s disposal whether or not he runs for office again.