In a new court filing, Special Counsel Jack Smith has revealed more of the evidence he proposes to introduce during the Washington, D.C. trial of former president Donald Trump next year. According to Smith, the evidence helps establish Trump’s “motive, intent, preparation, knowledge, absence of mistake, and common plan” in seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
There is a new detail in the Special Counsel’s latest filing – and it is striking. Smith alleges that a Trump “Campaign Employee” – also identified as Trump’s “agent” – sought to cause a riot to disrupt the centralized vote counting in Detroit on Nov. 4, 2020. That goes beyond allegations of merely exploiting violence by third-parties to raise a new level of alleged wrongdoing.
As we have written previously, Smith and his team are closely tracking Trump’s continuing embrace of the Jan. 6 rioters. At a rally last month, Trump referred to Jan. 6 defendants as “hostages” and played, once again, a song performed by the “January 6 Choir” – a group that includes multiple men who allegedly assaulted police officers. Trump has also floated pardons for leaders of the Proud Boys, the extremist group that orchestrated the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and claimed they have been treated “horribly.”
In his latest filing, Smith argues that Trump’s “post-conspiracy embrace of particularly violent and notorious rioters is admissible to establish the defendant’s motive and intent on January 6 – that he sent supporters, including groups like the Proud Boys, whom he knew were angry, and whom he now calls ‘patriots,’ to the Capitol to achieve the criminal objective of obstructing the congressional certification.”
Many of the other examples cited by Smith, including how Trump encouraged violence against his own Vice President and two election workers in Georgia, are already widely known. But the new allegation merits particular attention.
A failed riot in Detroit
The Justice Department alleges that a “Campaign Employee” — a person who is also described both as an “unindicted conspirator” and Trump’s “agent” — attempted to cause violence to “obstruct the vote count” at the TCF Center in Detroit, Michigan. In the weeks following the presidential election, Trump repeatedly and falsely claimed that there had been election fraud at the TCF Center – the central location where Detroit’s votes were tallied. But the Special Counsel turns Trump’s lies back against him, writing that “in truth [Trump’s] agent was seeking to cause a riot to disrupt the count.” It is worth repeating: Smith alleges that a Trump Campaign Employee sought to cause a riot – not just use violence by third-parties.
The Special Counsel bases this allegation on “a series of text messages” between the Campaign Employee and “an attorney supporting the Campaign’s election day operations at the TCF Center in Detroit.” The text exchange occurred on Nov. 4, 2020, as the votes were still being counted. The Campaign Employee allegedly “encouraged rioting and other methods of obstruction when he learned that the vote count was trending in favor” of Joe Biden.
The publicly available version of the filing contains several redacted lines, which may provide additional details regarding the text exchange, or the Campaign Employee’s other actions. But the Special Counsel notes that “around the time of these messages, an election official at the TCF Center observed that as Biden began to take the lead, a large number of untrained individuals flooded the TCF Center and began making illegitimate and aggressive challenges to the vote count.”
Contemporaneous reporting from Nov. 4, 2020 confirms that “angry demonstrators attempted to barge inside the TCF Center” as they chanted “stop the count.” A brief video of the incident is available on the ABC News website. While this incident has long been known, the Special Counsel’s filing is the first indication that there was more to the story – and that Trump’s own Campaign Employee – Trump’s agent — had sought to cause a riot.
This is a significant new revelation. The court may allow jurors to draw inferences from this information about Trump’s intent to use violence to achieve his goals on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump continued to lie about TCF Center, even after his conspiracy theories were debunked by his own Attorney General
The public record has more to supplement our understanding of these events. Although Trump’s Campaign Employee failed to stop the vote count at the TCF Center, Trump continued to lie about voting in Detroit. Trump and his associates repeatedly attempted to delegitimize voting in several of the swing states’ cities – all urban areas where non-white American voters tend to reside as a larger part of the population. And the TCF Center was one of the main targets of Trump’s post-election conspiracy mongering.
Trump’s own Attorney General, Bill Barr, made it clear to the president that there was “no indication of fraud in Detroit.” Trump continued to lie anyway. And Smith could call on Barr to testify if he wants to demonstrate to a jury just how dishonest Trump was over this period.
As the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol learned, Barr met with Trump on three occasions after Election Day: Nov. 23, Dec. 1, and Dec. 14, 2020. During all three meetings, Barr clashed with Trump. Although Barr had been loyal to the president up until that point, he simply refused to endorse Trump’s bogus claims of election fraud. During their first two meetings, Trump claimed that there was something nefarious about how large numbers of Democratic votes arrived at the TCF Center late on election night or in the early morning hours of Nov. 4, 2020. The implication was that Democrats somehow stole Michigan by “dump[ing]” many fraudulent votes at the TCF Center. Barr knew better.
During their meeting on Nov. 23, according to Barr, Trump “pulled out two sheets of paper and said that these graphs showed that there were all these Democratic votes that came in in the early morning hours and swamped them in Detroit and in Milwaukee.” Trump claimed “this is statistically impossible, and he wanted me to look into it.” The Attorney General “accepted the sheets of paper,” but he already “knew the answer” to Trump’s allegation – it wasn’t true. As Barr recalled during his testimony before the committee, he told the president “he should preserve his legacy by fighting hard for the Republican candidates in the Georgia runoff and by educating the American people about the accomplishments of his administration.” In other words, Trump should drop the bogus election fraud claims.
During their meeting on Dec. 1, 2020, Trump raised the “big vote dump” in Detroit once again. The president claimed that “people saw boxes coming into the counting station at all hours of the morning and so forth,” according to Barr. But Barr knew this was the “normal process.”
“Mr. President, there are 630 precincts in Detroit, and, unlike elsewhere in the State, they centralize the counting process, so they’re not counted in each precinct, they’re moved to counting stations, and so the normal process would involve boxes coming in at all different hours,” Barr explained. “Did anyone point out to you — did all the people complaining about it point out to you [that] you actually did better in Detroit than you did last time?” Barr asked. “I mean, there’s no indication of fraud in Detroit,” Barr told Trump.
The next day, Trump released a video on Facebook that was widely shared. Trump falsely claimed there was massive election fraud, retelling many of the lies that Barr and others had already debunked, including that there was a supposed “vote dump” in Detroit. Trump’s own Attorney General had already rebutted this claim to his face. It didn’t matter to Trump.
Trump was clearly invested in maintaining the false narrative that gave rise to the angry protest at the TCF Center in the first place, even after those claims of fraud had long been debunked by his loyal attorney general.
Trump to the Proud Boys: “Stand back and stand by”
While the mob failed to stop the vote count in Detroit, the alleged motivation for that incident was the same as the much larger riot at the U.S. Capitol two months later: to stop votes from being counted. And in his latest filing, Smith repeatedly emphasizes Trump’s encouragement of violence.
On Jan. 6, 2021, the Proud Boys and other rightwing extremists successfully orchestrated a riot to stop the Vice President and Congress from counting Biden’s certified electoral votes. Smith connects the Proud Boys’ actions directly to Trump’s words. Smith tells the court that when Trump was asked to denounce the Proud Boys during the Sept. 29, 2020 debate, Trump instead told them to “stand back and stand by.” The extremist group “embraced” Trump’s words as an “endorsement,” and even marketed his phrasing on their “merchandise,” using his apparent command as a “rallying cry.”
Smith argues that Trump’s instructions to the Proud Boys make it “clear that they were acting consistent with his intent and direction in doing so.” During a Sept. 17, 2023 interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, for example, Trump defended Proud Boys’ leader Enrique Tarrio. “I want to tell you, he and other people have been treated horribly,” Trump said of Tarrio and other January 6 defendants. Trump went on to criticize the lengthy sentences Tarrio and others received. Tarrio was sentenced to 22 years in prison after being convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges. Smith reminds the court that Tarrio and others “committed the most serious crimes on January 6” – yet Trump defends them.
There’s much more to the Special Counsel’s latest filing. Smith and his team have built a strong case showing that Trump both knowingly lied about the 2020 presidential election and encouraged violence. And Trump’s toxic combination of lies and encouragement directly caused the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. But this previously undisclosed November 4 episode of attempted violence in Detroit merits particular attention.