WASHINGTON — A Trump supporter cried in the lobby of the Capitol Hill Hotel on Thursday as she poured herself a cup of coffee and told her friend that her son had disowned her for joining in Wednesday’s chaos at the U.S. Capitol. But minutes later, when the driver of a car yelled at a group of haggard Trump supporters to “get the f— out of our city,” she joined a chorus of others to respond with their own expletives.
While supporters of President Donald Trump checked out of their hotels in Washington on Thursday morning, sharing feelings of sadness, anger, defensiveness and paranoia with one another, residents of the nation’s capital said they were glad to see them leave after a day of terror.
“As a brown person, I wasn’t allowed to go out,” said a man who lives near Capitol Hill, who asked to remain anonymous because he is a government employee. “I watched it on television. It’s really unbelievable that something like that could happen. When the BLM protests were going on, we saw so much more police presence. I don’t know or understand what happened yesterday.”
Trump supporters did not have many answers, either, although they provided numerous conspiracy theories.
As many of Trump’s fiercest partisans packed their cars or ordered rides to the airport, they talked about their experiences and developed fresh ideas about potential cabals aimed at undermining them. They appeared to make many leaps about how a protest in support of Trump in the early afternoon became a full-blown riot within the chambers of Congress by the time the sun set over the Potomac River.
While Trump said Wednesday that he loved the rioters at the Capitol and called them “very special,” he condemned them Thursday and called for their prosecution in a video message posted to his recently unlocked Twitter account.
“America is and must always be a nation of law and order. The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy,” said Trump, who faces growing calls from lawmakers for his impeachment. “To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country. And to those who broke the law, you will pay.”
Hours before the about-face, some claimed that their protest had been infiltrated by the network of loosely organized radical groups called “antifa,” although there is no evidence, while others suggested that the lack of law enforcement had created something of a reverse Trojan horse.
“Police officers at the very, very front were just letting them in, you know?” said Isaiah Lucero, who drove to Washington from Colorado and sported a Trump beanie. “It’s very suspect. I think it was intentional. The officers waved them in and backed down the hallway.”
That was a tactic, some insisted, to undermine their movement by giving them room to create the chaos that would derail their unsupported claims of election fraud. There is no evidence of that, either.
Of the 13 Trump supporters who spoke to NBC News on Thursday, all but Lucero said they did not enter the Capitol during the riot.
“I plead the Fifth,” Lucero said, flashing a grin and adding that a door to enter the building had opened for him when he got to the top of the Capitol steps.
Many Trump supporters did not want to speak on the record about their experiences at the protest and the subsequent riot Wednesday for fear of legal repercussions or because they distrust the media. Some said they intended to change their names on their social media accounts because they were scared that they would be identified by antifa or journalists.
While thousands of people gathered Wednesday in Washington in support of Trump, many later overwhelming the steps of the Capitol building and infiltrating the chambers of Congress, only dozens of die-hards returned to Capitol Hill on Thursday.
While some asked where the thousands of Trump supporters had gone, others expressed dejection and distress, insisting that Vice President Mike Pence had betrayed them when he announced that he would not attempt to overturn electors from Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
By Thursday, Pence appeared to have become the target of bizarre attacks by Trump supporters that are typically reserved for Democrats and celebrities.
Tom Groves, a civil engineer from California, said he believed that Pence was a pedophile and member of the so-called deep state, a common accusation QAnon supporters make without evidence or reason. Trump, he said, had offered Pence a second chance to mend his ways for the unfounded and unsupported transgressions, and Pence had, in return, stabbed his boss in the back.
“It’s my own opinion that he is” deep state, Groves said, later adding that he made his way to the top of the Capitol steps Wednesday. “I’m critical of everything I hear, but from a lot of sources I’ve heard that.”
Pence was at the center of supporters’ ire Thursday.
Indeed, it was his announcement, many Trump supporters said, that changed the tenor of the protest. It appears that many got the news after they were given their marching orders to Capitol Hill by Trump, who said they should go to pressure Congress as it counted the electors.
“Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he told them Wednesday. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
Sharmane and Colleen, Trump supporters who asked that their last names not be used for fear of the backlash they might get for having attended the protest, drove to Washington from South Florida. They said there was an immediate shift in tone in the crowd when the news came out about Pence’s decision. A demonstration in support of Trump turned terrifying as “patriots” became ferocious and angry about what they perceived as a double cross, they said.
They said they were pushed and jostled toward the steps of the Capitol. When they tried to leave before curfew, they were unable to get a taxi or a rideshare back to their hotel in Arlington, Virginia, and they were forced to return on foot — turning a 15-minute drive into an hourslong hike.
“I think you had a group of pissed-off patriots,” Colleen said. “They just couldn’t take it anymore. I think these pissed-off patriotic Americans, Republicans and Democrats, came up here to support Trump and then the Pence news came in? No, sir. Nope. No, sir.”
Many Trump supporters maintained that there was rampant election fraud, and they claimed that Wednesday’s chaos, which some lawmakers and commentators called an attempted coup or insurrection, was an attempt to hold the line against the downfall of American democracy, the destruction of Christian values and the rise of communism. Their belief in election fraud and the threat of the conspiracies is held deeply, even though there is no evidence for any of them.
Supporters outside the Capitol insisted Thursday that they intended to remain peaceful and that Wednesday’s planned protest got out of hand. Some even said those who escalated the riot in the chambers of Congress, destroying and looting the seat of American government, should be held legally responsible.
But residents of Washington, who live in the nation’s capital and have businesses and families here, said the event was terrifying. Even through a summer of protests over civil rights issues, demonstrations had never escalated like that before.
“I don’t know why I’m even surprised,” said Angela Raheen, a Black woman who came out to the Capitol on Thursday to see whether Trump supporters remained. “This is how it’s always been in America for us. It’s just been unveiled, but it’s been like this.”
Brefour Toku, a Black man, stayed at a homeless shelter close to the Capitol on Wednesday. He said he heard explosions and what he thought was gunfire from his room.
He called his family, did breathing exercises and tried to remain calm during the siege. The news Thursday that four people had died distressed him greatly.
“This all is getting out of hand, outside of human nature,” he said, clutching a job application to Trader Joe’s. “Things shouldn’t be getting this evil.”