Before rioters ransacked the U.S. Capitol, FBI agents flagged an online discussion board filled with plans for Southern supporters to meet in South Carolina and convoy to Washington, D.C., and warned that the conversations could lead to violence.
The FBI report warned that supporters of President Donald Trump were sharing maps of the Capitol building complex and that some were urging the others to be ready for war, according to The Washington Post, which first reported on the document. Some reportedly made plans to drive to Washington in groups from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and South Carolina.
The full FBI document has not been made public, but the caravans reported in the Post’s account of the Jan. 5 memo appear to match flyers posted to the pro-Trump website TheDonald.win, according to a review of the site by The Post and Courier. The caravans were dubbed the "MAGA_CAVALRY,” a reference to the president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
According to posts about the caravan, the Southern route was to converge at a mall parking lot in Columbia the day before Congress counted the votes of the Electoral College. Then they would head north. Organizers called the route “Rebel.”
The plan appears to have materialized. The day before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, a Columbia police officer noticed a group that seemed to be holding a rally in the parking lot of Dutch Square Center, a shopping mall west of downtown near where Interstates 20 and 26 meet.
The officer mentioned the group to a supervisor but didn’t notice anything amiss, said Columbia police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons. Moments later, shortly before 9:30 a.m., someone reported the group was shouting obscenities. By the time an officer arrived, the group had cleared out.
On the message board, supporters mostly talked about the trip’s logistics and how they had been banned from a chat service. But some openly referenced violence.
“Bring pitchforks, tar and feathers,” one wrote.
“Bats make really good flag poles,” another responded.
“Gonna go Babe Ruth on some commie zombies,” said another.
Five people, including a police officer, would later die after a protest gave way to a siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6, damaging a sacred seat of the nation’s government. The attack led to Trump’s impeachment Wednesday, making him the only U.S. president to be impeached twice.
It’s not clear that members of the caravans were directly associated with the violence that unfolded last week, and federal authorities had not charged anyone from South Carolina with a crime associated with the riot as of Thursday afternoon. Some people who attended the rally left before the rioting started or did not participate. It's also unclear why South Carolina was chosen as a gathering point and how many of the state's residents participated in the convoy.
The FBI also appears to have cited a separate thread from the same website calling for violence in Washington against Congress and left-wing activists.
According to the Post, the memo said: “An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating ‘Be ready to fight. ... Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.' ”
A nearly identical message was posted on multiple threads on TheDonald.win website before Jan. 6, The Post and Courier found. The site initially began as a group on Reddit but was later banned for hate speech.
The FBI memo warned that the intelligence was unvetted, and acting on it could infringe on protected First Amendment speech, according to The Washington Post.
Even so, Steven D’Antuono, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said his office shared the information contained in the report to other federal and state law enforcement agencies soon after receiving it.
But in South Carolina, the State Law Enforcement Division — South Carolina’s top investigative agency — was not made aware of the FBI’s report, according to spokesman Tommy Crosby.
Representatives from the FBI field offices in Columbia and Norfolk, Va., where the report originated, declined to discuss the document and referred questions to the FBI’s headquarters. A spokesperson there also declined to comment on it.
Instead, in a statement, the FBI said it is focused on “identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity” and that it was “gathering information to identify any potential threats and are sharing that information with our partners.”
The statement added: “Our focus is not on peaceful protesters, but on those threatening their safety and the safety of other citizens with violence and destruction of property.”
In a news conference this week, D’Antuono said the FBI had “disrupted” the travel of some people who intended to cause violence in the Washington area.
“We have to separate the aspirational from the intentional and determine which of the individuals saying despicable things on the internet are just practicing keyboard bravado or they actually have the intent to do harm,” he said.
Glenn Smith contributed to this report.