WASHINGTON – Crowds of supporters of President Donald Trump were already gathering Tuesday, a day ahead of what is sure to bring rallies, protests, conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists to the nation’s capital.
Fervent Trump supporters are convening in D.C. this week in efforts to contest what they believe to have been a rigged election, despite a lack of evidence of any widespread voter fraud. The rallies coincide with a Congressional vote to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s win in the Electoral College on Wednesday.
Before noon Tuesday, hundreds of people had gathered on Freedom Plaza near the White House, many waving Trump and American flags. Vendors ringing the plaza were briskly selling flag-themed hats and shirts, emblazoned with sayings from “stop the steal” to “Trump is my president.”
Walking the plaza and waving a giant Texas flag, physical therapist Scott Swinney, 63, said he believes Trump won the election.
“If you count the real votes, he won the election,” Swinney said, a reference to the unproven claim that many votes for Biden were illegal or cast late. “You’d have to have your head in the sand to not know there was cheating going on.”
Election security experts, state officials, judges, and independent observers across the U.S. have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Swinney’s friend, Marcus Wren, who was waving a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, said patriots like them will keep Biden from taking office.
“Enlightened patriots will stand up and say ‘this will not stand’ and they will be forced to stop it,” said Wren, 67, who owns a bottled water company in Louisiana. “If someone doesn’t stand up, our republic will be gone.”
Swinney said based on crowd sizes, he believes Trump easily has more support than Biden. And Wren made reference the “deep state” attempting to steal the election, a nod to a baseless conspiracy theory about a group of powerful elites that allegedly run government and society.
Swinney and Wren said they hope the House of Representatives on Wednesday refuses to certify the electors, throwing the election to state delegations, which they think will back Trump.
Elsewhere, many businesses were boarded up or ringed by security fencing, including St. John’s Church of Lafayette Square. Restaurants and other businesses were closed, citing area road closures and possible violence.
Tuesday’s gatherings were billed as a “pre-rally” before the main event Wednesday when more rallies are planned, Trump says he’ll make an address and Congress is set to vote.
When Congress meets Wednesday to confirm Biden’s win, some Republican lawmakers plan to challenge the vote. While the plans are certain to stir debate and draw out what is otherwise a procedural vote, the efforts won’t change the results of the election.
Trump has promised to attend the rallies on Wednesday and promoted the events on Twitter. “I will be there. Historic day!” Trump tweeted Sunday, sharing a tweet from a rally organizer.
The gatherings are also sure to draw far-right extremist groups and conspiracy theorists, raising concerns of potential violence. The Proud Boys have said they will attend, but their plans may be complicated by their chairman’s arrest Monday.
Enrique Tarrio was on a phone call with a USA TODAY reporter when the call was interrupted by loud sirens and he was arrested. He was charged with destruction of property in connection with an incident last month when Tarrio is accused of setting fire to a Black Lives Matter banner after a Trump rally, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. The banner had been taken from a historic Black church.
Police in D.C. have upped precautions for the protests, erecting signs warning that open carry of guns is illegal. Mayor Muriel Bowser urged residents to avoid the area Tuesday and Wednesday, and National Guard troops will support local police officers.
Contributing: Will Carless