WASHINGTON — On Dec. 19, 2020, the day after then-President Donald Trump sent a tweet summoning his supporters to a “wild” protest in the nation’s capital on Jan. 6, one of the FBI’s own confidential sources warned the bureau that the far right saw Trump’s message as a “call to arms,” according to an email obtained by NBC News.
That tip to the FBI, from a source who is still employed by the bureau and spoke on the condition of anonymity, warned of a “significant” threat of violence on Jan. 6. It was one of hundreds of pages of reports seen by NBC News that this source sent to the FBI in the weeks leading up to the deadly attack on the United States Capitol. The email, which had not previously been reported, warned that the Trump tweet was “gaining traction” on social media.
“Trump tweeted what people on the right are considering a call to arms in DC on Jan 6,” the confidential source wrote on the afternoon of Dec. 19, the day of Trump’s 1:42 a.m. “will be wild” tweet.
The source’s information, gleaned from extremist chatter on a variety of social media forums in the weeks leading up to the attack, included talk of civil war, hanging traitors, and calls for militias to take up arms. It emphasised messages such as “war is unavoidable,” “hell is about to break loose,” “locked and loaded,” “my powder is dry, my guns are clean,” and “I’m not afraid of death, and I’ll gladly take lives for the sake of our country.” It contained information on a “boogaloo” extremist who was willing to die in D.C.
“We must all join/link forces and be prepared to leave our lives behind,” the extremist wrote in a message relayed to the bureau by a confidential source. “We must pool our resources and fight like there is no tomorrow!” The Constitution still exists, and we must protect it. “The cost of liberty is blood.”
The new information reviewed by NBC News adds to the growing body of evidence that the bureau received intelligence indicating that Jan. 6 was a major threat and that pro-Trump extremists wanted to kill members of Congress. It demonstrates that the warnings were not coming from random Americans submitting information to the FBI tip line, but from at least one reliable source vetted by the bureau.
The FBI confidential human source who provided that information to NBC News spoke to us after the committee released its summary of its investigation on Jan. 6, which avoided criticising law enforcement failures in the lead-up to the attack because, as NBC News first reported last month, committee leaders decided to keep the focus on Trump. The full report is expected to be released on Wednesday.
The anonymous human source provided information that the FBI has previously used in Jan. 6 cases. NBC News was able to confirm their work with the FBI by reviewing documents and confirming their role with another person familiar with the source’s work with the FBI. The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The source was perplexed by the committee’s efforts to avoid reaching what appeared to them, and many experts, to be an obvious conclusion: that law enforcement failed to adequately respond to intelligence in its possession prior to the Jan. 6 attack.
“My first reaction was, like, what the f—-?” a confidential human source said in response to NBC News’ reporting this week on the committee’s decision to avoid criticising law enforcement in their summary.
“The bureau saw this coming,” they said. The source expressed disappointment that law enforcement’s failures in the run-up to Jan. 6 “would be relegated to a footnote or glossed over,” and that the committee had suggested there wasn’t enough time to put together an analysis.
A separate source familiar with the Jan. 6 committee’s work confirmed that the Dec. 19, 2020, tip to the FBI was in the committee’s possession and was one of many examples of intelligence the FBI received ahead of the Jan. 6 attack. That source predicted that the Dec. 19 tip would be left out of the full committee report due out on Jan. 6. A committee spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to an FBI confidential source, they had “put together hundreds of pages of reports over the two weeks preceding Jan. 6” for the bureau in the lead up to the attack.
“This didn’t go down the black hole of a web form or a tip line; this went directly to an agent,” the source said, adding that they were confident the information was passed on to FBI officials in D.C. “To me, there’s no reason to say, ‘We didn’t see this coming.'”
In the nearly two years since Jan. 6, the public has learned a lot about the tips the FBI received leading up to the Capitol attack, including one from the son of a Capitol rioter on Christmas Eve 2020 and one from a member of the Oath Keepers who recorded a call in November 2020 that had him worried the organisation was going to take up arms against the government. “Violent threats ripple through far-right internet forums ahead of protest,” read an NBC News headline on Jan. 5, 2021. However, the newly revealed emails show that the bureau was warned by at least one of its own confidential sources about the possibility of violence on Jan. 6 and that Trump’s rhetoric was radicalising.
The Jan. 6 committee has called Trump’s “will be wild” tweet a watershed moment. During a committee hearing over the summer, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said Trump’s “will be wild” tweet galvanised his followers, sparked a political firestorm, and altered “the course of our history as a country.” According to NPR, the tweet has been cited in numerous cases against Jan. 6 defendants.
The FBI, which will receive a more than $500 million increase under the government budget expected to be passed by Congress this week, has made several changes since the Jan. 6 attack. In an August statement to NBC News, the FBI said it had “increased our focus on swift information sharing” and “improved automated systems established to assist investigators and analysts” since the Capitol attack. Months after the attack, FBI Director Chris Wray created the position of intelligence analyst in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, giving an intelligence analyst a leadership title typically reserved for FBI special agents.
The Justice Department’s inspector general, who is investigating the FBI’s handling of the Jan. 6 incident, stated in an annual report released this week that domestic terrorism was a particularly difficult issue for law enforcement because of the importance of “preserving individuals’ First Amendment right to free speech or activity while protecting against the threat to national security.” Wray has stated that the bureau spends “an enormous amount of time” trying to determine whether the “unbelievably horrific, angry, combative things” that people say online “reflect intention as opposed to aspiration.”
It’s difficult to strike that balance, according to Bill Fulton, a contract intelligence analyst and former FBI confidential source.
“I think what the FBI has learned is that we have to be a little more proactive in how we deal with these people,” Fulton told NBC News. “However, every time we are, people scream. And every time we don’t, people scream.”
The FBI confidential source who alerted the bureau to the far right’s reaction to Trump’s “wild” tweet believes there could have been much more done. They claimed to have been in regular contact with the bureau in the weeks leading up to January 6. Two days after their email about Trump’s tweets, a bureau official thanked them for the information they provided about extremists heading to D.C. in January.
“[I]t’s good to be able to help DC get their ducks in a row before anything happens,” the FBI email stated.