WASHINGTON — On Dec. 19, 2020, the day 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 considered Trump’s message “a call to arms,” according to an email reviewed by NBC News.
That tip to the FBI, from a source who is still used by the bureau and spoke on the condition of anonymity, warned there was a “big” threat of violence on Jan. 6. It was among hundreds of pages of reports viewed by NBC News that this source sent to the FBI in the weeks before the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. The email, which has not been previously reported, warned that the Trump tweet was “gaining hold” 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 information the source sent to the bureau in the weeks before the attack, pulled from extremist chatter on a variety of social media forums, included discussion of civil war, talk of hanging traitors and calls for militias to take up arms. It highlighted messages like “war is inevitable”; “hell is going 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 preservation of our country.” It included information on a “boogaloo” extremist who was prepared to die in D.C.
“We all must join/link forces and be ready to leave our lives behind,” that extremist wrote in a message relayed to the bureau by the confidential source. “We must pool resources and fight like there’s no tomorrow! The Constitution still lives and we must preserve it. Blood is the price of freedom.”
The additional information reviewed by NBC News adds to the growing pile of evidence that the bureau received intelligence that indicated Jan. 6 was a major threat and that pro-Trump extremists wanted to kill members of Congress. It illustrates that the warnings weren’t just coming from average Americans sending information into the FBI tip line, but from at least one trusted source vetted by the bureau.
The FBI confidential human source who sent that information spoke to NBC News after the Jan. 6 committee released a summary of its investigation, which avoided criticizing 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 set to be released Wednesday.
The confidential human source has provided information that the FBI has used in Jan. 6 cases before. NBC News was able to verify their work with the bureau by reviewing documents, and by 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 said they were perplexed by the committee’s efforts to avoid reaching what seemed to them, and to many experts, as an obvious conclusion: that law enforcement failed to adequately respond to the intelligence in its possession ahead of the Jan. 6 attack.
“My first response was, like, what the f---?” the confidential human source said in reaction to NBC News’ reporting this week on the committee’s decision to avoid criticizing law enforcement in their summary.
“The bureau saw this coming,” they said. The source said they were frustrated that law enforcement’s failures in the lead-up to Jan. 6 “would be relegated to a footnote or glossed over” and that the committee had suggested there wasn’t adequate 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 possession of the committee and was among many examples of intelligence the FBI received ahead of the Jan. 6 attack. That source expected that the Dec. 19 tip would be excluded from the Jan. 6 committee’s full report. A committee spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The FBI confidential source said that they had “put together hundreds of pages of reports over the two weeks proceeding Jan. 6” for the bureau leading up to the attack.
“This didn’t go down the black hole of a web form or a tip line, this went to an agent directly,” the source said, who added they were confident the information was passed onto FBI officials in D.C. “To me, there’s no excuse to say, ‘We didn’t see this coming.’”
In the nearly two years since Jan. 6, the public has learned a decent amount about the tips the FBI received ahead of the Capitol attack, including one from the son of a Capitol rioter on Christmas Eve 2020 and from a member of the Oath Keepers who recorded a call in November 2020 that had him concerned the organization was going to take up arms against the government. The threat of violence on Jan. 6 wasn’t exactly a secret to anyone looking at the chatter from pro-Trump figures on social media before the attack: “Violent threats ripple through far-right internet forums ahead of protest,” read an NBC News headline on Jan. 5, 2021. But the newly revealed emails show that the bureau was warned by at least one of its own confidential sources about the potential for violence on Jan. 6 and that Trump’s rhetoric was having a radicalizing effect.
The Jan. 6 committee itself has highlighted Trump’s “will be wild” tweet as a major inflection point. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said during a committee hearing over the summer that Trump’s “will be wild” tweet had galvanized his followers, unleashed a political firestorm and had changed “the course of our history as a country.” As NPR documented, the tweet has been cited in numerous cases against Jan. 6 defendants.
The FBI, which will receive an increase of more than half a billion dollars under the government budget expected to pass Congress this week, has made several changes since the Jan. 6 attack. In a statement to NBC News in August, 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, which is running an investigation into the FBI’s handling of Jan. 6, said in an annual report issued this week that domestic terrorism was a particularly challenging issue for law enforcement given the importance of “preserving individuals’ First Amendment right to free speech or activity while protecting against the threat to national security.” Because of the volume of threats online, Wray has said, the bureau spends “an enormous amount of time” trying to figure out whether the “unbelievably horrific, angry, combative things” that people say online “reflect intention as opposed to aspiration.”
Striking that balance is difficult, says 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. “But on the flip side of that, every time we are, people scream. And every time we don’t, people scream.”
The FBI confidential source who alerted the bureau about the far right’s reaction to Trump’s “wild” tweet thinks there’s a lot more that could have been done. They said they were in regular communication with the bureau in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6. Two days after their email on Trump’s tweets, a bureau official thanked them for the information they provided about extremists headed 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.