Michael Flynn, Trump’s recently pardoned national security adviser, appeared on the steps of the Supreme Court to encourage the crowds to keep hope.
“Don’t get bent out of shape,” Flynn said. “There are still avenues … We’re fighting with faith and we’re fighting with courage.”
After Flynn finished speaking, he was chased by shouting admirers who cheered, “We love you, general!” Bodyguards tried to keep the fans at bay as Flynn kept smiling.
Amid gatherings at the Supreme Court, Washington Monument and Freedom Plaza, there were few masks — and so far, few counterprotesters.
Police are hoping to keep the two sides apart after a meeting between two small groups turned into a chaotic brawl just before midnight Friday at 15th and K streets NW, two blocks from the White House. With about a dozen people on each side, angry taunts escalated into shoving, tackling, punching and kicking.
D.C. police officers tried to separate the sides, but were shoved by people from both groups who seemed intent on a fight. In the skirmish, one anti-Trump supporter was wrestled to the ground and kicked repeatedly. Five people were arrested on charges that included assaulting officers, disorderly conduct, inciting violence and resisting arrest.
The scene mimicked the series of nighttime tussles that followed last month’s pro-Trump march. Although permits for Saturday estimate crowds in excess of 15,000, officials expect significantly fewer people to show than the thousands who rallied that day in November, when the president made an appearance to wave to his fans.
In the weeks since, much of America has turned its attention to Biden’s transition, rising coronavirus cases and the holidays, largely tuning out Trump’s attempts to maintain power. But to his most dedicated supporters, his megaphone is as loud as ever. He has continued to falsely claim the election was stolen from him, and so his faithful have returned to the nation’s capital in his honor, with red hats, MAGA flags and at least two buses bearing the president’s smiling face.
On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted to praise them: “Wow! Thousands of people forming in Washington (D.C.) for Stop the Steal. Didn’t know about this, but I’ll be seeing them! #MAGA.”
The demonstrations have left downtown Washington closed to traffic once again, with streets near the White House and north side of the Mall blocked until early Sunday.
By late Saturday morning, multiple groups had gathered across the city. They the national anthem, said the Pledge of Allegiance and waved “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.
At the Supreme Court, a young boy in a wagon cheered, “100 more years!” Two maskless women blew into shofar horns as they passed by a sign in front of the United Methodist Building with the message, “Love Thy Neighbor. Wear A Mask.”
At Freedom Plaza, six men in camouflage wearing bulletproof vests, helmets and patches identifying themselves as members of the Three Percenters militia were in the crowd.
The presence of the Proud Boys at November’s “Stop the Steal” rally intensified the tension between pro-Trump supporters and counterprotesters, and by nightfall, multiple violent skirmishes broke out. One man was hospitalized with multiple stab wounds and two dozen people were arrested, according to officials.
Activists are bracing for more clashes this weekend, after months of protesting police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd. They planned anti-Trump and anti-fascism demonstrations in Black Lives Matter Plaza to coincide with the Trump supporters’ rallies, and say they will march through the city in the evening.
But their plans were disrupted early Friday, when D.C. police blocked off access to the plaza and evicted demonstrators who have for months been sitting vigil at the fence surrounding the White House — a frequent target of pro-Trump agitators. Neither the pro-Trump nor anti-Trump activists can access the area.
Dustin Sternbeck, a police spokesman, said police closed streets in the area of Black Lives Matter Plaza “to ensure public safety is maintained.”
D.C. police did not respond to concerns from activists that their demonstration space was being blocked.
The District’s police force was criticized after the November rally for not intervening quickly enough during clashes, allowing signs along the fence to be vandalized and doing nothing to enforce the city’s mandate that masks be worn outside. District officials contend police did what was necessary to minimize violence, and will do so again this weekend.
But officers will not be enforcing mask rules or issuing fines to those who ignore social distancing guidelines, even as the region faces an unprecedented spike in coronavirus cases. Dozens of D.C. police officers have tested positive in the weeks since the November rally. As of Thursday, 74 remained in quarantine. Police have declined to draw a direct link between demonstrations and the spike in infections among officers.
D.C. residents have expressed concern that the influx of protesters who are less likely to wear masks puts the entire city at risk, especially workers in restaurants and hotels. Activists flooded the inboxes of city officials, asking them to shut down businesses that allow people to congregate without masks. They called hotels to ask that they refuse to host those planning to attend Saturday’s rallies.
By Friday night, buses and trucks emblazoned with the words “Trump Train” on them were parked at one of those hotels, the Willard InterContinental. A woman in a Trump 2020 Santa hat posed for a selfie outside. Two police cars idled nearby. And in the lobby, an employee handed out plastic-wrapped surgical masks.
Washington’s hotels took in Trump supporters from across the country. David Dumiter, 33, and his niece Monica Stanciu said they made the eight-hour drive from Dearborn, Mich., to be at the Washington Monument on Saturday.
They want the country to know “that we’re not going to cave in. I’m tired of Republicans caving in,” said Dumiter, an airplane mechanic who has been unemployed since the spring after the pandemic decimated air travel.
“Hopefully they’ll see the numbers of people out here,” Stanciu said, “and know that we’re not happy.”
Marissa J. Lang, Rachel Weiner, Meagan Flynn, Joe Heim and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.