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Dejected Trump supporters leave Washington, create new theories for Capitol violence

While thousands gathered on Wednesday in support of the president, overwhelming and infiltrating the chambers of Congress, only dozens of diehards returned on Thursday.
/ Source: NBC News

A Trump supporter cried in the lobby of the Capitol Hill Hotel on Thursday, as she poured herself a cup of coffee and told her friend that her son had disowned her for joining in Wednesday’s chaos at the Capitol building. But minutes later, when the driver of a car yelled at a group of haggard Trump supporters to “get the f--- out of our city,” she joined a chorus of others to respond with their own expletives.

While Donald Trump supporters in Washington checked out of their hotels Thursday morning, sharing feelings of sadness, anger, defensiveness and paranoia with each other, residents of the nation’s capital said they were glad to see them leave the city after a day of terror.

“As a brown person I wasn’t allowed to go out,” said one man who lives near Capitol Hill, who asked to remain anonymous because he is a government employee. “I watched it on television. It’s really unbelievable that something like that could happen. When the BLM protests were going on, we saw so much more police presence. I don’t know or understand what happened yesterday.”

Trump supporters did not have many answers either, though they provided numerous conspiracy theories.

A man walks with a Gadsden and American flags outside the Capitol, a day after supporters of President Donald Trump occupied the Capitol Building on Jan. 7, 2021.Erin Scott / Reuters

As many of the president’s fiercest partisans packed their cars or ordered taxis to the airport, they talked about their experiences and developed fresh ideas about potential cabals aimed to undermine them. They appeared to make many leaps about how a protest in support of Donald Trump in the early afternoon became a full-blown riot within the chambers of Congress by the time the sun set over the Potomac River.

While Trump said late Wednesday that he loved the rioters at the Capitol and called them “very special,” the president condemned them and called for their prosecution a day later in a video message posted to his recently unlocked Twitter account.

"America is and must always be a nation of law and order, the demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy," said Trump, who faces growing calls from lawmakers for his impeachment. "To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country. And to those who broke the law. You will pay."

Hours prior to the sudden about-face, some claimed that their protest had been infiltrated by antifa, though there is no evidence of this, while others suggested that the lack of law enforcement had created a sort-of reverse Trojan Horse.

“Police officers at the very, very front were just letting them in, you know?” said Isaiah Lucero, who drove to Washington from Colorado and sported a Trump beanie. “It’s very suspect. I think it was intentional. The officers waved them in and backed down the hallway.”

This was a tactic, some insisted, intended to undermine their movement by giving them room to create the chaos that would derail their unsupported claims of election fraud. There is no evidence of this, either.

Of the 13 Trump supporters who spoke to NBC News on Thursday, all but Lucero said they did not enter the Capitol during the riot.

Members of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia detain a person for questioning a day after a pro-Trump mob broke into the Capitol building on Jan. 7, 2021.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

“I plead the Fifth,” Lucero said, flashing a grin and adding that a door to enter the building had opened for him when he got to the top of the Capitol steps.

Many Trump supporters did not want to speak on the record about their experiences at the protest and subsequent riot on Wednesday for fear of potential legal repercussions or out of a distrust of the media. Some stated their intention to change their names on their social media accounts because they were scared that they would be identified by Antifa or journalists.

While thousands gathered in Washington on Wednesday in support of the president, many later overwhelming the steps of the Capitol building and infiltrating the chambers of Congress, only dozens of diehards returned to Capitol Hill on Thursday.

While some asked where the thousands of Trump supporters had gone, others expressed feeling dejected and distressed, insisting that Vice President Mike Pence had betrayed them all when he announced he would not attempt to overturn electors from Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

By Thursday, Pence appeared to have become the target of bizarre attacks by Trump’s supporters that are typically reserved for Democrats and celebrities.

Tom Groves, a civil engineer from California, said that he believed that Pence was a pedophile and member of the so-called deep state, a common accusation QAnon supporters make without evidence or reason. Trump, he said, had offered Pence a second chance to amend his ways for these unfounded and unsupported transgressions, and the vice president had, in return, stabbed his boss in the back.

“It’s my own opinion that he is,” Groves said, later adding that he made his way to the top of the Capitol steps on Wednesday. “I'm critical of everything I hear, but, from a lot of sources, I've heard that.”

Pence was at the center of supporters’ ire on Thursday.

Indeed, it was Pence’s announcement, many Trump supporters said, that changed the tenor of the protest. It appears that many received the news after they were given their marching orders to Capitol Hill by the president, who said they should go there to pressure Congress as they counted the electors from the November election.

“Because you'll never take back our country with weakness,” he told them on Wednesday. “You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

Sharmane and Colleen, Trump supporters who requested their last names be omitted for fear of the backlash they might receive for attending the protest, drove to the nation’s capital from South Florida. They said they saw an immediate shift in tone in the crowd when the news came out about the vice president’s decision. A demonstration in support of the president turned terrifying as “patriots” became ferocious and angry for the perceived double cross, they said.

They added that they were pushed and jostled in the crowd towards the steps of the Capitol building. When they tried to leave before curfew, they were unable to get an Uber or a taxi back to their hotel in Arlington, Virginia, and were forced to return by foot — turning a 15-minute drive into an hours-long hike.

“I think you had a group of pissed off patriots,” Colleen said. “They just couldn’t take it anymore. I think these pissed off patriotic Americans, Republicans and Democrats, came up here to support Trump and then the Pence news came in? No, sir. Nope. No, sir.”

Many Trump supporters maintained that there was rampant election fraud and claimed Wednesday’s chaos, which some lawmakers and commentators are calling an attempted coup or insurrection, was an attempt to hold the line against the downfall of American democracy, the destruction of Christian values and the rise of communism. Their belief in election fraud and the threat of these conspiracies is held deeply, though there is no evidence of any of them occurring.

Supporters outside the Capitol on Thursday insisted that they intended to remain peaceful, and that Wednesday’s planned protest got out of hand. Some even said that those who escalated the riot further in the chambers of Congress, destroying and looting the seat of American government, should be held legally responsible.

But those residents of Washington, who live in the nation’s capital and have businesses and family here, said they found the event terrifying. Even through a summer of protests over civil rights issues, demonstrations had never escalated like that before.

“I don’t know why I’m even surprised,” said Angela Raheen, a Black woman who came out to the Capitol on Thursday to see whether Trump supporters remained. “This is how it’s always been in America for us. It’s just been unveiled, but it’s been like this.”

Brefour Toku, a Black man, stayed at a homeless shelter close to the Capitol on Wednesday. He said he heard explosions and what he thought was gunfire from his room.

He called his family, did breathing exercises and tried to remain calm during the Capitol Hill siege. The news on Thursday that four people had died distressed him greatly.

“This all is getting out of hand, outside of human nature,” he said, clutching a job application to Trader Joe’s in his hand. “Things shouldn’t be getting this evil.”

This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.