WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump's supporters have descended on the nation's capital to cheer his baseless claims of election fraud ahead of a congressional vote to affirm Joe Biden's election victory.
The president is expected to personally address his supporters during a Wednesday morning rally on the Ellipse, just south of the White House.
Just blocks from the White House, protesters — many without masks — gathered in Freedom Plaza on Tuesday to decry the vote in the Electoral College. As temperatures dropped to the low 40s and a steady rain swept onto the streets, hundreds remained in the plaza into nightfall.
“I'm just here to support the president,” said David Wideman, a 45-year-old firefighter who traveled from Memphis, Tennessee.
Wideman acknowledged he was “confused” by a string of losses from the president's legal team in their attempt to overturn the results of the election and didn't know what options Trump had left.
“I not sure what he can do at this point, but I want to hear what he has to say," Wideman said.
Trump tweeted his support for the protesters: “Washington is being inundated with people who don't want to see an election victory stolen by emboldened Radical Left Democrats. Our Country has had enough, they won't take it anymore! We hear you (and love you) from the Oval Office. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
The speakers included former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, whom the president pardoned after he was twice convicted of lying to the FBI in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
“We stand at a crucible moment in United States history,” Flynn told the mostly maskless crowd. “This country is awake now.”
The protests coincide with Wednesday's congressional vote expected to certify the Electoral College results, which Trump continues to dispute.
In a Tuesday evening tweet, Trump called on Democrats and fellow Republicans to look at the “thousands of people pouring into D.C.” In another tweet, he warned that antifa, the umbrella term for leftist militant groups that Trump has said he wants to declare a terrorist organization, should stay out of Washington.
The rallies had local officials and law enforcement bracing for potential violent street clashes. Many businesses in downtown Washington boarded up their windows, fearful that the protest could devolve into the unrest seen in May and June when dozens of businesses were vandalized.
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser called in National Guard troops to help bolster the city's police force. She urged residents to stay away from downtown Washington and to avoid confrontations with anyone who is “looking for a fight.” But, she warned, “we will not allow people to incite violence, intimidate our residents or cause destruction in our city.”
Election officials from both political parties, governors in key battleground states and Trump's former attorney general, William Barr, have said there was no widespread fraud in the election. Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two challenges rejected by the Supreme Court.
A pro-Trump rally Dec. 12 ended in violence as hundreds of Trump supporters, wearing the signature black and yellow of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, sought out confrontations with a collective of local activists attempting to bar them from Black Lives Matter Plaza, an area near the White House. At least two local Black churches had Black Lives Matter banners torn down and set ablaze.
On Monday, police arrested the leader of the Proud Boys, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, 36, after he arrived in Washington ahead of this week's protests. Tarrio was accused of burning one of the Black Lives Matter banners in December and was found with two high-capacity firearm magazines, police said. A judge signed an order Tuesday banning Tarrio from entering the District of Columbia, with very limited exceptions related to his criminal case.
In addition to the National Guard, federal agents were on standby, in case they were quickly needed in the city this week.
The federal Bureau of Prisons said about 100 “specially trained officers” were sent to the Justice Department headquarters to assist other security personnel but would remain “in a reserve capacity unless needed.”
The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, said that unlike during the unrest in May and June in Washington, it did not plan to deploy agents from Customs and Border Protection to the demonstration Wednesday.
“Right now, we have not been asked to deploy. However, we have a modest quick reaction force that will be on standby just in case our assistance is requested,” the agency's acting commissioner, Mark Morgan, said.
Organizers planned to rally into the night on Tuesday and again all day on Wednesday on the Ellipse. An afternoon march was also planned to the U.S. Capitol, where Congress will be voting to affirm the election results. A number of prominent Trump supporters were expected to attend, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and longtime Trump ally Roger Stone, the recipient of a pardon by the president.
Stone was convicted of lying to Congress during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and sentenced to three years in prison. Trump commuted the sentence as Stone pursued an appeal and later issued a full pardon.
A November pro-Trump rally drew about 15,000 participants. The Dec. 12 rally drew smaller numbers, but a larger contingent of Proud Boys.
During previous pro-Trump protests, police sealed off Black Lives Matter Plaza itself, but the confrontations spilled out to the surrounding streets. Black Lives Matter Plaza was sealed off Tuesday.
“We know that historically over the last few demonstrations that BLM Plaza has been a focal point,” Contee said a day earlier. “We want to make sure that that is not an issue.”