“He drove right past me. I saw him. He waved right past me,” one man said, squatting to collect himself.
A group of women huddled around their phone, looking at a video they took of Trump’s appearance.
“He looked fake,” one said. “I’m still shaking.”
As his most ardent fans remained in Washington to fight for what many of them considered to be among the most important causes of their lifetimes, the president headed to Trump National in the Virginia suburbs for a round of golf.
Then the appearance of counter-protesters sparked brief bursts of conflict. When a small group holding bright orange “Refuse Fascism” posters arrived at the corner of Freedom Plaza, they were almost immediately surrounded by Trump fans shouting “USA! USA!”
The women leading the tiny march fought their way up 14th Street, repeatedly breaking out of the crowd only to be engulfed again. They yelled into their megaphone, “Trump pack your s—. You’re illegitimate.”
One pro-Trump man attempted to gouge the opposition with a flag bearing the president’s name. Another grabbed a woman’s neon orange poster and hit her with it.
When the women made it to the barrier set up by police across the street, Trump supporters filled the entire intersection, blocking them in. Police arrived on bikes and, after several minutes, moved the crowd back.
The president’s backers, who include white nationalists, conspiracy theorists and far-right activists from across the country, carried Trump flags and signs demanding action that was already being taken: “Count the legal votes.”
One man, dressed in camouflage and a red “MAGA” hat, waved an American flag attached to a baseball bat. After a week in which more than 750,000 Americans were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, almost none of the Trump supporters was wearing masks.
On a day in which the president’s supporters touted a vast array of falsehoods, his spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany, offered perhaps the most ludicrous.
“More than one MILLION marchers for President @realDonaldTrump descend on the swamp in support,” she tweeted, exaggerating the crowd size by a factor of about 200.
Among the demonstrators were members of the Proud Boys, an extremist group known for their black and yellow colors and endorsements of violence. Some wore flak jackets and helmets.
“F— Joe Biden,” they chanted.
The demonstrators had begun arriving Friday afternoon, where they found a White House surrounded by steel barricades adorned with a 15-foot-long, black and white sign declaring that he was not, in fact, the election’s winner. “LOSER,” it announced.
Just before sunrise Saturday morning, that and a matching sign — “FAILURE” — were taken down by federal officials from inside the fencing, according to two witnesses, including activist Nadine Seiler, who recorded the scene.
“Trump is still a loser!” she shouted.
The Trump believers began gathering at Freedom Plaza Saturday morning hours before the official rally.
“They think we’re stupid,” a young White man with a microphone told the crowd. “They’re underestimating the Donald. They’re underestimating the Donald’s supporters.”
“They’re stupid!,” a young White woman replied.
After enduring months of protests over racial injustice that, in rare moments, exploded into fiery violence, Washington didn’t know what to expect from the day’s rallies. Would Trump supporters protest peacefully, as some had promised, or would they start a “bloody fight,” as one of their leaders had suggested?
Bursts of hostility — mostly shouting and profanity — between conservative groups and counterdemonstrators had already started Friday, ratcheting up the anxiety in a city where many stores and offices remained boarded up. D.C. police made two arrests, charging a a 25-year-old from Virginia with threats to bodily harm and a 33-year-old from Hawaii with assaulting an officer.
Trump, meanwhile, had called Saturday’s gatherings — which far-right influencers and media personalities had promoted all week — “heartwarming.”
“I may even try to stop by and say hello,” tweeted the president, who has refused to concede or allow a formal transition to begin.
The rallies, including a Women for America First event that received a permit from the National Park Service, were scheduled to start about noon at Freedom Plaza. “Million MAGA March,” “March for Trump” and “Stop the Steal” demonstrations were also planned but will likely face resistance from anti-fascist and anti-racist groups who intend to meet nearby.
Videos of a caravan of gun-toting demonstrators led by Infowars founder and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones circulated on social media late Thursday as the group made its way north through Richmond. Though Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said the city would support “peaceful First Amendment demonstrations,” the mayor warned out-of-town visitors against bringing firearms to the city, noting it has stricter gun laws than other parts of the country.
On Friday, dozens of mostly maskless Trump supporters in red Make America Great Again hats showed up near Lafayette Square and tore down photographs from a memorial honoring Black men and women killed by police.
They were soon confronted by anti-Trump protesters, leading to an angry exchange before police officers on bicycles circled the plaza and the crowds dispersed.
“As I look at this scene right now, I can’t help but to think how much this is truly the personification of two Americas,” a Black Lives Matter D.C. activist said as she filmed the scene.
The rallies have garnered support from Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller as well as more fringe figures, including Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the Proud Boys; white nationalist Nicholas Fuentes, who marched in the deadly Charlottesville protest; and Jack Posobiec, who promoted the “Pizzagate” conspiracy that led to a 2016 shooting at D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong.
A number of streets were closed to accommodate the protests.
Constitution Avenue was closed between 18th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. On the other side of the Mall, Independence Avenue was closed from 14th Street to Ohio Avenue SW. Several main thoroughfares, including New York Avenue and G, H, I and K streets, was shut down from 9th Street NW to 18th Street NW.
Michael Brice-Saddler, Peter Hermann, Wm. Justin Moyer contributed to this report.