We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
Excerpted from “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman
In the late morning of Jan. 6, 2021, right around the time her brother-in-law, Jeff Landry—the attorney general of Louisiana— kicked off a press conference in Baton Rouge, more than 1,100 miles away, Sheila LeBlanc Musso surveyed the expanse of people gathered at the Ellipse, a park near the South Lawn of the White House, and saw a reason for hope. She snapped a picture of Eric Trump, the president’s second-born son, as the crowd serenaded him on the occasion of his 37th birthday.
“Happy birthday Eric!” she wrote on Facebook.
Musso didn’t anticipate what she was about to witness—the pandemonium that soon unfolded. And once all hell broke loose, it was disorienting.
Sheila and Landry’s wife Sharon are twin sisters, two of Tommy and Mary Carol LeBlanc’s five children, beneficiaries to the fortune made by their father and his company, Service Tool, which bills itself as “the leading importer, distributor, and merchandiser of hand tools in the United States.”
In a rambling and often contradictory series of public posts on Facebook, Musso documented her participation in both the “Save America Rally” at the Ellipse and the so-called “March to Save America” at the U.S. Capitol, though, to be clear, it was essentially all the same thing. Prior to Jan. 6, I’d never heard of Musso, but when one of her posts that day swiftly picked up over 900 shares, a few people reached out with a tip: Sheila LeBlanc Musso, the on-the-scene correspondent who was unwittingly chronicling her own cognitive dissonance meltdown, had a famous brother-in-law.
It should go without saying that like her famous brother-in-law, Musso is an unabashed and outspoken supporter of the former president. It’s why she traveled from her home in River Ranch— a tony enclave of Lafayette, Louisiana— to the nation’s capital that day.
At the time of publication, a request for comment sent to Musso’s email address remained unanswered.
In addition to wishing Eric Trump a happy birthday, Musso encouraged people to “unfriend and unfollow Mike Pence,” echoing the frustrations of those who wrongly believed Trump’s claim that the fate of the election hinged on whether his once-dutiful Vice President ruled against ratifying the already-certified count of Biden electors, despite the fact that Pence lacked the authority to do so.
To be clear, there is no evidence whatsoever that Musso was among those who stormed into the Capitol and engaged in an insurrection, but she was certainly close enough to witness and cheer on the melee.
“Patriots have taken over!” she gushed upon her arrival outside of the Capitol, attaching a photo of a sea of people, awash in the blues and reds of Trump campaign merchandise.
As the march morphed into a mob, Musso dutifully dispatched an update. “Patriots just pushed through four lines of officers and breached the Capitol chambers which halted the electoral vote counting!” she reported.
But upon hearing news reports of the mayhem unfolding inside the building, the people she had only just described as “patriots” were abruptly scrubbed from her story.
“I am here in D.C., and I will tell you NOTHING aligns with what the media is saying,” she wrote. “I will also tell you that close to 1.5 million to 2 million people PEACEABLY protested the entire two days.”
While law enforcement is unlikely to release any official estimate and although a lack of aerial photos makes a precise number challenging, it’s not difficult to determine that Musso wildly exaggerated the crowd size. Earlier in the day, Eric Trump pegged the number at 150,000. In a call with reporters the next morning, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy spoke about how intelligence estimates on potential crowd size were “all over the board.”
“The problem was the range,” said McCarthy, disclosing that initial estimates had ranged anywhere from a low of 2,000 people to a high of 80,000 people.
Stephen Doig, a data analyst and journalism professor at Arizona State University, explained the difficulty of estimating the crowd size, but noted that it’s undoubtedly lower than many believe. “I’m perfectly prepared to believe there were several thousand people there, even 10,000 maybe,” Doig told The Conversation. “But when you start pushing that up to 100,000 and so on, that’s not going to be true.” Musso’s estimate was only off by between 1.4 million to 1.9 million people.
But her exaggerations about crowd size weren’t even close to her most outlandish assertion. “Antifa showed up on (Jan.) 5th and 6th dressed in Capitol Police uniforms and Trump apparel and started attacking Trump supporters,” she claimed without evidence.
“Six people broke into the Capitol in protest, and all six were identified as antifa members and promptly arrested,” Musso falsely asserted. “Patriots assembled on the steps and sang the National Anthem.”
The celerity with which Musso warped and then re-warped reality to fit her own political agenda is staggering. Perhaps more revealing, though, is the ease with which she moved from one lie to another, seemingly unaware that her claims not only contradicted what viewers were seeing across the world on live television but also what she had said only hours before. What happened to the patriots who “pushed through four lines of officers and breached the Capitol chambers”? Presumably, they were simply deleted from her story and replaced with the boogeymen that haunt the dreams of those on the far-right: antifa.
The notion she could convince anyone to believe that six antifa “members” dressed up as Trump supporters, broke into the Capitol, and did exactly what Trump hoped would happen—halting the counting of electoral votes confirming Biden’s win—requires both chutzpah and an astonishing lack of respect for her online audience.
But perhaps what is most troubling was her claim that some of the men and women of the Capitol Police who literally risked their lives to protect the Capitol from the very breach Musso had celebrated earlier were, in fact, antifa “members” in disguise. To be clear, it’s not troubling because it may be true; there is no evidence whatsoever that anyone identified as antifa were among those who participated in the Capitol attack. It’s troubling because it was easily, instinctively manufactured.
“The Associated Press reviewed public records for more than 120 people identified at the insurrection and found that they included GOP donors, members of far-right militia, and supporters of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory,” reports Politifact, an arm of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Poynter Institute. “ProPublica archived more than 500 videos taken Jan. 6 that show people in and around the Capitol wearing Trump apparel, carrying Confederate flags and sporting the symbols of QAnon. Specific individuals held up as antifa activists have turned out to be Trump supporters or QAnon enthusiasts. Now, court documents show that the FBI is investigating connections between the Capitol rioters and far-right groups — not antifa.”
Musso’s posts, while contemptible, also illustrate the reality distortion field that far too many people were manipulated into joining by a president who once referred to the press as “enemies of the people” and who, in just four years, made a total of 30,573 false or misleading claims, nearly half of which were made during his final year in office, according to a database maintained by the Washington Post.
When confronted by a set of facts that disrupted her fervent faith in Trump and the MAGA movement—that is, the reality of Trump supporters violently attacking law enforcement officers— and recognizing the very real prospect that this reality would unravel other things she’d been led into believing about him, Musso concocted a fantastical conspiracy theory that, however untenable it may seem, allowed her to continue preaching the gospel of the Donald.
Once she was safe and sound back in Louisiana, Musso shared a local news story about an announcement her brother-in-law had made on the day she witnessed a band of patriots sing the National Anthem outside of the Capitol.
“Thank you Jeff!” she wrote. But we will get to that in Part Two.
Musso wasn’t the only member of a prominent Louisiana family who traveled to Washington, D.C. for Trump’s last hurrah.
On the night of the insurrection at the Capitol, after the mob of marauders were finally expelled and the building was finally secured, I tweeted a photo I’d seen on Facebook of Donald Rouse, Sr., the co-owner of the grocery chainstore Rouses Markets, standing alongside Steve Galtier, the company’s former Director of Human Resources, at the rally at the Ellipse. The tweet immediately went viral. Within 24 hours, it had racked up more than 3.1 million impressions on Twitter alone.
The backlash against Rouses Markets was also immediate, with thousands of people, including the actor Wendell Pierce (The Wire and Treme) and Josh Hart of the New Orleans Pelicans, vowing to never again shop at one of his stores.
I should be clear that my intention in calling attention to the photo was simply to inform the public about an already-public photo of a public figure at a public event. Others clamored for a boycott, which, at least in my opinion, would be most effective as an instrument of economic activism if it results in building value and increasing opportunities for Rouses’ largely underpaid, majority-Black workforce.
It took more than 15 hours before Rouse issued a response, and when he did, it hardly made a difference. Obviously, Rouse denounced the violence, which he said began after he left, a claim that tracks with the comments Galtier made on his since-deleted Facebook account. But he also failed, glaringly, to apologize for his implicit support of the “Stop the Steal” campaign. As a consequence, his comments primarily served as confirmation of his attendance.
Demonstrators organized outside of at least two of his family’s stores in the New Orleans area, some with signs to attract the attention of passing motorists and others with leaflets to distribute to customers outside the stores’ entrances. The Krewe of Red Beans returned a $20,000 sponsorship from Rouses, and Collis Temple, Jr., a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors, called on the state’s flagship university to consider severing all ties with the grocery retailer. (In 2019, Rouses signed a multiyear contract naming the chain as the “Official and Exclusive Grocery Partner of LSU Athletics”).
As a work of crisis communication, Rouse’s statement was a complete failure—that is, unless your media diet consisted of a breakfast with right-wing talk radio demagogues and lunch and dinner with the white supremacists and extremists who populate the comment sections of local news sites.
Louisiana talk radio host Moon Griffon, a virulent right-wing flamethrower who has spent the bulk of the past six years amplifying Donald Trump’s war against reality, gleefully endorsed Rouses, riling up his audience in support of the retailer against those calling for a boycott. It was the kind of cause tailor-made for Griffon— defending a wealthy white family whose patriarch traveled to D.C. in support of a scheme to disenfranchise millions of “Black voters in key cities (who) helped deliver the election for Joe Biden” against criticism he characterized as racially-motivated.
Griffon recently claimed his efforts were proving to be successful, boasting that listeners from Alexandria, Shreveport, Ruston, and Monroe—four markets in which the Louisiana-based Rouses has no presence— had been sending him photographs of their families taking road trips just so they could shop at the embattled grocery store.
Clearly, though, Griffon’s boosterism wasn’t nearly as effective as he imagined.
On Jan. 22, Rouse booked an appearance on WBOK’s “The Good Morning Show with Oliver ‘OT’ Thomas,” a decidedly different venue than the one Griffon operates. A year ago, WBOK, “the state’s oldest African American radio station,” relaunched after a group of local investors, including Wendell Pierce, former New Orleans mayoral candidate Troy Henry, and entrepreneurs Cleveland Spears III and Jeff Thomas, purchased the station from the Bakewell Group of Los Angeles.
In many respects, Rouse had selected the most appropriate forum to address his critics. Oliver Thomas, the show’s host, knows a thing or two about forgiveness and redemption. A former New Orleans city councilman at-large who served as Council President during Hurricane Katrina, he had once been seen as one of the city’s brightest political stars until he was caught soliciting $15,000 in bribes from Stan “Pampy” Barre, a parking lot operator. Thomas tearfully pleaded guilty to the charges, and after spending two-and-a-half years in prison, returned to a city that had largely been willing to forgive him. Fans of HBO’s Treme may be familiar with Thomas; he played himself in a recurring role in the show’s second season.
This is not to suggest anyone would “go easy” on Rouse, who was accompanied by his friend Jerome Boykin, the President of the Terrebonne Parish NAACP. You can hear the entire interview below:
“The first thing,” Rouse said, “I would like to apologize to Rouse’s customers, to the community as a whole, my son and Rouses’ president Steve Black, my family, and most important to me, Rouses’ team members who, in New Orleans, are majority African Americans. All of these people are innocent. But they are paying the price for my poor judgment and that hurts me terribly and for that I am very sorry.”
Among other things, Rouse claimed, somewhat dubiously, that he did not attend the rally to signal his support for a president he acknowledged he’d supported in last year’s election; instead, he said, he traveled to D.C., over the objection of his son, Rouses CEO Donny Rouse, merely to experience a moment of American history. He also claimed to have never believed in Trump’s assertions of a “stolen election,” after Wendell Pierce asked him whether he understood the concept of complicity.
I’ll leave it to others to judge Rouse’s contrition, though I’d note that there was at least one moment in which—at least in my opinion—Rouse revealed himself to be capable of genuine self-reflection. Part of the problem, he said, was that he primarily consumed right-wing media. It distorted his perspective. It was, in his words, not “balanced.” This, I think we can safely assume, could be said about practically everyone else in attendance that day.
The damage that Trump left behind when he boarded Air Force One for the final time is incalculable: A nation suffering from his catastrophic negligence in the face of a deadly pandemic, a four-year assault on the notion of basic decency and the institutions and alliances that made American democracy durable, an era that began with a fictitious story of American carnage and ended with the reality of one. But perhaps most insidiously, he left behind a legacy of lies—again, some 30,573 of them— beginning with an absurd and trivial exaggeration about how many people attended his inauguration and ending with the Big Lie that incited an insurrection.
A day after the attack at the Capitol, Moon Griffon spent two hours spewing baseless and nonsensical conspiracy theories about antifa being the real culprit and repeating the thoroughly discredited claim that Trump had won the election. It’s one of the main reasons he was so enthusiastic about supporting Rouses: He wished he could have been there, he said.
But after hearing that Donald Rouse, Sr. had apologized on WBOK, Griffon couldn’t conceal his contempt and disgust. On Jan. 25, he ridiculed Rouse for several minutes, questioning his manhood and calling him “gutless.” “I owe the people of the state an apology, especially the people who traveled to Rouses Meat Market,” Griffon said, presumably referring to the meat counter at Rouses Market.
“By the way, he threw us under the bus for saying ‘I was there and I had a mask on and people were making fun of me ’cause I was wearing a mask,'” Griffon said. “Well, you probably looked stupid, and you sure showed how stupid you are for coming out saying you apologize for something you didn’t do wrong.”
Years ago, when the Chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, Roger Villere, issued a statement calling for Republican congressman Vance McAllister to resign after a leaked video showed him kissing a staffer who was clearly not his wife, I published a satirical press release, worded almost identically to Villere’s statement on McAllister, that claimed Villere was also now asking for Republican Sen. David Vitter’s resignation as well. Griffon must’ve read only the headline of the piece, because the next morning, he began his show with an unhinged rant calling for Villere’s resignation.
I mention this only to suggest that a man who is so easily triggered by an obviously satirical press release probably shouldn’t be lecturing anyone on how stupid they look.
Coming soon: Part Two: The General and the Captain.