Trump’s dangerous January 6–pardon promise

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Donald Trump’s plan to pardon people in prison for their crimes on January 6—people he now calls “hostages”—is yet another dangerous and un-American attack on the rule of law.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:


A Loyal Cadre in Waiting

This past weekend, Donald Trump stirred up one of his usual controversies by declaring that there would be a “bloodbath” if he isn’t elected. Trump’s supporters played a game of gotcha with outraged critics by claiming that Trump was merely describing an economic meltdown in the auto industry. Unfortunately, Trump decided, as he so often does, to pull the rug out from under his apologists by defending bloodbath as a common expression and clarifying that he meant it to refer to “getting slaughtered economically, when you’re getting slaughtered socially, when you’re getting slaughtered.” Oh.

So much for purely economic “slaughter.” Trump’s threats and violent language are nothing new. But while the nation’s pundits and partisans examine what it means for a presidential contender to mull over “getting slaughtered socially,” Trump has added a much more disturbing project to his list of campaign promises: He intends to pardon all the people jailed for the attack on the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection.

Trump once held a maybe-sorta position on pardoning the insurrectionists. He is now, however, issuing full-throated vows to get them out of prison. On March 11, Trump declared on his Truth Social account: “My first acts as your next President will be to Close the Border, DRILL, BABY, DRILL, and Free the January 6 Hostages being wrongfully imprisoned!”

Trump isn’t the first to use the loaded expression hostages in this context: The one-term member of Congress Madison Cawthorn—an embarrassment even by MAGA standards—used it in 2021 before many of those arrested in connection with January 6 were even convicted, and current member and House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, whose nucleonic decay from establishment Republican to right-wing extremist is fundamentally complete, has also used it.

Back in 2021, Trump claimed to be appalled by the violence at the Capitol, but that didn’t last long (and there is no reason to assume Trump was sincere in the first place). Semafor’s Shelby Talcott on Monday detailed how Trump went from “outraged” in 2021, promising that “those who broke the law … will pay,” to offering blanket pardons in 2024. As Talcott wrote, Trump’s “evolution” began with “instinctive support for some of the most hardcore members of his own MAGA movement” and is now “a semi-formal alliance” with the Patriot Freedom Project, which claimed in December to have raised almost $1 million to free people convicted of crimes related to the insurrection.

This is not evolution so much as it is a kind of synergy, however, in which Trump and the right-wing fever swamp feed on each other’s manic energy. The QAnon conspiracy theorists, for example, anointed Trump as their champion, and Trump responded by eventually embracing them in return. When Trump goes to rallies and bellows for two hours at a time while using words such as vermin, or when his response to a question about the Proud Boys is to tell them to “stand back and stand by,” the MAGA ecosystem amplifies him and organizes his sentence fragments into something like guidance.

The only surprise here is that it took Trump this long to adopt a radical position supporting the people who were willing to do violence on his behalf. According to the House Select Committee’s investigation, his own staff had trouble getting him to call off the January 6 mob, to whom he said “We love you.” Many of those convicted for various crimes committed on that day went off to prison convinced they’d done the right thing, and Trump—a sucker for sycophancy—must have been moved by such shows of support, which included people singing to him in jail.

Trump has also shown, both as president and as a businessman, that he has an innate disgust with the whole idea of the impartial rule of law. He’s in serious financial trouble for (among other reasons) lying about the value of his properties when it suited his interests; he has always seemed to believe that rules are for chumps, and that people—especially people named Donald Trump—should be free to enjoy the benefits of whatever they can get away with, legal or otherwise.

Indeed, the whole idea of “legality” doesn’t seem to permeate Trump’s consciousness, unless it is applied to Trump’s enemies or other people, especially those of color, who he thinks deserve punishment. (Trump is the embodiment of the famous statement attributed to the Peruvian strongman Óscar R. Benavides: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”) In his handling of classified materials as well as in his attempt to pressure Ukraine to aid his campaign, Trump has shown that he thinks that laws don’t apply to him if they hinder his personal fortunes.

But in promising pardons, Trump may have a motive even darker than his general hatred for rules and laws. As he makes his third run at the presidency, Trump no longer has a reservoir of establishment Republicans who will support him or serve him. He distrusts the U.S. military, not least because senior officers and appointees thwarted his efforts to use the armed forces for his own political purposes. And although he may yet win reelection, his MAGA movement is now dependent on the kind of people who will go to his rallies and buy the trinkets and hats and shirts that go on sale whenever he speaks.

Where, then, can he find a truly loyal cadre willing to offer unconditional support? Where might he find people who will feel they owe their very lives to Donald J. Trump, and will do anything he asks?

He can find many of them in prison, waiting for him to let them out.

As the historian and scholar of authoritarian movements Ruth Ben-Ghiat has noted, would-be dictators deploy such promises to build groups that will ignore the law and obey the leader. “Amnesties and pardons,” she told me earlier today, “have always been an efficient way for leaders to free up large numbers of the most criminal and unscrupulous elements of society for service to the party and the state, and make them indebted to the rulers in the process.”

The damage to the American constitutional order and the rule of law would be immense if Trump used his power to pardon people such as Enrique Tarrio (the former leader of the Proud Boys, sentenced to 22 years) and the Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes (who drew an 18-year sentence). Hundreds of others are now serving time, many of whom might be more than willing to do anything for a president whose call they answered that winter day and who would now be the patron of their freedom.

Trump is no longer flirting with this idea. The man whose constitutional duty as president would be to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” is now promising to let hundreds of rioters and insurrectionists out of prison with full pardons. And eventually, he will make clear what he expects in return.

Related:


Today’s News

  1. The Biden administration announced new rules for passenger cars and light trucks that will boost sales of electric vehicles and hybrids by limiting tailpipe pollution.
  2. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar unexpectedly resigned, citing the coalition government’s stronger chances of reelection under a different leader.
  3. Last night, a federal appeals court blocked a controversial Texas immigration law that would permit state law enforcement to arrest and detain those they suspect of illegal border crossings, hours after the Supreme Court allowed the law to go into effect.

Evening Read

Photograph of a shadow of a plane
Dennis Stock / Magnum

Flying Is Weird Right Now

By Charlie Warzel

Somewhere over Colorado this weekend, while I sat in seat 21F, my plane began to buck, jostle, and rattle. Within seconds, the seat-belt indicator dinged as the pilot asked flight attendants to return to their seats. We were experiencing what I, a frequent flier, might describe as “intermediate turbulence”—a sustained parade of midair bumps that can be uncomfortable but by no means terrifying.

Generally, I do not fear hurtling through the sky at 500 miles per hour, but at this moment I felt an unusual pang of uncertainty. The little informational card poking out of the seat-back pocket in front of me started to look ominous—the words Boeing 737-900 positively glared at me as the cabin shook. A few minutes later, once we’d found calm air, I realized that a steady drumbeat of unsettling aviation stories had so thoroughly permeated my news-consumption algorithms that I had developed a phobia of sorts.

Read the full article.

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P.S.

Many of you responded to my recent thoughts about the declining quality of “mystery box” television shows with stories of how some of your own favorite shows have let you down. (One area of wide agreement: Most of you are still mad at Lost for leading you on and then going nowhere at the end.) A few of you spoke up for Fringe, but I have to admit that I couldn’t maintain my interest in it; part of the problem with mystery-box shows is that they become too tangled up in their own mythology for the rest of us to make any sense of it.

I was especially heartened to see some fan love for Counterpart, a show that I will continue to argue has never gotten its due for its writing and its amazing cast. I love the mystery-box genre, and I hope it makes a comeback—but reader feedback tells me that I’m not alone in asking writers to decide where they’re going before the end of the series.

By the way, some of you spoke up for the recent season of True Detective, and to you all I will only ask, yet again: What about the tongue on the floor?

— Tom


Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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