In celebrating the Jan. 6 rioters, Trump also celebrates Jan. 6

For all of the testimony and evidence presented by the House select committee investigating the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, one of the least difficult questions tackled by the probe concerned Donald Trump’s own actions as the riot was underway.

After giving his speech at the Ellipse south of the White House — and failing to convince the Secret Service to let him go to the Capitol — Trump returned to the residence, where he was met by his valet. According to partially redacted testimony the valet offered the committee, Trump seems to have asked about the response to his speech.

“Sir, they cut it off because they’re rioting down at the Capitol,” the valet explained, according to his testimony. Trump momentarily didn’t understand, and then did.

“Oh, really,” he said, according to the valet. “And then he was like, ‘All right, let’s go see.’”

“For hours, he watched the attack from his TV screen,” the final committee report explained. “His channel of choice was Fox News. He issued a few tweets, some on his own inclination and some only at the repeated behest of his daughter and other trusted advisers. He made several phone calls, some to his personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, some to Members of Congress about continuing their objections to the electoral certification, even though the attack was well underway.”

One member of Congress with whom he spoke was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). McCarthy pushed him to release a statement forcefully calling for the rioters to withdraw. At first, according to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) (who was told about the call), Trump argued that the rioters weren’t his supporters but, instead, left-wing agitators. McCarthy — who could see firsthand that this wasn’t true — rejected that idea.

“Well, Kevin,” Trump replied, “I guess they’re just more upset about the election, you know, theft than you are.”

Details that have emerged about the hours Trump spent watching the attack suggest that he was supportive of it. His chief of staff, Mark Meadows, reportedly told an attorney for Trump that the president “doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.” When Trump finally did issue a call for the rioters to leave the Capitol, he did so with words of encouragement: “Go home, we love you. You’re very special.”

In the immediate wake of the riot, there was no political room for Trump to offer his approval. He was broadly condemned, and his effort to subvert the election results collapsed. He lost access to major social media platforms and was mostly relegated to the fringe.

But partisan hostility is a powerful thing, and others on the right began using the riot not as a way to bolster Trump but to criticize his successor, Joe Biden. Those arrested for participating in the violence were framed as political prisoners or martyrs. The idea that the violence was a function of left-wing or government-backed agitators gained traction. By the time Trump announced his candidacy for the 2024 nomination, he had begun to embrace the rioters — often called the “J6 prisoners” — often describing them as victims. After all, his campaign oriented around the idea that he, too, was a victim of overzealous partisan law enforcement. The rioters he’d watched with approval on Jan. 6 were now comrades in arms.

Over the weekend, Trump spoke at a rally in Las Vegas. There, he offered his most energetic support for the rioters, a group that he’s already promised to consider pardoning.

“There has never been people treated more horrifically than J6 hostages,” Trump claimed. A bit later, he added that “they were warriors but they were really, more than anything else, they’re victims of what happened.” After all, he claimed, they’d been encouraged to enter the building by police or shadowy figures linked to the government — common rhetoric from the fringe that conflicts sharply with the evidence of what unfolded that day.

There’s an obvious utility to Trump’s message that the government is out to get right-wing Americans — and by extension, that his indictments are baseless and political. But embracing the Jan. 6 rioters as victims and/or heroes also seems to better reflect how Trump considered the violence in the moment. He said he loved them even as the riot was underway.

At times in the years since, he has tried to stoke similar demonstrations of support. When an indictment was imminent in New York City in early 2023, he demanded that his supporters show up in force.

“THE FAR & AWAY LEADING REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE AND FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK,” he wrote on social media at that point. “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!”

No such protest emerged, nor did one when he suggested that people show up in Miami at the time he faced federal indictment in that city. As his Manhattan trial unfolded and neared its conclusion, he repeatedly claimed that protesters were kept away from the courthouse (perhaps to explain why no protests had emerged) even as he demanded that, for example, his supporters “GO OUT AND PEACEFULLY PROTEST. RALLY BEHIND MAGA. SAVE OUR COUNTRY!”

It makes sense that Trump would seek out such a display. He has long drawn strength from displays of support: rally attendance (which he often exaggerates), supporters outside of the hospital where he was being treated for covid-19, etc. Imagine how he might have felt seeing all of those protesters literally fighting for him to remain in power for hours on end! No wonder he kept hoping protests would emerge again.

What his supporters have often done instead of gather together in visible displays of support is something less energy-intensive: sending threats to his opponents. Political scientist Donald Moynihan documented some of these efforts in an essay over the weekend, part of a delineation of the way in which Trump has “normalized retribution as a proper scope of presidential action and the use of political power.”

Among other things, he notes Trump’s response to the Capitol riot and the reaction from his supporters.

“Half of the judges overseeing January 6 trials have reported increased threats and harassment,” Moynihan noted, “and the mother of a police officer assaulted by rioters was swatted after the officer labeled Trump as an authoritarian.”

The effect of Trump’s encouragement of this approach, he concludes, is to help embed it into American politics. However intentionally instituted, this expands his ability to leverage power should he return to the White House by ensuring he has ways of applying pressure outside of elections or the law.

Part of what Trump is doing here, though, may be simpler in its intent. Trump likes attention and support and enthusiasm. At no point has he gotten more of that than on Jan. 6, 2021, however detrimental to everyone else and to democracy. He understands the political value of treating Jan. 6 rioters as victims. But his appreciation for their efforts is almost certainly more personal in nature.

If that’s detrimental to the nation, so be it.


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