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How the GOP’s rewriting of Jan. 6 paved the way for Trump’s comeback

Donald Trump spent the days after Jan. 6, 2021, privately fuming about the election and his media coverage. Leaving office with an approval rating below 40 percent, he skipped Joe Biden’s inauguration and retreated to Mar-a-Lago. He was banned from posting on Twitter and avoided public appearances.

The next month, he accepted an invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, his first post-presidential speech. On the drive, Trump seemed surprised that the roads again closed for his motorcade, an adviser said. A rapturous reception appeared to lift his spirits, the adviser said. Still, his speech made no mention of the event that prompted his isolation: the deadly attack by his supporters on the U.S. Capitol.

In those early months of lying low, Trump himself was not the main driver in rewriting Republicans’ collective memory of Jan. 6.

Attempts to minimize, excuse or deny the violence of that day began with people returning home from the mob and intensified with family members of rioters, including the mother of a woman killed at the Capitol. Their cause became championed by pro-Trump writers Julie Kelly and Darren Beattie, and amplified by prominent right-wing media figures. The grass-roots and media pressure then spread from far-right lawmakers such as Reps. Paul A. Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene to take over the Republican mainstream.

This changing view of Jan. 6 among Republicans offered Trump a lifeline, paving the way for his political comeback. By October 2021, when he claimed “the insurrection took place on November 3, Election Day,” rather than on Jan. 6, he was merely repeating a meme that was already widely circulating on Facebook.

“There were other people planting the seeds, and then Trump comes to harvest them,” said Jared Holt, an extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, of the rewriting of Jan. 6. “It’s canon at this point.”

Now, on the third anniversary of the nation’s first interruption to the peaceful transfer of power since the Civil War era, Republicans’ attitudes about Jan. 6 are increasingly unmoored from other Americans, and Trump holds a commanding lead in the race for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.

The share of Republicans who said the Jan. 6 protesters who entered the Capitol were “mostly violent” dipped to 18 percent from 26 percent in December 2021, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. More than half of independents and about three-quarters of Democrats, on the other hand, believe the protesters were “mostly violent,” numbers that have remained largely unchanged over time, the poll found.

The percentage of Republicans who hold Trump responsible for the attack dropped from 27 percent to 14 percent, compared with 56 percent of independents and 86 percent of Democrats. More than a third of Republicans said they believe the FBI definitely or probably organized and encouraged the attack — a conclusion contradicted by an extensive congressional investigation and more than 725 completed federal prosecutions.

More than 1,000 people have been charged in the Capitol breach. The Post-UMD poll found a majority of Americans believe the events of Jan. 6 were an attack on democracy and should never be forgotten. Trump faces his own criminal prosecution in Washington and Georgia for his efforts to overturn the election, trials his advisers have tried to delay — and fear could alienate him from voters he needs in a general election.

“When I resigned on Jan. 6, if you would have told me that people would have been whitewashing the events of the day or spreading all kinds of conspiracy theories, I would not have believed you,” said Sarah Matthews, who was a deputy press secretary in Trump’s White House. “We all saw the footage. We saw these people violently attacking police officers. To whitewash and downplay the events is so frustrating because if they took place in any other country, we would be calling it a coup attempt.”

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung accused Biden of trying to distract from his record and criticized him for the prosecutions of Trump. “The fact is that Biden is the real threat to democracy by weaponizing the government to go after his main political opponent and interfering in the 2024 election,” he said.

(The federal charges against Trump were brought by special counsel Jack Smith in accordance with Justice Department rules against White House influence. There is no evidence of coordination with the two cases brought by local prosecutors.)

Trump is holding two rallies in Iowa on Saturday ahead of the caucuses there Jan. 15. His remarks are expected to focus on contrasting his and Biden’s records on the economy and immigration, and it is not clear if he will mention the anniversary.

Biden confronted the subject head-on Friday in a speech in Pennsylvania, near the Revolutionary War campground at Valley Forge. His reelection campaign is preparing to frame the likely general-election rematch as a choice between democracy and authoritarianism.

“When the attack on Jan. 6 happened, there was no doubt about the truth,” he said. “As time has gone on, politics, fear, money all have intervened. And now these MAGA voices who know the truth about Trump and Jan. 6 have abandoned the truth and abandoned democracy. They made their choice. Now the rest of us — Democrats, independents, mainstream Republicans — we have to make our choice.”

In a speech Friday night, Trump accused Biden of “pathetic fearmongering.”

Congress was still meeting through the night to certify the electoral college results as the thousands of Trump supporters who’d gathered on the National Mall started leaving Washington and returning home. Though disappointed that they hadn’t ultimately changed the outcome of the election, many of the demonstrators were still thrilled by what they’d experienced. They texted friends and posted on Facebook about what they’d seen, often reporting joyful scenes and, for those who never approached the Capitol steps, no sign of violence.

Some participants speculated that the violence could have been instigating by anti-Trump interlopers. Others spoke up to refute those suspicions: They were proud to claim responsibility for what they had done. Then some of those self-incriminating social media posts started showing up in warrants and indictments. The FBI posted wanted photos of people in the mob, and amateur online sleuths started hunting them down. Others were turned in by family members and co-workers.

The Jan. 17 arrest of Couy Griffin, a New Mexico county commissioner known in the Make America Great Again movement as the founder of Cowboys for Trump, caught the attention of Julie Kelly, a writer for the pro-Trump website American Greatness. Griffin was charged with entering a restricted area and disorderly conduct.

Because there was no evidence that Griffin assaulted police officers or damaged property, Kelly questioned why he was detained. “His real crime, of course, is that he’s a supporter of Donald Trump,” she wrote on Feb. 4, 2021. “He is, for all intents and purposes, a political prisoner.”

Griffin was released on bond the next day. He was later convicted and sentenced to 14 days, which he’d already served.

“I was being considered an outlier, to put it nicely,” Kelly said in an interview. “Conspiracy theorist or whack job, to put it more accurately, how I was portrayed.”

At that time, even Trump was still denouncing the violence. In a Feb. 28 Fox News interview, he defended his rally before the riot as “a love fest,” but as for the siege of the Capitol, he said, “I hate to see it. I think it’s terrible.”

The biggest exception was Tucker Carlson, then the host of the nation’s most-watched cable news show, on Fox News. In March, he invited Kelly on to question what caused the death of Officer Brian D. Sicknick, who died the day after fighting the mob, including being attacked with bear spray. (The D.C. medical examiner later concluded that Sicknick died of natural causes after two strokes, but that “all that transpired on that day played a role in his condition.” Sicknick’s assailant, Julian Khater, pleaded guilty in 2022.)

“The details of that day matter, Carlson said, “because they’re being used as a pretext for changing this country.” Carlson did not respond to requests for comment.

Carlson also took an interest in another fatality connected to the attack: that of Ashli Babbitt, the Trump supporter who was shot trying to enter the lobby of the House chamber while lawmakers were evacuating. In the months after the riot, far-right communities online started portraying her as a martyr and trying to identify and harass the officer who shot her, according to Holt’s research for the Atlantic Council.

In June, Carlson brought on Babbitt’s widower, who repeated the call to identify the officer who killed her. “The silence is deafening,” he said.

Babbitt’s mother, Micki Witthoeft, started holding a nightly vigil outside the D.C. jail where Jan. 6 defendants were being held, either while being arraigned, awaiting sentencing after conviction, or because a judge found them too dangerous to release before trial. The inmates started a tradition of singing the national anthem every night at 9.

One of the defendants in the jail was Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, an Army reservist from New Jersey who gained notoriety for wearing a Hitler-style mustache. He was charged and later convicted of charges including obstruction of an official proceeding, and disorderly conduct in a Capitol building.

His aunt, Cynthia Hughes, asked the judge to release Hale-Cusanelli pending trial, arguing that he wasn’t dangerous. The judge, Trump appointee Trevor McFadden, disagreed and denied bond. Hughes started a fund called the Patriot Freedom Project to raise money for the lawyers and families of Jan. 6 defendants. Hughes declined to comment.

One night that summer, Kelly was standing in her kitchen in suburban Chicago when she got a call from the jail. She used her daughter’s cellphone to record the prisoners singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” then posted it online. “That started to get attention,” Kelly said.

That spring, the pressure from activists and right-wing media started getting back to Congress.

At first, the main voice was Gosar (R-Ariz.), who had appeared at “Stop the Steal” rallies leading up to Jan. 6. In the months after, Gosar used his time at congressional hearings to question former acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen about Babbitt’s death, claiming she was “executed,” demanding that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray identify the officer who shot her, and falsely insisting that there were “zero” firearms among the mob.

Witthoeft said in an interview that when she began approaching members of Congress about her daughter, Gosar was the only one who would meet. “One of my first meetings, I was told by a staffer than Jan. 6 was a political football that no one wanted to touch,” she said.

But other lawmakers soon started getting involved. In May, Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), who on Jan. 6 helped barricade the doors of the House chamber, spoke at a hearing to deny there ever was an insurrection and suggested the rampaging mob looked like “a normal tourist visit.” Greene (R-Ga.) and Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) tried to visit the Jan. 6 defendants in the D.C. jail. They were turned away.

“It came from the grass roots,” said a former senior House Republican leadership aide. The aide said most Republicans who had been at the Capitol “knew exactly what happened, knew how wrong it was, and knew that Donald Trump was responsible” but shifted after hearing from constituents.

Over time, about a dozen members of Congress became reliable allies, said Witthoeft, who said she began to regularly talk to congressional staff members, along with activists, documentary filmmakers and others. “People do return our phone calls now, people will open our doors and take meetings with us,” she said.

By mid-2021, online rumors accusing left-wing agitators of instigating the Capitol riot had fizzled out. In their place, Darren Beattie, a former speechwriter for Gaetz and the Trump White House who’d gone on to found a pro-Trump website called Revolver News, started publishing articles suggested a different source of subterfuge: the FBI.

Beattie focused on a man named Ray Epps, who appeared in videos urging on the mob and whom Beattie suspected of being an undercover operative. Justice Department leaders have repeatedly confirmed that Epps never worked for or with them. In 2023, Epps pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Beattie was a frequent guest on former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, one of the most influential talk shows in the MAGA movement. In June 2021, he found an even bigger audience on Carlson’s show. (Epps is now suing Fox News, alleging defamation.) Clips from the show were shared online by Greene and Gaetz, and Gosar read one of Beattie’s articles into the official congressional record.

“It took the media by storm,” Beattie said in an interview.

Carlson followed up in November with “Patriot Purge,” a multipart movie on Fox News’s streaming arm that drew on Beattie’s work and other unsubstantiated allegations to portray the riot as a staged feint to discredit Trump and his supporters. Two longtime Fox News commentators, Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes, quit the network in protest. The network stood by Carlson at the time. (He was abruptly terminated in 2023.)

By the time Congress marked the attack’s first anniversary, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) was the only Republican who attended a moment of silence on the House floor. Gaetz and Greene held their own news conference where Gaetz promoted Beattie’s “fed-surrection” claims.

That night on Carlson’s show, the host pressured Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to walk back his description of Jan. 6 as “a violent terrorist attack” during a Senate hearing the day before.

“By no definition was it a terror attack, that’s a lie,” Carlson told Cruz, who had been one of the leading lawmakers trying to block the 2020 election results in Congress.

Cruz maintained that he was referring to people who attacked police officers, not other protesters. “That being said, Tucker, I agree with you, it was a mistake to say that,” Cruz said.

In June 2021, one of Trump’s assistants called Witthoeft, Babbitt’s mother. “Would I want a call from the president?” Witthoeft recalled the assistant asking.

A week later, Trump called. During the 30-minute conversation, Witthoeft said, Trump acknowledged that her daughter died in support of him and was complimentary of Babbitt. Witthoeft said she pushed Trump to talk more about what she termed “the political prisoners” of Jan. 6 — people who were being held in detention after being charged with crimes.

While Witthoeft described Trump as a “real gentleman,” she said he had been slow in the early days of 2021 to embrace the issue. She said she asked the president to keep saying her daughter’s name. “I think President Trump was a good leader. But he’s one man,” she said. “For everyone to wait for him to save the day, the past three years could have been better spent.”

After that call, Trump became increasingly defiant in his defenses of Jan. 6. In July, he joined calls to identify the officer who shot Babbitt and described her in a Fox News interview as “innocent.” He said the defendants were being treated unfairly and repeated the falsehood that there were no guns at the riot. In October, he recorded a video message to mark Babbitt’s birthday, calling her a “truly incredible person” whose memory would live on “for all time.”

Trump’s escalating identification with the cause of Jan. 6 defendants coincided with his own deepening criminal jeopardy — and his moves toward a new presidential campaign. In August 2021, the FBI conducted a court-approved search at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to recover classified documents improperly taken from the White House. Trump began portraying the investigation as politically targeted, in step with the Jan. 6 defendants, for whom he adopted Kelly’s term — “political prisoners.”

Later that month, Trump met at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., with Kelly and Hughes, the Patriot Freedom Project founder. Kelly recalled she told Trump that his supporters frequently said to her: “We were there for him on Jan. 6. Where is he for us?”

Trump asked how he could help, she said. She pointed to Hughes, who was raising money for the defendants and their families. “From that point on he became more engaged,” Kelly said.

Trump also renewed attacks against Mike Pence, his vice president, who had refused to help Trump overturn the election on Jan. 6. In the days after the attack, Trump had expressed what Pence thought was genuine contrition over the attack, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation. For months, the two men occasionally spoke, and Trump even invited Pence to come see him at Mar-a-Lago. But with Trump’s shift, the former vice president grew frustrated and resigned to what he saw as the futility of the relationship. Now, the two men haven’t spoken in years, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private interactions.

In January 2022, Trump first floated pardoning Jan. 6 defendants. His rallies for that year’s midterms featured a video showing clips from Carlson and other right-wing media hosts repeating the conspiracy theories suggesting the attack on the Capitol was staged. He also gave an extended interview to Beattie.

“You’re right about Epps,” Trump told him of the man Beattie falsely accused of being an undercover operative.

At a September 2022 rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., he recognized Hughes to stand and be applauded. “What a job,” he said. “We all appreciate it.” Trump also recorded a video message that was played at a fundraiser for Hughes’s group.

That month, he also called into the nightly vigil outside the D.C. jail. “I just want to tell everybody that’s listening, we’re with you,” he said.

In early 2023, Trump allies began producing a track of the inmates singing the national anthem, mixed with a recording of Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. He played the finished song — “Justice for All,” featuring the “J6 Prison Choir” — to open the first campaign rally of his 2024 campaign, in Waco, Tex., in March 2023. The song jumped to No. 1 on iTunes.

The next month, Trump dropped into a diner while campaigning in Manchester, N.H. The crowd inside started calling out that there was a “J6er” present. She was Micki Larson-Olson, who had been recently released after serving a 180-day sentence for unlawful entry onto public property. Trump called her over, hugged her and signed the backpack she said she was wearing that day.

By May, Trump expanded his pardon pledge, now promising to “most likely” grant clemency to “a large portion” of Jan. 6 defendants. “And it’ll be very early on,” he said in a CNN town hall.

At a rally in Durham, N.H., last month, he went further than Kelly’s phrase for the Jan. 6 defendants.

“I don’t call them prisoners,” he said. “I call them hostages. They’re hostages.”

Ence Morse contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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