Three years after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, the man who prompted it remains the unquestioned leader of the Republican Party, while the riot itself has become a rallying cry for his supporters.
Despite the Justice Department pressing charges against more than 1,000 people linked to the insurrection, former President Donald Trump and other Republicans seem to espouse more and more false conspiracy theories about the riot and stoke the same election fraud lies that laid the foundation for the ransacking of the Capitol.
In its immediate aftermath, prominent Republicans criticized Trump and held him responsible. Now, that’s almost hard to believe; many have since recanted and endorsed his 2024 presidential bid.
A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released this week found that the number of Republicans who believe Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election has dropped from 39% in 2021 to 31%, while 34% of Republicans believe the FBI was somehow in on the insurrection.
No one has been more involved in defending Jan. 6 participants than Trump himself. He has suggested pardoning rioters if he becomes president again. He has also aided those facing criminal prosecution by appearing at fundraisers for a nonprofit group that financially supported them, and he has vowed to stop Jan. 6-related investigations if he returns to the presidency.
A major focus of Trump’s reelection campaign is to rewrite the history of that day, calling it “beautiful” and claiming that rioters had “love in their heart.” At a November rally, Trump called people imprisoned over the attack “hostages,” and even honored them by playing a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that was recorded by Jan. 6 defendants.
Five people died during or immediately after the Capitol attack, and four police officers who’d been in the fray later died by suicide. More than 140 officers were injured. Nevertheless, Trump isn’t alone in seeking to excuse, downplay or use conspiracies to explain away the day’s horrific events.
At a December GOP presidential debate, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy echoed the far-right conspiracy theory that FBI agents were behind Jan. 6. “Why am I the only person on this stage at least who can say that Jan. 6 now does look like it was an inside job?” he asked.
Meanwhile, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — now seen as Trump’s foremost-but-still-distant rival for the presidential nomination, apparently overtaking Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis (who called the attack a “protest” but not an attempt to overthrow the government) — has broken with Trump over how history will judge Jan. 6.
“It was not a beautiful day; it was a terrible day,” Haley said on the campaign trail in Iowa last year. “And we don’t ever want that to happen again.”
Yet Haley still told a 9-year-old recently that she would pardon Trump if he’s convicted of criminal charges, which include three conspiracy counts involving his effort to overturn the 2020 election, because it wouldn’t be in the country’s best interest to have “an 80-year-old man sitting in jail.”
Among GOP candidates vying for the Senate, prominent election denier Kari Lake has been the outspoken supporter of Jan. 6 rioters, characterizing those prosecuted for their actions that day as “political prisoners.” Lake’s campaign in Arizona hasn’t officially been endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, but several top Republican senators are backing her, including a member of Senate GOP leadership, which could help her land in the upper chamber of Congress next year.
In the House, Trump has now been endorsed by around 100 hundred GOP lawmakers, including every member of party leadership, despite his role in seeking to subvert the 2020 election results.
Many House Republicans also continue to fan conspiracies about the insurrection. At several times last year, they questioned Justice Department officials about how many FBI agents or informants might have been in the crowd at the Capitol. At one hearing, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) introduced an entirely new conspiracy theory that “ghost buses” offloaded dozens of FBI informants in Washington before the attack. (FBI Director Christopher Wray has repeatedly rejected the suggestion that the agency somehow orchestrated the riot.)
The most prominent piece of evidence that supposedly supported the “fedsurrection” conspiracy theory — the fact that Jan. 6 rioter Ray Epps, who conspiracists falsely claimed was a federal agent, had not been prosecuted — went up in smoke last year when the Justice Department hit Epps with charges, strongly suggesting that he wasn’t the federal asset he’d been made out to be. But lawmakers like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Troy Nehls (R-Texas) told HuffPost that their suspicions about Epps had only strengthened.
Greene recently gushed about meeting Jacob Chansley, the horned Capitol rioter better known as the QAnon Shaman. A photo she shared online shows the far-right duo — the type of pairing that could even end up gracing the stage at a future Trump GOP nominating convention later this year.
But the most jarring Republican statement in support of the fedsurrection theory didn’t come from a backbencher, but from new House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), in his November announcement that Republicans would make public thousands of hours of surveillance video from the Capitol attack.
In the announcement, he said that the footage would be released so people could “see for themselves what happened that day, rather than having to rely upon the interpretation of a small group of government officials,” insinuating that the conventional understanding of events — that a mob of Trump supporters ransacked the building — resulted from disinformation.
But Johnson gave the game away when he later said that Republicans would censor rioters’ faces to avoid potential prosecution, as amateur internet detectives have previously helped identify participants and sent tips to the FBI.
“We have to blur some of the faces of persons who participated in the events of that day because we don’t want them to be retaliated against and to be charged,” Johnson said.
The GOP’s efforts to whitewash the harrowing Jan. 6 attack is confounding to many of those who protected Congress on that day, including former D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone, a Republican who was assaulted by Trump supporters on the steps of the Capitol.
“Imagine the most traumatic, or a traumatic event in your life, that reaches the level of attention that January 6 garnered,” Fanone told HuffPost this week.
“I mean, it was an international story. And spending three years trying to convince people that it actually fucking happened,” he said.
“It’s angering. It’s perplexing.”
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