How Trump's promise to pardon Jan. 6 rioters raises the threat of extremism Three years after supporters of Donald Trump violently stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the future of the criminal cases against the rioters may hinge on the presidential election.

The Trump campaign embraces Jan. 6 rioters with money and pardon promises

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Donald Trump started his first presidential campaign riding down a golden escalator. This time, his first campaign rally began with a song.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "Justice For All," featuring President Donald J. Trump and the J6 Choir.

SUMMERS: J6, as in January 6, 2021, the insurrection. The song features voices of alleged Capitol rioters in jail, recorded from the jailhouse singing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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J6 CHOIR: (Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light...

SUMMERS: Three years after the attack on the Capitol, the former president has embraced the rioters, donated money to their supporters and promised to issue pardons. Trump is also the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination. As NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach reports, the future of the January 6 criminal cases may hinge on the presidential election.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Donald Trump calls January 6 defendants patriots and hostages, and he said he'd free them or give them pardons at rallies.

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DONALD TRUMP: We will treat them fairly. And if it requires pardons, we will give them because...

DREISBACH: He said it in campaign speeches...

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TRUMP: I will be looking at them very, very seriously for pardons - very, very seriously.

DREISBACH: ...In interviews.

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TRUMP: And I mean full pardons with an apology - to many an apology.

DREISBACH: We found that Trump has said he would free or issue pardons for January 6 defendants more than a dozen times, including on social media, where he reposted a message that, quote, "the cops should be charged, and the protesters should be freed." Trump has said those pardons would come on day one of another Trump presidency. But he's been vague about exactly whom he would pardon, and the Trump campaign did not respond to my questions. Here's Trump on Fox News with Bret Baier last year.

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BRET BAIER: Would you also pardon the people who were convicted of assaulting officers?

TRUMP: But you also have - no, we'd look at individual cases. But many of those people are very innocent people. They did nothing wrong.

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DANIEL HODGES: (Screaming).

DREISBACH: That scream is from a police officer being crushed by rioters wielding a stolen police shield on January 6. The officer's gas mask is ripped off, his mouth bloodied, screaming in pain.

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HODGES: (Screaming).

DREISBACH: That officer's name is Daniel Hodges.

HODGES: I was assaulted many times throughout the day. I was beaten, punched, kicked, pushed, beaten with my own riot baton in the head, crushed with the police shields. Someone tried to gouge out one of my eyes.

DREISBACH: Hodges is among the 140 police officers who were injured on January 6. He said he could only speak for himself, not his police department, but he feels a moral obligation to keep talking about January 6 to counter the lies from Trump and his supporters. Hodges' physical injuries have healed, but his heart still races when he thinks about that day. It doesn't help that he gets death threats when he talks about January 6 or testifies in court.

HODGES: There was people sending me, like, explicit snuff of suicides and...

DREISBACH: Like videos of people killing themselves.

HODGES: Yeah.

DREISBACH: They sent it to you.

HODGES: Yeah, and, like, pictures of my head pasted on top of instructions for how to strangle yourself.

DREISBACH: At times, Trump has signaled he would free every January 6 defendant, which would include those convicted of assaulting police. He has also not ruled out pardoning the leader of the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

TOM JOSCELYN: Trump, heading into the 2024 election, has decided to go all in as the pro-January 6 candidate.

DREISBACH: This is Tom Joscelyn. He's a counterterrorism expert, and he worked as a senior staffer with the January 6 Select Committee in Congress.

JOSCELYN: He's gone full steam ahead in praising and, in his own way, endorsing the January 6 rioters and extremists who attacked the Capitol.

DREISBACH: The director of the FBI, who was appointed by Trump, called January 6 an act of domestic terrorism. And the attack led to the largest FBI investigation in American history. Now, three years later, around 900 people have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial of crimes from that day, from simply breaching the building to assaulting police, bringing guns onto Capitol grounds and seditious conspiracy. If Trump wins, he could use the pardon power to end ongoing prosecutions in these cases, free people from prison and restore gun rights to hundreds of rioters convicted of felonies.

Do you think Trump issuing these pardons could actually encourage further political violence?

JOSCELYN: Certainly. By pardoning an untold number of people who committed violent acts, the likelihood of more violence certainly goes up.

DREISBACH: Special Counsel Jack Smith has been watching Trump's comments and wants to use Trump's support for the rioters against him in court. Smith has argued that Trump's words show that he intended to use illegal means to overturn the 2020 election. Trump is fighting the charges, and it's unclear when that trial will move forward. If Trump wins this year's election, he has promised to use the government to get revenge on his political enemies and to act as a, quote, "dictator" on his first day in office. And legally, Congress and the courts have almost no way to stop him from issuing pardons. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a historian with New York University. She says the pardon power has been used by strongman leaders throughout modern history to enable political violence.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: The purpose of the pardon is both to make people feel they're going to get away with past crimes. But just as scary is that it's designed to make future violence more possible because people will feel they won't pay any consequences.

DREISBACH: President Biden has condemned Trump's promise as a threat to democracy. Here he is at a rally in 2022.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You can't be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy. You can't support law enforcement and call the mob that attacked the police on January 6 in the United States Capitol patriots.

DREISBACH: But Trump's message has gained traction among Republican voters, especially in far-right media, where defendants are called political prisoners.

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TRUMP: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

DREISBACH: Outside the D.C. jail, where many of the alleged rioters have been detained, supporters gather almost every night.

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TRUMP: With liberty and...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Justice for all.

DREISBACH: The group reads names of the people currently locked up. It's a list that includes people charged with assaulting police with a deadly weapon and seditious conspiracy. Regardless of the charges, this group chants hero after each name.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Andrew Taake.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Enrique Tarrio.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Curtis Tate.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: George Tenney.

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DREISBACH: The gathering is just around a dozen people, but they have influence. Trump himself actually called in to the vigil back in 2022. One of the men currently inside the D.C. jail is Jacob Lang.

Mind if I record our conversation?

JACOB LANG: Yeah, no problem.

DREISBACH: OK, great. I'm recording.

Lang has been awaiting trial for years on charges that he attacked officers with a bat and stolen police shield. He's pleaded not guilty and has become a cause celebre in right-wing media. Even after more than two years in jail, Lang is all in on Trump, and he likes Trump's pledge to issue pardons.

LANG: It's a beautiful pledge. I think...

DREISBACH: But he said he wants Trump to commit to a blanket pardon, the kind that would free him, too.

LANG: No Jan 6-er left behind. Bring us all home, Donald Trump. Bring us all home.

DREISBACH: For Officer Daniel Hodges, a blanket pardon would mean freeing the men convicted of assaulting him. So I asked him what he thought about Trump's promise.

HODGES: I mean, I hope some people get pardoned and think, well, that was close. I'm going to stay as far away from, you know, inflammatory politics as I can from now on. But I think that, typically, a lack of consequences emboldens criminals. I see that in the community that I police.

DREISBACH: Since January 6, some defendants have expressed remorse for their actions and denounced Trump. Others have gone deeper into white nationalism, conspiracy theories and extremism. One defendant told me that when the FBI arrested him for storming the Capitol, they made an enemy. When a jury announced his guilty verdict, he yelled, this is how you radicalize people. For now, he's still in jail. Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.

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