WASHINGTON – First, some blamed the deadly Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol on left-wing antifa antagonists, a theory quickly debunked. Then came comparisons of the rioters to peaceful protesters or even tourists.
Now, allies of former President Donald Trump are calling those charged in the Capitol riot “political prisoners," a stunning effort to revise the narrative of that deadly day.
The brazen rhetoric ahead of a rally planned for Saturday at the Capitol is the latest attempt to explain away the horrific assault and obscure what played out for all the world to see: rioters loyal to the then-president storming the building, battling police and trying to stop Congress from certifying the election of Democrat Joe Biden.
“Some people are calling it Jan. 6 trutherism — they’re rewriting the narrative to make it seem like Jan. 6 was no big deal, and it was a damn big deal, and an attack on our democracy,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, who studies extremist movements.
All told, the attempted whitewashing of the Jan. 6 attack threatens to further divide an already polarized nation that finds itself drifting from what had been common facts and a shared commitment to civic order toward an unsettling new normal.
Rather than a nation healing eight months after the deadly assault, the country is at risk of tearing itself further apart, as the next election approaches.
The anticipated crowd size and the intensity of the Saturday rally are unclear, but law enforcement appears to be taking no chances. Security fencing was approved Monday for areas around the Capitol, and reinforcements are being summoned to back up the Capitol Police, whose leadership was criticized and summarily dismissed for its handling of Jan. 6.
While authorities have been bracing for a repeat appearance by right-wing extremist groups and other Trump loyalists who mobbed the Capitol, it’s unclear if those actors will participate in the new event. The extremist groups are concerning because, while members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers made up a small portion of the Jan. 6 rioters, they are accused of some of the more serious crimes in the attack.
Whether those groups participate or not, the rally could bring lone actors to Washington. Just after midnight on Monday, Capitol Police arrested a California man who had a bayonet and machete in his pickup truck outside of Democratic National Committee headquarters. The man, Donald Craighead of Oceanside, California, had a swastika and other white supremacist symbols painted on his truck and told officers he was “on patrol.” The police said it was unclear if he was planning on attending any upcoming demonstrations.
Rally organizer Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign strategist, has been promoting the event and others like it in cities nationwide, focusing attention on what he calls the “prisoners” being unfairly prosecuted for their involvement in the Jan. 6 riot.
“I am so proud of all of the brave patriots who participated in these rallies under the same threat to their rights of so many who are being held in prison now for a non-violent expression of their First Amendment rights,” he said in a July news release.
Braynard declined to respond to additional questions by email, and The Associated Press declined to accept the conditions he made for an interview.
As Trump openly considers another run for the White House, many of the Republican lawmakers who joined his effort to challenge Biden’s victory are staying away from the Saturday rally, even though many still echo his false claims that the election was rigged — despite numerous court cases by Trump’s allies that have failed to confirm those allegations.
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who joined rally-goers near the White House on Jan. 6 where Trump encouraged the crowd to go to the Capitol, declined to comment, his spokesman said by email. Brooks is now running for the Senate.
Another Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who voted to challenge some Electoral College tallies, was unavailable for an interview, his office said.
Also declining an interview was Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who was captured in a photo raising a fist in salute to the mob as he entered the Capitol that day.
More than 600 people are facing federal charges in the riot that injured dozens of officers and sent lawmakers into hiding. Five people eventually died, including Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by police as she tried to break into a lobby off the House chamber. Several police officers later took their own lives.
Hundreds of people were charged with misdemeanors for entering the Capitol illegally, but hundreds of others are facing more serious felony charges including assault, obstruction of an official proceeding or conspiracy.
The most serious cases have been brought against members of two far-right extremist groups — the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers — as authorities probe to what extent the attack was planned. No Jan. 6 defendant has been charged with sedition, though it was initially considered by authorities.
More than 60 people have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanor charges of demonstrating in the Capitol.
Only a fraction of the defendants remain locked up while they await trial. Lawyers have complained of overly harsh conditions for the Jan. 6 defendants in the D.C. jail, saying they are being held in what has been dubbed the “Patriot Unit.”
Defenders of the alleged Capitol attackers claim they are facing harsher prosecutions because of their political views than others, including Black Lives Matter protesters, but a review of court cases by the AP refutes that claim.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the select panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack, said those who broke the law need to be prosecuted, “otherwise, we just rationalize, excuse and encourage more of the same.”
The Capitol’s leafy grounds, a favorite spot for people to snap photos in front of the iconic dome, would typically see few lawmakers or staff on a Saturday. While the Senate returned to session Monday, the House doesn't resume until next week.
When the fence first went up around the Capitol after the January attack, it drew heavy criticism from those worried about the message being sent as a symbol of democracy was closed off. Now, it's increasingly seen as a necessary precaution.
Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin in Boston and Michael Balsamo, Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this report.