During the rally, Trump claimed that those who have been charged in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol are being “treated so unfairly,” and stunningly suggested that some might deserve pardons. “If I run and if I win,” Trump told the crowd of thousands, “we will treat those people from January 6 fairly … And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons.” But more alarming than that was Trump urging his supporters to engage in “the biggest protests we have ever had” if the prosecutors investigating him and his financial dealings “do anything wrong or illegal.”
Think back to December 2020, when Trump called for a protest because he felt he’d been “wronged” with the 2020 election results — the end result was the deadly Capitol attack. Even as his role in that outcome is investigated, Trump obviously knows how that played out.
That’s why common sense says Trump now calling for his supporters to potentially amass again in huge numbers to help him right any perceived wrongs should ring alarm bells. That’s especially true given Trump’s apparent message to his supporters on Saturday that if you commit acts of violence in his name, he will consider pardoning you if he ever becomes president again.
In normal times, hearing an American political leader making such statements would be jarring. But this is far beyond normal. This is dangerous, given that just over one year ago there was a violent attack on our Capitol by Trump supporters based on a lie Trump had created and spread about election fraud.
This isn’t the first time Trump has expressed sympathy for those who were part of the January 6 act of “domestic terrorism,” as FBI Director Christopher Wray has classified the riot. For example, ahead of a September rally in support of those arrested, Trump released a statement saying that “our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6 protest.”
But Trump has now taken his commitment to the January 6 attackers — who I believe should be rightfully called terrorists, given the FBI’s designation — to a new level, calling the prosecution of more than 700 people who attacked the Capitol “a disgrace.”
Does that mean Trump doesn’t believe those who injured over 140 police officers — some very seriously, by assaulting them with batons, poles, chemical spray and other weapons — should face consequences? For example, Texas resident Donald Hazard was arrested and charged in December for allegedly assaulting Capitol police. According to court documents, Hazard grappled with police officers during the riot, leading to one being “knocked unconscious … (with) injuries to his head, foot, and arm.” A December release from the DOJ indicated Hazard was detained pending further proceedings.
Or perhaps Trump is upset with the prosecution of Jeffrey Sabol, who allegedly not only assaulted police officers but helped drag a wounded police officer facedown into the crowd so others could beat him. According to court filing, Sabol took drastic measures at the Capitol on January 6th because he had “reached a mental breaking point.” As of last fall, Sabol remained detained. Maybe Trump hopes to pardon the 11 members of the right wing para-military group The Oath Keepers, should they be convicted on charges of “seditious conspiracy” in connection with the January 6 attack (last week, 10 pleaded not guilty, while the 11th was absent and entered no plea).
While the specter of pardons is jaw-dropping, it’s fantasy for now given that Trump would first have to win a 2024 presidential campaign that he hasn’t even announced. Trump’s plea to his supporters to engage in mass protests if he is charged with crimes is potentially more dangerous, since that’s a more immediate possibility. Trump could be feeling the heat from an Atlanta-area district attorney, who has been granted approval to empanel a special grand jury to investigate potential crimes by Trump related to attempted election inference in Georgia’s 2020 election. And that’s not to mention recent developments surrounding the New York Attorney General’s investigation into Trump’s past business dealings.
After complaining about these investigations and the January 6 House committee’s investigative work, Trump bellowed to his supporters on Saturday that “If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had.”
We all know if Trump is prosecuted for any reason, he will dub it “wrong or illegal.” From there, Trump will likely follow the same playbook that led to the January 6 attack by radicalizing his supporters with lies — but this time with lies directed at the criminal prosecution.
Would Trump call his supporters to surround courthouses or prosecutor’s offices as he did when he called them to Washington, DC on January 6 to “stop the steal”? Again, given what happened that day, we cannot dismiss that possibility, nor the possibility that this could lead to violence from some extremists in the Trump base.
At the very least, his words could be interpreted as Trump trying to make prosecutors think twice about pursuing him for fear of protests, or even threats being directed against them by more radical parts of Trump’s base.
If past is prologue, the answer is no — although a few, including Sens. Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham, have both spoken out against Trump’s pardon idea. In fact, I would predict that if Trump were to ultimately face charges stemming from one of the current investigations, one of the key pledges demanded of Republicans seeking the GOP presidential nomination would be a promise to pardon Trump.
The former president’s suggestion of pardons for those who waged the January 6 attack to stop the peaceful transfer of power should disqualify him from ever holding office again. The same should be true if Trump calls on thousands to flood the streets to protest any criminal charges leveled against him personally — even if that leads to violence. But with today’s GOP that’s unlikely the case; according to a recent CBS News poll, 56% of Republicans view the Capitol attack as an act “defending freedom.”
These are not developments that should ever take place in the United States. Yet, they’re happening right before our eyes. The only question is whether enough Americans will recognize the danger in this rhetoric before it’s too late for our republic.