WASHINGTON — Ever since a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, Republicans have been trying to shift the national conversation away from that violent day and onto what they say are the problems of the Biden administration: a troubled pullout from Afghanistan, an overtaxed southern border, and rising inflation.
Then, a former campaign operative of former president Donald Trump announced that he was organizing hundreds of protesters to return to the Capitol Saturday for a rally in support of the defendants charged in connection with the deadly assault, which left dozens of officers bloodied.
Bad memories of the violence rushed back. The Capitol Police announced that they were reinstalling a security fence around the complex and were aware of “concerning online chatter” from extremist groups. And many Republican lawmakers said they wanted nothing to do with the event. Not a single member of Congress has confirmed plans to attend, even those who have been most outspoken in portraying the rioters as patriots who have been persecuted for their political beliefs.
“There are a lot of clearly angry people who want to march on the Capitol,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican. “I haven’t talked to a single Republican up here in the Senate that has encouraged or enabled anything like that.”
Nevertheless, the “Justice for J6” rally, to be held at noon Saturday at the foot of Capitol Hill, has created a predicament for Republicans, who are caught between a hard-right base, including many voters who consider the rioters righteous, and a desire to distance themselves from the attack and its political fallout.
“Anytime the attention is on Joe Biden it’s good for Republicans, and anytime the attention is on Jan. 6 it’s bad for Republicans,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and veteran of Capitol Hill. “The only hope Democrats have of keeping the House is to make Jan. 6 the issue of the campaign. They know that, and we know that. The only people who don’t seem to know that are the activists.”
Former president Donald Trump voiced solidarity Thursday with people being prosecuted in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection, issuing a statement ahead of the rally.
“Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election,” Trump said in a statement. “In addition to everything else, it has proven conclusively that we are a two-tiered system of justice. In the end, however, JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL!’’
Trump has not announced plans to attend or otherwise participate Saturday.
Representative Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican and the House minority leader, told reporters this week that he did not expect any lawmaker in his party to attend, but his office had no response to questions about whether he supported the rally or was dissuading people from attending. Representatives Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Elise Stefanik of New York, the second- and third-ranking House Republicans, have been similarly taciturn about the event.
Even Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who has been among the most vocal critics of the treatment of the Jan. 6 suspects, said she would not be attending the rally, even as she defended the inspiration behind it.
“There’s a two-track justice system in America, and the treatment of the J6 political prisoners compared with violent antifa/BLM rioters proves it,” she said in a lengthy e-mail statement.
Greene said she condemned the violence that occurred during the riot but said she believed that “illegal aliens are treated better than many of the J6 accused.”
Police are bracing for the “Justice for J6 rally,” being planned by a nonprofit group led by former Trump campaign staffer Matt Braynard.
The goal, Braynard has said, is to peacefully demand that charges against nonviolent Jan. 6 protesters be dropped. Braynard claims those protesters “reasonably believed” they had permission to enter the Capitol. About 700 rallygoers are expected to attend.
Contrary to Trump’s claims, no evidence has emerged of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential race.
A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential win, the worst attack on the seat of democracy since the War of 1812. Hundreds were arrested after the violent insurrection that injured more than 140 members of law enforcement and resulted in the deaths of five people. More than 600 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the attack.
But disquiet in the party is real on behalf of the Jan. 6 defendants, particularly those who are charged with nonviolent offenses, Feehery said. He said many Republican voters believed that the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol would have received lighter treatment if they had been supporting a left-wing cause.
“I can appreciate why Republicans don’t want anything to do with this,” he said, “but there is a lot of angst in the Republican base.”