Six months after the House of Representatives committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol completed its work, a far-right ecosystem of true believers has embraced “J6” as the animating force of their lives.
They attend the criminal trials of the more prominent rioters charged in the attack. They gather to pray and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the perimeter of the District of Columbia jail, where some two dozen inmates are held. Last week, dozens showed up at an unofficial House hearing called by a handful of Republican lawmakers to challenge “the false narrative that an uprising had occurred on January 6,” as expounded by Jeffrey Clark, a witness at the hearing. and a former Justice Department official who worked to reverse the results of the 2020 election.
The 90-minute event was a through-the-glass alternative to the damning case against former President Donald J. Trump presented by the January 6 committee last year. In the version advanced by five House Republicans who attended the hearing — Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, Ralph Norman, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Troy Nehls — as well as conservative attorneys and defendants from the Capitol riot, Jan. 6 was an elaborate scheme to trap peaceful Trump supporters, followed by an ongoing campaign by the Biden administration to imprison and torment innocent conservatives.
Written big, their loudest story about persecution rather than persecution could have been dismissed as fringe nonsense if it hadn’t migrated so quickly to the heart of presidential politics. Mr. Trump has promised to pardon some of the Jan. 6 defendants if he returns to the White House, and his main challenger for the 2024 Republican nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has indicated he will do the same.
More than half, or 58 percent, of self-described conservatives say January 6 was an act of “legitimate political discourse” rather than a “violent uprising,” according to a poll conducted three months ago by The Economist/YouGov.
The counter-story is animated in part by a series of particularly harsh sentences for the Jan. 6 defendants, including one of more than 12 years in prison handed down Wednesday for a rioter who brutally assaulted a D.C. police officer, Michael Fanone.
The audience for the hearing at the Capitol Visitor Center included some of the most enthusiastic and successful promoters of the January 6 counterstory.
They included Micki Witthoeft, the mother of Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran and QAnon supporter who was fatally shot by a Capitol police officer during the riot and is now heralded as a martyr by the far right; Nicole Reffitt, whose husband, Guy Reffitt, was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for his role in the riot and who now helps organize night vigils at DC Prison; Tayler Hansen, who claims to have videotaped evidence of antifa elements inciting the violence at the Capitol, but who did not respond to a request from NewsMadura to review the footage; and Tommy Tatum of Mississippi, who describes himself as an independent journalist and has deduced from several unidentified characters appearing in his own footage that sophisticated squads of plainclothes federal agents orchestrated the Capitol’s breakthrough.
The January 6 deniers range from true believers to volatile opportunists, with feverish debates among them about who is who. Mr. Tatum and William Shipley, a lawyer who served more than Jan. 6 defendants have, for example, accused each other on Twitter of cynical profit-seeking.
One widely admired within the group is Julie Kelly, a former Illinois Republican political consultant, cooking class teacher and critic of the pandemic who writes for the conservative website American Greatness. Ms Kelly has claimed the Biden administration is “on a destructive crusade to exact revenge on supporters of Donald Trump” and has accused Mr Fanone, who was knocked unconscious by rioters in the Capitol, of being a “crisis actor” . She was a frequent guest on Tucker Carlson’s primetime show before Fox fired him in April.
Last month, aides to Chairman Kevin McCarthy gave Ms. Kelly and two other conservative writers, John Solomon of Just the News and Joseph M. Hanneman of The Epoch Times, permission to search the voluminous Jan. 6 security footage of the Capitol, the only journalists other then mr. Carlson to obtain such access.
In an interview the day before the House hearing, Ms. Kelly said she was sifting through the video in hopes of learning the provenance of the infamous gallows seen on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6. ? I doubt it,” she said. Ms. Kelly also hopes to find out if nefarious “agitators” were in the Capitol before the breach. She alternately referred to January 6 as “an inside job” and a “Fed Surrection.”
Ms. Kelly recounted a meeting she and a fellow supporter of the January 6 defendants, Cynthia Hughes, had with Mr. Trump at his golf club in Bedminster, NJ, last September. She said she told the former president that the defendants felt abandoned by him: “They say to me, ‘We were there for him. Why isn’t he here for us?’” Ms. Hughes left Mr. Trump know that the federal judges he appointed were “among the worst” when it came to treating the riot defendants.
Surprised, Mr. Trump replied, “Well, I got recommendations from the Federalist Society.” Ms. Kelly said he then asked, “What do you want me to do?” She replied that he could donate to Mrs. Hughes’ organization, the Patriot Freedom Project, which provides financial assistance to the defendants. Mr. Trump’s Save America PAC then donated $10,000 to the group.
Others in the ecosystem argue that Mr. Trump’s contribution to the cause is evidenced by the slings and arrows he himself has suffered since that day. ‘I call him John. Sixth number one,” said Joseph D. McBride, perhaps the most visible attorney representing the defendants. “He’s under the gun. He is being investigated and charged.”
Mr McBride’s clients include Richard Barnett, who posed for a photo with his foot on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, as well as Ryan Nichols, who urged fellow protesters to target elected officials, shouting, “Cut their heads off.” !”
Mr. McBride also represented two Stop the Steal organizers subpoenaed by the January 6 committee, Ali Alexander and Alex Brueseewitz. It was Mr. Bruesewitz who introduced Mr. McBride to Donald Trump Jr., which led to several invitations to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Florida.
“I’ve lost count at this point,” said Mr. McBride, adding that the club is “a good place to network.”
Mr. McBride was also a frequent guest on Mr. Carlson’s show, including the time he claimed that a mystery man seen at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 with his face covered in red paint was “obviously a law enforcement officer.” Later that week, when evidence was shown by a HuffPost reporter that the man was a known habit of St. Louis Cardinals baseball games, Mr. McBride responded, “If I’m wrong, so be it, bro. I do not give a hoot.”
He did acknowledge some doubt about the claim that the mostly white male conservatives who showed up at the Capitol on Jan. 6 had the judicial deck stacked against them.
“For Jan. 6, every time you heard the term “dual justice system, it’s blacks, it’s Latinos, it’s the felons, it’s the poor, it’s the drug addicts, it’s the marginalized, it’s the LGBTQ community,” he said. That coalition of victims, Mr. McBride stressed, now included the MAGA supporters he represented.
Insha Rahman, the vice president for advocacy and partnerships at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice reform, agrees to some extent. Mr. McBride and the others state “unfortunately a fact of life for more than two million Americans behind bars,” said Ms. Rahman, who has visited the D.C. prison several times and agrees that conditions are inhumane , but no worse. she said, then detention centers in Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston.
Still, she said, the privileges given to January 6 detainees on remand in their particular wing — individual cells, a library, contact visits, the ability to participate in podcasts — are “not at all typical.”
“But I don’t want to call that special treatment,” Ms. Rahman said. “That’s the basis for what every inmate in America should have a right to expect.”
For now, the protagonists of the January 6 alternate story aren’t particularly focused on prison reform. They are also not ready to give up.
As Mr. McBride said, “Do I think we’ll ever get to the bottom of it? We still haven’t solved the JFK assassination.”