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Republicans Recast Jan. 6 Riot Defendants as ‘Political Prisoners’

·5 min read
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The recording is barely discernible, but amid the clangs and scratches it’s possible to make out a few male voices singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Despite its poor quality, it’s become an object of veneration on the far-right: a recording of imprisoned Capitol riot suspects singing the national anthem.

“This breaks my heart,” tweeted Amy Kremer, the leader of Women for America First and a key organizer of the Jan. 6 Trump rally at the Washington Monument that preceded the U.S. Capitol riot.

The recording, published earlier this month on a conservative blog, has become the latest totem in an effort to cast the imprisoned riot defendants as patriotic political prisoners suffering behind bars. The Daily Beast was unable to verify the authenticity of the recording.

As Donald Trump and his allies on the right look to rewrite the history of Jan. 6, the riot suspects still in jail are being reimagined as victims of a vengeful deep state, imprisoned not because they’re awaiting trial for alleged crimes but because of their love of country and Trump.

Many of the accused rioters have been released from jail ahead of trial. But those who remain behind bars have become a key rallying point this summer for Trump supporters, amid lurid allegations about their supposed mistreatment.

While some right-wing media outlets and politicians initially dismissed many of the suspects as rogue troublemakers who didn’t represent the larger Trump movement, the alleged rioters have now become its champions, and are frequently referred to as “political prisoners” on pro-Trump cable channels Newsmax and One America News.

The effort to paint the jailed defendants as victims of law enforcement recalls recent campaigns by Trump and his supporters to position Ashli Babbitt, the QAnon believer shot dead by Capitol Police, as an unjustly slain martyr. While Babbitt’s cause was initially embraced after her death only by far-right extremists, leading Republicans, including Trump, have called more recently for the officer who shot Babbitt to be named.

The prisoners’ treatment in jail as a conservative cause célèbre is set to get a boost on Tuesday, when a coterie of conservative Republican lawmakers, including Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), rally in front of the Justice Department to demand more information about the prisoners’ status and the release of all surveillance footage from the riot.

“We have concerns about reports of the conditions of the prison where these detainees are being held and whether, in fact, there have been instances of abuse inflicted by other prisoners or guards,” Gaetz and Greene, joined by Reps. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX) wrote in a letter asking for a meeting with Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The press conference is scheduled for the same day four police officers who were attacked on Jan. 6 are scheduled to testify in front of a House select committee dedicated to examining the day the Capitol was stormed.

Florida Man Becomes First to Go to Prison For Capitol Riot

Greene, a one-time supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory, has become a major player in the effort to reframe the defendants, describing them as “political prisoners of war” in a July 20 appearance on Newsmax.

The prisoners’ cause gained more traction on the right after an incendiary Newsmax appearance on July 22 by attorney Joseph McBride, the lawyer for defendant Richard “Bigo” Barnett—the Arkansas man who became infamous in the aftermath of the riot after he put his feet on a desk in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) office. In the interview, McBride claimed, without offering evidence, that his client had been subjected to coordinated group assaults by guards before he was released in April pending trial.

“He was beaten, he was dragged, he was hog-tied,” McBride said. “At one time, his pants dropped below his ankles exposing his private parts while he was taking a beating in front of a female officer, and he had to beg and plead to be able to pull his pants up out of embarrassment.”

“The more I hear, the more this sounds like Gitmo,” Newsmax host Greg Kelly said.

McBride’s allegations have since been widely cited in right-wing media outlets, and are mentioned in the Republican lawmakers’ letter to Garland.

McBride and the D.C. Department of Corrections didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The effort to reframe the rioters as heroes has also spawned a series of small rallies in their defense. On Sunday, a group calling itself “Citizens Against Political Prosecution” organized a rally in New York City for the defendants. Steven Metcalf, one of the attorneys representing riot suspects, called the place where they were held the “D.C-slash-Gitmo Jail” and claimed one of his clients had such poor hygiene in the jail, Metcalf had compared him to Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway.

At an earlier rally on July 17, roughly 100 people met in front of the D.C. jail to call for the defendants’ release.

The event was organized by Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign worker who gained notoriety and some sizable donations by claiming he had found proof of election fraud. Braynard’s election fraud claims were later easily skewered by state elections officials.

Speakers at the rally read letters from the inmates, which tried to portray the suspects as innocent casualties of a supposed government war on Trump supporters.

“We are just regular freedom loving Americans, with a tendency towards humorous shenanigans,” one inmate’s letter read.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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