WASHINGTON — Allies of Donald Trump are mounting a Saturday rally at the U.S. Capitol, aimed at supporting what they call the “political prisoners” of the Jan. 6 insurrection — about 60 people held behind bars of the more than 600 charged in the deadly riot.
The repeated attempts to rewrite the narrative of the violence and panic of the day, and the persistent volatility around the politics of the 2020 election have made it impossible to predict what may happen this weekend. After all, law enforcement was only expecting a free speech protest the day Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
Intelligence suggested that extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers would turn up, but some prominent members of the groups have sworn they aren’t going and have told others not to attend. Far-right online chatter has been generally tame, and Republican lawmakers are downplaying the event.
But law enforcement officials are taking no chances. The fence around the Capitol is back up, temporarily at least. Police are preparing for the possibility that some demonstrators may arrive with weapons. Hundreds of counter-demonstrators are also expected with the possibility of clashes. The D.C. police department is activated, and U.S. Capitol Police have requested assistance from nearby law enforcement agencies.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved a request for about 100 members of the D.C. National Guard to be stationed at a city armory near the Capitol, to be called if needed as backup for other law enforcement agencies and primarily to protect the Capitol building and congressional offices.
Police officials planned to lay out security plans Friday.
A Homeland Security intelligence report warned of social media posts that discussed possibly storming the Capitol the night before the rally. One user also “commented on kidnapping an identified member of Congress,” the document said, though the lawmaker wasn’t identified by name in the report.
“Other references to violence identified on social media include discussions of using the rally to target local Jewish institutions, elected officials, and ‘liberal churches,’” it said.
Many commenters on online platforms popular with the far right like Telegram disavowed the rally, saying they believed law enforcement was promoting the event to entrap Trump supporters. Some urged their followers not to attend what they said was a “false flag” event they believed was organized in secret by the FBI.
At the same time, however, some commenters continued to promote rallies planned for Saturday in cities and state capitals across the country.
In a notice to House members this week, Sergeant at Arms William Walker urged lawmakers to stay away from the Capitol complex on Saturday and reminded them of security available if they were traveling or had protests in their districts.
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Meanwhile, lawmakers who supported Trump’s efforts to overturn his defeat distanced themselves from the event. “I don’t know what it is,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said when asked about the rally.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said he would not be attending, though he said he does have questions about the treatment of those charged in the riot. His message to those coming to Washington for Saturday’s rally: “Obviously, if you do come here, peacefully protest. Make your point peacefully, that is every American citizen’s right.”
Trump was still using his platform as the most popular leader in the GOP to express sympathy for those who were arrested and continue spreading the election misinformation. In a statement Thursday, he said: “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election.”
The Associated Press reviewed hundreds of court and jail records for the Capitol riot defendants to uncover how many were being detained and found about 60 held in federal custody awaiting trial or sentencing hearings. Federal officials are still looking for other suspects who could also wind up behind bars.
At least 30 are jailed in Washington. The rest are locked up in facilities across the country. They have said they are being treated unfairly, and one defendant said he was beaten.
Federal authorities have identified several of those detained as extremist group leaders, members or associates, including nine defendants linked to the Proud Boys and three connected to the antigovernment Oath Keepers. Dozens are charged with conspiring to mount coordinated attacks on the Capitol to block Congress from certifying the 2020 Electoral College vote, among the most serious of the charges.
Some jailed defendants are charged with assaulting police officers, others will making violent threats. A few were freed after their arrests but subsequently detained again, accused of violating release conditions.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has set standards for judges to apply in deciding whether to jail a Capitol riot defendant. A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled in March that rioters accused of assaulting officers, breaking through windows, doors and barricades, or playing leadership roles in the attack were in “a different category of dangerousness” than those who merely cheered on the violence or entered the building after it was breached.
Despite that, Trump and his allies have tried to shift the narrative on the violence of the day. First, some blamed attack on left-wing antifa antagonists, a theory quickly debunked. Then came comparisons of the rioters to peaceful protesters or even tourists. They’re now saying the protesters are being treated unfairly by the criminal justice system.
Rally organizer, Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign strategist, has been promoting the Saturday event and others like it in cities nationwide to focus attention on what he calls the “political prisoners” being unfairly prosecuted.
Another mob or a few hundred shouting protesters?
No one seems sure how many Trump allies will show up Saturday at the U.S. Capitol — or how they will act in support of what they call the “political prisoners” being held on charges from the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection. But police, strongly criticized as unprepared in January, are taking no chances.
In all, more than 600 people have been charged in the January storming of the Capitol, but fewer than 60 are actually behind bars awaiting trial or sentencing. according to an Associated Press review of records. Still, defenders of the pro-Trump mob are using their detention as the impetus for the event.
Another violent attack on the Capitol is not expected. But authorities have mounted major defenses.
The sturdy grounds-surrounding fencing has come back up, temporarily at least. Police are preparing for the possibility that some demonstrators may arrive with weapons, and hundreds of counter-demonstrators are also expected with the possibility for clashes.
The D.C. metro police department is activated, and U.S. Capitol Police have requested assistance from nearby law enforcement agencies and the U.S. National Guard. Police officials planned to lay out security plans Friday.
By COLLEEN LONG, MICHAEL BALSAMO and MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, Associated Press. AP writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Jacques Billeaud, David Klepper, Lisa Mascaro, Jake Bleiberg and Robert Burns contributed to this report.