alarm at Trump pardon pledge for Capitol insurrectionists

In the three years to the day since the insurrection at the US Capitol, great strides have been made in shoring up American democracy: hundreds of rioters have been prosecuted, legislation has been passed to bolster electoral safeguards and Donald Trump has been charged over his efforts to subvert the 2020 election.

But as the country marks the third anniversary of one of its darkest days in modern times, a pall hangs in the air. It comes from Trump himself and his promise, growing steadily louder as the 2024 presidential election approaches, that if he wins he will pardon those convicted of acts of violence, obstructing Congress and seditious conspiracy on 6 January 2021.

Related: Trump allies behind January 6 also leading Biden impeachment, says watchdog

The scope of Trump’s pardon pledge is astonishing both for its quantity and quality. The former president has made clear that – should he be confirmed as the Republican presidential candidate and go on to triumph in the November election – he would contemplate pardoning every one of those prosecuted for their participation in the insurrection.

Last May he reposted on his Truth Social platform the slogan: “Free all J-6 political prisoners”. A few months earlier he told a rightwing website that “we’ll be looking very, very seriously at full pardons”.

A total or near-total pardon would encompass hundreds of cases. The US Department of Justice has conducted what it describes as the largest investigation in its history following the storming of the Capitol building and has so far secured almost 900 convictions either at trial or through guilty pleas.

About 350 cases are still ongoing.

Then there is the quality. Trump has specifically threatened to pardon Enrique Torres, the former leader of the extremist group the Proud Boys who with 22 years in prison has received the longest sentence yet handed down for the insurrection.

Torres was found guilty of seditious conspiracy. Though he was not present in the Capitol compound on 6 January 2021, prosecutors presented evidence that he had helped coordinate the storming of the building and on the day itself had sent encouraging messages on social media.

The judge at his sentencing, Timothy Kelly, said he was sending a strong message: “It can’t happen again,” he said.

In September Trump told NBC News that he would “certainly look at” pardoning Torres. “He and other people have been treated horribly … They’ve been persecuted.”

Jamie Raskin, the Democratic congressman from Maryland, said that Trump’s pledge to pardon rioters showed that “January 6 never ended. Today is January 6.”

Speaking at an event on Friday organised by End Citizens United and Let America Vote in advance of the third anniversary, Raskin, who was present at the Capitol as the riot unfolded and who went on to lead the second impeachment of Trump following the upheaval, lamented how the former president wanted to set convicted criminals free. “Trump is out there saying he’s going to pardon people who engaged in political violence, who bloodied and wounded and hospitalized 150 of our officers.”

Raskin added that Trump’s threat should be taken seriously. “We better believe him. I mean, he pardoned Roger Stone, a political criminal; he pardoned Michael Flynn, his disgraced former national security adviser,” he said. “Now he wants to pardon the shock troops of January 6, so he will have this roving band of people willing to commit political violence and insurrection for him – how dangerous is that?”

As NPR has noted, anyone pardoned by Trump for felonies arising from 6 January 2021 would be entitled to legally own guns once more.

Trump’s statements on possible pardons are in keeping with the general stance towards the insurrection he has expressed over the past three years. He has repeatedly described the attack as a “beautiful day” and those who took part in it as “great, great patriots” who since their arrests have become “hostages”.

At his rallies, he has boomed through loudspeakers a recording of jailed January 6 rioters singing The Star-Spangled Banner.

There are alarming indications that for a sizable portion of the US electorate, his whitewashing of that fateful day appears to be working. A poll from the Washington Post and the University of Maryland this week found that a quarter of all Americans think the FBI was probably or definitely behind the US Capitol assault – a figure rising to more than a third of Republicans.

Biden has indicated that he will make January 6, and Trump’s response to it over the past three years, a key aspect of his re-election bid. The president put the threat posed to democracy by Trump at the centre of his first major speech of the 2024 election year.

Biden’s address was delivered on Friday afternoon pointedly in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. That is where George Washington and the continental army were headquartered during the American revolution.

A new advert released by the Biden campaign this week replays video footage of the storming of the Capitol three years ago. Biden is heard saying: “There is something dangerous happening in America. There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy.”

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