Trump embraces Jan. 6 rioters on campaign trail. In court, his lawyers hope to distance him from them
Donald Trump has embraced the rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as patriots, vowed to pardon a large portion of them if he wins a second term and even collaborated on a song with a group of jailed defendants.
In his election-interference case in Washington, his lawyers are taking a different tack.
Despite losing a bid to strike from the indictment references to that day’s violence, defense attorneys have made clear their strategy involves distancing the former president from the horde of rioters, whom they describe as “independent actors at the Capitol.” At the same time, special counsel Jack Smith’s team has signaled it will make the case that Trump is responsible for the chaos that unfolded, and point to Trump’s continued support of the Jan. 6 defendants to help establish his criminal intent.
The competing arguments highlight the extent to which the riot serves as an inescapable backdrop in a landmark trial set to begin on March 4 in a courthouse just blocks away from the Capitol.
It also reflects a point of separation between Trump and his legal team in the case accusing the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination of conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss. While Trump’s glorification of
Jan. 6 defendants may boost him politically as he vies to retake the White House in 2024, his lawyers’ approach lays bare a concern that arguments linking him to the rioters could harm him in front of a jury.
Though Trump is not charged with inciting the riot, any success he hopes to have at trial may turn in part on his defense team’s ability to neutralize, or at least minimize, the ghoulish images of the violence that prosecutors cite as a natural extension of the former president’s repeated lies about a stolen election.
Much may depend as well on the evidence permitted by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan. Trump’s lawyers have signaled they will try to block prosecutors from presenting at trial evidence related to the actions of the rioters, who shattered windows, beat police officers, and sent lawmakers running into hiding.
“What’s likely to happen here is for the judge to strike some type of reasonable balance, which will allow prosecutors to admit some portion of the evidence about the conduct and some of the violence that went on during that day, but will put some kinds of limits on just how far prosecutors can go in presenting evidence of violent conduct,” said Robert Mintz, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor in New Jersey who has followed the case.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing in the case, which he has characterized as politically motivated.
In separate civil cases seeking to hold Trump liable for the Capitol attack, his lawyers have argued he encouraged his supporters to peacefully protest the results of the election and never called for any violence. The federal appeals court in Washington is currently weighing whether Trump can be sued by lawmakers and police officers, who have accused him of inciting the riot.
Trump will stand trial in the same courthouse where roughly 1,200 of his supporters have been charged in the largest investigation in Justice Department history. More than 800 of them have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial of federal crimes, including seditious conspiracy and assaulting police officers. About two-thirds of those sentenced so far have received prison time.