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Updated Mar 19, 2024, 6:17am EDT
politicsNorth America

‘Welcome to the family’: How Donald Trump learned to love the January 6 prisoner movement

Al Lucca / Semafor
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The News

On January 7, 2021, as shell-shocked staffers swept up the Capitol and National Guard troops patrolled the Mall, President Donald Trump released a video denouncing the “heinous attack on the United States Capitol.” He declared himself “outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem” and promised “to those who broke the law, you will pay.”

Three years later, more than 1,300 people have been charged on counts ranging from felonies like seditious conspiracy and assaulting a police officer, to misdemeanor offences like illegally demonstrating in the Capitol. About 500 people have been sentenced to prison.

And today, Trump has a different word for those people: “hostages.”


The former president and presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee has put the devoted supporters charged with January 6 crimes at the heart of his campaign. He began his first major campaign rally last March firing up the Waco, Texas crowd by playing “Justice for All,” a song he helped produce with the “J6 Prison Choir.” It has since become a staple of his events. On Truth Social last week, Trump wrote that one of his “first acts as your next President” would be to “Free the January 6 Hostages being wrongfully imprisoned.”

The story of Trump’s shift — from reluctant denunciations to direct support for those charged in connection with the day’s events — offers a glimpse into the workings of his mind, and of his political operation. The change began gradually, soon after he left office and weathered impeachment proceedings. Two months after he resumed civilian life at Mar-a-Lago, the president described the crowd to two visiting Washington Post reporters as “loving,” and offered a defense of their behavior: Capitol Police had “ushered” them into the building, he said, and were “hugging and kissing” them — a view belied by video footage and widely rejected by the courts. Aides to Trump point to remarks from this period as evidence he always cared about the cause of January 6th defendants.

A detailed examination of his public statements and ten interviews with people now involved in the movement to support January 6 defendants show a gradual path from Trump’s instinctive support for some of the most hardcore members of his own MAGA movement to a semi-formal alliance with an organization founded by the family member of a January 6 convict.


That path was smoothed in part by a handful of women — from the high-profile Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to lesser-known figures like Trump campaign staffer Joanna Miller Wischer and Cynthia Hughes, who founded the Patriot Freedom Project. They made the case to him that at least some of his devoted followers charged in the riot were jailed unjustly, and were being treated poorly.

Another crucial factor in Trump’s growing support for the cause may have been his own confrontation with American law enforcement, including over charges related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, which has become a centerpiece of his campaign for president.

“The biggest thing that helped us was him getting arrested, so that the rest of the world can see what is happening to J-6’ers,” Tamara Perryman, whose husband Brian Jackson was charged in connection with the riot, told Semafor during the nightly vigil outside of the D.C. lockup beside the Anacostia River. “Now he’s welcome to the family.”


A movement begins

Leah Millis / Reuters

The early icon for sympathizers of the January 6 detainees was Ashli Babbitt, a 36-year-old woman who was shot dead during the riot by Capitol Police Lieutenant Michael Byrd as she moved to enter into an area of the Capitol where lawmakers were evacuating. Within six months of her death, Babbitt became a “martyr” of sorts, held up by Trump and many within his movement: Trump called Babbitt’s mother in early July that same year to express his condolences, and soon began mentioning her during public appearances.

“I want to know why is the person who shot Ashli Babbitt getting away with murder?” Trump told the Washington Post in a statement at the time.

Trump’s early mentions of Babbitt include remarks to reporters on July 7, 2021 at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. He said “there was no reason” for the officer to shoot Babbitt and criticized the DOJ for clearing the officer involved of any wrongdoing. He told the assembled reporters then that detainees “are being treated unbelievably unfairly.”

Five days later, Trump mentioned Babbitt again during an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Features,” and said it was “not right” that so many had been jailed.

Meanwhile, Trump allies were beginning to offer support to the January 6 prisoners. Greene, the confrontational second-term Georgia congresswoman who is one of Trump’s closest allies in the House of Representatives, visited accused rioters in the Washington, D.C. jail in November of 2021. She described detainees weeping while singing the National Anthem amid “inhumane” conditions. (A U.S. Marshals Service report at the time ”did not identify conditions that would necessitate the transfer of inmates,” though a federal judge did hold jail officials in contempt for delaying surgery on a detainee’s wrist.)

Greene, one Trump aide said, is a central figure in Trump’s connection to the January 6 detainees and their families. The Congresswoman could not be reached for an interview before publication.

But as Greene sought to help ignite a movement, it wasn’t yet clear whether Trump’s comments represented a 180-degree shift from his early condemnation, or just loose talk from a former president who isn’t always taken literally. January 6 families, defendants, and their lawyers were uncertain what to make of his sporadic early remarks, they said. Many were disappointed by what they viewed as a lack of support from the former president, starting with his failure to grant them pardons before leaving office.

In early 2022, Joseph McBride, a lawyer for multiple January 6 defendants, went to Mar-a-Lago to speak with members of Trump’s team. Since that first meeting, McBride says he’s spoken with people across Trump’s orbit — even meeting with Trump’s legal team on occasion — and that January 6 events have grown organically over time.

“I said, ‘Hey, listen. I need to come speak to you,” McBride told Semafor about that 2022 meet-up. “Not just about my clients, but about what’s going on with these guys in jail, how they’re being treated unfairly in court. And I want to know from you guys: Will you consider pardoning these guys if you get re-elected?’ And that’s where the conversation started.” (McBride said he couldn’t recall the exact date of this visit, and declined to say specifically who he’d met.)

On January 29, 2022, Trump said during a rally in Conroe, Texas that he’d consider pardoning some people charged in the attack should he take office again.

“Another thing we’ll do — and so many people have been asking me about it — if I run and if I win, we will treat those people from January 6 fairly,” the former president said. “We will treat them fairly. And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons. Because they are being treated so unfairly.”

Over the next few months, Trump began to be more forceful on the topic: He told Newsmax in February that he’d “absolutely be prepared” to issue pardons, and called for “justice for the January 6 prisoners” during a North Carolina rally in April.

Getting Trump’s attention

Marjorie Taylor Greene at a June, 2022 press conference in support of January 6 figures
Gripas Yuri/ABACA

In June of 2022, Hughes’ Patriot Freedom Project held a press conference outside the Capitol with Greene. The gathering caught Trump’s attention, and he had an associate contact her, Hughes said in a later interview.

And so in August of 2022, Trump welcomed Hughes and Julie Kelly, a conservative political commentator who writes often about January 6 developments, to Bedminster.

“Up until that point, he really wasn’t aware of what was happening with these individuals,” Kelly told Semafor. “His team wasn’t really aware, so that was the purpose of the briefing in August of 2022. I had been contacted by one of his associates a few months before that wanting to know what they could do to help.”

Kelly said she sensed “a heightened interest” around this time from Trump and his orbit — and she gave Trump a blunt assessment of the situation: His judicial picks trying the January 6 cases, she told him, “were among the worst on the bench,” and family members and defendants remained disappointed “that he had been really silent up until that point.”

The appeal from Kelly and Hughes had an immediate impact on the former president. After the meeting, Trump shifted to more organized action, a second Trump aide said, with the help of Joanna Miller Wischer, a senior advisor at his Save America PAC, who had already been unofficially working with January 6 advocates. She had worked as a Trump White House policy aide, and was cited by one January 6 family member as a key liaison to Trumpworld.

In September of 2022 — one month after Trump met with Kelly and Hughes — Miller Wischer, who had briefly left the PAC, pitched Trump on empowering her to work full-time to help January 6 family members. He jumped at the proposal, the second aide said. Soon, she returned to the PAC and was spending most of her time connecting January 6 family members with members of Congress and helping them make their case to the public.

“That was a directive directly from him,” the Trump aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, told Semafor of the decision to appoint someone to specifically work with the January 6 orbit. “When he started to learn about what exactly was going on, he became so disgusted by what he was hearing he had to hire.”

Trump would continue to build on his relationship with the Patriot Freedom Project: Hughes spoke at Trump’s Pennsylvania rally in September of 2022. While his new embrace of the January 6 defendants sometimes slipped under the media radar, Hughes’ public defense of her nephew, an alleged Nazi sympathizer photographed with a Hitler mustache, drew the attention of California Democrat Zoe Lofgren.

“Being a supporter of Adolf Hitler does put you in the Fascist category,” Lofgren said. (Hughes’ nephew said his Nazi posturing was ironic. Hughes did not respond to interview requests.)

Trump filmed a video for a fundraiser the Patriot Freedom Project hosted in December 2022, and Save America PAC donated $10,000 to the nonprofit. He hosted and spoke at another fundraiser for the group at Bedminster in June of 2023. The former president has since attended “semi-regular” January 6 events at both Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster, often popping in to chat with family members and reiterate his support for their cause, advocates said.

Meanwhile, state and federal prosecutors circled the former president, which some aides and advocates believe deepened his identification with the January 6 descendants. One Trump aide rejected this characterization, noting that the situations are “so different.” Trump, the aide said, “sees how unfairly they’re being treated” and believes they’ve been denied “due process” — complaints that Trump has levied about his own cases.

Federal judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents have presided over cases related to January 6 and stressed the importance of accountability for crimes committed that day. One of those judges, Tanya Chutkan, is now overseeing Trump’s own federal election interference case.

“He’s [Trump] spoken directly to lots of January 6 families, and even talked to a lot of January 6 defendants,” said Kash Patel, a former White House national security aide and Trump loyalist whose Kash Foundation has helped some defendants. “It doesn’t differentiate from how he handles other matters that he’s involved with and wants to lend his support to.”

A contentious movement

By the time Trump was running for president in 2023, the scattered voices of sympathy had officially coalesced into a movement — or to be precise, into a handful of groups with different identities and, at times, agendas. They sometimes butted heads, but generally worked alongside, though not necessarily with, each other.

“Look, the January 6 world of people isn’t perfect,” McBride said. “There’s a lot of people who have inserted themselves sort of into the January 6 orbit who have caused division, who have caused strife, who have turned people against each other. And I think that some of that internal dissent based on the January 6 community…has potentially turned off people from working with them, and rightfully so.”

One key figure in this new movement is Patel, who worked with former Fox News host Ed Henry and Trump to record the prisoners’ “Justice for All” song in March 2023. Profits from the music were reportedly to be directed to January 6 families. (One of the choir members seen singing in a widely circulated video was sentenced to seven years in prison last year after a jury found he smashed a Capitol window with a tomahawk and threw a flagpole, a wooden desk drawer, and other objects at police. His attorney said he was not on the song recording.)

Patel said he employs a “rigorous screening process” to decide which January 6 defendants he’ll support.

“We don’t assist those who have committed acts of violence, especially against law enforcement,” Patel said. “That’s not to say we’re judging whether or not they did — we have to right now rely on the charging documents from the DOJ and the FBI as they come in.”

A Trump aide said it’s “too early to tell” when asked about any plan to implement such a screening process as Trump continues to consider pardons, noting that there’s typically an official pardon process through the White House.

Others are less focused on drawing distinctions among the defendants and convicts. Babbitt’s mother Micki Witthoeft relocated to the Washington, D.C. area after her daughter’s death, and now leads a nightly candlelight vigil held outside of the jail, where supporters gather to sing the National Anthem with January 6th participants locked up inside.

At a recent gathering, a few of the dozen or so attendees were quick to note that they don’t have close relationships with the Trump campaign, although Trump himself has called into the vigil on a few occasions.

The group says they only raise money, via nightly live streams, for prisoners’ commissary funds or other support, and that it all goes directly to people inside the jail.

They, in turn, also said they aren’t connected to the Patriot Freedom Project, the organization headed up by Hughes, whose conversation with Trump helped spur his interest in the cause.

Today, there’s not a singular liaison between the various groups and Trump himself. Instead, the families rely on a network that includes members of Congress (Greene and Rep. Matt Gaetz are seen as particular allies by the January 6 defendants’ families) as well as various advocacy groups and people close to Trump.

But questions — and disagreements — remain, particularly for those advocating on behalf of January 6’ers: Some, like Kelly, want Trump to issue a blanket pardon or commutations should he take office again, while others believe it should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Most seem to also want a renewed push to investigate the goings-on of that day, a demand that has filtered through the current Republican Congress. In addition to a new House Republican probe of the last Congress’ Select Committee on January 6th, then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy turned over Capitol security footage to Tucker Carlson and Speaker Mike Johnson released thousands of hours of footage earlier this month.

“I think a case-by-case pardon is best, because a blanket pardon would avoid any investigation into that day,” Babbitt’s mother told Semafor. “A blanket pardon will allow that to be swept under the rug.”

And, as far as they’re concerned, the work is just beginning: McBride told Semafor he’d like the January 6 movement to have a presence at the Republican National Convention this summer.

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Shelby’s view

Trump’s evolution fits a familiar pattern that applies beyond the January 6th movement. Since leaving office, he appears more determined than ever to reward and empower loyalists, setting himself up for a second presidency fully on his own terms. The Capitol riot remains divisive within his party, though his view has begun to prevail, according to recent polls. But while the conventional political wisdom would suggest he court independent voters who remain appalled by the violence of January 6th, the former president has grown only more committed to the project.

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The View From The Bench

Judges in January 6-related cases have repeatedly rejected claims of unfair treatment, persecution, or government conspiracies, both inside and outside the courtroom.

“I have been dismayed to see outright distortions and outright falsehoods creep into the public consciousness,” Judge Royce Lamberth, a Reagan appointee on the D.C. District Court, said at a sentencing hearing for a related misdemeanor case. “I have been shocked to watch some public figures try to rewrite history, claiming rioters behaved in an orderly fashion like ordinary tourists, or martyrizing convicted January 6 defendants as political prisoners or even, incredibly, hostages. That is all preposterous. But the court fears that such destructive, misguided rhetoric could presage further danger to our country.”

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The View From the Biden campaign

President Biden has frequently denounced Trump’s role in January 6th and top campaign officials recently told CNN they intend to make it a key plank of their message — in part because Trump continues to be so vocal on the topic.

“People know what happened on January 6,” Mike Donilon, a top Biden advisor, said. “I think most of the country is going to say, ‘We don’t embrace political violence. We do embrace democracy. We do embrace the rule of law. We’re not interested in pardoning people who ransacked the Capitol, and we’re going to have a real problem supporting someone who embraces all that.’”

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“I call him Jan. Sixth-er Number One,” McBride, the lawyer, told Robert Draper of the New York Times last summer.

The Washington Post analyzed how the January 6-related cases had progressed through the courts. Their conclusion, as of January 2024: “Judges have ordered prison time for nearly every defendant convicted of a felony and some jail time to about half of those convicted of misdemeanors. But in the vast majority of the more than 700 sentencings to date, judges have issued punishments below government guidelines and prosecutors’ requests.”

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