How Trump’s Allies Are Still Defending Him: Denial, Deflection, Disinformation

This was one mob they found a way to excuse.

Even as scores of President Trump’s usually unfailing loyalists condemned him for moving too slowly to call off the swarm of demonstrators that stormed and ransacked the Capitol, many of his most vocal and visible allies in Congress, the media and conservative politics still could not bring themselves to fault him for the surreal and frightening attack carried out by people he had just urged to “fight like hell.”

They downplayed the violence as acts of desperation by people who felt lied to by the news media and ignored by their elected representatives. They deflected with false equivalencies about the Democratic Party’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some even tried to dispute the fact that Trump supporters were actually the perpetrators, suggesting that far-left activists had infiltrated the crowd and posed as fans of the president.

These were not isolated or trivial assertions from little-known people on the fringes of Mr. Trump’s movement. Rather, they came from some of his highest-profile allies who helped enable his rise in the Republican Party and have aided him in his unrelenting assault on anyone who questions his actions.

“To any insincere, fake DC ‘patriots’ used as PLANTS — you will be found out,” wrote Sarah Palin, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008, who demanded that the media look into the allegiances of the people who smashed their way into the Capitol.

Responses like these — full of misdirection, denial and specious comparisons — sounded almost like typical fare coming from stalwart defenders of a president who considers admitting fault to be a sign of weakness. That they persisted in the face of such an extraordinary and unsettling strike on the seat of American government is a sign of how premature it may be to conclude that Mr. Trump’s iron grip on his followers is loosening, though some prominent Republicans are distancing themselves.

Mr. Trump’s behavior drew strong rebukes from allies like Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. A handful of lawmakers decided that in light of the day’s terrorizing events, they could no longer back the president’s spurious claims that the election was stolen and vote against certifying the results. But at the same time, 139 House Republicans — almost two-thirds of the caucus — still voted to reject the certification.

Ms. Palin’s surfacing amid the fury was a reminder that no matter how many Republican officials speak out against Mr. Trump’s reckless and dangerous insinuations, the party has often looked the other way as grass-roots activists and far-right leaders used militant language and imagery to rally their followers. An early figure in the Tea Party movement, Ms. Palin often summoned Revolutionary War metaphors and other phrases in her speeches and social media posts that led critics to accuse her of glorifying violence, like “Don’t retreat, reload.”

And she was hardly alone among fellow Tea Party leaders like former Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who once urged people who opposed the Affordable Care Act to “find members of Congress, look at the whites of their eyes and say, ‘Don’t take away my health care.’”

That was 2009, and Mrs. Bachmann was giving an interview to Sean Hannity of Fox News. More than a decade later, just after a pro-Trump mob breached the security perimeter at the Capitol on Wednesday, Mr. Hannity was hosting his afternoon radio program. He spent no time reflecting on Mr. Trump’s role in inciting the riot, which some conservative Trump allies — including some of Mr. Hannity’s colleagues at Fox News — were already calling a dangerous, needlessly provoked insurrection.

Mr. Hannity made a few brief, largely perfunctory comments against the violence before spending several minutes unloading on Democrats in Congress, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the mainstream media for refusing to acknowledge that Trump supporters had legitimate reasons to doubt the outcome of the election.

“People feel like their voices aren’t being heard, and they’re angry,” Mr. Hannity said, reminding his millions of listeners of the “hundreds and hundreds” of people who claimed to have witnessed fraud or irregularities in the November election and what he called “four years of utter, breathtaking hypocrisy” of the president’s critics.

Then the host took a call from an empathetic pro-Trump activist and regular guest, Rose Tennent, who was standing outside the Capitol as the situation escalated. “At some point, people break,” Ms. Tennent said, offering not a single harsh word about the violent protesters who had overtaken the Capitol Police.

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“This is the hill they want to die on. This is a battle that is just as important to them as the Revolutionary War was,” she said, adding that these lawless demonstrators weren’t entirely to blame for their actions. “If you ask me, the Democrats and the media are responsible for this.”

Many Trump sympathizers tried to shift the focus away from the mob scene in Washington and revive months-old stories about the fires and looting that accompanied some protests over police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in May. Those chaotic scenes became a central piece of the Republican Party’s messaging to portray the Democrats and Mr. Biden as weak on public safety and captive to far-left extremists.

One of Mr. Trump’s campaign slogans was “Jobs Not Mobs.” And all summer, a constant theme of the commentary from the right about the social unrest was that political violence was almost exclusively a left-wing problem — even as Mr. Trump defended people like Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager accused of fatally shooting two people who were protesting the police killing of Jacob Blake, a Black resident of Kenosha, Wis.

On the floor of the House late Wednesday evening, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida blamed saboteurs “masquerading as Trump supporters” for the violence and said, “I’m sure glad that at least for one day I didn’t hear my Democrat colleagues calling to defund the police.” That earned him a round of spirited applause from his fellow Republicans.

The Fox News host Laura Ingraham urged people not to rush to judgment about the demonstrators as a whole — a kind of generosity she and many other conservatives rarely displayed when describing the millions of Americans who protested peacefully last summer. Ms. Ingraham described speaking to pro-Trump demonstrators on Wednesday “who are extremely upset that they are being lumped in with individuals who would break windows.”

She also strained to draw a parallel to the protests outside the White House in late May, when someone started a fire in the basement of St. John’s Church that caused minor damage, saying, “That was terrifying. It wasn’t all roses and sunshine and peaceful.”

Elsewhere in pro-Trump media, the idea that anti-Trump infiltrators were actually responsible for the attack that left four people dead — not the president who teased that the day’s events “will be wild!” or the marauders inside the Capitol waving flags and wearing hats emblazoned with his name — was widespread.

Mark Levin, whose radio program reaches 11 million people each week, told his listeners that while he thought the rioters were “idiots” who had hurt the Trump movement, there was a possibility that they weren’t really Trump supporters.

“We need to know exactly who these people are who did this,” Mr. Levin said. “Some people are saying it’s a false flag movement and sending me pictures of antifa,” he added, referring to a loosely organized far-left movement that Mr. Trump has often blamed when demonstrations supportive of him turn violent.

Referring to the president’s opponents, he added: “They’re the ones who pull down monuments. They’re the ones who burn down stuff. We’re not them. We’re us.”

Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator who has vacillated between defending and attacking the president, expressed disbelief at the idea that Trump supporters were being framed. “Literally just had a lady email me angrily that I’m blaming the President’s protesters for storming the Capitol when it is actually Antifa pretending to be the President’s supporters,” he wrote on Twitter.

The indifferent attitude and finger-pointing that some of Mr. Trump’s staunchest allies expressed about the siege echoed what demonstrators on the Capitol grounds were saying in their own defense.

Newsmax, a pro-Trump television channel that became a favorite of the president for amplifying his false claims of election fraud, aired segments live from the National Mall and allowed some of the people there to justify their actions as Trump supporters who weren’t getting the answers they wanted about the outcome of the election.

“This is our house,” a Trump supporter identified as Tina Forte told Newsmax.

The animus that Mr. Trump’s followers have directed toward anyone perceived as disloyal has hit a boiling point in recent days. Videos of a woman accosting Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a Trump critic, in an airport and passengers shouting “traitor” at him on a commercial flight circulated on social media and in right-wing newsletters as the president’s fans started arriving in Washington for his “Stop the Steal” rally on Wednesday.

Absent the kind of repudiation that Mr. Trump appears incapable of delivering, a good number of the president’s followers seem likely to continue to reward aggressive and over-the-line conduct — and even expect it — well after he leaves the White House.

All week, Mr. Trump attacked and threatened lawmakers who dared not to indulge his fantasies of being robbed of victory in an elaborate conspiracy. “If they do the wrong thing,” he said at his rally outside the White House just before crowds set out down Pennsylvania Avenue and marched toward the Capitol, “we should never, ever forget.”

“He’s not going away,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist who has been critical of Mr. Trump. Mr. Luntz said he believes Mr. Trump has given every indication that he intends to remain active in Republican primaries.

“He’s going to make the next four years a nightmare for the G.O.P.,” Mr. Luntz said.

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