Calmes: Trump promises to subvert the law — first by freeing the Jan. 6 criminals

Of all the promises that Donald Trump has made for a second term as president, he’s all but certain to fulfill one if he’s reelected: pardoning most, if not all, of the rioters who’ve been arrested, pleaded guilty or been convicted by judges or juries for their roles in besieging the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and injuring roughly 140 police defenders.

That’s nearly 1,400 people — “unbelievable patriots” all, in Trump’s noxious telling — who tried to overturn a free and fair election.

Most of the former president’s other campaign vows — deporting millions who’ve long lived in this country, deploying federal troops against protesters, spending government funds at whim and gutting the civil service, for example — can be stopped by Congress or the federal courts. Many likely would be.

A president’s pardon power, however, is virtually unlimited, as the Supreme Court held in 1886. And Trump, though not alone among presidents in this, has abused that power before.

What could be more abusive or obscene than unilaterally absolving the would-be insurrectionists, nearly 900 currently, who have been fairly prosecuted and sentenced according to the rule of law that a president is sworn to uphold?

Yet, like so many of his outrageous statements, Trump’s pledge to wipe the criminals’ records clean and spring jailed “hostages” on “the first day we get into office” doesn’t shock as it should. It’s just Trump being Trump, shooting off his mouth.

But this vow isn’t like the implausible claims that he’d build a 2,000-mile border wall and Mexico would pay for it, or that he’d ban all Muslims from the country. A reelected Trump could and likely will make good on the vow that would erase accountability en masse for the fatal, antidemocratic violence on Jan. 6.

He’s committed. Since his first 2024 campaign rally in Texas more than a year ago, Trump typically opens the events with a recording of the so-called J6 Prison Choir, made up of insurrectionist inmates at the D.C. jail, singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” over his taped recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Each time, Trump salutes and reiterates his pardon promise. (The Washington Post identified some of the orange-clad choristers in a jailhouse video as defendants charged with assaulting police, including Officer Brian D. Sicknick, who died a day later.)

As Trump tells the rallygoers, “Our people love those people.”

He isn’t wrong: A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted in January found that nearly two-thirds of adults opposed pardons, but two-thirds of Republicans favored them.

To restore a little shock value to Trump’s promise, it helps to put a face on “those people.” So get acquainted with Ryan T. Nichols, a 33-year-old Texan who was a leader in Trump’s hallowed J6 Prison Choir.

Just last Thursday, Nichols was sentenced in the U.S. District Court in Washington to five years in prison and fined $200,000 — the largest financial penalty to date for a Jan. 6 defendant — after prosecutors argued that he was in “a class of his own” among the rioters. Take it from Nichols: Late on Jan. 6, he posted a video of himself in a hotel room, showing off his “weapon” — a crowbar — and shouting in the third person, “Ryan Nichols grabbed his f—ing weapons and he stormed the Capitol. And he fought! For freedom!”

“Ryan Nichols stands for violence,” he raged in another video that prosecutors played.

This was after Nichols, wearing body armor and other tactical gear, had spent hours at the Capitol in the thick of the mayhem. He shows up in many clips: There’s Nichols wielding his crowbar. There he is shooting a canister of pepper spray stolen from the police against the officers who are trying to defend the building, the lawmakers within and Vice President Mike Pence. And there he is, bellowing into a bullhorn to goad the mob.

“If you have a weapon, you need to get your weapon!” he shouts in footage cited in the January 2021 affidavit for his arrest. In another he’s yelling, “This is the second revolution right here, folks! … This is not a peaceful protest.”

Before he traveled to Washington, Nichols posted on Facebook that he would be “bringing the wrath of God, and there’s not a … thing you can do to stop it.” He arrived with another Texan and two firearms. He later wrote to a judge, in an unsuccessful bid to be released on bail, that he’d gone to the capital “because I believed that is what the president asked us to do.”

After his arrest, Nichols spent about two years in the D.C. jail before he was released pending trial after complaining of poor medical treatment for a post-traumatic stress disorder dating to his Marine Corps service in Japan. When he finally pleaded guilty in November to reduced charges assaulting law-enforcement officers and obstructing an official proceeding — senior U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, a Ronald Reagan appointee, sent him back behind bars.

At his sentencing last week, Nichols apologized to “the victims of Jan. 6,” including members of Congress, police officers and D.C. residents, said he’d stay on his meds and was “no longer a danger to society.” The judge acknowledged the apology but said “the court has not had great success in determining the sincerity of Jan. 6 defendants.” Lamberth then slapped Nichols with prison time and the record fine.

Which Nichols deserved. He may have been in a class of his own, as prosecutors claimed, but he wasn’t the worst of the anti-democracy offenders. Former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio got 22 years in prison and Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes got 18 years. Trump says he would undo all those convictions and sentences in a flash. And that’s one more reason voters should reject him in November.


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