The former president was delivering remarks on the eve of the three year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection that he helped instigate before leaving office. For a short while, that day seemed as if it might be his final political chapter, a transgression that Republicans would simply not tolerate. Instead, for LaGow and others here to watch Trump, it became a source of sympathy for the man.
“There was no insurrection. I believe he’s being framed. I really don’t believe he did anything he shouldn’t have done. He asked people to go peacefully protest. And that was it,” she said. “I believe the FBI did have something to do with it … The whole thing just smacks. It smells bad.”
LaGow is part of a significant swath of the Republican electorate who believes that Jan. 6 was likely part of an effort to politically harm Trump. A recent Washington Post-UMD poll found
34 percent of Republicans falsely believe the FBI organized the Capitol attack.
Not all of Trump’s supporters in Iowa were willing to go quite so far as to excuse the rioters. But none said they believed Trump shouldered any of the blame.
“There was no insurrection on his part at all,” said Gayle Lasley, 69, who drove an hour to attend her first Trump rally and plans to support him in the caucus next week. “It was highly exaggerated. I think some people did some things they shouldn’t have and those who were arrested,” but added that it’s been taken “way too far.”
Trump, for his part, has pushed conspiracies around Jan. 6 repeatedly. At an earlier rally in Sioux City on Friday,
he declared that “there was Antifa and there was FBI,” at the riot. He also said that those who had been imprisoned for their roles that day were “hostages.” Nobody, he added, “has been treated ever in history so badly as those people.”
Those who attended Trump’s rallies on Friday took their cues from him, including Ryan Sloth, 46, who lives thirty minutes outside of Mason City.
“I watched it on TV that day, and I said this is a complete joke. I could tell from the beginning that this was a setup. Plain as day. There’s no way all those officers, no cops stopped it,” Sloth said. “And it’s infuriating to see those people still in jail. If we were there, we would’ve been checking things out. People are still in jail for that. It’s a shame.”
As for who he believes set Trump up, Sloth had his suspicions.
“The Democratic Party,” he said. “I don’t know who in particular, but somebody got the plans. I don’t know who’s pulling the strings.”
Another man, who would only reveal his first name, Michael, was more specific with his accusations. “It was all a set-up,” he said. “[Joe] Biden planted people in there.”
The whitewashing of Jan. 6 has been a yearslong project of Trump and his allies. And it’s been one of the more central elements of his race to win back the presidency.
Trump’s first rally of the 2024 presidential cycle in Waco, Texas opened with him putting his hand over his heart as “Justice for All,” played over loudspeakers. The song is a mashup of the national anthem sung by a choir of Jan. 6 defendants and Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. As the music played, footage of people storming the Capitol was projected on jumbo screens behind the ex-president.
“Our people love those people,” Trump said to a cheering Waco crowd when the song ended. He hasn’t let up since.
Trump, who is facing four criminal prosecutions including two cases related to his actions on Jan. 6, has vowed to pardon a “large portion” of the Jan. 6 defendants if he returns to the White House. He turned Ashli Babbitt, a woman who was fatally shot while invading the U.S. Capitol, into a MAGA martyr — one who he frequently references at his rallies and events. And he has claimed the “unfair” imprisonment of Jan. 6 rioters is an example of how the Biden administration has weaponized the justice system.
“When people who love our country protest in Washington, they become hostages and prisoners unfairly imprisoned for long periods of time,” Trump said at a rally in Reno, Nevada, in December. “We are a third world nation that has weaponized its law enforcement against the opposing political party like never, ever before.”
Trump’s eagerness to recast Jan. 6 rather than bury its memory has agitated elected Republicans, many of whom look on that day with anger and shame. But its potency with the party’s base is hard to dispute. Few of Trump’s primary opponents have attacked him consistently or with vigor for his actions leading up to or on that day. Only a handful of congressional Republicans supported his impeachment over it. Virtually all of them have been critical of the criminal cases he faces because of it.
The dynamics are wholly different on the Democratic side of the aisle, where operatives and candidates are eager to see the coming campaign turn into a relitigation of that day. Hours before Trump spoke on Friday, Biden delivered a speech of his own. The setting, Valley Forge, and content were designed specifically to place Jan. 6 and broader threats to democracy at the center of the race ahead.
“We nearly lost America — lost it all,” Biden said. “We all know who Donald Trump is,” he added. “The question we have to answer is who are we?”
Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.