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How Trump and MAGA Allies Are Defending Violent Jan. 6th Rioters

He says he’s sticking with them—and he hopes they’ll stick with him.
December 8, 2022
How Trump and MAGA Allies Are Defending Violent Jan. 6th Rioters
(The Bulwark / Midjourney)

Two days after a pair of Oath Keepers were found guilty of seditious conspiracy and three others were convicted of related felony charges, former President Donald Trump celebrated a group that gives aid to January 6th defendants, including some of the Oath Keepers who just received guilty verdicts.

In a bland conference room at the Capitol Hill Hilton, steps away from the site of the Jan. 6th insurrection, Trump, Steve Bannon, and Rep. Marjorie Tayor Greene provided Jan. 6th rioters and their families with messages of hope and good cheer. They came bearing a gift: The trio promised that the incoming Republican-controlled House would use its investigative powers to target the Department of Justice and the D.C. jail where several Jan. 6th defendants are being held.

“People have been treated unconstitutionally, in my opinion, and very, very unfairly, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it,” Trump said in a video message played during the event put on by the Patriot Freedom Project (PFP). Although jailed rioters were not in attendance, a few dialed in to the event by phone; Trump’s message was presumably relayed to them. His latest remarks on the subject follow a pledge he made to a conservative radio host earlier this fall that if he becomes president again, he will issue full pardons and a government apology to rioters.

In his video for the December 1 event, Trump emphasized that the Jan. 6th–related prosecutions were part of “the weaponization of the Department of Justice, and we can’t let this happen in our country.” Bannon was patched in through a live video call and said, “The politics of all this are going to change pretty dramatically with the new Congress . . . and, of course, President Trump’s backing.”

Greene addressed the group in person, and, befitting her status as the only event speaker currently in office—and therefore potentially able to take action to benefit the rioters—she got down to the specifics. She told the group she had just come from a meeting “about being on [the] Oversight Committee” and that “I specifically asked about the D.C. jail, okay? . . . There’s going to be an investigation into the D.C. jail, I want you to know that, and that’s how we look forward.”

PFP members were undoubtedly already familiar with Greene’s work on the matter. Last year, Greene and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) toured the D.C. jail where Jan. 6th rioters are held. She then posted to her congressional website a report titled  “Unusually Cruel,” which claimed the Jan. 6th prisoners are being unfairly treated because of their politics.

An actual congressional investigation, however, would mark Greene’s return to committee work after being stripped of her committee assignments by Democrats and eleven Republicans following the discovery of myriad contemptible statements she made before running for Congress.

Greene seems to have learned to censor herself and found more appealing ways to make her arguments. During her presentation to the rioters’ families, she focused on due process rights and concerns about the conditions of the D.C. jail—reasonable-sounding topics, especially when compared to the rank conspiracism she has given voice to in the past. She also told the Jan. 6th families: “Now, I won’t defend what any of them did that day, because I wasn’t happy that day, either.”

This an odd statement, considering that defending the rioters is exactly what the Patriot Freedom Project was created to do. But maybe even Marjorie Taylor Greene understands that vocally supporting violent insurrectionists is too politically toxic to do out loud, especially now that some of them are being convicted of seditious conspiracy.

Cynthia Hughes founded the PFP in the spring of 2021 after her “adoptive nephew,” Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, a former Army reservist and Nazi sympathizer known to dress up like Hitler, was arrested for storming the Capitol. (He was sentenced to four years in prison in September of this year.) It is now Hughes’s mission to raise money to offer financial, legal, emotional, and moral support to the families of other Jan. 6th detainees. (Like many upstart fundraising organizations in the MAGA space, PFP’s finances have been the subject of controversy.)

When Hughes, Greene, and other PFP sympathizers speak about the rioters, they rarely delve into the specifics of their cases. They instead tend to focus on the length of the trial proceedings, overzealousness of prosecutors, dismal jail conditions, and the sad plights of the families the detainees left behind.

To that last point, around the middle of the Dec. 1 event, Hughes summoned nearly a dozen family members of the rioters to the microphone, and they spoke movingly about their experiences. It was, indeed, a family affair, replete with a costumed Santa to provide children with gifts.

One woman, Andrea Young, described what her husband’s prison term will mean for their family: “He is currently serving a seven[-plus] year sentence, and he will miss his children growing up.” She broke into tears at this point and struggled to speak. Hughes hugged her and stroked her hair. “It’s really been hard on our family,” Young continued.

I’m trying to be a mother and a father. It’s not what I signed up for. My husband’s a good man. He’s a hard worker. He’s a wonderful father. And they got it all wrong, what was going on that day with them, and he had no opportunity to tell his side.

Another woman, Amanda Rock, then took the microphone with her free hand; her other arm was holding her young daughter on her hip. Her fiancé was sentenced to seven and a half years for his role in the riot. “Just like Andrea, it’s so hard trying to be mom and dad,” Rock said. Looking into her daughter’s eyes, she added, “We just want daddy home because he’s good, isn’t he?”

Nobody talked of the shocking crimes their husbands committed.

Rock’s fiancé, Albuquerque Head, and Andrea Young’s husband, Kyle Young, were both directly involved in the assault of D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone.  Head was among the rioters who battled against police officers in the Capitol’s Lower West Terrace Tunnel on Jan. 6th. He was the one who dragged Fanone out of the tunnel into the crowd, where the officer was tased and beaten.

According to the Department of Justice, Head “at one point, used his hand to strike the hand” of Fanone. Later, “Head wrapped his arm around this officer’s neck and pulled him into the crowd of rioters outside the tunnel, yelling ‘I got one!’ The officer attempted to break free of the hold, but Head pulled him further into the crowd for 25 seconds.” As Fanone pushed away from Head, “rioters assaulted, tased, and robbed the officer of his badge and radio while he was in the mob. He was threatened, kicked, punched, pushed, grabbed, and hit with objects by the crowd. The MPD officer was wearing a uniform, marked helmet, and tactical vest during the assault.”

Fanone testified during Head’s sentencing and asked the court to “show Mr. Head the same mercy he showed me on Jan. 6th: None.”

In an article for CNN, Fanone recounted Young’s actions on Jan. 6th:

Kyle Young of Redfield, Iowa, is the man who prosecutors say supplied the Taser that another Trump supporter used to electrocute me after I was violently dragged from the Capitol’s Lower West Terrace Tunnel. The defendant has pleaded guilty to one count of assaulting a police officer.

Young, who was there in the middle of the mob just outside the tunnel, restrained me as I recoiled from the first Taser shocks. On my body-worn police camera footage, Young’s menacing face and arms lunge toward me as I howl in pain. Like the three Taser scars on my neck, his face is a memory I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

Fanone, who called for Young to spend ten years in prison, spoke at his sentencing in September 2022 and told the jury, “The assault on me by Mr. Young cost me my career.” Young expressed remorse during the sentencing, but Fanone believes it was only performative. After Fanone delivered his impact statement at the sentencing, a family member seated with Young’s family called Fanone a “piece of shit.”

At Head’s sentencing, in October 2022, Judge Amy Berman Jackson acknowledged there was lingering, misplaced anger towards police officers. “The dark shadow of tyranny, unfortunately, has not gone away,” she said. “Some people are directing their vitriol at Officer Fanone and not at the people who summoned the mob in the first place.”

Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas) was supposed to attend the PFP party. He was listed as a speaker on their public invitation, and his image was included in other widely available materials for the event:

Something came up, though. Nehls’s staff confirmed to The Bulwark “he was not in attendance” without responding to a follow-up as to why Nehls was listed on the invitation but didn’t show up.

One would hope that the former sheriff reconsidered because of whom the organization supports. In the aftermath of the Jan. 6th attack, Nehls said:

Those that entered the building and physically assaulted Capitol Police officers, even outside the building, those that were assaulting police with bicycle racks, those that put a hand on a police officer that day, Capitol Police officers, should go to prison. If you assaulted a law-enforcement officer that day, you should go to prison, no question about it.

But that might be too charitable. In that same interview, broadcast on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6th attack, Nehls maintained that those who entered the Capitol without harming anyone should not be charged with trespassing and were “great Americans” who didn’t want to “harm anybody.” He went on to downplay the House Jan. 6th Committee hearings as a partisan exercise “to get the sobbing police officer or sobbing Democrat or somebody that said how terrible this was and now they’re suffering from PTSD. . . . They’re going to put on a show for the American people.”

Another speaker at the PFP event was Sharon Caldwell, whose husband, Thomas, is an Oath Keeper who was found guilty of two felonies last week in the same trial that saw Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes convicted of seditious conspiracy.

According to a Justice Department press release, Thomas Caldwell and his codefendants

employed a variety of manners and means, including: organizing into teams that were prepared and willing to use force and to transport firearms and ammunition into Washington, D.C.; recruiting members and affiliates; organizing trainings to teach and learn paramilitary combat tactics; bringing and contributing paramilitary gear, weapons, and supplies—including knives, batons, camouflaged combat uniforms, tactical vests with plates, helmets, eye protection, and radio equipment—to the Capitol grounds; breaching and attempting to take control of the Capitol grounds and building on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to prevent, hinder and delay the certification of the electoral college vote; using force against law enforcement officers while inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021; continuing to plot, after Jan. 6, 2021, to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power, and using websites, social media, text messaging and encrypted messaging applications to communicate with each other and others.

Sharon Caldwell told her supporters she felt the trial “was a win for us” because her husband was not found guilty of seditious conspiracy. Even though her husband had been found guilty two days earlier of obstruction of an official proceeding and tampering with documents or proceedings, she described him as “falsely accused and totally innocent” and arrested for “crimes he did not commit.” She pleaded for the defendants to “stick together and help each other” and work with PFP to “get good attorneys.”

She praised Hughes: “This is what she does, she raises money to help people get good attorneys, which are so hard to find—attorneys that have the courage, and the knowledge, and the skill, and that want to help these people.”

PFP also supports one of Caldwell’s codefendants, Jessica Watkins, who was convicted last week of four felonies. The PFP website features a flattering letter from Watkins, one of the Oath Keepers who donned military garb and entered the Capitol in “stack formation” on Jan. 6th. Watkins praises Hughes and PFP for having “stood up for us when so many have rejected us out of hand based on the lies fed them by the Fake News, Mainstream Media” that “wants to defame and slander us” for “power, profit and pleasure.”

Watkins classes Hughes alongside such “other giants” as “Julie Kelly, Darren Beattie, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, [and] Dinesh D’Souza.”

Although it would be unwise to take at face value Donald Trump’s word that he is financially supporting anyone, he has said he is supporting the legal defenses for some Jan. 6th rioters. How and who remains unclear, but it would be reasonable to think that if he is, it would be through PFP, since he just recorded a video praising the organization.

What is perfectly clear is how keen Trump, his allies, and his aides are to show their solidarity with PFP, an organization that supports rioters who engaged in violence against police officers. This comes in many forms: joint events; promises of monetary support, pardons, and official apologies from the government; and investigations into the circumstances of their prosecution and detainment.

The families of Jan. 6th rioters are closely tracking which Republicans do and do not support them. Trish Priller, whose fiancé is a Florida Proud Boy who sprayed police officers with pepper gel on Jan. 6th, complained that their governor had not reached out. “There aren’t enough of them who are speaking out,” she said, “I’m in from Florida. No one in Florida, Governor DeSantis, has reached out to us.”

Standing close to her, Hughes interrupted and asked Priller to repeat what she said.

“Governor DeSantis has not reached out to us,” Priller stated. “Our local representatives—nothing. Nobody has helped us. We need help.”

Trump, on the other hand, is giving plenty of signals to show how eager he is to assist.

Joanna Miller, a former Trump policy adviser who was reportedly intimately involved in his White House’s effort to spread lies about the 2020 election and who is now a staffer at his Save America PAC, emceed the PFP Capitol Hill party. Part of her pitch was aimed at assuring PFP members that “my boss” was committed to their cause. “President Trump will never give up, never back down, and will never, ever abandon you all,” she vowed.

Most likely because Trump, an official 2024 presidential candidate and, for now, the leading contender for the GOP nomination, wants to make sure they will never abandon him.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.