Her phone rang on that day in early July, nearly six months after a police officer’s bullet killed her daughter as she and a mob of rioters seeking to overturn the election stormed a barricaded door deep inside the U.S. Capitol.
Witthoeft took the opportunity during the 30-minute call to ask Trump for help getting information about Babbitt’s death and to fight for those still imprisoned because of the riot.
After their call, the circumstances of Babbitt’s death — once a focus of right-wing extremists and white supremacists — became a talking point for the nation’s most dominant Republican.
“Who shot Ashli Babbitt?” Trump asked over and over in the ensuing days, suggesting that the 35-year-old Air Force veteran was the victim of an overzealous Capitol Police officer whose identity was being covered up.
“Every time he talks about her, he says her name,” Witthoeft said in a phone interview. “He could say ‘Her’ or ‘She’ or whatever. But he says ‘Ashli Babbitt.’ He is sure to mention her name repeatedly. I appreciate that. It’s millions more people I can reach.”
In the months since Jan. 6, Trump and his allies have waged a fevered campaign to rewrite the narrative of one of the darkest days in the nation’s history, when a mob attacked the Capitol, threatening to kill Vice President Mike Pence and using baseball bats and flagpoles to beat police officers as they hunted for lawmakers, many of whom hid behind locked doors, fearing for their lives.
Yet, instead of marauders invading the Capitol, Trump and his acolytes describe a largely peaceful crowd of protesters unfairly maligned and persecuted by prosecutors, Democrats and mainstream journalists.
At the center of their revisionism is Babbitt, their martyr, whose fatal attempt to leap through a door that led to the House chamber — captured in graphic detail on video — they describe as a heroic act of patriotism.
“An innocent, wonderful, incredible woman, a military woman,” Trump said during an appearance on Fox News. At a Florida rally July 4, he called her shooting “a terrible thing” and said “there was no reason for it.”
Just before she was shot, Babbitt was among a group of rioters bashing in the glass-paneled doors that led to the Speaker’s Lobby, down the hall from the House chamber, where lawmakers were being evacuated.
“There’s a gun! There’s a gun!” someone shouted when an officer, on the other side of the doors, aimed his weapon in the direction of the mob.
Despite the warning, someone appeared to hoist Babbitt up so she could step through an opening in the door created after its glass panels were shattered. A bullet struck her and she fell back on the floor.
Prosecutors determined it was reasonable for the officer to believe he was firing in self-defense or to protect members evacuating the House chamber.
With the 2022 midterm elections looming, Democrats, along with a handful of Republicans, are challenging Trump’s narrative about Jan. 6. At a House select committee hearing Tuesday, four police officers catalogued the emotional and physical abuse they suffered defending the Capitol and how betrayed they feel by Republican lawmakers.
“I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room,” D.C. police officer Michael Fanone told the committee. “But too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist or that hell actually wasn’t that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful.”
Trump has complained to aides that his supporters were treated far worse than Black Lives Matter protesters charged last summer, and that the Justice Department and others want to use prosecutions of Jan. 6 crimes to damage him.
The former president, according to three advisers, often talks about the “good people” who traveled to Washington that day, and the crowd’s large size, despite encouragement from some confidants to avoid the subject altogether.
In a statement, Trump confirmed talking to Babbitt’s family and said: “I want to know why is the person who shot Ashli Babbitt getting away with murder?”
Vigils, rallies, rap lyrics
Trump’s embrace of Babbitt culminated a six-month progression in which her death, and the fate of dozens of jailed rioters, became a topic invoked by a cluster of House Republicans, and the likes of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Her death has inspired vigils, rallies, rap lyrics, social media hashtags (#justiceforashli), T-shirts (“Ashli Babbitt, American Patriot”), as well as an article in a magazine, the American Conservative, comparing her fate to that of George Floyd, the Black man murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.
“They’ve got to pretend that Ashli Babbitt was some kind of Osama bin Laden or some kind of guy flying a plane into a building,” Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative podcaster with 1.7 million Twitter followers, told his audience.
D’Souza, whom Trump pardoned in 2018 for making illegal campaign contributions, said a “big lie” has been spun that “there were these seditious Trump supporters trying to overthrow the constitution mounting an al-Qaeda-style attack.”
Even Russian President Vladimir Putin joined in. Questioned during an interview with NBC News about political jailings in his country, Putin asked if the correspondent had “ordered the assassination of the woman who walked into the Congress and who was shot and killed by a policeman?”
When Trump invoked Babbitt’s name, right-wing organizers said it became easier to generate public interest for those arrested in the Jan. 6 riot.
“It didn’t make me feel more emboldened, but it made other people feel emboldened, which helps me,” said Cara Castronuova of Citizens Against Political Persecution, a New York-based group that has hosted rallies.
“He gives people a voice,” Castronuova said. “They feel if Trump said it, he’s the leader of the United States, so it’s okay to say it.”
Stuart Stevens, a veteran GOP political consultant long critical of Trump, said Republicans are seeking to recast the narrative of Jan. 6 because the commander in chief “inspired domestic terrorists to besiege the Capitol in an effort to overturn the election.”
“That’s not a very good picture, so you have to create an alternative reality — that Trump won and these were good Americans,” Stevens said. “What stirs up more emotion than an innocent woman — a former Air Force vet — who is shot attempting to restore the legally elected president?”
“If you believe that,” he said, “you’ll probably respond to a fundraising appeal that comes with it and you’re more likely to show up at a Trump rally. It’s about intensity and money.”
Stevens, who grew up in Mississippi, compared the Republican campaign to the Lost Cause of the post-Civil War era, in which Southern sympathizers sought to recast defenders of slavery such as Gen. Robert E. Lee as a “benevolent guy.”
“It’s the same instinct, but this is more dangerous,” he said, because the Lost Cause was only embraced by some elements of the Democratic Party, not the entire organization. “It’s now the Republicans’ official position that Joe Biden was not legally elected. In their version, Babbitt wasn’t attempting to overthrow a peaceful process. She was either a tourist or a Trump supporter showing her deep affection to Donald Trump.”
Until her death, Babbitt had lived the anonymous life of an ordinary American, serving in the military for 14 years. Her tenure included a stint protecting the Washington region with an Air National Guard unit known as the Capital Guardians.
After leaving the service, she took over a struggling pool service supply company in her native San Diego, and delved into right-wing politics. She used her Twitter account to praise Trump, denigrate undocumented immigrants and express support for the extremist QAnon ideology that is based on false claims. Her family said she was always political — she voted for President Barack Obama — but never more fervent than during Trump’s presidency.
Babbitt did not tell her mother she was going to Washington on Jan 6. But Witthoeft said she was not surprised. “I would have said, ‘Of course you are, baby,’ ” she said, adding her daughter “was a Trump rallygoer. She was going to them all over the place, the car parades, the Trump boat parades.”
In recent weeks, Witthoeft said she noticed Babbitt’s name mentioned more frequently on Fox News, Newsmax and OAN, an uptick she attributes to Trump and House Republicans such as Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.).
“I think everyone should know her name,” she said.
On a Sunday in downtown Manhattan, across from the United States Courthouse, a crowd of Trump supporters assembled for a “Free Political Prisoners NOW” rally. Organizers promised that Babbitt’s mother and husband would call in to “address those in attendance and those watching around the world on our Live Stream.”
A counterdemonstration of activists cursing and tossing eggs greeted the 100 or so attendees, including activists carrying Trump flags, fringe political candidates and, at least for a few minutes, Bernhard Goetz, who in 1984 shot four Black youths on a train and was dubbed the “subway vigilante.”
“Say her name!” a speaker shouted.
“Ashli Babbitt! Ashli Babbitt!” the crowd chanted.
“American hero!” a woman yelled.
In the days after Jan. 6, interest in her death was far more muted. In Washington, only journalists showed up for a Jan. 9 candlelight vigil advertised for Babbitt at the Washington Monument. Fliers for the event described her as a “wife, mother, veteran, patriot” who was “unjustly killed by US Capitol police.”
At the same time, groups such as the Anti-Defamation League were tracking use of her name on right-wing social media, including a rendering of her face imposed over an image of the Capitol, a drop of blood falling from her neck. In the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, Andrew Anglin wrote that Babbitt “was murdered by cops.”
“She was protecting America from the enemies of the people,” Anglin wrote. “There was absolutely no reason to shoot her, and the cop should be charged with murder.”
Three months later, federal prosecutors cleared the Capitol Police officer who shot Babbitt of any wrongdoing, saying he had not violated her civil rights.
The officer, a lieutenant, was not identified, an omission seized on by House Republicans.
“Who executed Ashli Babbitt?” Gosar, a Trump ally, asked acting U.S. attorney general Jeffrey Rosen at a hearing in May. A month later, while questioning FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Gosar said the officer “appeared to be hiding, lying in wait and then gave no warning before killing her.”
Gosar’s statements about Babbitt’s death, as well as those arrested, have been echoed by Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Louis Gohmert (R-Tex.), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
“If this country can demand justice for someone like George Floyd,” Greene told a Newsmax host, “then we can certainly demand justice for Ashli Babbitt.”
On Thursday, she, Gaetz, Gosar and Gohmert showed up at the D.C. jail, demanding to inspect the treatment of those detained in connection with Jan. 6. They were turned away.
Michael Edison Hayden, a spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the narrative suggested by such assertions allows Trump and his allies to “flip what happened and present the attackers as victims.”
“The only word that comes to mind is the amplification of a fringe narrative,” he said. “It’s not as though the narrative has changed. It’s spread and taken hold in larger portions of Trump’s base.”
Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign operative and the leader of Look Ahead America, said initially his group had difficulty drawing crowds to rallies for the Jan. 6 arrestees because “people were afraid to come. The FBI was putting peoples’ pictures up all over the place.”
But he said he has had an easier time more recently — a Phoenix rally in mid-July drew 250 people — “because the issue is being taken seriously.”
Trump, he said, inserted himself into the discourse because he’s “reacting to the fact that we have people bombarding legislators, doing rallies and putting up signs. We have done so much to raise awareness that he thinks, ‘It’s time I should probably talk about it.’ ”
At the Manhattan rally, the emcee, Castronuova, held a sign that read “Rest in Peace Ashli Babbitt” as Babbitt’s mother, speaking by phone, told the crowd she felt comfort knowing that the day her daughter died “was a good day for her.”
“Until those son-of-a-b----es took her out of it, she was in her moment,” Witthoeft said. “They tried to silence Ashli’s voice but all they did was make it louder because America was watching.”
“Stand tall, stand proud, stand together,” she told the crowd.
After the call ended, Castronuova promised the audience that “insurrectionist is no longer going to come up” when they “Google Ashli Babbitt’s name in five years.”
“They will not rewrite history,” Castronuova shouted. “She’s a martyr, okay?”
‘A bigger cause’
After her death, Ashli Babbitt’s body remained in Washington for weeks while law enforcement completed investigations. Then she was cremated, in keeping with her wishes, and her remains were flown back to San Diego in February, her mother said.
Not long after, her family boarded a boat and scattered her ashes in the waters off Dog Beach. A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.”
Witthoeft, during the hour-long telephone interview, said she has avoided watching footage of Jan. 6, including “the video of my daughter being murdered.”
“I just won’t do it,” she said, beginning to cry. “They carried my daughter out like a dying animal.”
Since her daughter’s death, she has become politically active. On Saturday, she attended a Trump rally in Phoenix, where she received a standing ovation when Gosar introduced her.
She said she received no response from the offices of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) despite having left “at least 20 messages.” When she called the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Witthoeft said an aide told her that “ ‘although this incident is unfortunate, your daughter should not have stormed the Capitol.’ ”
Asked about Trump, whose call to her occurred six months after her daughter’s death, Witthoeft laughed nervously and said, “It’s a tricky question. This is such a roller coaster. I feel different things depending on the day.
“If I were to say something negative about Donald Trump,” she said, “my daughter would roll over in the grave, or on her seabed. Out of respect for my daughter, I shouldn’t ever say anything negative about him. She felt strongly enough about him to lay down her life for him and, in death, I believe she loves him still. I know she loves him still.”
Roger Witthoeft, Babbitt’s brother, said he partially blames Trump for his sister’s death. Trump’s speech that day, he said, “should’ve been: ‘I’ll do it in 2024, we’ll get them next time.’ ”
“Like every other rally, people would’ve cheered them on, and there might have been some little bit of stuff going on,” he said. “Everyone was just pumped up, and the word selection wasn’t the greatest.”
Nevertheless, Michelle and Roger Witthoeft both say they hope Trump runs again. And Roger Witthoeft said his sister, if she were alive, would not regret what she did Jan. 6. “She would’ve taken the exact same steps, knowing the outcome,” he said. “My sister died for a bigger picture, a bigger cause.”
These days, Michelle Wittheoft said, she writes letters to Jan. 6 arrestees.
“I plan on writing them all — not because I’m Ashli’s mom — I love and support what they did,” she said. “They’re in jail because they are Trump supporters.”
Referring to her daughter, she said, “She made the ultimate sacrifice to bring attention to a stolen election.”
“Half the country loves her and half the country hates her,” she said. “It’s weird to have your child belong to the world.”