The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What was inauspicious about DeSantis’s start? Suggesting pardons for Jan. 6 rioters.

An artist's sketch depicts Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes during his trial in federal court in November. (Dana Verkouteren/AP)
3 min

On his first full day as a declared presidential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) made it even clearer that he plans to run as an echo rather than an alternative to Donald Trump: He said he would consider pardoning people involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.

Mr. DeSantis offered a false equivalence as his rationale, claiming that right-wing extremists convicted of crimes for which Black Lives Matter protesters were not prosecuted were victims of an “uneven application of justice.”

But no parallel should be drawn to what was an armed attempt to subvert the U.S. system of government. Mr. DeSantis has repeatedly declined to answer directly whether Joe Biden was legally elected in 2020. He also disputed that the events of Jan. 6 constituted an insurrection, campaigned with election deniers in 2022 and even appointed someone who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 as a state regulator in Florida.

Mr. DeSantis’s latest effort to indulge the MAGA fantasy that the insurrectionists’ actions could be justified came the same day that Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years in prison for seditious conspiracy, the longest prison term yet related to the Capitol insurrection. Mr. Rhodes showed no remorse during a speech to the court. U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta told the defendant that he presents “an ongoing threat and a peril to this country, to the republic and the very fabric of our democracy.” The judge also warned that Mr. Rhodes “will be prepared to take up arms” against the government the moment he is released.

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The lack of remorse is part of a troubling pattern. On Wednesday, a judge sentenced to 4½ years in prison the Jan. 6 rioter who was photographed with his foot propped on a desk in then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s offices. Richard “Bigo” Barnett carried with him inside the Capitol a 950,000-volt stun device concealed in a walking stick. Mr. Barnett stayed defiant through his trial. On social media this month, he referred to Capitol police as thugs and attacked federal prosecutors as “demonically possessed cretans [sic].”

More than 1,000 people have been arrested in nearly all 50 states for the attack on the Capitol. According to the Justice Department, approximately 570 of them have pleaded guilty and 78 have been found guilty at trial. The FBI continues to seek the public’s help in identifying 221 individuals believed to have committed violent acts on the Capitol grounds that day.

Floating pardons gives Jan. 6 rioters hope that they won’t be held accountable. Comments from Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, the two leading contenders for the 2024 Republican nomination, will discourage plea deals and encourage defendants to drag out proceedings in hopes that they might get clemency in 20 months. It also heightens the danger that people will again engage in violence if they don’t like the outcome of next year’s elections, calculating that they might receive pardons if their preferred candidate takes power.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).