The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The leading GOP candidate for 2024 continues to rationalize political violence

Broken windows at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7, the day after hundreds of pro-Trump rioters stormed the building. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

There’s no mystery undergirding the death of Ashli Babbitt in the Capitol on Jan. 6. She was part of a large group of rioters who swept into the building with the aim of preventing the finalization of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory. During a brief moment when police officers stepped away from a barricaded door protecting an area through which legislators had been evacuated, rioters smashed a window and Babbitt began to climb through. A Capitol Police officer defending the area fired a single shot, fatally striking Babbitt.

And yet, in the months since that day, Babbitt’s death has become a catalyst for right-wing actors to reframe the day’s violence. Even supporters of Donald Trump were cautious in defending Babbitt’s actions immediately after the riot, but that caution has been abandoned. Her death is now presented as something akin to martyrdom, the most extreme example of how a nefarious government is lashing out at its political opponents. And central to this recasting of Babbitt and other Jan. 6 rioters as political targets is Trump himself.

“There was no reason Ashli should’ve lost her life that day,” Trump said in a recorded video aired at an event centered on her birthday last weekend. “We must all demand justice for Ashli and her family, so on this solemn occasion as we celebrate her life, we renew our call for a fair and nonpartisan investigation into the death of Ashli Babbitt.” He then offered his “unwavering support” to her family.

There was an investigation into Babbitt’s death, of course, one for which there’s no reason to assume any lack of fairness. It determined that the officer who shot her, Michael Byrd, acted appropriately.

“The actions of the officer in this case potentially saved members and staff from serious injury and possible death from a large crowd of rioters who forced their way into the U.S. Capitol and to the House Chamber where members and staff were steps away,” a news release about the investigation read, referring to members of Congress.

But for Trump, whose politics have long been firmly rooted in the performative embrace of law enforcement, this wasn’t good enough. While he ran in 2020 on defending law enforcement and in vocal opposition to what he positioned as political violence from the left, Babbitt was different. She wasn’t simply a rioter, she was his rioter, so her death at the hands of a Black Capitol Police officer was necessarily something dubious or unwarranted.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which Trump’s view of political violence depends on the politics at play. As a candidate in 2015 and 2016, he often spoke of treating harshly those who protested at his rallies; at one point he was forced to clarify whether he would, as promised, actually pay the legal bills of a man who assaulted one such demonstrator. Once president, he basked in the idea that he was tougher than a president was supposed to be, deriding criminals as animals and encouraging police officers to feel free to injure those they were arresting.

Trump repeatedly endorsed the idea that law enforcement should use lethal force against nonlethal threats. At one point in 2018, he announced that he was encouraging officers at the border who came across migrants throwing rocks to “consider that a firearm.” He made a similar argument in June of last year, telling a conference call of governors that “when somebody’s throwing a rock that’s like shooting a gun,” and insisting that “you’re allowed to fight back.”

That call followed protests that erupted in May last year after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man. Trump quickly seized on the sporadic violence that followed as central to his reelection bid. While there was “no reason” that Babbitt should have lost her life, Trump last year warned ominously that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” picking up a line about extrajudicial punishments used by Miami’s chief of police in 1967, someone who once said his department didn’t “mind being accused of police brutality.”

Trump tried to explain this away, claiming that he just meant that looting would lead to shooting by various, non-law-enforcement people. While there was little reason to accept this rationalization at the time, it was further undermined by the revelation this year that Trump had broadly endorsed shooting protesters last year, if only in the leg or the foot, as a means of “being hard on them.”

After shooting deaths at two protests, Trump took dramatically different positions on the alleged shooters entirely contingent on their politics. Teenager Kyle Rittenhouse’s shooting of multiple people in Kenosha, Wis., was a result of his being “very violently attacked” before he fired, Trump said, insisting that this was “something that we’re looking at right now” — implying that his administration might find some rationalization for the incident. Administration staffers were instructed to publicly defend Rittenhouse, who was publicly supportive of law enforcement and had attended a Trump rally. Rittenhouse is still awaiting trial.

Michael Reinoehl, accused of shooting and killing a Trump supporter in Portland, will not face trial. He was shot and killed by U.S. Marshals who confronted him near his car. Eyewitnesses say that Reinoehl was unarmed; a handgun was found in his pocket.

Trump had no qualms about Reinoehl’s fate.

“The U.S. Marshals went in to get him. And in a short period of time, they ended in a gunfight,” Trump said, misrepresenting the confrontation. “This guy was a violent criminal and the U.S. Marshals killed him. And I will tell you something: That’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.”

Four months later, Babbitt was shot and killed by an officer tasked with protecting members of Congress who were fleeing the angry mob of which she was a part. In that case, Trump publicly and repeatedly undercut the decision for no obvious reason other than the cause that was spurring Babbitt’s behavior.

This matters for one simple reason. Trump continues to hold a position of influence within the Republican Party and seems likely, if not certain, to run again for president in 2024. His embrace of political violence before the 2016 election was noted and noteworthy, but it’s now metastasized. Trump is publicly defending and helping reframe the reputation of a woman who was part of an effort to engage in political violence on his behalf. By extension, he’s defending and reframing the violence itself.

Babbitt’s mother also spoke at the event last weekend. She cast her daughter’s death as being a function of a willingness to challenge power. She also disparaged the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“I see no children in this room, so I will go ahead and say it,” she said: “[expletive] off and die, Nancy Pelosi!”

That, of course, is the fate that Officer Byrd was trying to prevent.