The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mitch McConnell very carefully doesn’t reject the idea of Jan. 6 pardons

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Feb. 1 said he opposed shorter sentences for Capitol rioters after former president Donald Trump floated them. (Video: The Washington Post)
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When Donald Trump stood in front of a crowd in Texas over the weekend and offered his support for pardoning rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, a new line had been drawn in the sand. While technically holding no more authority within his party than any other registered member, Trump’s announcement meant that Republican officials at all levels of government would soon be asked whether they agreed.

So they were. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) declared Trump’s idea to be “inappropriate,” the equivalent of a robust indictment from one of Trump’s regular champions. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) was more blunt when asked whether those arrested should be pardoned: “Of course not,” he said on CNN on Sunday.

On Tuesday afternoon, the highest-ranking Republican yet was asked the question. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) offered perhaps the least robust rejection.

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Even when he first broached the subject, Trump was squirrelly about it. He knows, given his media diet, that an effort within the fringe of right-wing media has started to seep into Fox News’s prime-time coverage. It centers on the idea that conditions for that small subset of those detained until trial for their actions at the Capitol have been unpleasant and unacceptable and, therefore, that this is both an indicator of political bias by the Biden administration and one that demands rectification.

It’s useful to recognize that it’s the effort to paint President Biden as targeting political opponents for punishment that defines defenses of the detainees. (As of December, there were about three dozen people being detained in D.C. on charges related to Jan. 6, of more than 725 arrestees in total.) The attention drawn to jail facilities because of complaints from Jan. 6 detainees has reportedly improved conditions, but there’s no reason to think that the detentions themselves are politically motivated and little evidence that the conditions under which they are being held are particularly bad as a function of a concerted effort to punish them for their political beliefs.

In keeping with his frequent test-the-waters approach to creating controversy, Trump’s comment at the rally was not a sweeping endorsement of blanket pardons. He pledged to “treat those people from Jan. 6 fairly” and said that “if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons.” Trump’s allies rushed to compare that comment to Vice President Harris’s having contributed to bail funds in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, but there is of course a big difference between receiving bail until trial and getting a full pardon.

McConnell has consistently offered a more critical view of Jan. 6 than Trump or many others in his party. So when CNN’s Manu Raju asked McConnell whether he was concerned about Trump offering pardons to those who “attacked the Capitol,” one might have assumed that McConnell’s answer would sound more like Sununu’s than Graham’s.

Instead, he went the other direction.

After acknowledging first that Trump lost (something Trump hasn’t done) and criticizing those who stormed the building on that day as having tried to “prevent the peaceful transfer of power” (something Trump also hasn’t done), McConnell got technical.

“One hundred and sixty-five people have pleaded guilty to criminal behavior,” he said. “None of the trials have been finished yet, but 165 have pleaded guilty to criminal behavior.” If you’re curious, 145 of those pleas were misdemeanors. Twenty pleaded guilty to felonies, including six who admitted to having assaulted law enforcement officials.

McConnell continued: “My view is, I would not be in favor of shortening any of the sentences for any of the people who pleaded guilty to crimes.”

See what happened there? McConnell answered the question he wanted to answer, which was “should people who admitted assaulting police officers be pardoned,” and answered it with a loud harrumph: Of course not!

But that’s not the issue. The issue is the 500-odd people who haven’t pleaded guilty and, specifically, the 40 or so being detained before trial. The issue is the allegation that those detentions are an unfair treatment that warrants the complete exoneration of those charged. And McConnell’s answer on that question was: “.”

This seems significant. It’s hard to believe that McConnell wouldn’t have expected a question along these lines, suggesting that his response was well-considered. (His responses to questions tend to be.) In other words, he chose to specify only those who’d pleaded guilty and not to address the actual anger within the right-wing base. He declined to criticize Trump’s position in favor of criticizing a straw man’s.

When Trump made his comments about pardoning, I wondered if he was reflecting the extremes of his party (as is usually the case) or if he was reflecting a broader public support than I’d seen articulated.

Polling suggests it was the former. A January poll conducted by YouGov for the Economist found that about a fifth of Republicans approved at least somewhat of those who stormed the Capitol that day. Another YouGov poll, conducted for Yahoo News, found that the same percentage believed the attack to be justified. This is not equivalent to a question about whether those rioters should be pardoned. In that latter poll, though, 8 in 10 Republicans said it was time to put the attack “behind us.” That followed a question about the Jan. 6 investigation underway in the House, so the responses may have been colored by that context. That result does suggest some sympathy for simply being done with the whole thing.

It would have been hard for McConnell to echo Trump directly, in part because he probably recognizes that many of those being held are accused of the most egregious crimes, like assaults on law enforcement. But by not rejecting Trump’s proposal that detainees should be fully excused, McConnell left open the idea that perhaps he agreed.

Trump, once again, has pushed Republican leaders into a new rhetorical position.