The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How close to the Capitol riot was too close?

Protesters storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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The events that unfolded in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, sit along a spectrum. At one end is someone who supported President Donald Trump and drove in from Maryland to attend his rally on the Ellipse that day. At the other end are the people dressed in combat attire who slipped through broken windows to scour the U.S. Capitol for members of Congress.

Those familiar with the city’s geography will recognize that this spectrum has a real, physical corollary. Attendees of Trump’s rally were at the White House. The rioters that entered the Capitol did so 1.5 miles east on Capitol Hill. On that day, Trump supporters were arrayed between those poles just as they were between the levels of fervency those poles represent.

In the abstract, it’s interesting to consider how place serves as a proxy for involvement and for culpability. But it isn’t simply abstract. Proximity to the Capitol that day has legal ramifications: Break into the building and you are likely to face federal criminal charges. Stay at the Ellipse and you’re clear. Where the feds draw the line, though, can be shadowy, as Ray Epps can attest.

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Less examined is whether proximity has any political ramifications. We know it does to some extent. Had Trump been successful in his feverish push to show up at the Capitol after his speech, his defenders’ efforts to distance him from culpability would have been seriously (though not necessarily fatally) diminished. But what about the cadre of other political candidates who popped up along that spectrum?

On Tuesday, voters in Michigan’s Republican primary chose Tudor Dixon to be the party’s nominee for governor. The race had been upended after several candidates were disqualified for filing fraudulent signatures, providing Dixon an unexpected opportunity. In the immediate aftermath of those disqualifications, one poll had Dixon at only 5 percent. Leading the newly overhauled field instead was a guy named Ryan Kelley.

Kelley was in Washington on Jan. 6. In fact, he was at the Capitol, caught in multiple videos filmed by rioters and by media on the scene. One can use that video to track his approach to the building and his using a temporary staircase built for the inauguration of Joe Biden to reach different parts of the complex — as the Justice Department did before indicting Kelley on multiple federal charges.

Below is an example of the evidence the department arrayed in bringing a case against Kelley, indicating him with a red box in the photo at left that corresponds to the location shown with the red circle on the map at right.

Kelley got close enough to the Capitol — and allegedly committed other criminal acts — to warrant an indictment. Yet in that poll, conducted after his arrest, he led the Republican field. Perhaps there was no proximity that might yield a political cost in a Republican primary?

Eventually, in part thanks to both establishment stalwarts and Trump coalescing around her, Dixon pulled ahead. Betsy DeVos, a powerful voice in Republican politics in Michigan, endorsed Dixon. That DeVos had resigned from Trump’s Cabinet in the aftermath of the riot made it unlikely she would back Kelley, had she even been inclined to. That is important to elevate: Even if voters weren’t worried about where Kelley was that day, his involvement may have gone too far for the people who influence voters.

(Kelley finished fourth. He has refused to concede.)

The question of proximity on Jan. 6 has been particularly potent for the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano. He, too, was in Washington that day and on Capitol Hill. Where, exactly, has been a repeated point of question.

Mastriano was a state senator at the time of the riot, and his presence near the Capitol spurred questions about his involvement. “At no point did we enter the Capitol building, walk on the Capitol steps or go beyond police lines,” Mastriano said shortly afterward, referring to himself and his wife. But that was soon shown to be misleading. Video revealed that he had in fact entered an area that had been cordoned off. His explanation? The police lines had moved over the course of the day, which is certainly true if not entirely exculpatory.

Mastriano isn’t believed to have crossed the nonphysical line that’s also guiding federal prosecutors. There’s no evidence he assaulted police or committed any acts of vandalism. Kelley is accused of pulling a cover off scaffolding at the Capitol. But, then, Mastriano didn’t get as close to the building as Kelley did.

Republican primary voters in Pennsylvania were unfazed by Mastriano’s proximity to the Capitol that day; he won his election easily. But that was the primary. In the general, he faces Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has already made clear that he thinks the proximity is a political liability for his opponent.

That tweet is obviously not solely about how close Mastriano came to the Capitol building. Instead it suggests that any proximity to the riot is politically toxic, even just putting people on buses to Washington for Trump’s speech.

For many Democrats, that is, in fact, the line. Showing up in Washington, even just to attend Trump’s rally, is a mark of allegiance to the polarizing president and an indicator, to some extent, that one accepted his false claims about the election. After all, the predicate for the rally was very much Trump’s effort to retain power, which was dependent on claiming that Biden’s election was illegitimate. For Democrats and other Trump critics, even showing up to peacefully support Trump at the Ellipse itself is politically unacceptable. Had Shapiro done so, for example, it’s safe to assume he wouldn’t be Pennsylvania’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

Even less partisan voters might view Mastriano’s actions as politically inappropriate. After all, consider what it meant to move from the Ellipse to the Capitol, if even only partway. That movement turned attendance at a rally into participation in a march or a demonstration, turned passive support into active. It was a shift that Trump’s lawyers reportedly warned against his advocating, given the ramifications. Does it make a difference to Pennsylvania voters that Mastriano made that transition?

What we’re doing here is articulating a question that each of us has considered indirectly or tacitly since the riot occurred: How much was too much? It’s complicated by who was taking the action; what Trump did was more important than what Sally Stealstopper did that morning. It’s also complicated by the context in which we consider it.

Everyone agrees that some people went too far, both metaphorically and literally. What we don’t agree on is where the line should be drawn.

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