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The "Trumpification" of the GOP's Jan. 6 pardon push

Historian examines state of U.S. democracy
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A Republican running for one of the most competitive congressional seats in the country has stressed his belief that Donald Trump needs to win the White House and pardon some of the mob who took part in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. 

File: Joe Kent, Republican U.S. congressional candidate for Washington, 3rd Congressional District Kent campaign website

Back in 2022, Washington GOP candidate Joe Kent primaried Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Capitol attack. 

While he managed to oust her, Kent lost a close general election race a few months later. He's running for the same seat this year in a contest that could not only help determine which party controls the House, but also test how far to the right a swing district may be willing to go. 

During a recent campaign stop, footage obtained by CBS News shows Kent being asked about the Jan. 6 defendants "still rotting in jail and who didn't get a speedy trial." 

"We need to win in 2024 so that we can get President Trump in there to pardon them," Kent answered, and added that "if anybody did anything violent on Jan. 6, and there certainly was that, they should be held accountable for it. But the way that there's been mass arrests, there's been a real deprivation of due process, like that's got to end."

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File: Supporters of President Donald Trump protest inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.  Getty Images

As more time passes since the storming of the Capitol, Kent is among a set of Republicans who have embraced the prospect of pardons for at least a portion of the people tied to the riot. Kent's campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

"There's a lot of crazy out there," said Ty Cobb, a former federal prosecutor who was a White House lawyer during the Trump administration. "And all this is possible, which is tragic for America." 

Five people died just before, during or soon after the attack, and four police officers at the Capitol on Jan. 6 died by suicide in the ensuing months. Scores of police officers were injured by the mob of Trump's supporters riled by the Republican's false claims that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen from him. 

Almost three years after the attack, Trump is the undisputed frontrunner in the 2024 GOP presidential primary race, despite facing criminal charges tied to his attempts to try and remain in power after his election loss. 

Criticism from leading Republicans over Trump's handling of Jan. 6 has essentially vanished. Instead, a wing of the GOP has attempted to portray at least some of those who were part of the riot as deserving of pardons. 

"Nobody would be probably talking about pardoning these folks without Trump really being behind it," said Adam Kinzinger, a former Republican congressman who voted to impeach Trump after the Capitol attack and was part of the bipartisan House panel that investigated Jan. 6.  "...But now it's baked in. Now this is just par for the course. I think this is the price of entry to Republican politics." 

Trump isn't shying away from Jan. 6 in his latest bid for the White House. He has downplayed what happened and defended himself and his supporters who had a role in the riot. 

"I am inclined to pardon many of them," Trump said in a CNN town hall last May when asked about rioters convicted over Jan. 6.  "I can't say for every single one because a couple of them, probably, they got out of control." 

He hinted that if he wins, pardons could happen early in his second term. 

"Many of them are just great people," Trump said. 

Other Republicans have taken a similar tone. 

Trent Leisy, a Trump supporter and GOP Weld County, Colorado councilman running to represent Colorado's 4th Congressional District. Trent Leisy campaign, via Instagram

Trent Leisy, a Trump supporter and Weld County, Colorado councilman who is running in a crowded GOP House primary race for retiring Rep. Ken Buck's seat in the Republican-leaning district, posted a pledge on social media that in Congress he would lead a bill "to financially compensate all January 6 patriots and their families."

Leisy, a far-right candidate who is behind a business that sells t-shirts calling Trump the "sexiest man alive," recalled in an interview that he had wanted to attend Trump's speech on Jan. 6 that preceded the riot, but was unable to do so. 

"I just want him to pardon all peaceful patriotic J sixers who have been unduly targeted by our justice system," Leisy said. 

Last June, former Milwaukee County, Wisconsin Sheriff David Clarke, Jr. posted on social media linking to a Washington Times headline about the "treatment of Jan. 6 defendants."

"All GOP candidates for the GOP nomination should be asked if they'll pardon ALL of them if elected. If they waffle like most will, they shouldn't be nominated," Clarke said. "Tired of RINOS."

Clarke, a Trump supporter, hasn't ruled out running for a U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin this year. He clarified in an interview with CBS News that he doesn't "think a president should come in and just say anybody who's locked up for Jan. 6 is automatically pardoned." 

"There's a process, let's let the process play out," Clarke said. He added "when I say everyone, I want everyone who was denied due process to be pardoned. If that's some of them, okay, if it's all of them, okay. I don't know which ones." 

Defendants in the sprawling Jan. 6 investigation have the opportunity to plead guilty or go to trial. More than 1,200 people have been charged with crimes tied to their alleged actions involving the attack, according to a CBS News review of court records, with alleged crimes ranging from illegal picketing inside the Capitol to assaults on officers and destruction of government property.

GOP presidential candidate and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy regularly makes the false statement that the Capitol riot was an "inside job" and promises to pardon all non-violent Jan. 6 protesters. The riff often garners applause from Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire, though he continues to trail other candidates. 

"I can tell you that I will pardon every peaceful protester from January 6 on my first day in office, because that's what it means to stand for one standard of the rule of law in this country," Ramaswamy recently said during an event in Iowa.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of Trump's chief presidential primary rivals, is pushing the idea that Trump didn't do enough before leaving office to help those who stormed the Capitol. He has shown support for pardoning many of those facing Jan. 6 charges for non-violent acts and has suggested people can apply for pardons and clemency.

Once viewed as a potential heir to the political base built by the former president, DeSantis has struggled to get out of Trump's shadow in the 2024 race.

"Indeed, on his last day in office, you know, did he help the people that got caught up in the Capitol stuff that he told to go there? Did he do any support for them? No," DeSantis said in Iowa last month.

If Trump wins the White House again, he would regain the wide-ranging power to pardon people for federal crimes. The final report from the bipartisan Jan. 6 House select committee included testimony that alleged Trump, before he left office, talked about a potential "blanket pardon" for people who had a part in Jan. 6. 

The way many Republicans are navigating Jan. 6 years later shows the "Trumpification of the Republican Party," said Bill Kristol, a director of the anti-Trump conservative group Defending Democracy Together. 

"Who's the key figure in Jan. 6? Trump. Who has defended Jan. 6 subsequently? Trump," Kristol said. "So, of course, if Trump is your leading candidate for the presidential nomination, you're inclined to excuse Jan. 6 at the least and celebrate it at worst." 

Within the nation's capital, Jan. 6 cases are a major focus at a federal courthouse close to where the attack took place, and the assault's impact on democratic norms in the U.S. remains apparent. 

After he was sentenced to 10 years in prison last September, Dominic Pezzola, who was a member of the far-right Proud Boys and a key figure in the riot, yelled in the courtroom that "Trump won!" 

File: Ezekiel Kurt Stecher shown in U.S. Capitol screenshot on Jan. 6, 2021 Government document

And almost three years after he stormed the Capitol, a farmer named Ezekiel Kurt Stecher was sentenced this week to 60 days incarceration after pleading guilty to a civil disorder charge. 

The prosecution outlined in a court document that "Stecher directly contributed to one of the most violent confrontations between rioters and the police on January 6 — the battle for the Lower West Terrace Tunnel." 

He was part of "the mob's concerted "heave ho" push to overtake the police line in the tunnel," the prosecution said. In one moment that loomed large in Stecher's case, he was caught saying on Jan. 6 "if we can't push them, drag 'em." 

Before he was sentenced, Stecher apologized to the court and to his wife. He described disbelief about what he had seen happen outside the Capitol during the attack. 

Plenty was also left unsaid. 

Stecher didn't call attention to Trump. And he didn't show much introspection into what brought him to Washington on that troubling day where democracy strained under widely debunked falsehoods about a free and fair presidential election.  

"It's certainly not who I am," Stecher said, later telling the court "what I was doing there, I don't know."

Robert Legare, Aaron Navarro, Olivia Rinaldi, Allison Novelo, and Shawna Mizelle contributed to this report.

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