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Ron DeSantis’ openness to pardoning Jan. 6 defendants is a dark sign

The Florida governor is already projecting an authoritarian vision of the law.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a political roundtable, in Bedford, N.H.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a political roundtable, in Bedford, N.H., on May 19.Robert F. Bukaty / AP

During his opening 2024 pitch to voters on Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis promised to crack down aggressively on crime. But the next day he made it clear that upholding the law might not be so important to him when it comes to accountability for insurrectionists and former President Donald Trump.   

On “The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show,” DeSantis was asked whether he would consider pardoning Jan. 6 defendants — including Trump, who is currently under federal investigation over Jan. 6 but hasn’t been charged. DeSantis indicated that he’d open to it.  

“On day one, I will have folks that will get together and look at all these cases, who people are victims of weaponization or political targeting, and we will be aggressive in issuing pardons,” DeSantis said. 

“I would say any example of disfavored treatment based on politics, or weaponization would be included in that review, no matter how small or how big,” he said.  

DeSantis’ posture rests upon the unfounded assumption that federal prosecutors are part of a political conspiracy

DeSantis’ broadside against the idea of rule of law signals that overturning the rulings of the legal system isn’t just a consideration but an expectation: “We will be aggressive in issuing pardons.” It’s also notable that pardoning Jan. 6 defendants is a “day one” priority for him, suggesting that the convictions of insurrectionists who tried to overturn the 2020 election was a grave injustice. And he refuses to rule out the idea of pardoning Trump, regardless of whether prosecutors are able to indict him.

DeSantis’ posture rests upon the unfounded assumption that federal prosecutors are part of a political conspiracy rather than agents of the law. And naturally he tossed in his obsession with "wokeness" into his reasoning. “Some of these cases, some people may have a technical violation of the law. But if there are three other people who did the same thing, but just in a context like Black Lives Matter, and they don’t get prosecuted at all, that is uneven application of justice,” DeSantis said, referring to Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. “And so we’re going to find ways where that did not happen and then we will use the pardon power, and I will do that at the front end.”

DeSantis was trotting out a common right-wing narrative that Jan. 6 protesters faced an unfair double standard compared with people who broke the law during BLM protests the summer after police killed George Floyd. But as U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan pointed out during a sentencing hearing in 2021, the BLM demonstrators were protesting for civil rights while the latter group was “trying to overthrow the government. … That is no mere protest.” Black Lives Matter advocates have also collected data showing that federal prosecutors were far from gentle in their approach to charging Black Lives Matter protesters, and an Associated Press analysis in 2021 showed scores of BLM defendants getting serious prison sentences, shattering the myth that prosecutors were exceptionally lenient with them.

DeSantis’ attitude toward Jan. 6 should dismay anyone who takes democracy seriously. He didn’t point to specific examples of what he saw as overly harsh sentencing but instead signaled a general eagerness to use pardons to undermine the rule of law and the sanctity of the democratic process. DeSantis might want to beat Trump in his bid for the White House, but these signs indicate he’s playing a similar game.