On Sunday the family and friends of Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran who was fatally shot by Capitol Police as she tried to break into a hallway with lawmakers on Jan. 6, gathered to mark her birthday and commemorate her life. But the occasion was blessed by a prominent sympathizer: former President Donald Trump, who recorded a personalized video message expressing solidarity with Babbitt and outrage on her behalf.
“To Ashli’s family and friends, please know that her memory will live on in our hearts for all time,” he said during the recorded video.
The man who encouraged Babbitt and thousands of other protesters to attend a “wild” rally on Jan. 6 on his behalf and “show strength” as they marched to the Capitol told Babbitt’s community that her death was senseless and without cause: “There was no reason Ashli should’ve lost her life that day. 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 said.
Trump’s tack isn’t subtle: He’s doubling down on creating a martyr out of the most prominent rioter to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, and in the process continuing to craft an alternative iconography surrounding the meaning of that day. Coupled with his ongoing devotion to perpetrating the lie that the 2020 election was rigged against him, he’s priming his base to think of the riot as a tragedy for freedom fighters rather than the defense of authoritarianism it really was.
In recent months Trump has shown considerable devotion to cultivating the memory of Babbitt as a victim and a hero, and unsurprisingly that agenda has involved consistent deception.
He has claimed that she was shot “right through the head,” when in fact she was shot in the shoulder, immediately attended to by officers and died at a hospital from her wounds.
He’s also repeatedly pushed the notion that her shooting was ideologically driven because she was shot for ”no reason.” Even if one believes that the use of force against Babbitt was premature, a Capitol Police officer shot her for a very clear reason: She was leading efforts to climb through a door to enter a hallway where members of Congress were gathered and feared for their lives. She did this even when a Capitol Police officer trained a gun on her and called for the protesters to step away from the doors they were smashing.
Babbitt was shot once, in the shoulder, by an officer who knew that his colleagues were overwhelmed across the entire building and was fed incorrect information about shooting breaking out elsewhere in the building. Federal investigators determined he acted reasonably in defense of himself or federal lawmakers when he fired.
These details are, of course, of little meaning to Trump, who simply sees Babbitt as fodder for his political movement, one in which aggressors are victims, and those who seek to subvert democracy are the disenfranchised.
Trump had the option to try to tame the most militant parts of his base in the wake of Jan. 6, but he’s decided to take the opposite path and feed their fury. His fixation on Babbitt reveals an intuitive understanding of what makes his nostalgic and revanchist base tick. He names fallen heroes and builds a narrative of loss to create a greater appetite for retribution. Should Trump run again for office, he hopes to tap into that hunger.
“Every time he talks about her, he says her name,” Babbitt’s mother, Micki Witthoeft, said in an interview with The Washington Post published in July. “He could say ‘Her’ or ‘She’ or whatever. But he says ‘Ashli Babbitt.’ He is sure to mention her name repeatedly. I appreciate that. It’s millions more people I can reach.”
It makes sense for a grieving mother to be moved by Trump’s affirmation of her daughter’s death, regardless of how one feels about Babbitt’s actions. But the reality of the situation is that Trump doesn’t view Babbitt’s death as an extraordinary tragedy as much he sees it as an extraordinary opportunity.