In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, Donald Trump was watching enough television to realize the gravity of the situation and the degree to which mainstream Americans were recoiling in response to the insurrectionist riot. The then-president even pretended to share the public's outrage.
"Like all Americans, I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem," the Republican said on Jan. 7, describing the events from a day earlier as a "heinous attack." Reading from a prepared text, Trump added, "The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy.... To those who engage in the acts of violence and destruction: You do not represent our country, and to those who broke the law: You will pay."
Five days later, the then-president condemned the "mob [that] stormed the Capitol and trashed the halls of government." On the final full day of his term, again reading from a script, Trump added, "All Americans were horrified by the assault on our Capitol. Political violence is an attack on everything we cherish as Americans. It can never be tolerated."
But in the months that followed, far-right Republicans tried to rewrite the history of Jan. 6, recasting the villains as the heroes and law enforcement as the antagonists. By March, Trump was suggesting the rioters weren't so bad after all. By July, he was defending the "loving crowd" that attacked his own country's Capitol.
It led The Washington Post's Michael Gerson to note in a column, "There is ... no doubt that all Trump's thoughts and prayers are with the violent rioters of Jan. 6." Yesterday, the former president removed any ambiguity, becoming explicit in new and unsettling ways with this written statement:
"Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election. In addition to everything else, it has proven conclusively that we are a two-tiered system of justice. In the end, however, JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL!"
Part of what makes a statement like this amazing is the rapid evolution in Trump's thinking. Eight months ago, he assured the public that he was "outraged" by the "heinous attack." The rioters would be held accountable for having "defiled the seat of American democracy." Their "assault," he said, would not be "tolerated." Now that so much of the Republican Party no longer believes any of this, Trump has dropped the pretense. The rioters he denounced in January deserve his support in September.
It's also important to appreciate what statements like these tell us about Trump's perspective about "law and order" – one of the Republican's favorite phrases, and ostensibly a staple of his political ideology. In theory, a politician can either celebrate "law and order" or he can express solidarity for insurrectionist rioters, but he shouldn't try to do both.
In practice, however, we're receiving a timely lesson in how the former president defines the phrase. As MSNBC's Chris Hayes wrote in a 2018 op-ed for The New York Times, "If all that matters when it comes to 'law and order' is who is a friend and who is an enemy, and if friends are white and enemies are black or Latino or in the wrong party, then the rhetoric around crime and punishment stops being about justice and is merely about power and corruption. And this is what 'law and order' means: the preservation of a certain social order, not the rule of law."
But perhaps most important is the timing of the former president's statement. There is a rally scheduled for tomorrow in Washington, D.C., in which far-right activists will express support for those who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. The gathering is known as the "Justice for J6" rally, and the Department of Homeland Security has issued warnings about the potential for violence.
To that end, security fences have been erected around key buildings in the nation's capital. Reluctant to be associated with an event that may become violent, many GOP officials have decided to keep the rally at arm's length. Unlike on Jan. 6, Republicans have not agreed to deliver speeches to attendees.
It was against this backdrop that Trump decided to make things worse, effectively endorsing the rally's purpose by claiming the Jan. 6 rioters are "being persecuted so unfairly."
It's as if the former president was trying to make a potentially dangerous situation worse on purpose.