In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, Donald Trump at least pretended to be furious about the insurrectionist violence. The outgoing president condemned the assault on the Capitol as a “heinous attack,” claimed he was “outraged” by the “lawlessness and mayhem,” and delivered a public message to the rioters: “You do not represent our country, and to those who broke the law: You will pay.”
In the months that followed, of course, the Republican completely abandoned those positions, and began celebrating those who participated in the attack. Early last year, Trump broke new ground by announcing he’d consider pardoning rioters if voters returned him to the White House.
Though the position has now become familiar — it’s a standard line for the former president — it was seen at the time as a provocative declaration, even for him.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a sycophantic Trump ally, conceded that he considered the former president’s line on pardons as “inappropriate.” Another Republican senator, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, added, “If you do the crime, you do the time. You shouldn’t be pardoned for that.”
The day after the former president’s pardon comments, then-Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of the two GOP members on the Jan. 6 committee, wrote on Twitter, “It is time for every Republican leader to pick a side. ... Trump or the Constitution, there is no middle on defending our nation anymore.”
That was last year. This year, Trump isn’t the only leading GOP presidential candidate eyeing possible pardons for rioters. The Washington Post reported:
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday that, if elected president, he would consider pardoning some of those convicted on charges related to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Appearing on a conservative talk show on his first full day as a White House aspirant, DeSantis was asked whether Jan. 6 defendants “deserve to have their cases examined by a Republican president,” and whether he would pardon Trump himself if he were “charged with federal offenses.”
The far-right governor didn’t make an explicit commitment, but he responded that on his first day in the Oval Office, “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.”
Then he went further. "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 added. "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.”
I suspect there will be some who’ll see this and conclude that the Florida Republican doesn’t have much of a choice: He’s trying to appeal to his party’s radicalized base while running in a crowded and competitive primary. This is the kind of message they expect to hear.
Of course, that defense — to the extent that this constitutes a defense — says quite a bit about the state of contemporary GOP politics, and none of it’s good.
But we’re also learning about the governor’s vision. My MSNBC colleague Zeeshan Aleem explained this morning, “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 pardoning 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.”
I think that’s exactly right, and it’s the sort of conclusion that carries practical consequences.
Trump’s stranglehold on his party is no secret, but there is a contingent of Republicans open to a credible alternative: He's leading in national polling, but with 55% support, not 95%. There’s a school of thought that suggests the “Never Trump” faction should simply rally behind DeSantis — by most measures, the leading alternative to the frontrunner — help the governor consolidate the anti-Trump vote within the party, force the former president from the stage, and help the party move on.
But yesterday offered a timely reminder that DeSantis has little to offer these voters, except an echo of an extreme position.
Making matters worse, as the editorial board of The Washington Post explained overnight, “Floating pardons gives Jan. 6 rioters hope that they won’t be held accountable. Comments from Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, the two leading contenders for the 2024 Republican nomination, will discourage plea deals and encourage defendants to drag out proceedings in hopes that they might get clemency in 20 months. It also heightens the danger that people will again engage in violence if they don’t like the outcome of next year’s elections, calculating that they might receive pardons if their preferred candidate takes power.”
Yesterday was DeSantis’ opportunity to shake off his Twitter debacle and present himself to the electorate as a serious and credible candidate for the nation’s highest office. He blew it.