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Trump's rhetoric about Ashli Babbitt takes an unsettling turn

The former president is not only prepared to tolerate those who engage in political violence, he's now also eager to celebrate them.

During the insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a group of violent pro-Trump rioters made their way into the building and reached a doorway that led to a House chamber hallway. That hallway was an escape route for legislators who saw attackers through glass windows.

As regular readers know, when rioters smashed those windows, one of the insurrectionists, Ashli Babbitt, tried to break through to enter the hallway where members of Congress were being evacuated, ignoring law enforcement pleas. A police officer fired a single shot, and the rioter later died at a local hospital.

A very conservative Republican congressman, Oklahoma's Markwayne Mullin, was a witness and conceded that the officer "did what he had to do" and "didn't have a choice." The U.S. Capitol Police cleared the lieutenant who fired the shot, and the Justice Department determined that charges against the officer were not warranted.

Donald Trump nevertheless sees this as an opportunity worthy of exploitation. My MSNBC colleague Zeeshan Aleem explained yesterday:

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 Republican added, "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."

In other words, the official findings don't matter. The witnesses don't matter. The apparent threat Babbitt posed doesn't matter. What matters is a failed former president who believes there's political value in turning a rioter into a martyr.

It's worth emphasizing for context that for months, most leading Republicans, including Trump, expressed little interest in Babbitt. Some on the political fringe sided with rioters over law enforcement, but the former president did not initially see her story as worthy of celebration.

That was before the evolution. The day after the insurrectionist violence on Jan. 6, Trump said, "Like all Americans, I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem. He went on to describe the riot 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 June, Trump declared that he saw Babbitt as an ally who was on his "side." A month later, he said the rioter was "innocent." A month after that, he accused the officer who shot her of "murder."

Now, the former president is not only prepared to tolerate those who engage in political violence, he's also eager to celebrate them. We've arrived at the bewildering final stage of a multi-step process in the aftermath of Jan. 6:

  1. The rioters' attack was bad.
  2. The rioters' attack was bad, but it was Democrats' fault.
  3. Maybe the rioters weren't so bad.
  4. Rioters were good and are being "persecuted."

Just as important is the fact that this represents another chapter in Trump's larger embrace of the legitimacy of political violence.

As a Washington Post analysis explained yesterday, "This matters for one simple reason. Trump continues to hold a position of influence within the Republican Party and seems likely, if not certain, to run again for president in 2024. His embrace of political violence before the 2016 election was noted and noteworthy, but it's now metastasized. Trump is publicly defending and helping reframe the reputation of a woman who was part of an effort to engage in political violence on his behalf. By extension, he's defending and reframing the violence itself."