The fence around the Capitol is back up. The District of Columbia’s police department is at the ready. The U.S. Capitol Police have requested assistance from nearby law enforcement agencies including the National Guard.
The Capitol Police are taking no chances as they prepare for Saturday’s rally at the Capitol in support of rioters imprisoned after the violent Jan. 6 insurrection. They’re working to avoid a repeat of the pre-inauguration attack.
Persistent attempts to rewrite the narrative of the violence and panic of the day, and the increasing volatility behind the lie that the 2020 election was stolen have made it impossible to predict what may happen this weekend. After all, law enforcement was only expecting a free speech protest the day Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said at a news conference Friday it was difficult to say whether threats of violence for the Saturday event are credible, but “chatter” online and elsewhere has been similar to intelligence that was missed in January.
A permit for the protest allows 700 people. Manger said he believes the most likely possibility for violence will involve clashes between the protesters and counter-protesters. Police are also preparing for the possibility that some demonstrators may arrive with weapons.
On Saturday morning, police were already working to separate the handful of Trump supporters and counter-protesters who had arrived hours before the rally was supposed to kick off. Hundreds of law enforcement officers were being brought into the city and were gearing up at a staging area as large dump trucks and cement barricades lined the streets around the Capitol, outside of the fenced area.
The rally, organized by former Trump campaign staffer Matt Braynard, is aimed at supporting people who were detained after the Jan. 6 insurrection — about 63 people held behind bars out of the more than 600 charged in the deadly riot. It’s the latest attempt to downplay and deny the January violence.
Intelligence collected before the rally has suggested that extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers will turn up. But some prominent members of the groups have sworn they aren’t going and have told others not to attend. Far-right online chatter has been generally tame, and Republican lawmakers are downplaying the event.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved a request for about 100 members of the D.C. National Guard to be stationed at a city armory near the Capitol, to be called if needed as backup. They will primarily protect the Capitol building and congressional offices. They’ll be without firearms, but will be equipped with batons and protective vests for self-defense.
Congress is out of session and no lawmakers were expected to be in the building Saturday. Biden was in Delaware for the weekend.
Many commenters on online platforms like Telegram that are popular with the far right disavowed the rally, saying they believed law enforcement was promoting the event to entrap Trump supporters. Some urged their followers not to attend an event they said was secretly organized by the FBI.
At the same time, however, some commenters continued to promote rallies planned in cities and state capitals across the country.
Online discussion before Jan. 6 was intense. But that type of chatter hasn’t been replicated so far on social media, with hashtags promoting the event gaining little traction.
Donald Trump is still using his platform as the most popular leader in the GOP to express sympathy for those who were arrested and continue spreading election misinformation. In a statement Thursday, he said: “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election.”
The Associated Press reviewed hundreds of court and jail records for the Capitol riot defendants to uncover how many were being detained and found roughly 63 held in federal custody awaiting trial or sentencing hearings. Federal officials are still looking for other suspects who could also wind up behind bars.
At least 30 are jailed in Washington. The rest are locked up in facilities across the country. They have said they are being treated unfairly, and one defendant said he was beaten.
Federal authorities have identified several of those detained as extremist group leaders, members or associates, including nine defendants linked to the Proud Boys and three connected to the antigovernment Oath Keepers. Dozens are charged with conspiring to mount coordinated attacks on the Capitol to block Congress from certifying the 2020 Electoral College vote, among the most serious of the charges.
Some jailed defendants are charged with assaulting police officers, others with making violent threats. A few were freed after their arrests but subsequently detained again, accused of violating release conditions.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has set standards for judges to apply in deciding whether to jail a Capitol riot defendant. A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled in March that rioters accused of assaulting officers, breaking through windows, doors and barricades, or playing leadership roles in the attack were in “a different category of dangerousness” than those who merely cheered on the violence or entered the building after it was breached.
But it’s unclear how the cases for the majority of those charged will end. On Friday, a California woman who joined the mob avoided a prison term when a federal judge sentenced her to probation, an outcome fitting an early pattern in the Jan. 6 riot prosecutions.
Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman, Mary Clare Jalonick, Jacques Billeaud, David Klepper, Lisa Mascaro, Jake Bleiberg, Amanda Seitz, Nathan Ellgren and Robert Burns contributed to this report.