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The future of the Jan. 6 investigation may hinge on this year's presidential election


This weekend marks three years since a mob of Trump supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol. Since the January 6 insurrection, around 900 people have pleaded guilty or been convicted of criminal charges stemming from that day. The FBI continues to make arrests every week. The future of those cases may now hinge on the presidential election. That's because Donald Trump has promised to pardon January 6 defendants if he returns to the White House. NPR's Tom Dreisbach has been covering the Capitol riots since that day, and he joins me now. Good morning.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what exactly has Trump said about what he'll do with these cases?

DREISBACH: Well, at this point, Trump has fully embraced January 6. At his very first campaign rally of the election cycle, he played a song featuring the voices of January 6 defendants recorded from jail singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Trump refers to these defendants as patriots and being politically persecuted in his view. He's also helped raise money for their cases, at least $10,000 that we know of. In his stump speech, Trump calls the defendants in prison hostages, and he's talked about freeing or pardoning these defendants. At one point, he even shared an image on social media that, quote, "the cops should be charged, and the protesters should be freed."

FADEL: So has Trump said exactly which people he would pardon or for what charges? Is it all of them?

DREISBACH: Yeah, like a lot of Trump campaign promises, this one is a little bit vague. Trump has announced that pardons would come on Day 1 of his presidency and that he would, pardon, quote, "a large portion" of defendants outside of a couple. But beyond that, it gets sketchy. On Fox News last year, Bret Baier asked for specifics about rioters convicted of violent crimes.


BRET BAIER: Would you also pardon the people who were convicted of assaulting officers?

DONALD TRUMP: What you also have - no, we'd look at individual cases, but many of those people are very innocent people. They did nothing wrong.

DREISBACH: Trump has also left the door open to pardoning the former leader of the extremist group the Proud Boys. Enrique Tarrio is his name, and he was convicted of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 22 years in prison. At times, Trump has said free all of the defendants. I asked the Trump campaign about this, but they didn't respond.

FADEL: So what would that mean for these cases?

DREISBACH: Well, if Trump is elected, he would have the power to pardon each and every January 6 defendant if he wanted to. And legally, Congress and the courts would not be able to block him. Practically speaking, those pardons would mean halting ongoing cases, releasing people from prison or probation. And for the people convicted of felonies - that's hundreds of defendants - it would mean restoring the right to own guns. I should say that some of these defendants have expressed remorse, even renounced Trump, but others have further embraced conspiracy theories, white nationalism, anti-government extremism. One defendant told me that the government had made an enemy by arresting him. I talked about this with Tom Joscelyn. He was a senior staff member for the Congressional Select Committee that investigated January 6, and he's also an expert on counterterrorism.

TOM JOSCELYN: Certainly by pardoning an untold number of people who committed violent acts, the likelihood of more violence certainly goes up.

FADEL: So Trump is also facing a criminal trial for trying to overturn the 2020 election. And prosecutors say his election lies fueled the January 6 riot. Where does Trump's own case fit into all this?

DREISBACH: Well, special counsel Jack Smith's team say they want to use Trump's support for these defendants against him in court. Basically, their argument is that Trump's support for the defendants shows his intent, that he supported the storming of the Capitol and the violence to try and stay in power, even though he lost the 2020 election, of course. Now, we don't know whether prosecutors will be able to show that evidence to a jury. But in any event, we're waiting to see when that trial might go forward.

FADEL: That's NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach. Thanks so much, Tom.

DREISBACH: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.