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For Trump, the Debate Was Another Chapter in the Rewriting of Jan. 6

For Trump, the Debate Was Another Chapter in the Rewriting of Jan. 6

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About halfway through Thursday night’s presidential debate, the moderators asked former President Donald Trump about Jan. 6.

Amid all the focus on President Biden’s unsteady performance, it might have been easy to miss Trump’s answer.

Trump seized the moment to turn the debate stage — with the biggest audience he’s enjoyed since his presidency — into the latest theater for his yearslong effort to rewrite the story of Jan. 6, 2021. And he twice ignored questions about whether he would accept the results of the next election before agreeing to do so only under certain conditions.

Over the course of several exchanges with Biden and the moderators, CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, Trump downplayed the most damaging attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812, falsely blamed the security lapses that day on former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and defended the more than 1,000 people who have been charged with participating in the deadly violence.

It was the latest step in Trump’s attempt to see if his continuing lies about Jan. 6 — an alternate story he tells about the day that was once mostly fodder for far-right audiences — can persuade mainstream voters as well.

And the former president’s critics say that, as unnerving as Biden’s performance might have been, Trump’s embrace of Jan. 6 and his refusal to agree to unqualified acceptance of a democratic election were worse.

“It’s a concerted effort to try to de-weaponize Jan. 6,” said former Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican who served on the House select committee that investigated the events of that day and who endorsed Biden this week. “It’s part of creating this utter confusion where the average person is, like, ‘I know what I saw on Jan. 6, but maybe I didn’t see what I saw.’”

Trump has called Jan. 6, when rioters angry over his election loss attacked the Capitol, a beautiful day. He has frequently leaned on his House Republican allies to defend and re-litigate his actions that day, for which he was impeached. In recent months, Trump has offered increasingly vocal support to the people charged in connection with the day’s events — a group he has taken to calling “warriors” and “hostages.”

He scored another victory on that front on Friday when the Supreme Court ruled that the Justice Department had improperly used an obstruction law when charging some of the Jan. 6 defendants. “Big news!” Trump posted on his social media site, while amplifying another post that called the case a major win for “J6 political prisoners.”

On Thursday night, it was Tapper, not Biden, who first raised the issue onstage, by asking Trump what he would say to voters who believe he violated his constitutional oath when he urged his supporters to head toward the Capitol — and sat by silently for hours when the mob turned violent.

In Trump’s telling, that day was prosperous — because, after all, he was still president. “We were energy independent on Jan. 6. We had the lowest taxes ever. We had the lowest regulations ever. On Jan. 6, we were respected all over the world,” Trump said.

Trump claimed that his words on that day were peaceful and patriotic, but he seemed to acknowledge that he had felt things might turn violent — even though it was he who had urged his supporters to come to Washington that day in the first place, promising them it would be “wild.”

“I could see what was happening. Everybody was saying they’re going to be there. I said, ‘You know what? There’s a lot of people coming.’ You could feel it.”

Trump falsely claimed that he offered Pelosi, a Democrat, 10,000 National Guard troops but that she turned them down. He downplayed the clashes between the rioters and the police and bragged about the size of the crowd he spoke to that day.

“Nobody ever talks about that,” Trump said. “They talk about a relatively small number of people that went to the Capitol, and in many cases were ushered in by the police.”

Then, seizing on a cause he has slowly elevated over the course of his presidential run, he defended the people who have been arrested and charged with participating in the violence.

“What they’ve done to some people that are so innocent, you have to be ashamed of yourself, what you have done — how you’ve destroyed the lives of so many people,” Trump said.

Twice, Bash asked Trump if he would commit to respecting the results of the coming election, and twice he eluded her. When she asked a third time, his acquiescence was bound up with caveats and one more lie.

“If it’s a fair and legal and good election — absolutely,” Trump said, without specifying what he would consider a “good” election.

“I would have much rather accepted these, but the fraud and everything else was ridiculous,” he added. There is no evidence of significant fraud in the 2020 election.

It was a major opening for Biden, but not one that he effectively seized — and some of his supporters are worried that’s bad for democracy as well as for his campaign. In jumbled responses, Biden reached further into the past, recalling how Trump had failed to denounce the white nationalist group the Proud Boys when he and Biden debated in 2020, and how he had equivocated after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

But he failed to land a memorable blow on Trump for trying to overturn the 2020 election, and also declined to push back on Trump’s false assertions that the House select committee had deleted evidence as it investigated Trump’s attempts to overturn the election.

“What he wants people to think about Jan. 6 is just a compete and utter lie,” Kinzinger said, calling Trump an “existential threat” to the country.

“Democrats have to make a decision about what is their strongest hand to do that,” Kinzinger said. “I will be on the side of anybody but Trump.”

Earlier today, my colleagues reported that Biden’s rocky debate performance has some Democrats — including some longtime Biden allies — openly wondering if they can, or should, replace him atop the ticket.

Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, is not among them.

Fetterman, you might remember, had his own disastrous debate against the Republican Mehmet Oz in the fall of 2022. At the time, he was still recovering from a stroke, and his halting and unsteady debate performance sent Democrats into a tailspin, worrying that one bad night in Harrisburg would cost them the Senate.

“I’ve been there,” Fetterman told me over FaceTime this morning. “People lost their mind after my debate. Maybe there’s something we could learn from that.”

Fetterman said that, at the time, he knew the debate was not going well. And the backlash was painful. But he ultimately won by nearly 5 percentage points.

“Just got back on the saddle, and just kept out there. Just put yourself out there — that’s what I did, and leaned in on it, as well,” Fetterman said.

Biden seemed to be following that playbook on Friday when he appeared at a rally in Raleigh, N.C., and delivered a far stronger performance than he had on Thursday night — albeit with a teleprompter and a lot fewer people watching.

“I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know. I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong,” Biden said.

It was a defiant performance that seemed to signal he has no plans to drop out. A social media post of support from former President Barack Obama bolstered the image of party unity.

It’s not clear if the freakout will end here. But Fetterman says it should.

“I am unwilling,” he said, “to abandon a great president after one bad debate, any more than I wouldn’t want to be abandoned after a rough debate.”

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