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January 6 insurrection glorified at pro-Trump CPAC gathering

At an influential gathering of conservatives this weekend, the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol is being treated as a rallying cry — with speakers, vendors and attendees fanning the flames of conspiracy over the events of that day.

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference is serving as an early coronation of Donald Trump. The former president is set to take the stage Saturday, hours before polls close in South Carolina. Polling shows he is far ahead of former Gov. Nikki Haley in her home state’s primary and could potentially complete his sweep of all four early states as he continues his march to a third consecutive Republican presidential nomination.

At least four potential Trump vice presidential contenders also flocked to the gathering outside Washington, DC, on Friday for what some treated as a try-out.

But with the 2024 general election looming, what seemed to animate this year’s CPAC gathering the most was what had happened in the aftermath of 2020.

Four years ago, President Joe Biden defeated Trump — and Trump refused to accept that reality. After Trump attempted to overturn the election results, his supporters rioted at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, interrupting Congress as it counted Electoral College votes to make Biden’s victory official.

More than 1,200 Americans have been charged criminally for their alleged actions during the riot, and more than 890 have been found guilty of federal crimes, according to the Justice Department. More than half of those found guilty have been sentenced to prison time.

However, Trump allies and supporters at CPAC are glorifying the events of January 6, 2021, and embracing Trump’s lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

Their comments follow Trump’s lead. The former president has referred to those charged for their actions at the Capitol as “hostages” and has said he would consider pardoning them.

Far-right conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec on Friday called those charged with crimes connected to violence on January 6 “political prisoners” and urged them to be pardoned. He also categorized WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and imprisoned “pro-lifers” as political prisoners.

And he described 2024 as an election that will deliver “righteous retribution” against Trump’s enemies.

“After we burn that swamp to the ground, we will establish the new American republic on its ashes, and our first order of business will be righteous retribution for those who betrayed America,” he said.

GOP officials, too, parroted Trump’s lies about 2020. New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, one of the Republicans believed to be on Trump’s shortlist for vice president, falsely claimed that Democrats “unconstitutionally rigged the 2020 election.”

And among attendees, many pointed to the events of January 6.

Tom Jeffries of Northern Neck, Virginia, wore a red T-shirt displaying the name and face of Ashli Babbitt — the rioter who was shot and killed by a US Capitol Police officer as she attempted to climb through a broken window beside a barricaded door into the House speaker’s lobby. Capitol Police said the shooting was lawful and could have saved the lives of lawmakers and staff. But to Jeffries, Babbitt’s death was an injustice.

“Ashli Babbitt has not had justice for being murdered on January 6 and that’s very important that justice comes to Ashli and everyone else who was impacted by January 6,” he said. “I believe that my vote going into 2024 is going to be for whoever is going to be true to the American people about the events of January 6.”

January 6-themed pinball machine

One CPAC vendor showcased a January 6-themed pinball machine that invokes popular right-wing conspiracy theories about the attack on the Capitol.

The pinball machine was on display in a room at CPAC featuring other vendors with Trump-themed products, including a company selling “Woke Tears Water,” one booth hawking homemade Make America Great Again-themed knitwear and hammocks, and a large coach bus emblazoned with Trump’s face.

The games’ developer, Jonathan Linowes, told CNN his game, “J6: Insurrection, an educational documentary game,” is meant to change the “narrative” about the Capitol insurrection, calling it a “mosaic of what happened.”

The game has seven different modes: “Stop the Steal,” “Fake News,” “Peaceful Protest,” “It’s a Setup,” “Babbitt Murder,” “Have Faith” and “Political Prisoners.” The modes reference some of the popular right-wing conspiracy theories about January 6, including the false claim that it was a false-flag attack.

Photos of Trump delivering his speech at the Ellipse, convicted rioter and “Qanon Shaman”’ Jacob Chansley and crowds scaling the scaffolding at the US Capitol on January 6 decorate the game. In the upper left corner are MSNBC, Fox News and CNN logos, which Linowes called “fake news.”

Linowes characterized January 6 as a “Trump rally” that “got twisted” and suggested that people at the Capitol were planted there by federal agencies. There is no evidence to support this baseless conspiracy theory. He also said whatever happened at the Capitol that day was not the former president’s intent, and described violence against police officers as “cherry-picked” footage.

“It’s all been cherry-picked, what you guys show on TV, and if Congress would release all the real videos. There’s thousands and thousands of hours on people’s phones. All you need to do is open your eyes and you can see what actually happened from the videos,” Linowes said.

Trump DOJ official pushes voter fraud falsehoods

During a CPAC panel Friday, Jeffrey Clark, a Trump administration Justice Department official, repeated a series of falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election, including disproven theories concerning mail-in voting and electronic voting machines, and called the prosecution of January 6 defendants a “grave injustice.”

Clark reiterated his belief there were “a lot” of problems with the 2020 election, which he said motivated him to investigate the 2020 presidential election “with energy and drive.”

“I was the only leader in the Justice Department who wanted to investigate the 2020 election with energy and drive and to look at all of the possible problems with that election, and there were a lot of them,” Clark said. “There were legal problems in terms of states changing their election laws without going through the state legislatures, which is flat out unconstitutional. They were just flat-out disobeying state election laws in many of the battleground states.”

In fact, at the time, Clark’s bosses at the Justice Department repeatedly chided him for going outside of his lane to try to insert himself into the 2020 election. As a top environmental lawyer and acting head of the department’s civil division, he had no purview over investigating potential voter fraud.

Investigations by multiple state and federal authorities, including by DOJ, failed to turn up any of the systematic fraud alleged by Clark and other Trump allies.

In the wake of the 2020 election, Clark embraced unfounded conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines that hurt Trump’s vote totals. He also spoke directly with then-President Trump on several occasions, circumventing Justice Department policy regarding contact with the White House. Trump considered installing Clark as acting attorney general to advance investigations into election fraud but backed off the idea after top Justice officials threatened to resign in protest.

Clark has been charged in the Georgia election subversion indictment, along with Trump and 17 other alleged co-conspirators. (Four of the original 19 defendants have pleaded guilty.) He is an unindicted co-conspirator in special counsel Jack Smith’s indictment of Trump on federal election subversion charges.

CNN’s Marshall Cohen and Ali Main contributed to this report.

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