WASHINGTON — First, some blamed the deadly Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol on left-wing antifa antagonists, a theory quickly debunked. Then came comparisons of the rioters to peaceful protesters or even tourists.
Now, allies of former President Donald Trump are calling those charged in the Capitol riot “political prisoners,” a stunning effort to revise the narrative of that deadly day.
The brazen rhetoric ahead of a rally planned for Saturday at the Capitol is the latest attempt to explain away the horrific assault and obscure what played out for all the world to see: rioters loyal to the then-president storming the building, battling police and trying to stop Congress from certifying the election of Democrat Joe Biden.
“Some people are calling it Jan. 6 trutherism — they’re rewriting the narrative to make it seem like Jan. 6 was no big deal, and it was a damn big deal, and an attack on our democracy,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, who studies extremist movements.
All told, the attempted whitewashing of the Jan. 6 attack threatens to further divide an already polarized nation that finds itself drifting from what had been common facts and a shared commitment to civic order toward an unsettling new normal.
Rather than a nation healing eight months after the deadly assault, it is at risk of tearing itself further apart, as the next election approaches.
The anticipated crowd size and the intensity of the Saturday rally are unclear, but law enforcement appears to be taking no chances. Security fencing has been requested around the Capitol and reinforcements are being summoned to back up the Capitol Police, whose leadership was criticized and summarily dismissed for its handling of Jan. 6. Congressional leaders were being briefed on the preparations Monday morning.
While authorities have been bracing for a repeat appearance by right-wing extremist groups and other Trump loyalists who mobbed the Capitol, it’s unclear if those actors will participate in the new event. The extremist groups are concerning because, while members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers made up a small portion of the Jan. 6 rioters, they are accused of some of the more serious crimes in the attack.
Whether those groups participate or not, the rally could bring lone actors to Washington. Just after midnight on Monday, Capitol Police arrested a California man who had a bayonet and machete in his pickup truck outside of Democratic National Committee headquarters. The man, Donald Craighead of Oceanside, California, had a swastika and other white supremacist symbols painted on his truck and told officers he was “on patrol.” The police said it was unclear if he was planning on attending any upcoming demonstrations.
Rally organizer Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign strategist, has been promoting the event and others like it in cities nationwide, focusing attention on what he calls the “prisoners” being unfairly prosecuted for their involvement in the Jan. 6 riot.
“I am so proud of all of the brave patriots who participated in these rallies under the same threat to their rights of so many who are being held in prison now for a non-violent expression of their First Amendment rights,” he said in a July news release.
Braynard declined to respond to additional questions by email, and The Associated Press declined to accept the conditions he made for an interview.
As Trump openly considers another run for the White House, many of the Republican lawmakers who joined his effort to challenge Biden’s victory are staying away from the Saturday rally, even though many still echo his false claims that the election was rigged — despite numerous court cases by Trump’s allies that have failed to confirm those allegations.
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who joined rally-goers near the White House on Jan. 6 where Trump encouraged the crowd to go to the Capitol, declined to comment, his spokesman said by email. Brooks is now running for the Senate.
Another Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who voted to challenge some Electoral College tallies, was unavailable for an interview, his office said.
Also declining an interview was Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who was captured in a photo raising a fist in salute to the mob as he entered the Capitol that day.
Yet, even in their absence, some of the Republicans are telegraphing their views. When asked whether he would be attending, Hawley’s office issued a comment on the senator’s behalf.
“Joe Biden should resign,” Hawley said in a statement.
More than 600 people are facing federal charges in the riot that injured dozens of officers and sent lawmakers into hiding. Five people eventually died, including Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by police as she tried to break into a lobby off the House chamber. Several police officers later took their own lives.Four men from Western Virginia are among those charged, including two former Rocky Mount police officers and one resident each from Elliston and Covington. The cases are all pending, with two of the defendants in custody on revoked bonds.
Hundreds of people were charged with misdemeanors for entering the Capitol illegally, but hundreds of others are facing more serious felony charges including assault, obstruction of an official proceeding or conspiracy.
The most serious cases have been brought against members of two far-right extremist groups — the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers — as authorities probe to what extent the attack was planned. No Jan. 6 defendant has been charged with sedition, though it was initially considered by authorities.
More than 60 people have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanor charges of demonstrating in the Capitol.
Only a fraction of the defendants remain locked up while they await trial. Lawyers have complained of overly harsh conditions for the Jan. 6 defendants in the D.C. jail, saying they are being held in what has been dubbed the “Patriot Unit.”
Defenders of the alleged Capitol attackers claim they are facing harsher prosecutions because of their political views than others, including Black Lives Matter protesters, but a review of court cases by the AP refutes that claim.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the select panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack, said those who broke the law need to be prosecuted, “otherwise, we just rationalize, excuse and encourage more of the same.”
Schiff laments that the nation had a chance to move on from the attack of Jan. 6, but instead chose a different path.
“There was really an opportunity to repudiate everything that led up to Jan. 6, and instead, Republican leadership has continued to embrace it,” he said. “So that is discouraging. It means that the recovery is going to take much longer than it should.”
<&rdpEm>The Roanoke Times contributed to this report.</&rdpEm>
The average person doesn’t need a COVID-19 booster yet, an international group of scientists — including two top U.S. regulators — wrote Monday in a scientific journal.
The experts reviewed studies of the vaccines’ performance and concluded the shots are working well despite the extra-contagious delta variant, especially against severe disease.
“Even in populations with fairly high vaccination rates, the unvaccinated are still the major drivers of transmission” at this stage of the pandemic, they concluded.
The opinion piece, published in The Lancet, illustrates the intense scientific debate about who needs booster doses and when, a decision the U.S. and other countries are grappling with.
After revelations of political meddling in the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, President Joe Biden promised to “follow the science.” But the review raises the question of whether his administration is moving faster than the experts.
The authors include two leading vaccine reviewers at the Food and Drug Administration, Drs. Phil Krause and Marion Gruber, who recently announced they will step down this fall. Among the other 16 authors are leading vaccine researchers in the U.S., Britain, France, South Africa and India, plus scientists with the World Health Organization, which already urged a moratorium on boosters until poor countries are better vaccinated.
In the U.S., the White House has begun planning for boosters this month, if both the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree. Advisers to the FDA will weigh evidence about an extra Pfizer shot Friday at a key public meeting.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Monday urged the Food and Drug Administration to quickly authorize booster shots for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine as well as permit children ages 5 to 11 to be vaccinated.
Polis said that foot-dragging by U.S. health officials has cost lives. “The FDA needs to get out of their ivory tower and realize there is a real life pandemic,” he said.
Georgetown University’s Larry Gostin said the paper “throws gasoline on the fire” in the debate about whether most Americans truly need boosters and whether the White House got ahead of scientists.
“It’s always a fundamental error of process to make a scientific announcement before the public health agencies have acted and that’s exactly what happened here,” said Gostin, a lawyer and public health specialist.
The U.S. already offers an extra dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to people with severely weakened immune systems.
For the general population, the debate is boiling down to whether boosters should be given even though the vaccines are still offering high protection against severe disease — possibly in hopes of blocking milder “breakthrough” infections among the fully vaccinated.
Last week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said new data showed that as delta surged, the unvaccinated were 4.5 times more likely than the fully vaccinated to get infected, over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die. Still, government scientists are also weighing hints that protection is waning among older adults who were vaccinated early last winter.
The writers of Monday’s commentary reported reviewing worldwide studies since delta began surging, mostly of U.S. and European vaccines. The team concluded “none of these studies has provided credible evidence of substantially declining protection against severe disease.”
Because the body builds layers of immunity, gradual drops in antibody levels don’t necessarily mean overall effectiveness is dropping “and reductions in vaccine efficacy against mild disease do not necessarily predict reductions in the (typically higher) efficacy against severe disease,” they wrote.
The more the virus spreads, the more opportunity it has to evolve into strains that could escape current vaccines. The Lancet reviewers suggest there could be bigger gains from creating booster doses that better match circulating variants, much like flu vaccine is regularly updated, than from just giving extra doses of the original vaccine.
“There is an opportunity now to study variant-based boosters before there is widespread need for them,” the scientists wrote.
In other developments:
Federal Judge Robert Pratt on Monday ordered the state of Iowa to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Pratt said the law passed in May substantially increases the risk of several children with health conditions of contracting COVID-19.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened local governments Monday with $5,000 fines per violation for requiring their employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus that has overrun hospitals across the state. DeSantis said local municipalities potentially face millions of dollars in fines for implementing a requirement that their employees get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Welcome to election season 2021, peeps! Because we live in Virginia, we have elections every godforsaken year. The politicians never give us a breather.
If you suspect that system was designed to render the populace weary of voting — so that election outcomes could be more neatly preordained — you may be onto something. The other thing they seem to do annually, at least in recent years, is fiddle with election laws.
One of the best examples is voter identification. In 2012’s presidential election I used my water bill as substantiation of my voter identity, and that was a breeze. But by 2014, the General Assembly had outlawed that form of voter identification.
In 2020, state lawmakers went back to the old rules and made most bank statements and utility bills kosher once again for voter ID purposes. The same holds true for “any other current government document containing the name and address of the voter.” Photo ID is accepted but not required.
Lawmakers also restored this little nugget to the state code, which had stricken from the books previously: No ID whatsoever is necessary if a registered voter signs an affirmation of his or her identity. (Lying on such an affirmation constitutes a felony.)
Anyway, that was last year. This year, there are even more new changes. Let’s consider a few of them.
Guns at the polls
In 2020 and prior Virginia elections, voters could generally take firearms into most polling places. That’s now outlawed, under an act sponsored by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria.
Knowingly possessing any firearm at the polls, whether concealed or not, is now a Class 1 misdemeanor. The law also bans guns within 40 feet of a polling place’s door, but exempts police and security guards. The maximum penalty is a year in jail or a $2,500 fine.
The ban applies within an hour of a polling place’s opening or closing, and during counting or recounts. And it’s also in force during early voting — which begins Friday — according to an opinion issued earlier this month by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
Does that infringe on Second Amendment rights? Arguably, sure. Does that necessarily make it unconstitutional? No, not at all. In fact, U.S. Supreme Court precedent specifically offers support for state gun bans in government buildings. (See Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller.)
Gun-owning voters who are uncomfortable entering a “gun-free zone” to cast their ballots are free to vote via absentee ballot. A few new laws make that easier than ever.
In past years, absentee voters had to fill out an absentee ballot application each year if they wanted to vote by mail. A new law allows them to fill out a single application, once, to receive ongoing absentee ballots in future elections.
“That’s the biggest change — to get ballots sent to you forever,” said Roanoke Registrar Andrew Cochran.
But that was hardly the only election law change with respect to absentee voting. Another is that absentee ballots cast during a declared health state of emergency no longer require a witness signature. Lack of that used to constitute a “material omission,” which would invalidate a ballot.
“A witness signature will still be required if there is not a declared state of emergency related to ... a public health threat,” the Virginia Department of Elections said in a release announcing the changes.
If you’re unsure whether a state of health emergency exists right now, join the club. (For that reason, I’d get a witness signature anyway.)
Another new law expands curbside voting during a declared health emergency. Previously, only voters 65 and older or those with physical disabilities were eligible to vote curbside. Now everyone’s eligible, provided there is a declared health emergency.
Yet another law also requires election authorities to send absentee ballot return envelopes marked with prepaid postage.
If you recall recent years, many Virginia localities used to hold contests for city councils, town councils and school boards each May.
But as of July 1, local elections in the spring are no longer legal. Henceforth, all local elections are in November along with statewide and national elections — at least until a future General Assembly repeals that law and changes it back.
In general, that’s a good thing because spring elections tend to be ultra low-turnout affairs in which only a fraction of eligible voters participate. How can anyone in a democracy argue straight faced against bigger turnouts?
Last year for the first time, Virginia created early in-person voting on weekdays and Saturdays during the 45 days preceding an election. This year the General Assembly expanded that to allow for early voting on Sundays, too.
However, Sunday voting isn’t mandatory.
It’s up to local electoral boards — there’s one for each city and county in Virginia. And as of Monday, no locality in Western Virginia that I’m aware of had chosen the Sunday voting option, including Roanoke’s and Roanoke County’s.
There’s still time, however, for them to make that decision so keep your eyes peeled.
Cities and urban counties across the U.S. are raising concerns that a recent rule from President Joe Biden’s administration could preclude them from tapping into $350 billion of coronavirus relief aid to expand high-speed internet connections.
Biden has set a goal of delivering fast, affordable internet to every American household. The massive American Rescue Plan took a step toward that by including broadband infrastructure among the primary uses for pandemic aid flowing to each city, county and state.
But an interim rule published by the U.S. Treasury Department has narrowed the broadband eligibility. It focuses on areas that lack reliable broadband, which connects devices to the internet through a cable or data line, at download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps.
That threshold ensures funding for remote, rural areas that have slow or no internet service, and it matches the definition of broadband set by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. But cities contend the eligibility mark overlooks the realities of today’s internet needs.
Though most cities already have broadband available, the speed still might not be fast enough to handle multiple people in a home trying to work, study and stream entertainment simultaneously — a common scenario during the coronavirus pandemic. The price also can be more than lower-income residents can afford.
“They’re basically prioritizing those rural areas over the underserved urban areas where there is more population,” said Detta Kissel, a retired Treasury Department attorney who helped write agency rules and now advocates for better internet service in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Virginia.
Several cities, including Washington, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and San Antonio, have submitted public comments to the Treasury Department urging it to loosen the eligibility standard for spending pandemic relief money on broadband. Some want the Treasury to define underserved areas as anything less than download and upload speeds of 100 Mbps.
That would increase the number of locations eligible for funding from about 11 million to 82 million households and businesses nationwide, according to a study conducted for America’s Communications Association, which represents small and medium-sized internet providers.
Cities argue that the Treasury should use a 100/100 Mbps eligibility threshold because that’s the same speed projects are supposed to achieve if they receive funding. A separate infrastructure bill working its way through Congress is more flexible, allowing some of its $65 billion in broadband funding to go to “underserved” areas lacking download speeds of 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 20 Mbps.
If the Treasury goes forward with its rule as originally written, sparsely populated areas currently lacking broadband could leapfrog certain urban areas in their internet speeds. That doesn’t sit well with some mayors.
“The inner city of Memphis is as in a dire need of broadband connection as rural Tennessee,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who wants Treasury Department assurance before spending $20 million from the American Rescue Plan on a broadband project.
Residents almost anywhere in Milwaukee already have access to at least one internet provider offering download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. But in parts of the city, fewer than half the households subscribe to internet service because of its cost, said David Henke, the city’s chief information officer.
“If you don’t have a job and you can’t afford broadband, that’s kind of a cycle,” Henke said. “You’re locked out of remote learning, remote work, telemedicine and participating basically in a modern society.”
Although the public comment period ended in July, the Treasury has set no date for when it will publish the rule’s final version. A Treasury official said the department is undertaking a thorough review of the comments that is likely “to continue into the fall.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is among those urging the Treasury Department to adopt a broader eligibility threshold. He wrote that it would be “severely misguided” to assume that communities are adequately served by the “woefully outdated” broadband benchmark the department has set.
Broadband industry groups generally have urged the Treasury to stick with its original plan of targeting money at areas with the slowest internet speeds.
The cable industry group NCTA urged treasury officials to tighten eligibility even further. It wants to limit the number of households that already have faster service that can be included in areas targeted for improvements. It also wants to remove the potential for locally subjective decisions about areas that lack reliable service.
Allowing improvements in areas that already meet minimum speed thresholds could siphon money away from the neediest, hard-to-reach areas — potentially leaving them without service once the federal money is spent, industry groups said.
To bring super-fast internet service to every place currently lacking 25/3 Mbps speeds could cost between $20 billion and $37 billion, according to the study for America’s Communications Association. That cost jumps to between $106 billion to $179 billion when covering all areas currently lacking speeds of 100/100 Mbps.
“As a matter of prioritization, we think it’s best to start with the areas that have the least,” said Ross Lieberman, the association’s senior vice president of government affairs.