“You can’t stop me,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. “I’ll tear them to pieces.”
Republicans know by now to take the archconservative at her word, and the warning above, directed at both the right and the left during an interview with RealClearPolitics, goes a long way toward explaining exactly why the Jan. 6 riots will keep casting a long shadow over the GOP presidential primary.
Beloved by the conservative base and a favorite of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Greene sees martyrs among the more than 1,000 people arrested in connection to the violence that occurred at the U.S. Capitol that day, victims of what she calls “the weaponized government.” Pleading their cause is her crusade. “I will continue to elevate it,” she said of their alleged mistreatment by the Department of Justice. “And I will attack anyone who lies.”
At times, her words match those of former President Donald Trump, a close ally who says J6 defendants “are being treated so unfairly” and who first floated pardons for the rioters whose legal troubles mirror his own. Others have followed suit.
Deliver him to the White House, and Vivek Ramaswamy promised this week to hand down pardons for “all peaceful, nonviolent January 6 protesters.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, told Newsmax's Eric Bolling Wednesday that there ought to be an official review of the cases, especially for those with “excessive sentences.”
Almost each time the government hands down a punishment, for the past two years, the congresswoman known as MTG has been there to advance their cause. Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of a far-right street gang called the Proud Boys, was sentenced to 22 years on Wednesday. “This is a man that wasn’t even there,” she said after a staffer interrupted to share the news. “They are going after people they deem their political enemies.”
Democrats are more likely to call them “insurrectionists.” Regardless, questions about their fate are common at coffee shops, diners, and town halls as conservative voters demand to know what exactly candidates and their elected representatives are doing to help Jan. 6 defendants they see as being punished unfairly. “This is absolutely a primary issue,” Greene warned. “It's a big primary issue.”
Turning the page, even as a presidential election looms, just isn’t an option for the Georgia congresswoman and those who agree with her. “It should be a major primary issue,” she explained, “because we should never have a government that can abuse its power and target American citizens purely for politics. It's completely wrong.”
Her colleague, Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, has heard all this before.
He is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. So was she until recently when the group booted her for feuding with another member. He regularly rails against government overreach. She is the loudest gadfly currently criticizing the Biden administration, but that is where the similarities end: A career prosecutor, Buck is intimately familiar with the criminal justice system.
When the Colorado state GOP publicly condemned the DOJ’s treatment of J6 defendants as unfair, echoing many arguments that MTG first popularized, Buck told RealClearPolitics, he had “just had enough.” So Buck wrote a letter.
This week, the congressman published a lengthy rebuttal of what he called “factually incorrect claims” made by El Paso County Republican Party Vice Chairman Todd Watkins and dismissed “overstated threats to our republic based on these false claims.” No, he wrote, among other things, J6 defendants were not being held in D.C. jail without being charged, and except in limited circumstances such as the credible threat of violence, they were not being denied bond, either. Allegations of widespread abuse, he added, were “not substantiated.” In short, Buck argued, the rioters are not political martyrs. They are federal defendants like anyone else on the wrong side of the law.
“Facts are rarely as sexy as rumors that people can make up,” Buck said in an interview with RCP shortly after his letter was published. He worries that the conservative grassroots are being led astray and wants his party focused on things “that matter to Americans” like crime, immigration, and inflation. The controversy over the fate of the J6 defendants, he said, was “this side issue.” Forcing the topic in a general election, he warns fellow Republicans, “is just not going to get us anywhere.”
With the assistance of allies like MTG, though, Trump has pushed it center stage. He has said that Jan. 6 was “a beautiful day” and that his supporters, some of whom cheered him on the National Mall before storming the Capitol, had “love in their heart.” At an April campaign stop in Texas, he even played audio of a group of defendants singing the National Anthem overlaid with his voice reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The quality was poor. It was a recording of a phone call from inside the D.C. jail.
It isn’t that Buck doesn’t have sympathy. For instance, the congressman said the jail in the nation’s capital “is notorious for poor conditions.” And he believes that there is “absolutely something of merit” to raising concerns over “the lack of food and medical care” of prisoners. But Buck doesn’t believe prison conditions make the prisoners martyrs: “The D.C. jail is not something unique to defendants.” Neither, he said, does their journey through the justice system – unpleasant as it may be.
When constituents allege wrongdoing, often claiming that hundreds of defendants were being wrongfully incarcerated without being charged, Buck asks for a name. Give him that, he always replies, because then the former prosecutor could investigate the claim. “That’s how I usually shut down the conversation,” Buck said. According to the congressman, no one has ever provided a single name.
“Ken Buck doesn’t know his head from his ass to know if any of these people have been held continuously without being charged,” Greene countered, noting that over a thousand arrests were made. “They may have been held for some time before they were charged,” she continued before insisting that that was in fact that case, “but my point is Ken Buck has no idea if that's true or not.”
The DOJ publishes information on each individual case related to the J6 riot. Charges are publicly available for each defendant. Before a suspect can be arrested, investigators must prove probable cause that a crime was committed and produce a criminal complaint signed by a federal judge.
Of the more than 1,000 defendants arrested, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis in May, 570 have pled guilty. Among those pleading guilty, the Journal found that about one in four admitted to felony charges. The rest, misdemeanors. “Of all those who have been sentenced, approximately 280 have served some jail time. Nearly 100 others were sentenced to home detention,” the Journal reported. “Of those sentenced to incarceration, about half received less than three months.”
Greene won’t defend all of them. “There's people that did bad things that day,” she said. “They did, but do they deserve 17 years in prison? Absolutely not.” MTG is more familiar with the defendants than most other members of Congress. She was one of the few who toured the D.C. jail in March, and she rattles off the names of the accused from memory.
Greene released a 28-page report after leading a congressional delegation to that detention facility, entitled “Unusually Cruel,” detailing abhorrent conditions.
One inmate, Christopher Quaglin, was allegedly denied a special diet that he required for celiac disease. The New Jersey man was charged with multiple felonies and misdemeanors after he attacked law enforcement with pepper spray and stole their riot shields. He pled guilty.
Another inmate, Christopher Worrell, was denied access to cancer treatment for stage three non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The Florida man was later ordered released by a judge after the U.S. Marshals found that jail conditions did not “meet the minimum standards of confinement.” He pled not guilty to all charges but was convicted of assaulting law enforcement. According to the DOJ, Worrell skipped his sentencing hearing and is currently on the run.
More than just poor conditions and treatment, what bothers Greene the most, and what seems to fuel anger on the right, is an alleged two-tiered justice system. She pointed to a Florida man named Joe Biggs who “just got 17 years in prison for shaking a fence” and compares his actions at the U.S. Capitol to Black Lives Matter protestors at the White House.
“BLM were threatening the safety of the president, and they not only shook those fences, they took them away from Capitol Police,” she said. “None of them are sitting in jail. None of them got 17 years in prison.”
According to prosecutors, Biggs was “the tip of the spear.” A Proud Boys organizer, he tore down a fence, charged up scaffolding, and led the mob into the Capitol before making it into the Senate chamber. At his sentencing, he told the judge that he “messed up” and was “seduced by the crowd.”
Tarrio, another Proud Boys leader that Greene referenced, was not in fact at the Capitol. He was arrested days earlier for burning a BLM flag that was taken from a historic black church in D.C. The day of the riot, he told members of his organization who he helped gather in Washington “don’t fucking leave” once they made it into the halls of Congress.
“Today, the leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, learned that the consequence of conspiring to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power is 22 years in federal prison,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement after Tarrio was convicted of seditious conspiracy.
The dizzying debate between Greene and Buck quickly spun out of control. Rather than the initial disagreement about the legal fate of J6 defendants, the argument quickly turned partisan and petty. She accused him of disloyalty to Trump for not backing an impeachment inquiry of Biden. He responded by mocking her career before Congress.
“When I was teaching law school, I learned and taught certain constitutional principles,” Buck told a local radio show. “When Marjorie Taylor Greene was teaching CrossFit, she learned a whole different set of values.”
Perhaps preempting this kind of partisan infighting, some presidential candidates have declined to go case-by-case or to compare and contrast J6 rioters with BLM mobs. “I don’t know enough about each individual [rioter],” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told an Iowa voter in May who asked about the allegedly disparate treatment, “but that’s my rule: If you break the law, you pay the price. And so, I think that’s the way we need to look at it.”