Donald Trump once condemned Jan. 6 rioters. Now he's become one of their biggest supporters

Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers remarks at a Nevada Republican volunteer recruiting event at Fervent: A Calvary Chapel on July 8, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Trump is the current frontrunner for the 20

The day after Jan. 6, 2021, then-President Donald Trump denounced the rioters who violently stormed the Capitol building, breaking through barricades, battling law enforcement and sending members of Congress — who were set to formally certify his reelection loss — running for their lives.

"Like all Americans, I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem," he said in a video, condemning what he called a "heinous attack."

That condemnation was delayed and only offered amid widespread criticism — including from fellow Republicans — for his role in sparking the mayhem. But 2 1/2 years later, any sign of regret or reprimand from Trump has vanished as he prepares to face federal criminal charges for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

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Now the early but commanding front-runner in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, Trump regularly downplays the violence, lionizes the rioters as patriots and spreads false claims about who was involved. He has not only vowed to pardon a "large portion" of Jan. 6 defendants if he wins a second term, but he has also fundraised for them, befriended their families and collaborated on a song that became a surprise iTunes hit.

"They were there proud, they were there with love in their heart. ... And it was a beautiful day," Trump said at a recent CNN town hall. When asked if he had any regrets about his actions that day, Trump voiced no remorse and instead seemed most concerned about the lack of attention paid to his crowd size.

"Jan. 6: It was the largest crowd I've ever spoken to," he said.

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Trump was always reluctant to condemn the actions of supporters spurred by his lies of a stolen election. As the violence unfolded, Trump ignored the desperate pleas of aides and allies to denounce the rioters and ask them to stand down. And when he did speak out, hours later, his response was tepid: He said he loved the rioters and shared their pain.

Trump's evolution began at a time when he was garnering relatively little mainstream media coverage. And it echoed the efforts of some Republicans in Congress, who had tried to recast the mob as nonviolent despite reams of video footage, public testimony and accounts from members of Congress, journalists and Capitol Police officers, 140 of whom were injured that day.

It also coincided with a broader shift in public opinion. Polling from Monmouth University showed that between March and November 2021, Republicans grew increasingly likely to say the anger that led to the Capitol attack was justified, with 54% saying the anger was either fully or partially justified in the fall — up from 40% that spring.

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The Pew Research Center also found that, between March and September 2021, Republicans grew less likely to say it was important for law enforcement agencies to find and prosecute the rioters. Only 57% said that it was very or somewhat important in the fall, down from about 8 in 10 six months earlier.

That was when, in an interview with Fox News Channel’s Laura Ingraham, Trump claimed the rioters had posed "zero threat" to the lawmakers who had assembled in the Capitol to certify the Electoral College vote — even though the mob tried to breach the House chamber.

"Look, they went in — they shouldn’t have done it. Some of them went in, and they're hugging and kissing the police and the guards, you know, they had a great relationship," he said.

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In fact, many of the protesters violently clashed with police as they stormed the building, smashing windows and ramming through doors. Some brandished weapons; others wore tactical gear. Dozens of officers were severely injured.

By that time, many of Trump's supporters had already painted Ashli Babbitt, one of five people who died during or immediately after the riot, as a martyr unjustly killed by police,

Babbitt was fatally shot by an officer while trying to climb through the broken window of a barricaded door as Capitol Police scrambled to evacuate members.

That summer, Trump began to publicly demand the release of the shooter's identity, despite the officer being cleared of wrongdoing by two federal investigations.

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"Who shot Ashli Babbitt?" Trump asked repeatedly.

Trump called Babbitt "an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman" in an interview with Fox News and described his supporters that day in glowing terms, claiming that there had been a "love fest between the Capitol police and the people that walked down to the Capitol."

"They were peaceful people. These were great people. The crowd was unbelievable," he said. "And I mentioned the word ‘love.’ The love — the love in the air, I've never seen anything like it."

That fall, Trump taped a video that was played at an event commemorating what would have been Babbitt's birthday in which he demanded "justice" for her and her family.

In January 2022, Trump first publicly dangled the prospect of pardons for the Jan. 6 defendants at a rally in Texas.

"If I run and if I win, we will treat those people from Jan. 6 fairly," he told the crowd. "And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons because they are being treated so unfairly." At that point, more than 670 people had been convicted of crimes related to the attack, including some found guilty of seditious conspiracy and assaulting police officers.

In September 2022, Trump told conservative radio host Wendy Bell that he was helping some of the defendants, though aides declined at the time how or how much he had contributed.

"I'm financially supporting people that are incredible, and they were in my office actually two days ago. It's very much on my mind," he said. "It’s a disgrace what they’ve done to them. ... Contributions should be made."

Days later, Trump held a rally in Pennsylvania that included remarks from Cynthia Hughes, the founder of the Patriot Freedom Project, whose nephew was convicted for storming the Capitol. Geri Perna, whose nephew died by suicide while awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to riot-related charges, also spoke.

Later that month, the former president called into a small rally held outside a Washington jail where Jan. 6 defendants have been held, led by Micki Witthoeft, Babbitt’s mother.

"We’re with you. We’re working with a lot of different people on this. And we can’t let this happen," he said via cellphone held up to a microphone.

Trump's support has only intensified since he formally launched his third campaign.

Earlier this year, he collaborated on "Justice for All," a song that features a choir of Jan. 6 defendants singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," recorded over a prison phone line and overlaid with Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Trump featured the song at the first official rally of his 2024 campaign, standing with his hand on his heart as a music video featuring violent footage of the riot played behind him on two giant screens.

In June, he spoke at a Patriot Freedom Project fundraiser to support the defendants that was held at his Bedminster, New Jersey, club.

"They've been made to pay a price that is very unfair, in many cases," he said, according to video of his remarks.

Trump also recorded a video played at the group's holiday fundraising event in Washington and hosted a dinner for family members of Jan. 6 defendants at Mar-a-Lago in March.

"He is very concerned for these families," Hughes said after the event.

An Associated Press review of social media posts, voter registrations, court files and other public records found that the mob was overwhelmingly made up of longtime Trump supporters, including GOP officials, donors and far-right militants.

But that hasn't stopped Trump from falsely claiming that others were responsible for the attack, including antifa and Black Lives Matter. Last weekend on his social media site, Trump amplified messages claiming that Jan. 6 had been a "staged riot" orchestrated by the government.

Trump was still in charge of the government at the time.

Associated Press writer Linley Sanders contributed to this report.