Dangling Pardons, Trump Won’t Let Republicans Move On from Jan. 6

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If it weren’t for the masks and lingering consternation about a pandemic, this week’s headlines would feel a lot like 2015. See Donald Trump, at a loud and intense rally, making fanciful claims about what he would do if he were to get to the White House; the befuddled fact-checkers having to have a good think about whether his assertions are even possible; and Republicans in Washington facing questions about whether they will back their party’s most unlikely gatecrasher. The Republican reaction from elders, shifting their weight from left to right, doing their best to signal they weren’t happy without actually giving voice to their hesitance, is now as polished as anything on Broadway.

But something feels slightly different in 2022 as Trump feeds the Id of the ardent supporters who cheered him on over the weekend as he revived the greatest hits from his campaign and his presidency, all but declaring his intentions to stage a rematch against President Joe Biden in 2024. The bombast was the same and the facts were as thin as usual. But when Trump stood on stage outside Houston and dangled pardons for the more than 700 people charged so far for their roles in overrunning law enforcement at the Capitol last Jan. 6, he may have crossed a line.

Perhaps no one reaction summed it up better than the man wearing a “Cops for Trump” T-shirt just over the ex-President’s right shoulder in the head-on camera shot as he made the announcement. “If I run and if I win, we will treat those people from Jan. 6 fairly,” Trump said. “And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons, because they are being treated so unfairly.” You could watch the man’s smile evaporate as Trump seemed to excuse the mob that laid siege to the Capitol and assaulted police officers like the cop standing as stage dressing.

Those comments and a host of other revelations this week have put Republicans in an increasingly tricky spot. At the moment, Trump remains the most powerful Republican in the country, huddling with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy last week to review the plans for the midterms that could elevate McCarthy to the Speakership. Trump this week is headlining Senate Republicans’ new podcast hosted by Sen. Rick Scott. And Trump continues to play kingmaker in dozens of races around the country, laying the groundwork to install loyalists at all levels of government should he need pals to put thumbs on the scales come Election Day.

Oh, that’s right. Trump is no longer trying to be coy about his intentions to ignore voters’ will. During the weeks after voters elected Biden to the White House, Trump called around to local elected officials urging them to find votes or face some vague criminal consequences. New reporting indicates that Trump asked the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security if they could seize voting machines in swing states to preserve what he believed to be evidence of hinky votes.

In his same Texas rally on Saturday, Trump seemed to revert back to his Jan. 6 script—the one that has more than 700 people facing criminal charges and a committee in Congress knitting a net that may end up ensnaring him and his family—and urged his backers to prepare for mass mobilizations should prosecutors in D.C., New York and Atlanta make moves on pending criminal and civil probes into Trump’s conduct and his businesses. In other words, Trump seems to be hinting at a Jan. 6-style sequel to threaten prosecutors.

And on Sunday night, Trump argued that Vice President Mike Pence, in his role as the president of the Senate, should have opted to “send it back to the states to recertify” the results so Trump could stay in power. Pence did not have that power, but Trump flamed Pence in a statement anyway, saying that his VP “didn’t exercise that power” and, if he had, “he could have overturned the Election!” Trump followed up on Tuesday morning with another written statement criticizing Pence for not rejecting states’ results as “he clearly had the right to do so!”

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That the President is championing a circumvention of democracy is nothing new. He’s been trying to do this from the start. His critics—even his Republican ones—have long warned that Trump is a threat to the American system, starting with his 2016 campaign that broke every norm and culminating with his 2020 refusal to concede or even meet with Biden during the transition. Few were comfortable with the Jan. 6 rally near the Washington Monument that sparked a failed insurrection, but even fewer will say that aloud today. If indulging Trump is what it takes to amass power, so be it. After all, in Trump’s world, rules and traditions are for suckers and make for bad television.

But taken all together, Trump’s weekend conduct leaves Republicans going along with it all precious little cover. Where the party could stomach even the most unusual moments of friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and open antagonism with Pope Francis, they at least had some patina of rationality. Now Trump seems to be daring voters in swing districts to ditch the GOP, and prosecutors to move ahead with the cases they are building against him that could leave all Trump’s elected allies firmly on the wrong side of history.

Then again, before anyone starts to order “Lock Him Up” T-shirts on Etsy, it’s worth remembering that all of this does, in fact, feel vaguely familiar. Trump has, time and again, walked to the edge of acceptable conduct, leaped over the line with impunity and survived. Trump made history for becoming the only President to be twice impeached. He survived both and has dedicated a lot of his time to exacting revenge on the 10 Republican House members and seven Senators who voted to impeach him. (Former President George W. Bush has maxed-out to two of them, according to campaign finance reports released on Monday.)

Trump’s unquestioned hold on the GOP is slipping, to be sure, and his lack of incumbency gives some lawmakers permission to stray ever so slightly from the Book of Trump. But it’s tough to imagine the legion of loyalists in MAGA hats showing up this fall if their dear leader is perceived to be in exile. Republicans might claim the majority in November’s midterms without them, but it’s a whole lot easier if they’re in the mix.

That’s why it will be interesting to watch, as polling starts to come back in the next few days, whether this measured criticism of Trump sticks around or whether it evaporates just as quickly as any fault assigned to Trump after Jan. 6’s riots. With only a few exceptions, Republicans have found ways to excuse that deadly day and splice the Big Lie into their reality. It’s a muscle well built as Trump’s political specter enters its eighth year of potency.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com