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What does Trump's rhetoric tell us about his plans for a return to the White House?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former President Trump made news this month by using the word bloodbath. When talking about the auto industry, he predicted a bloodbath for the country if he loses the election. This provoked debate over what he meant and overshadowed other parts of the event that were much more clear. One striking moment came as an announcer kicked off the Trump rally.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the horribly and unfairly treated January 6 hostages.

JANUARY 6 CHOIR: (Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn's...

INSKEEP: The Trump campaign played a recording of the so-called January 6 choir - jail inmates in Washington arrested for their roles in the attack on the Capitol in 2021.

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DONALD TRUMP: Well, thank you very much. And you see the spirit from the hostages, and that's what they are, is hostages.

INSKEEP: Trump's word for people who took part in a violent bid to keep him in power after he lost the 2020 election.

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TRUMP: They've been treated terribly and very unfairly and you know that, and everybody knows that. And we're going to be working on that soon. The first day we get into office, we're going to save our country and we're going to work with the people to...

INSKEEP: Trump never got around to saying how he would work with the prisoners, but at other rallies, he has finished the thought. NPR's Tom Dreisbach has previously reported on this. So let's review some of Tom's recent reporting.

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TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Donald Trump calls January 6 defendants patriots and hostages. And he said he'd free them or give them pardons at rallies.

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TRUMP: We will treat them fairly, and if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons, because...

DREISBACH: He said it in campaign speeches...

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TRUMP: I will be looking at them very, very seriously for pardons - very, very seriously.

DREISBACH: ...In interviews...

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TRUMP: And I mean full pardons with an apology - to many, an apology.

DREISBACH: Here's Trump on Fox News with Bret Baier last year.

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BRET BAIER: Would you also pardon the people who were convicted of assaulting officers?

TRUMP: But you also have - no, we'd look at individual cases. But many of those people are very innocent people. They did nothing wrong.

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DANIEL HODGES: (Screaming).

INSKEEP: That's video from January 6 as rioters crushed an officer named Daniel Hodges.

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HODGES: I was beaten, punched, kicked, pushed, beaten with my own riot baton in the head, crushed with police shield. Someone tried to gouge out one of my eyes.

INSKEEP: Hodges, one of 140 officers injured that day, spoke with Tom Dreisbach for a story last January. Since then, Trump has continued repeating his promise of pardons. So we called Tom back. In his many mentions of pardoning people, has Trump said who he would seriously consider pardoning?

DREISBACH: No, Trump has never really been exact or precise about whom he would pardon. He has been asked directly about a few people - for example, Enrique Tarrio, who is a leader of the Proud Boys, the extremist group. And Enrique Tarrio was convicted of seditious conspiracy against the United States. But in general, Trump has left the door open and sometimes implied that he would pardon every single January 6 defendant if you go by his Truth Social feed, where he said the cops should be charged and the protesters should be freed.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the specific people who got featured at this Trump event and at other Trump events, the members of the so-called January 6 Choir. Who are they?

DREISBACH: This is something that grew out of sort of an unusual situation at the Washington, D.C., jail, where a number of January 6 defendants who were held in jail before their trials were put in the exact same unit, and a group of them at one point started to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" every night. And they would even call family members on the jailhouse phone. We don't know exactly which people are on that specific recording that the Trump team has used, but we do know about some of the people who have sung this on the jailhouse phone calls. Among them is Ryan Nichols. He's on video, actually from January 6, marching towards the Capitol, threatening violence against anyone who certified the election.

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RYAN NICHOLS: Hey, Republican protesters are trying to enter the House right now at the Capitol is the word that I'm getting. If you voted for treason, we're going to drag your ass through the streets.

DREISBACH: Ryan Nichols pleaded guilty and admitted to spraying multiple police officers with pepper spray, entering the Capitol through a broken window while holding a crowbar and encouraging people to use violence to overthrow the government.

INSKEEP: Others who participated in the singing include a man who pleaded guilty to assaulting police with a wooden stick, and a man shown at trial to have made antisemitic and antigovernment rants. Those are January 6 Choir members Trump has said were treated terribly and unfairly.

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TRUMP: And you know that, and everybody knows that, and we're going to be working on that soon...

INSKEEP: Although Tom Joscelyn recalls when Trump said something different. Joscelyn used to work for Congress.

TOM JOSCELYN: I was a senior professional staff member on the January 6 committee, and I'm a principal drafter of the committee's final report.

INSKEEP: The committee examined a speech Trump delivered on January 7.

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TRUMP: I would like to begin by addressing the heinous attack on the United States Capitol.

INSKEEP: With the president in disgrace and officials resigning, he made a video that promised the opposite of a pardon.

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TRUMP: To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country, and to those who broke the law, you will pay.

JOSCELYN: The January 7 speech that he delivers is clearly a scripted moment where, you know there's embarrassment internally over what occurred. And what I would say is that that embarrassment is obviously gone by this point. Trump is now the pro-January 6 candidate and has no embarrassment over what his followers did.

INSKEEP: So just how serious is Trump's repeated promise of pardons? We called William Shipley, a defense lawyer for many January 6 defendants.

What do you think about when the former president refers to the people in prison as hostages?

WILLIAM SHIPLEY: You know, it's political hyperbole. He's playing to the audience. I'm, you know, for good or ill, a defender of the criminal justice system we have because it's better than any criminal justice system that exists elsewhere in the world.

INSKEEP: Yet Shipley is hopeful that Trump, restored to office, would set up a process to let at least some defendants go. He argues the Justice Department treated some defendants more harshly than they deserved.

Do your clients hope for pardons?

SHIPLEY: It's clearly a subject that's being discussed in the broader community of defendants and their families.

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JANUARY 6 CHOIR: (Chanting) USA, USA...

TRUMP: You see the spirit - there's cheering. They're making - they're cheering while they're doing that. And they did that in prison. And it's a disgrace in my opinion.

INSKEEP: Though Trump is not making promises to individual supporters, he is assuming a larger political stance, according to investigator Tom Joscelyn.

JOSCELYN: The core of Trump's movement is deeply, deeply drunk from the well of antigovernment extremism. To say that you're going to pardon these people who stopped the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in our nation's history, means you're endorsing their cause.

INSKEEP: Which Trump has continued doing now that the general election is underway. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.