WASHINGTON (AP) — The song is simple and tinny, but that hasn’t stopped it from being embraced by former President Donald Trump and his allies in their campaign to rewrite the history of the deadly Capitol riot.
The tune, “Justice for All,” is the Star-Spangled Banner, and it was sung by a group of defendants jailed over their alleged roles in the January 2021 insurrection. Recorded over a prison phone line, the national anthem sounds more like a dirge than celebration and is overlaid with Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Despite its low fidelity, “Justice for All” has garnered a lot of fans. Trump, a Republican, played it at a recent rally in Waco, Texas, as images of Capitol rioters flashed behind him on a big screen, and the $1.29 song last month briefly vaulted to No. 1 on iTunes, supplanting such recording artists as Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.
Experts on extremism and propaganda say the song is another example of how Trump and his most ardent allies are trying to gloss over an avalanche of evidence proving the Capitol riot was anything but an act of patriotic resistance.
And it shows how such revisionists have dug deep into authoritarian playbooks that rely heavily on the use of national identity to sway public opinion. In this case, Trump and his allies are ironically relying on America’s most patriotic song in their efforts to whitewash an insurrection that contributed to five deaths and left more than 120 police offices injured, experts said.
“We should not be surprised that this propaganda is effective, but it is shocking to see this in this country,” said Federico Finchelstein, chair of the history department at the New School for Social Research in New York, an expert in authoritarian disinformation. “What they are demanding is that reality be put aside for the loyalty of the leader. And that leader in this case is Donald Trump.”
Law enforcement officials who battled rioters are aghast, calling the song a cynical effort to mislead Americans about the truth of what transpired during the Jan. 6 attack.
“Some of these people are trying to get a rise out of people, and some of these people are just using it to make a buck,” said Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, who received the Presidential Citizens Medal for his actions on Jan. 6. “People can believe whatever they want to believe, but this is real life.”
Polls show Americans remain divided by ideology when it comes to their views of Jan. 6. A survey last year from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about half believe Trump’s involvement warranted criminal charges. A second poll revealed that only about 4 in 10 Republicans recall the attack as very violent or extremely violent.
Jan. 6 defendants, who issued tearful apologies and expressions of remorse in court, are now boasting of their participation or seeking to profit from it. Groups have sprung up to sell T-shirts emblazoned with “Free the Jan. 6 Protesters” and other merchandise that seeks to portray the rioters as principled demonstrators. Many say they are trying to raise money for the Jan. 6 defendants and their families.
That is the case with the groups behind “Justice for All,” or at least what they claim. Just as in other commercial ventures involving diehard Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists, it is difficult to pin down even basic facts about the song’s production and profits.
The song’s producers won’t say how much the song has raised, say how the proceeds will be split among Jan. 6 defendants or identify the vast majority of 20 or so participants on the recording. They have, however, been eager to tout the song’s success.
“Buh Bye Miley, Taylor, Rihanna, and all the rest who spent Millions trying for the coveted Number 1 spot,” one of the producers, Kash Patel, wrote on Trump’s social media platform, Truth Social, on March 21. “Hello new Music Mogul @realDonaldTrump. We just took a flame thrower to the music industry.”
Claiming the top spot may provide bragging points, but conquering the iTunes chart isn’t the achievement it once was, as the number of people downloading music has plummeted given the popularity of streaming services like Spotify.
Aside from the $1.29 download, vinyl records of the song are sold online in different color schemes — prices range from $99.99 to $199.99.
Released in early March, the song is associated with The Justice for All Project, Inc., a nonprofit registered the same month with an address in Sarasota, Florida. Ed Henry, a former Fox News personality, is listed as a director of the organization and is credited with Patel as being a producer of “Justice for All.”
Another director of the nonprofit is Tom Homan, former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Trump. He is also the CEO of The America Project, a Florida group that has spent millions of dollars on efforts to undermine faith in U.S. elections. The group has sponsored conferences for election deniers, helped bankroll the partisan and flawed review of Arizona ballots following the 2020 election. It now has chapters in several states.
The America Project was founded in 2021 by Michael Flynn, a former Army general who briefly served as Trump’s national security advisor, and Patrick Byrne, the founder of the online retailer Overstock.com. In a series of text messages, Byrne confirmed to The Associated Press that The America Project helped create the song.
Further obscuring the song’s genesis: Its record label is listed as Mailman Media, a for-profit company that was only registered in Florida in February. It’s unclear which organization receives proceeds from the song. Mailman Media’s involvement was first reported by Forbes.
A spokeswoman for Patel and Henry declined to respond to questions about the song or the irony in using it in such a way. The Star-Spangled Banner was penned by Francis Scott Key after the bombardment of Ft. McHenry by the British in the War of 1812. Just weeks earlier, redcoats had burned the U.S. Capitol to the ground; that was the last time the building had been the scene of such a violent attack.
Others who are working to assist Capitol riot defendants and their families said they also have few insights into how the song will help their cause.
“None of the organizations that are working on this are aware” of how the money will be spent, or how it will help Jan. 6 defendants, said Trennis Evans, a Jan. 6 participant who operates a legal advocacy group for other defendants known as Condemned USA. Evans pleaded guilty last year to a federal misdemeanor for illegally entering the Capitol.
The 20 inmates singing in the J6 Prison choir make up a tiny fraction of the 1,000 people who have been charged with federal crimes related to the riot. More than 600 have pleaded guilty or been convicted, and more than 450 have been sentenced, with over half receiving prison terms ranging from seven days to 10 years.
Just one choir member has been identified: Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, now serving four years in prison for his actions during Jan. 6. Hale-Cusanelli is a family friend of Cynthia Hughes, a New Jersey woman who leads a separate organization raising money for Jan. 6 defendants. A spokeswoman for Hughes confirmed Hale-Cusanelli’s participation on the song but said Hughes was too busy to respond to questions.
Before he joined the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol, Hale-Cusanelli was an Army reservist who sometimes styled his mustache like Hitler and who alarmed coworkers with his comments about women and Jews.
Prosecutors alleged the 33-year-old New Jersey man urged other rioters to “advance”; video footage captured him yelling profanities at police and screaming “the revolution will be televised!”
On the witness stand during his trial, Hale-Cusanelli testified he didn’t realize that Congress met in the Capitol or that it was in session that day, to certify Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory over Trump.
“I know this sounds idiotic, but I’m from New Jersey,” Hale-Cusanelli said. “In all my studies, I didn’t know there was an actual building that was called the ‘Capitol.’ It’s embarrassing and idiotic.”
The judge said Hale-Cusanelli’s claim was “highly dubious.” Prosecutors called it a lie. A jury convicted him of felony obstruction of an official proceeding and four related misdemeanors. An attorney for Hale-Cusanelli did not return messages seeking comment.
At his sentencing in September, like many Jan. 6 defendants, Hale-Cusanelli expressed regret for his role in the attack.
“My behavior that day was unacceptable, and I disgraced my uniform and I disgraced the country,” he told the judge before being sentenced to four years in federal prison.
“If there’s any kind of service that I can provide to rectify the damage done to the Capitol building or to injuries or anything done to the Capitol or Metro Police,” he told the judge, “I stand by to perform whatever that duty might be.”
He has become a performer, of sorts — on a song that seeks to recast himself as a patriot, not a rioter.
Associated Press writer Michelle R. Smith contributed to this report.