PIERRE, S.D. – Trennis Evans III joined the mob in the 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, climbing through a broken window and tossing back a swig of whiskey in a congressional conference room.
On Wednesday, Evans was at the South Dakota Capitol, urging lawmakers to support a resolution encouraging “the humane and fair treatment” of those, like himself, who faced or are facing federal criminal charges related to the deadly siege on Jan. 6, 2021.
The resolution failed by unanimous vote after he spoke before the Legislature's House State Affairs Committee. But Evans' presence in the South Dakota Capitol underscored how sympathy for the Jan. 6 attack resounds among the grassroots of the GOP’s right-wing.
While the Justice Department’s largest-ever investigation has expanded to charge nearly 1,000 people like Evans for federal crimes related to the siege, Evans and others who participated in the attack have found sympathetic audiences in places like ruby-red South Dakota.
Republican lawmakers tip-toed around the insurrection and its aftermath before voting against the resolution during Wednesday’s hearing.
Still, for Evans, the hearing itself represented a victory.
“I applaud you, this committee, for taking the time to hear and understand in a body that’s formed like this for the first time,” he said, adding that the resolution has been advanced in 80 counties in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas, but had never before been considered by a state Legislature.
State Rep. Phil Jensen, who co-sponsored the resolution with two other lawmakers, said he was hopeful Wednesday’s hearing would spur other state Legislatures to make similar declarations. In South Dakota, every piece of legislation is required to receive a hearing.
“I hope it brings awareness to the plight of these political prisoners,” Jensen, who joined the membership of the Oath Keepers for a year in 2014, told The Associated Press. The far-right extremist group is accused of playing a key role in the Capitol insurrection.
Of the nearly 400 people who have been sentenced so far for riot-related charges, more than 40 percent have avoided jail time entirely. About 150 rioters have gotten six months behind bars or less, according to an AP tally.
Evans, who is from Texas, pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge last year for entering the Capitol building and encouraging others to follow by raising a megaphone and saying, “Bring ’em in,” according to prosecutors. Prosecutors sought a two-month jail term, but a judge sentenced Evans to 20 days, with the ability to serve his term in installments, rather than all at once.
Evans now operates a legal advocacy group called Condemned USA and previously developed a following on Gettr, a social media site founded by a former Trump adviser. Prosecutors said he glorified political violence on social media, including saying in February 2022 that he “love(d)” a post threatening to “stack bodies” if members of the “deep state” did not “surrender.”
In court papers before his sentencing, Evans' lawyer called him “quite self-reproving, sincerely remorseful, and duly contrite.” The attorney said Evans is “embarrassed of this criminal conduct and the shame he has brought upon himself and his family.”
If anything, the punishment only served to advance Evans’ standing among those who see the insurrection not as an assault on democracy, but a righteous struggle to reverse what they consider a stolen 2020 presidential election. Like Evans, some Jan. 6 defendants have profited from their participation in the deadly riot, using it as a platform to drum up cash, promote business endeavors and form groups committed to aiding fellow defendants.
There is no evidence of any widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in the 2020 election, underscored by repeated audits, court cases and the conclusions of President Donald Trump’s own Department of Justice.
South Dakota's capital city of Pierre feels isolated amid the rolling buttes and farm country of the Great Plains, but the political ramifications of Jan. 6 have steadily made their way to the state. Top Republican officials, including Gov. Kristi Noem and Secretary of State Monae Johnson, have repeatedly expressed ambivalence about whether the 2020 presidential election was rightfully won by President Joe Biden.
Other Republicans, such as U.S. Sens. Mike Rounds and John Thune, have faced backlash from the party’s right wing after speaking against former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Rounds, who helped carry the electoral college votes out of the Senate chamber as it came under attack from rioters on Jan. 6, was confronted by Jensen and other Republicans when he visited the Republican caucus in the Statehouse last week. The eagerness of Jensen and others to speak out on the Capitol attack threatens to drive a wedge in the state's dominant Republican Party.
Some statehouse Republicans condemned Wednesday's proposal as an alarming validation of an attack on the nation’s seat of government.
“I think if you attack the United States Capitol, you’re an enemy of America. That’s pretty obvious,” said Republican state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the top-ranking lawmaker in his chamber.
Evans, meanwhile, said he planned to stick around the South Dakota Capitol this week and continue to press his case.
“This is how you push back," Jensen said. "The states created the federal government, the federal government didn’t create the states. It’s a matter of values. Right and wrong isn’t part of politics anymore.”
Groves reported from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Associated Press journalists Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston and Michael Kunzelman in Washington contributed reporting.