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Jan. 6 shadows the 2024 campaign, but not on the debate stage. That alarms democracy advocates

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the first presidential debate, Republican Donald Trump skimmed over the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol, shifted blame for the violent mob siege and declined repeatedly to state unequivocally that he will accept the results of this year’s White House election.

And President Joe Biden, who has said the work of his presidency is to restore the soul of the nation, flubbed and floundered, failing to forcefully confront, contradict and hold Trump, the indicted former president, accountable for the attack on the election — and democracy.

It is an extraordinary moment, or lack of one, that is alarming to democracy advocates, the far-reaching effort to overturn the 2020 election and the subsequent insurrection that defined the Trump presidency fading from view during the opening debate of the general election campaign.

Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democrat who chaired the House’s Jan. 6 committee investigation in the last Congress, said it is a deeply unfortunate situation.

“We could have a Jan. 6, 2.0,” Thompson said Friday outside the Capitol.

The outcome underscores the choice Americans face this fall as the riot over the 2020 election remains fundamental to the 2024 campaign, but also obscured by it, despite the four-count federal indictment against Trump for working to overturn the results four years ago in the run-up to the violent siege and despite the convictions of more than 1,000 people in the Capitol attack.

It comes as the Supreme Court is weighing cases involving Jan. 6, including a decision Friday that makes it easier for some rioters to contest their charges and convictions, and another expected Monday on whether Trump can claim immunity in the federal election case.

All told, what seemed politically untenable, as the defeated Trump departed Washington downcast on Biden’s inauguration day on Jan. 20, 2021, is now within reach as the president who tried to overturn an election is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, edging toward an Oval Office return.

“We are four months away from the first presidential election since a violent attack on our Capitol. … And the man responsible for that — Donald Trump — is currently the leading candidate,” said Ian Bassin, executive director of the advocacy group Protect Democracy, which works to counter authoritarianism.

“You’d think that alone would be disqualifying, or at a minimum would be the central focus of the election,” he said.

And yet, Bassin said, the topic was “relegated to an afterthought” in the debate, “and the current president is struggling to press the case on why this issue should be of existential importance.”

The forum itself is not necessarily to blame. The moderators pressed the candidates, asking Trump not once, but repeatedly, whether he would commit to not having another Jan. 6 and accepting the results of the election this time.

Trump insisted he had “virtually nothing to do” with the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 and tried to shift blame to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., repeating his false claims about the delay in sending in the National Guard.

Biden, whose underwhelming debate performance of stunted answers and trailing thoughts has sent the Democratic Party into turmoil, struggled to deliver a cohesive response, despite having given high-profile speeches about Jan. 6, including on the first anniversary.

“Look, he encouraged those folks to go up on Capitol Hill,” Biden said on the debate stage.

Thompson, whose committee produced a lengthy, 1,000-plus page report on its investigation into Trump’s monthslong attempt to overturn the election and the storming of the Capitol, said Biden missed a “golden opportunity” to set the record straight as millions of people watched the debate.

It was left to the people who actually experienced Jan. 6, the lawmakers who fled to safety as the mob of Trump supporters approached, to respond. Rioters, many wielding flag poles and with tactical gear, engaged in brutal, bloody hand-to-hand combat, fighting the U.S. Capitol Police to gain access to the building.

“January 6 was a dark day,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on social media.

“Trump-inspired insurrectionists sought to obstruct the peaceful transfer of power,” he said. Schumer decried Friday’s “shameful decision” from the Supreme Court that he said “will embolden anti-democracy radicals and make it harder for our judicial system to try insurrectionists.”

Pelosi said Trump presented “another pack of lies” during the debate. “How dare he place the blame for January 6th on anyone but himself, the inciter of an insurrection?”

On Friday, the Supreme Court limited a federal obstruction law that has been used to charge Trump, alongside hundreds of Capitol riot defendants. While the ruling is certain to cause a reconsideration of some cases against the rioters, it is unclear how it will impact Trump’s indictment, which includes other charges.

Trump, during a rally Friday in Chesapeake, Virginia, said a “great thing” just happened in response to the decision in the obstruction case, to the roar of “USA!” chants from the crowd.

“They should be immediately released — immediately,” Trump said about the defendants he called “the J6 hostages.”

A more energized Biden, at his own rally in the swing state of North Carolina, said “the choice in this election is simple. Donald Trump will destroy our democracy. I will defend it.”

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Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

Lisa Mascaro, The Associated Press