Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
The thing about martyrdom is that it works whether a cause is righteous or not, which makes it especially attractive to grieving parents. Losing a child can feel cosmically unjust. Losing a child who’s also a martyr can give their death meaning, at least, by applying a sheen of heroism to something that’s otherwise just ugly.
So I’m sure it feels nice to Micki Witthoeft to see her daughter’s death get freighted with a level of meaning that’s unavailable to most parents in her situation. “It is my great honor to address each of you gathered today to cherish the memory of Ashli Babbitt, a truly incredible person,” said Donald Trump in a video message to Witthoeft and other members of Babbitt’s family, who gathered on Sunday in Freeport, Texas, to celebrate the dead woman’s birthday.
Witthoeft can’t have expected this response. Before January 6, her daughter was a frustrated U.S. Air Force veteran and QAnon conspiracist in her mid-30s who owned a struggling pool supply company outside of San Diego, California. Babbitt had recently been sued by her short-term business lender and was the target of a court protection order from her husband’s ex-girlfriend, whom she rear-ended three times with her car after a verbal altercation in 2016.
Then, inspired by Trump, she stormed the U.S. Capitol, convinced that the 2020 election had been stolen from him. Video footage from that day reportedly shows Babbitt helping fellow rioters shatter the glass pane on a door leading to the Speaker’s Lobby, where several members of Congress were huddling for safety. Babbitt cuts a slight figure, exaggerated by the Trump flag that streams behind her like a cape, as she gets lifted into the breach and shot by a Capitol police officer.
Babbitt’s death has become a cause célèbre on the right, in part because her death was among the worst and most sensational outcomes of that day — she was one of five people killed and it was caught on camera, her mouth gushing blood as she fell into the crowd. But the furor has been turbocharged by Trump, who has recast her as a patriot-martyr and has transformed her death into one of the many tenuously connected grievances that inflame his base and keep him relevant. He called on Sunday for a “fair and nonpartisan investigation” into her death, months after the Justice Department cleared the cop who killed her of wrongdoing.
I don’t know if Witthoeft has any misgivings about Trump using her daughter in this self-serving way, but her behavior hints at why he’s drawn to her — she looks like a grieving mother in frantic search of answers. Opportunists on the right have been happy to make her feel important, all while feeding her unfounded suspicion that something’s being hidden from her about Babbitt’s death.
In a conversation with Dinesh D’Souza on his podcast in August, Witthoeft described her daily phone calls to Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill (“Nancy Pelosi I have called no less than a dozen times”) and to Republican ones in the San Diego area, none of which has yielded the answers she’s looking for. She’s been trying to figure out why an “ambush” was carried out against Babbitt — the term used in the $10 million wrongful death lawsuit she filed against the Capitol Police — while rejecting what, by most accounts, is the clear explanation: that her daughter was killed while participating in a mob attack on sitting members of Congress. It has become incomprehensible, to Witthoeft, that the reticence of lawmakers to tell her more is due less to some hidden plot than a lack of more to tell.
It has to feel good to be reassured that there’s something else to it — that Witthoeft’s daughter was killed as part of something grand and tragic, like a political conspiracy, rather than as an especially unlucky dupe, or a villain, or however else she’s being disparaged by people who didn’t know her. It has to feel good, even if the guy who’s keeping her hope alive, who supposedly cares so much about her daughter, keeps making things up about her.
Beyond the notion that Babbitt was slain for being a conservative patriot, there are Trump’s macabre musings about how she was killed. “The person who shot Ashli Babbitt — boom, right through the head, just boom — there was no reason for that,” he said in July, sliding past the less graphic and less sensational fact that Babbitt was actually shot in the left shoulder.
It might feel queasy to hear him say, but as long as the goal is to get people talking, to get answers, to get justice, then let him say whatever he has to, right? Yet as she watches her daughter get reconfigured in real time, from the girl she raised to the myth she’s become, Witthoeft, sitting at that screen in Freeport, watching the ex-president’s birthday message while a dozen family members chant “USA!” on either side of her, isn’t getting any closer to confronting what she’ll always be now: a mom whose kid died for no good reason. The relief she deserves is a mercy that Trump will never give her and has no desire to — the mercy of coming to honest terms with what it means to mother a dead child and then keep living.