Despite having been charged with fatally shooting protesters (or perhaps because of it), Kyle Rittenhouse — the Illinois teenager who crossed state lines and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters with an assault rifle during demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin, this past August — has, in the course of just a few weeks, become a folk hero for America's far-right militia movement and their conservative enablers on TV and in Congress.
That alone is a chilling snapshot of the violently fractious state of 2020 American life. But according to Department of Homeland Security talking points obtained this week by NBC News, the coordinated effort to portray Rittenhouse as a somehow sympathetic figure extended beyond Proud Boy rallies and cable news segments and into the Trump administration itself.
Rittenhouse has been charged with one count of first-degree intentional homicide and one count of first-degree reckless homicide. The internal documents, consisting of media strategies for law enforcement officials dealing with press questions about the shooting, instructs recipients to highlight the fact that Rittenhouse "took his rifle to the scene of the rioting to help defend small business owners," and that "subsequent video has emerged reportedly showing that there were 'multiple gunmen' involved, which would lend more credence to [Rittenhouse's] self-defense claims."
As NBC News notes, it's unclear whether the leaked internal documents were created by DHS or were instead passed along by the White House's press office. Regardless, the cumulative effect of the media strategy outlined in the document is clear: to frame Rittenhouse as, at worst, a well-intentioned victim of circumstance who was forced into an impossible situation outside his control.
Why the administration — whether the White House itself, or simply the DHS media office — would go out of its way to lend a significant degree of sympathetic credibility to an accused killer is anyone's guess (DHS told NBC News it "does not comment on alleged leaked documents" ) but the sentiment does seem to echo that of the president himself, who has highlighted the claim that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. Donald Trump Jr also explained away the shooting, by offering the truism that "we all do stupid things at 17."
Last week, Rittenhouse made a brief appearance at an online court hearing, where his legal team attempted to fight efforts to bring him back to Wisconsin for his trial.