Proud Boys led Jan. 6 riot to keep Trump in office, U.S. says at trial

Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
Members of the Proud Boys walk near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors for the first time laid responsibility for the success of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol on five Proud Boys leaders at their seditious conspiracy trial Thursday, accusing members of the extremist group of spearheading violence that halted Congress’s confirmation of the 2020 presidential election results.

“The transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden was stopped – at the hands of these defendants,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason B.A. McCullough told jurors.

Directed by former Proud Boys chairman and lead defendant Enrique Tarrio, the prosecutor said, “These men joined together and agreed to use any means necessary, including force to stop Congress from certifying the election, and on Jan. 6 they took aim at the heart of our democracy.”

Defense attorneys blasted prosecutors’ effort to find “scapegoats” for what they called an unplanned riot. Instead, they blamed then-President Donald Trump for inciting the mob and law enforcement leaders for failing to prepare for violence.

“President Trump told these people that the election was stolen. . . . He’s the one who unleashed that mob at the Capitol on Jan. 6,” Tarrio attorney Sabino Jauregui said.

It would be an “injustice” to hold Trump’s followers accountable while finding it “too hard to blame Trump . . . too hard to put him on the witness stand with his army of lawyers,” Jauregui told jurors.

Although charges have been brought against more than 930 individuals in the Jan. 6 attack and a special counsel is investigating Trump, Thursday’s dueling opening statements in a federal court blocks from the Capitol crystallized a major question still unanswered after two years – who should ultimately bear the greatest criminal responsibility for that day’s events?

Prosecutors before have suggested Proud Boys members played an outsize role in the violence. But for the first time in a 90-minute argument punctuated by the defendants’ own recorded words, videos and photographs on social and encrypted media, the government asserted that the successful breach of the Capitol was not the product of a spontaneous, misguided mob but the result of a preplanned assault by dedicated extremists.

The defendants, on the other hand, insisted they gathered in Washington to support Trump as they had at earlier D.C. rallies and had no other plans. They brought no arms, assaulted no one and could not have anticipated that Capitol Police would be unprepared, their defense said.

“A plot to use force that did not involve weapons?” defense attorney Nicholas D. Smith asked rhetorically.

Instead, defense attorneys urged jurors to redirect their emotions over the historic attack at Trump. They are not alone – the House select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6 recently recommended charging the former president with crimes that include obstructing an official proceeding, one of the charges lodged against Tarrio.

Tarrio and his co-defendants – Ethan Nordean, of Auburn, Wash.; Joe Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Fla.; Dominic Pezzola, of Rochester, N.Y.; and Zachary Rehl, of Philadelphia – have pleaded not guilty to a 10-count indictment. Two charges they face are punishable by up to 20 years in prison: conspiring to oppose by force federal authority or the inauguration of Joe Biden as president, and conspiring to obstruct Congress’s joint session.

In court, Tarrio sipped from a glass of water and Pezzola stared ahead with his hand to his chin as McCullough laid out the case against them to a jury of eight women and seven men.

According to McCullough, the Proud Boys the day after the Nov. 3, 2020, election began “calling for war because their favored candidate was not elected.” Trump falsely claimed the election was stolen, called demonstrators to Washington in November and December, then later that month announced a “wild” protest in D.C. on Jan. 6 when Congress met.

Prosecutors alleged that for that day’s special operations, Tarrio handpicked co-defendants Nordean, Biggs and Rehl to lead an ironically named “Ministry of Self-Defense.”

Until then, Proud Boys were best known for engaging in street fights with their perceived enemies in the leftist antifa movement, before Trump famously refused to denounce the group during a presidential election debate in September 2020, urging them instead to “stand back and stand by.”

On Jan. 6, while Tarrio monitored events from Baltimore, the trio marched to the Capitol with nearly 200 other men, joined the first wave that surged onto Capitol grounds and fanned out opposite police lines, the government said. There, they pressed forward until they made their way inside, led by Pezzola, who was recorded smashing the first window of the building with a stolen police riot shield, McCullough said.

“These gentlemen did not stand back, they did not stand by,” McCullough told jurors.

Instead, McCullough showed video clips of Proud Boys members at the forefront of attacks on police at the Capitol, where they had assembled that morning even before Trump spoke to supporters at a White House Ellipse rally.

“Let’s storm the f—– Capitol,” yelled one Proud Boys member who later bullrushed police lines guarding a key stairway. “Let’s not f—— yell that,” Nordean admonished on video.

While Proud Boys said their preparations for violence were only intended as self-defense in case they were attacked by anti-Trump activists, McCullough showed jurors a text by Tarrio to others on Dec. 27 hinting at their true plans: “Whispers . . . 1776.”

“‘Whispers,’ as in this is a secret,” McCullough said, “‘1776,’ as in revolution.”

Proud Boys did not come to D.C. on Jan. 6 to go up against antifa, he said: “They were coming to stop the certification of the election for Joe Biden.”

Even discarding the defendants’ pre-Jan. 6 talk, their actions that day revealed their conspiracy, McCullough said.

“Make no mistake . . .. we did this,” Tarrio wrote others on an encrypted chat at 2:41 p.m., according to material shown in court.

“These are his words, his thoughts, just minutes after Congress had been forced to stop it’s work,” McCullough said.

“January 6th will be a day in infamy,” Biggs wrote that evening, after Pezzola earlier recorded himself with “a victory smoke” in the Capitol.

“A day in infamy,” McCullough repeated, “that is how President Roosevelt described the attack on Pearl Harbor that set us to World War II.” A victory smoke, he told jurors, “like you might see by a sports team after a big game.”

When their turn came, defense attorneys accused the government of cherry-picking statements out of context by their clients, and urged jurors from the overwhelmingly Democratic area to “put aside politics” and prosecutors’ attempts to manipulate their emotions “so you hate them, you hate the Proud Boys.”

Jauregui, attorney for the Afro-Cuban Tarrio, called the Proud Boys mostly a “drinking group” that was inclusive of all races and sexual preferences, although civil rights monitors say the group increasingly targets gay and transgender people and has been used by white nationalists to recruit followers.

“What they share is an ideology. The Proud Boys think that Western civilization is the best. . . . The Proud Boys think America’s the best,” Jauregui said. “That’s what they fight for. It’s not a political thing, it’s not a racial thing. And they believe in free speech. They believe you should say whatever you want.”

Proud Boys leaders discussed protecting themselves because they believed D.C. police and federal prosecutors responded inadequately to the stabbing of member Jeremy Bertino outside Harry’s Bar in downtown Washington after the December pro-Trump rally. Bertino has pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and agreed to cooperate with the government.

Tarrio was not even in Washington on Jan. 6 because he was arrested two days earlier and expelled by a judge pending trial on charges that during that same rally he set a church’s stolen “Black Lives Matter” flag on fire, and returned to D.C. with an unregistered, high-capacity ammunition magazine. He later pleaded guilty to those charges and served four months in jail.

Jauregui and Smith said prosecutors had warped and twisted innocent, if sometimes “offensive,” chatter into an insurrectionist plot. Smith said defendants would call as witnesses multiple government informants embedded in the group, including those who said Nordean tried to stop violence.

“You will see at trial no evidence that supports the government’s conspiracy claim that these defendants plotted before Jan. 6 to do what the government alleges,” Smith said.

“Over and over and over,” Smith said, “the government has been told by witnesses there was no plan for Jan. 6. You will see even the government’s own cooperating witnesses said that.”

Tarrio may have “made it easy” for investigators by celebrating that riot, but he and other members were largely posturing, their attorneys said. The group was followed that day by a documentary filmmaker, and Smith said informants would “testify that the march to the Capitol was just for the cameras.”

Another informant texted his FBI handler at noon as initial barriers were being breached that “PB did not do it nor inspire,” instead blaming “herd mentality.”

Pezzola attorney Roger Roots said his client smoked to celebrate only the takeover the Capitol, not the obstruction of Congress. Roots accused police and prosecutors of overreacting by firing tear gas and projectiles in the crowd and criminalizing “a six-hour delay of Congress.”

As they watched in court, the five defendants sat calmly, neatly groomed and wearing dark suits, ties and white shirts – four wore dark-rimmed glasses – in contrast to their agitated expressions as depicted in government videos.

Prosecutors acknowledged to jurors that the Proud Boys organization as a whole “is not on trial today. Many Proud Boys who were angry about the election, they took no part in the mission on Jan. 6.”

But they showed the jury the defendants’ own social media posts, including the flashing words “kill them” and clips of groups of men beating others on the streets at night. One post from December 2020 by Tarrio featured Pezzola against a fiery backdrop labeled “Lords of War” and “#J6,” and another included a hype video posted by Rehl showing Trump attorney Sidney Powell saying she would “release the Kraken.”

“This was the image these defendants sought to promote in their fight to keep Donald Trump in office,” McCullough said, concluding. “These ‘lords of war’ joined together to stop the presidential transfer of power.”