WASHINGTON — As members of the Proud Boys extremist group stormed past police lines and swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, their leader cheered them on from afar, prosecutors say. “Do what must be done,” Enrique Tarrio wrote on social media. “So what do we do now?” someone asked later that day in a Proud Boys encrypted group chat.
“Do it again,” Tarrio responded.
Allison Dinner, Associated Press
Proud Boys leader Henry "Enrique" Tarrio attends a rally Sept. 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore.
Two years later, Tarrio’s words are at the center of the Justice Department’s seditious conspiracy case against the former Proud Boys national chairman. Prosecutors in his trial in Washington are trying to build on their recent courtroom victory against leaders of another far-right extremist group, the Oath Keepers.
Tarrio, who led the neofacist group as it became a force in mainstream Republican circles, is perhaps the highest-profile defendant yet to stand trial for charges stemming from the insurrection. Tarrio and four lieutenants face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of seditious conspiracy. Jury selection was underway.
The trial comes at a pivotal time in the Justice Department’s wide-ranging Jan. 6 investigation. Key aspects are now overseen by special counsel Jack Smith, who was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland. Smith has issued a number of subpoenas in recent weeks to state election officials, seeking their communications with Donald Trump and others involved the then-president’s efforts to overturn his 2020 loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
The House committee that investigated the Capitol riot urged the department to bring criminal charges against Trump. While the referrals carry no legal weight, the recommendation could increase public pressure on the department to prosecute Trump, who called on supporters to “fight like hell” before the siege that halted congressional certification of Biden’s victory.
The department is buoyed by the recent sedition guilty plea of a close Tarrio associate, who could provide potentially damning testimony under a cooperation deal, and the convictions in November of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and the head of the anti-government group’s Florida chapter.
In Tarrio’s case, prosecutors are hoping to convince jurors that they should convict him of overseeing a violent plot to stop the transfer of presidential power even though he was not in Washington on Jan. 6. Tarrio had been arrested in a separate case days earlier.
Tarrio’s lawyers say he did not instruct or encourage anyone to go into the Capitol. Their defense may focus on communications they say show Tarrio was informing law enforcement in the run-up to Jan. 6 of the Proud Boys’ plans to protest the results of the election and party that night with — as they wrote in court papers — “plenty of beer and babes.”
The trial will put a spotlight on the Proud Boys, which remains an influential force in right-wing circles even with many of its top leaders behind bars. Trump energized the group and elevated its profile when he infamously told the Proud Boys to ” stand back and stand by ” during a 2020 debate with Biden.
While there were signs the Oath Keepers were in disarray even before Rhodes’ conviction, the Proud Boys have proved more resilient.
Proud Boys members have reveled in street violence since the group’s inception, typically clashing with anti-fascist activists at rallies. Tarrio initially called on members to stand down after Jan. 6 and refrain from holding public events. Instead, local Proud Boys chapters found new targets to menace.
Proud Boys have recently disrupted story-telling sessions by drag performers and other LGBTQ events. Members have showed up at school board meetings and other local government forums, often to protest COVID-19 masking requirements. They joined anti-abortion protests surrounding the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade last year.
The autonomy afforded local Proud Boys chapters has helped the group weather the loss of its leaders better than the Oath Keepers have, said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Lewis, who has written about the Proud Boys’ violent evolution, said securing a conviction of Tarrio and his lieutenants would not cripple the group or prevent local chapters from organizing.
Tarrio’s co-defendants are Ethan Nordean of Auburn, Washington, who was a Proud Boys chapter president; Joseph Biggs of Ormond Beach, Florida, a self-described Proud Boys organizer; Zachary Rehl, who president of the Proud Boys chapter in Philadelphia; and Dominic Pezzola, a Proud Boy member from Rochester, New York.
The jury’s mixed verdict in the Oath Keepers case shows the challenge prosecutors face in proving the rarely used seditious conspiracy charge. While Rhodes and Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs were found guilty of sedition, three co-defendants were acquitted of the charge. All five were convicted of serious felonies, but it was the first time jurors had acquitted any Jan. 6 defendants of a crime.
It came after defense lawyers spent weeks hammering prosecutors for their lack of evidence that the Oath Keepers had a specific plan to attack the Capitol before Jan. 6.
In the Proud Boys case, however, prosecutors say they have communications showing that members did discuss storming the Capitol before Jan. 6.
House Select Committee via AP
From the "Big Lie" of Trump's November 2020 election night claims of a stolen election to the bloody Jan. 6, 2021, siege, the report spells out the start and finish of the mob attack that played out for the world to see.
It details how Trump and his allies engaged in a "multi-part" scheme to overturn Joe Biden's presidential election victory — first through court challenges, then, when those failed, by compiling slates of electors to challenge Joe Biden's victory.
As Congress prepared to convene Jan. 6 to certify the election, Trump summoned a mob to Washington for his "Stop the Steal" rally at the White House.
"When Donald Trump pointed them toward the Capitol and told them to 'fight like hell,' that's exactly what they did," Thompson wrote. "Donald Trump lit that fire. But in the weeks beforehand, the kindling he ultimately ignited was amassed in plain sight."
After blockbuster public hearings, the report and its accompanying materials are providing more detailed accounts of key aspects of the Trump team's plan to overturn the election, join the mob at the Capitol and, once the committee began investigating, pressure those who would testify against him.
Among dozens of new witness transcripts was Thursday's release of a previously unseen account from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson (pictured) detailing a stunning campaign by Trump's allies encouraging her to stay "loyal" as she testified before the panel.
The report said the committee estimates that in the two months between the November election and the Jan. 6 attack, "Trump or his inner circle engaged in at least 200 apparent acts of public or private outreach, pressure, or condemnation, targeting either State legislators or State or local election administrators, to overturn State election results."
House Select Committee via AP
The report also details Trump's inaction as his loyalists were violently storming the building.
One Secret Service employee testified to the committee that Trump's determination to go to the Capitol put agents on high alert.
"(We) all knew ... that this was going to move to something else if he physically walked to the Capitol," a unidentified employee said. "I don't know if you want to use the word 'insurrection,' 'coup,' whatever. We all knew that this would move from a normal democratic ... public event into something else."
Once the president arrived back at the White House after delivering a speech to his supporters, he asked an employee if they had seen his remarks on television.
"Sir, they cut it off because they're rioting down at the Capitol," the staffer said, according to the report.
Trump asked what that meant, and was given the same answer. "Oh really?" Trump then asked. "All right, let's go see."
The report makes 11 recommendations for Congress and others to safeguard American democracy and its tradition of the peaceful transfer of presidential power from one leader to the next.
The first, an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act, is on its way to becoming law in the year-end spending bill heading toward final passage this week in Congress.
The committee also made recommendations to the Justice Department to prosecute Trump and others for conspiracy to commit fraud on the public, and other potential charges. It also referred the former president for prosecution for "assisting and providing aid and comfort to an insurrection."
Other changes may be within reach or prove more elusive. Among them, the report recommends beefing up security around key congressional events, overhauling oversight of the Capitol Police and enhancing federal penalties for certain types of threats against election workers.
One recommendation is for Congress to create a formal mechanism to consider barring individuals from public office if they engage in insurrection or rebellion under the Fourteenth Amendment. It holds that those who have taken an oath to support the Constitution can be disqualified from holding future federal or state office if they back an insurrection.
The Jan. 6 committee was created after Congress rebuked an effort to form an independent 9/11-style commission to investigate the Capitol attack. Republicans blocked the idea.
Instead, Speaker Nancy Pelosi led the House to form the committee. In her foreword to the report, she said it "must be a clarion call to all Americans: to vigilantly guard our Democracy."
Led by Thompson and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the panel's work is intended to stand as a record for history of what happened during the most serious attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812.
Five people died in the riot and its aftermath, including Ashli Babbitt, a Trump supporter shot and killed by police, and Brian Sicknick, a police officer who died the day after battling the mob.
Cheney noted the committee decided most of its witnesses needed to be Republicans — the president's own team and allies. In the report's foreword, she wrote that history will remember the "bravery of a handful of Americans" and those who withstood Trump's "corrupt pressure."
For all of them, the committee and report held personal weight.
Thompson, a Black leader in Congress, noted that the iconic U.S. Capitol, built with enslaved labor, "itself is a fixture in our country's history, of both good and bad ... a symbol of our journey toward a more perfect union."