The mob at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, came there because of Donald Trump, and Proud Boys leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, now on trial for seditious conspiracy, was merely a “scapegoat” blamed for the violence and chaos that day, his defense attorney told jurors as opening statements got underway on Thursday.
The Proud Boys seditious conspiracy trial has taken weeks to reach this moment, and when prosecutors and the defense appeared before jurors, lines were sharply drawn.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough harkened the now infamous words of former president Donald Trump from a 2020 presidential debate when he told Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” That moment has long been considered to be a catalyst for the insurrection, by investigators and analysts of the Capitol assault alike.
McCullough emphasized this Thursday. When Trump made that remark, he said, it sent a message: Trump was for the Proud Boys, and Biden was for “antifa.” Referring to the Proud Boys defendants, McCullough said: “These men did not stand back. They did not stand by. They mobilized.”
Tarrio and co-defendants Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl, and Dominic Pezzola face multiple charges in addition to seditious conspiracy, for their alleged attempt to stop the transfer of presidential power by force on Jan. 6, 2021. Other charges include conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging their duties, obstruction of law enforcement during a civil disorder, destruction of government property, aiding and abetting, and assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers. Pezzola faces another charge all alone: robbery of personal property of the United States.
Pezzola’s robbery charge is connected to his alleged theft of a police riot shield during the melee. Jurors saw video footage Thursday of Pezzola appearing to violently rip a shield away from a clearly outnumbered police officer. When Pezzola’s attorney, Roger Roots, made his opening remarks Thursday, he asked jurors to believe that Pezzola was not “robbing” anyone of anything. When Pezzola is seen gesturing wildly and screaming at police, Roots said it was because he was outraged that a protester had been injured. He was telling police, Roots said, they were not treating protesters the way they should in a “civil riot.”
Pezzola wasn’t really stealing the riot shield, he continued, as much as he was in a “tug of war” or “pushing match” with the crowd. ”And after a little bit of struggle, he comes up with the plastic shield,” Roots said.
Roots, who has reported ties to white supremacist groups, also worked to convince jurors that a video Pezzola shot of himself from inside of the Capitol should be proof of his innocence, not guilt. That video featured a bedraggled Pezzola smoking a cigar inside the Capitol building as he remarked: “I knew we could take this motherfucker if we just tried hard enough.”
Roots played the clip no less than four times back-to-back and beseeched jurors to understand how Pezzola defined “victory.” The point was muddied, if there was one, so it was unclear how Roots thought repeatedly showing his client in this light would help his case.
“Mr. Pezzola described victory simply as ‘taking this motherfucker,’” Roots reiterated.
In contrast, during opening statements from Nick Smith, attorney for defendant Ethan Nordean, Smith insisted there would be “no evidence” presented at trial that would support the Justice Department’s claim that Proud Boys engaged in a conspiracy or plotted in advance to attack the Capitol.
During 2022’s seditious conspiracy trial of former Oath Keeper ringleader Elmer Stewart Rhodes and five of his cohorts, defense attorneys attempted a similar line of argument. They underlined how there was never an explicit agreement found in any texts or other communications. But in the end, as the law permits it, there didn’t need to be.
Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy and so too was Kelly Meggs, the former leader of the Oath Keepers’ Florida division. Three other defendants in that case, including Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson, were acquitted of the sedition charge. The conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding charges were a mixed bag: Rhodes, Harrelson and Caldwell were acquitted of this particular charge. But jurors found Watkins and Meggs guilty of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding.
A second batch of Oath Keepers, who were originally charged alongside Rhodes for seditious conspiracy, are on trial now. This group was split due to logistical reasons at the courthouse in Washington, D.C.
Like the Oath Keepers case, the Proud Boys case also features a stunning amount of communications where Proud Boys discussed civil war, their outrage over the results of the 2020 election, and in the case of defendant Joseph Biggs, those messages flowed rapidly after the election but they also flowed on the day of the insurrection.
“We just stormed the fucking Capitol,” Biggs wrote on Jan. 6 in a chat with fellow Proud Boys. “Jan. 6 will be a day of infamy.” U.S. Attorney McCullough reminded jurors that the language Biggs used to describe Jan. 6 was how former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt described the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the U.S.’ involvement in World War II.
“You will see private communications, you will see their public statements, you will see coordinated actions, you will see their celebration of the group’s activities and you will see them attempt to cover their tracks,” McCullough said.
Much of the evidence will focus on a division of the Proud Boys created by Tarrio known as the “Ministry of Self Defense,” or MOSD. Tarrio’s attorney, Sabino Jauregui, as well as Carmen Hernandez, an atttorney for defendant Zachary Rehl, told jurors that the ministry was only created because Tarrio wanted to have Proud Boys trained for rallies where they may be attacked.
But Tarrio didn’t create the subgroup in order to “unleash a can of whoop-ass on antifa,” as they liked to say, McCullough remarked. They created MOSD to stop the certification, he said.
At a Dec. 12, 2020, ‘Stop the Steal’ rally in Washington, D.C., Proud Boys and counter-protesters clashed violently in the street. Multiple people were stabbed, including Proud Boy Jeremy Bertino. Bertino, who was supposed to be in D.C. on Jan. 6, didn’t end up make the trip because he was recovering from his stab wounds. Bertino pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy in October, and he is now a potential witness for the prosecution.
Prosecutors say Bertino’s stabbing was a “rallying cry” for Proud Boys. McCullough said evidence shows that they felt betrayed by local police and that law enforcement had sided against them.
Tarrio’s attorney may have laid the blame squarely on Trump for inciting the mob, but for prosecutors, the responsibility for what came next was crystal clear when considering exactly what Proud Boys members said and did.
“In some situations in life you have to guess if people mean what they say. Other times, people do exactly what they say they’re going do. In this trial, you won’t have to guess,” McCullough said. In that vein, jurors saw a video posted by Joseph Biggs days after the Jan. 6 where he proclaimed: “Look, we started this country this way and we’ll fucking save it this way.”
America’s Founding Fathers, Biggs said, were once considered “traitors” and “terrorists” and the “worst of the worst.”
Jauregui said the Proud Boys were misled by Trump on Jan. 6, just like other rioters who believed his claims that the election was rigged.But Trump, he said, wasn’t on trial today since he stays protected behind a phalanx of attorneys.
Someone “had to be blamed” for the attack, he said. “It’s too hard to blame politicians who ‘use us,’” he added.
The FBI and the Secret Service couldn’t be blamed either, even though they had intelligence preemptively about the attack, Jauregui stated. He also praised the police who defended the Capitol, saying their assaults were horrible; but he also heaped blame on the leadership of D.C. police departments.
“But that’s too difficult to admit. Instead, they go for the easy target. They go for Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys,” he said.
And if the communications before or after the insurrection weren’t convincing enough, then jurors need only turn to the day of the attack itself. Though Tarrio wasn’t at the Capitol on Jan. 6—he was arrested on Jan. 4 and ordered to leave Washington on Jan. 5—the Justice Department contends he was monitoring activities from afar.
“Make no mistake,” Tarrio wrote on Jan. 6. “We did this.”
It didn’t come up at trial on Thursday, but it’s worth noting that before Tarrio left D.C. following his arrest for burning a Black Lives Matter flag, he held a meeting with Rhodes in an underground garage in D.C.. Tarrio has previously claimed that the meeting was a chance for him to seek legal advice from Rhodes in light of his recent assault.
Defense attorneys maintain that once they are given a chance to calltheir witnesses, namely, a series of government informants, it will become clear that there was never a plan for Proud Boys to storm the Capitol or to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election.
Instead Roots, for defendant Pezzola, downplayed the entire day, and said the Justice Department made a “big deal of this six-hour recess from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.”
Defense attorneys also tried to distance the group from allegations of its historic reputation of brawling, violence, racism, and extremism. Carmen Hernandez, an attorney for Rehl, urged the jury to put any of those notions aside. Smith, an attorney for Ethan Nordean, told jurors to be “detached.” Roots went a step further, and showed jurors multiple photos of Pezzola from his youth; at least two featured him standing next to Black men.
“The Proud Boys are basically a drinking club,” Jauregui said. “Contrary to what you’ve heard, the Proud Boys are not a racist, sexist, or homophobic organization.”
The Proud Boys have been identified by multiple hate watch groups as exactly that, even though some members, including Tarrio, who is Afro-Cuban, are not white. The Southern Poverty Law Center has noted that the group’s philosophy of “western chauvinism”, or the belief that men are responsible for “creating the modern world,” is just another way to get white supremacist messaging into the mainstream.
Daily Kos will resume trial coverage on Friday.