Proud Boys Members Face Seditious Conspiracy Charges : The NPR Politics Podcast In Washington, D.C., members of the Proud Boys are on trial related to their alleged actions surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It is the second major seditious conspiracy trial related to the insurrection following one late last year involving members of the Oath Keepers.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, and, political correspondent Susan Davis.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Casey Morell. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Research and fact-checking by Devin Speak.

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Proud Boys Members Face Seditious Conspiracy Charges

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REBECCA: Hi. This is Rebecca (ph)...

EMMA: Emma (ph).

AUDREY: And Audrey (ph).

REBECCA: ...In Guayaquil, Ecuador, after our weeklong expedition in the incredible Galapagos Islands.

EMMA: This podcast was recorded at...


12:52 p.m. on Tuesday, January 17.

AUDREY: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. OK.

REBECCA, EMMA AND AUDREY: Here's the show.


KEITH: And here I am, completely jealous.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: That's a bucket list trip.

KEITH: Absolutely. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: I'm Carrie Johnson. I cover the Justice Department.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KEITH: This month marks two years since the insurrection at the Capitol. It also marks the start of a seditious conspiracy trial against members of the Proud Boys. This is the second major seditious conspiracy case to come out of January 6. And, Carrie, you're covering the trial. Remind us, who are the Proud Boys and which Proud Boys are on trial right now?

JOHNSON: The Proud Boys are what they call a Western chauvinist group. One of the defense lawyers for one of these Proud Boys basically said they were a men's drinking club. But others who have studied the group in the past say that they have associations with white supremacist figures and other violence dating back to even before the January 6 insurrection here in D.C. There are five members on trial, including "Enrique" Henry Tarrio, who was the national chairman of the Proud Boys. Remember; Tarrio was actually in trouble for burning a Black Lives Matter flag from a historic church in D.C. before the insurrection. And he was found here in Washington a few days before January 6 with some high-capacity magazines, so he was barred from the Capitol on the day of the Capitol siege.


JOHNSON: But he's still charged with responsibility for that, or partial responsibility for that. Some of the other defendants include a guy named Joe Biggs, also involved with Tarrio in allegedly bringing together a group called the Ministry of Self Defense to help coordinate some events and actions surrounding January 6. And the third name that people might know is a guy named Dominic Pezzola. He's the one with the really unkempt hair - and I say that as a person with unkempt hair, myself.


KEITH: Oh, Carrie. I think you're being a little rough on your hair right there.

JOHNSON: Well, you haven't seen me in a few days. But Pezzola allegedly stole a police shield and bashed in a couple of windows in the Capitol, which allowed a stream of rioters in the first breach of the Capitol on January 6. So those three, along with two other men, are on trial in this seditious conspiracy case - is a real big one. You know, what the statute says is that seditious conspiracy involves trying to overthrow the government by using force. And the theory here the government is advancing is that these Proud Boys, in part - some of them committed violence themselves, and others were using the rest of the crowd on that day, on January 6 - people who maybe had no connection to extremist movements previously - using the crowd as a weapon against the Capitol and the people inside the Capitol.

KEITH: Well, that video of Pezzola, like, bashing in that window and the crowd flowing through, that is, like, one of the most iconic videos of that day. It gets replayed over and over again.

JOHNSON: It does all the time. And, in fact, there's been a lot of arguing in advance of this trial beginning about whether this case should even be held in D.C. because so many people in the city have seen that video and have strong feelings about the Proud Boys. It took a long time to get through jury selection. But this judge, Tim Kelly, says he's confident that the jury and the alternates do not have strong personal feelings about the Proud Boys or these defendants, and they can hear this case fairly.

KEITH: OK. So you are at the federal courthouse in Washington right now covering this trial. And I'm wondering, has the government given a sense of why they are pursuing this particular charge in addition to, you know, just basic charges of violence committed or something like that?

JOHNSON: Well, they reserve seditious conspiracy for the most serious assaults on the government that exist. Before last year, when the government succeeded in convicting two members of the far-right group the Oath Keepers of seditious conspiracy, the government hadn't really been very successful in using this legal tool for a long time, but that jury verdict against Stewart Rhodes and one of his top deputies Kelly Meggs has given this case some kind of forward momentum against the Proud Boys. And we'll see if that persists in this case, which is expected to go on for weeks and weeks.

DAVIS: It's hard to separate the Proud Boys and former President Trump, in part because, when you look back to the 2020 presidential election, I think in - it was the first debate with Joe Biden. In hindsight, maybe, this was a very pivotal moment in that debate. But Chris Wallace, who was the moderator, brought up President Trump's seeming reluctance to denounce the actions of white supremacist groups, and Trump had this very memorable moment.


DONALD TRUMP: Do you want to call them - what do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name.

CHRIS WALLACE: White supremacists.

TRUMP: Who would you like me to condemn?

WALLACE: White supremacists and Proud Boys.

TRUMP: Proud Boys, stand back, and stand by. But I'll tell you what. I'll tell you what. Somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not...

DAVIS: Was not exactly a full-throated denunciation - not at all. But, Carrie, it's interesting to me because apparently this moment has come up in this case.

JOHNSON: Not just come up. It came up in the Justice Department's opening statement to the jury. The government played that clip, Sue, to the jury in this case. And the argument is that the Proud Boys listened, that they mobilized after President Trump said that, and they mobilized after former President Trump sent out a tweet in mid-December advising people to come to the Capitol or come to Washington for his rally on January 6. Be there. It will be wild, Trump said. And that's when Enrique Tarrio and some of these other members of the Proud Boys, some of these other defendants, Joe Biggs and others, allegedly started planning for the January 6 insurrection.

DAVIS: This Proud Boys link with Trump, I also think, has always been part of his undoing. That his willingness to sometimes flirt with white supremacist movements - at least not denounce them - to oftentimes use language that was seen as racially defamatory and his very complicated relationship with race was a huge turnoff to voters. I mean, even Republicans who were loyalists to the former president would say that that was always this incredible weak spot for him and that it was really unpalatable to the vast majority of Americans to be seen as at least comfortable, if not flirtatious, with some of these ugly extremist movements.

KEITH: Well, and you saw Proud Boys members in the years of the Trump White House getting into brawls with Black Lives Matter protesters, for instance. Getting into brawls - it was, like, part of their identity before January 6.

JOHNSON: I should say that Enrique Tarrio's lawyer - Enrique Tarrio, the former Proud Boys chairman - identifies as Afro-Cuban. And he has denounced any comparison - any comparison at all - with white supremacy. However, he did admit in court burning that Black Lives Matter flag at a church in D.C. in December 2020. And certainly some of his people in the Proud Boys have engaged in violence with leftist protesters and unarmed and generally nonviolent protesters in the racial justice movement too.

KEITH: Carrie, how is this trial different than the last seditious conspiracy trial that you covered, the one against the Oath Keepers?

JOHNSON: So the Oath Keepers allegedly had stored an arsenal of weapons across the river at a hotel in Virginia for January 6 in case they needed them and in case things broke bad - they had defenses to that. But the government presented a lot of evidence that there were a lot of weapons, including long guns, in this hotel room. In the case of the Proud Boys, they're not accused of being armed on the Capitol grounds on January 6, but they are accused of engaging in patterns of violence and prompting other people to engage in violence, kind of inciting what the government calls normies - some of the more unaffiliated people who showed up on the Capitol grounds on January 6, who were not people who had ties to the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, some of these other extremist movements - but in kind of fueling them, fueling those people to go into the Capitol and spar with law enforcement officers that day and destroy property inside the building too.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, information about the defense in this case.

And we're back. And, Carrie, I'm hoping you can tell us about the defense here. What are the attorneys for the Proud Boys saying in response to the government's case?

JOHNSON: You know, this has been really important because we've seen a lot of footage, Tam, as you mentioned, of some of these people on the Capitol grounds on January 6. And so we got a chance to hear from their attorneys about what the outlines of their defense are going to be. For Enrique Tarrio, he, of course, was not at the Capitol on January 6. His lawyer says that Tarrio is a convenient scapegoat. His lawyer, Sabino Jauregui, says basically that Donald Trump is the one responsible for this, and it's too hard for the government to go after Donald Trump, and so they're making Tarrio and some other key figures scapegoats. Other defense lawyers are saying basically that it's been guilt by association, that so many of these videos and recordings and other things have been displayed in the public for years now that they're being tarred with the actions of a whole bunch of other people that day with whom they had no ties.

And finally, basically, they're saying there was no organized plot to storm the Capitol on January 6 and to stop the certification that day. And they're saying if you look at all of the text messages, all of the recordings the government has amassed here, all of the social media posts, nobody will tell you that there was an exact plot to engage in this kind of misconduct, this kind of historic misconduct and violence on that day. And they say the government's going to try to piece together all kinds of little bits and pieces of stuff but that they're not going to be able to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that there was an organized plan to attack the Capitol. The complication with that, of course, is that there are at least three members of the Proud Boys who have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, including one named Jeremy Bertino. Bertino was actually stabbed in Washington, D.C., in December 2020...


JOHNSON: ...In a fight with a left-wing protester. And so Bertino was not present at the Capitol on January 6. But Bertino, and his testimony, will be a central part of this case. And the key will be whether the defense can kind of destroy his credibility on the stand.

DAVIS: Carrie, you've covered at this point probably hundreds of these trials related to January 6 or at least have been monitoring the broader response from the Justice Department. Where does this trial fit in the constellation of all of these? Is this one uniquely important, or is it an echo of similar cases that the Justice Department has brought forward?

JOHNSON: You know, Sue, the first thing I want to point out is that there are almost never any trials in federal court...

DAVIS: Yeah - good point.

JOHNSON: ...Almost never. More than 95% of cases plead out. Many of these January 6 cases have, but a lot have not. And so I've had a chance to cover maybe the first jury trial last year from a man from Texas, Guy Reffitt, whose own son turned him into the FBI. I covered that Oath Keepers trial last year that went on for two months and was marked by all kinds of strange happenings, including the lead defendant, Stewart Rhodes, getting COVID and the case being delayed for a week. I have to tell you that this is the most herky-jerky one that I have seen to date, in part because...

DAVIS: Is herky-jerky a technical, legal term?

JOHNSON: (Laughter).


JOHNSON: I think I just made it up. But it's the way I drive a car, which is to say lots of stops and starts and hitting on the brakes in an abrupt manner. And so we're only just about to finish up with the first witness in this trial, a Capitol Police inspector who was on the ground at the Capitol on January 6, and there have been a lot of arguments a couple of times already. Defense lawyers have moved for mistrials. Last week, two of the defense lawyers threatened to quit the case. Another defense lawyer in this case got in trouble in Connecticut for his work on behalf of Alex Jones, and it was not clear he was going to be able to proceed. So a lot of bizarre things have happened already, and I would not even predict how long this trial is going to go because the pace has been so inconsistent and shambolic that I'm not sure if we're going to get out of here in two months. I just don't know.

KEITH: One defense that you mentioned higher up and that I think has come up in a lot of the people who've pled out in other less serious cases around January 6 is the Donald-Trump-made-me-do-it defense. Has it been persuasive?

JOHNSON: No. It almost never has been persuasive. It certainly hasn't persuaded juries. If the government has proof that somebody engaged in bad acts intentionally at the Capitol that day, the government has by and large succeeded, and they've won the overwhelming number of cases that have gone to trial - not all, but most. And so, you know - and I keep mentioning this - when Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin at the last public meeting of the House select committee investigating January 6 said, our legal system is not just about the foot soldiers, it's also about the masterminds, you know, and the ringleaders. And that is an echo that continues in my ear as I watch all of these cases. Of course, we have a special counsel investigating former President Trump's inner circle and what they did or didn't do in connection with January 6. But OK - no charges yet against Trump even though he's a central figure in this case even - we saw, of course, and heard him talking about the Proud Boys.

KEITH: Sue, I want to pull back just a little bit and ask you about this new House majority. The Republican House majority has launched a committee to investigate the weaponization of the federal government. And in part, at least that's an effort to investigate the investigators and to look at the January 6 prosecutions.

DAVIS: Among others things.

KEITH: What are you expecting from that?

DAVIS: Yeah.

KEITH: Yeah.

DAVIS: You know, it's hard to say, but I think that this is a special project for Jim Jordan. He's the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He's been very loyal to former President Trump and has been very suspicious of the Justice Department very broadly, not just about its prosecutions of people that played a role on January 6, but into investigations into the former president in any number of reasons. He also says he'll use the committee to investigate how the government might be surveilling everyday American citizens or any kind of abuse of power from the Justice Department. You know, that notion, that idea is very popular in conservative politics. It's a very gauzily divine committee right now. He hasn't exactly outlined the agenda or what specifically they're going to look at. But he has subpoena power, and he has a list of grievances. And I think that they see this as fertile ground to essentially go at the Justice Department, which a lot of conservatives are still quite ready to do.

KEITH: Well, we will leave it there for today. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

JOHNSON: I'm Carrie Johnson. I cover the Justice Department.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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