The trial is the most significant since the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Though prosecutors had already won a conviction in a separate seditious conspiracy trial against Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys have long been seen as more central to the assault on the Capitol.
Prosecutors theorized that the Proud Boys developed a plan to violently stop the transfer of power at any cost, and used tactics they had honed over the years to influence the pro-Trump crowd – “normies” as the Proud Boys described them – to overtake the police at crucial points around the Capitol. They also helped remove some of the barriers that allowed the crowd to move closer to the building.
Members of the group marched on Capitol Hill well before Trump finished speaking at a rally that morning and were present at nearly every significant violation of police lines. Dominic Pezzola, a Proud Boy from New York who is on trial alongside Tarrio, was the first to break into the building, when he smashed two Capitol windows with a stolen police shield.
Their presence at these breach points was not accidental, McCullough said. The group, under Tarrio’s leadership, formed a new “fighting force” – dubbed the “Ministry of Self-Defense”. This group was additionally inspired by Trump’s tweet on December 19, 2020, urging supporters to come to Washington for a “wild” protest against the election results. The Proud Boys, prosecutors said, interpreted that tweet as a call to action.
“These men did not back down. They didn’t stand still. They mobilized,” McCullough said.
During pretrial arguments, defense attorneys argued that prosecutors exaggerated the group’s role in the Capitol attack and criminalized its political support for Trump. Although members of the group were present on Capitol Hill, they argued, it was not part of a broader conspiracy to prevent the new Biden administration from taking power.
Tarrio’s lawyer, Sabino Jauregui, laid the blame for the violence on Capitol Hill squarely at Trump’s feet, calling his client a “scapegoat.”
“President Trump told these people that the election was stolen,” Jauregui said. “Trump told them to go there on the 6th of January. And it was Trump in his January 6th speech that unleashed that crowd there on Capitol Hill. But he is not on trial here today.
Trump will be a looming presence on the sidelines of the trial. The January 6 House select committee report highlighted his influence in the group, while some of the former president’s closest allies — such as longtime confidant Roger Stone — maintained relationships with Tarrio and other key leaders. The panel’s report showed that Tarrio’s co-defendants, Ethan Nordean and Joe Biggs, had been in contact with pro-Trump figures such as Alex Jones and his InfoWars associate, Owen Shroyer, in the days leading up to Jan. 6..
Prosecutors have portrayed Tarrio as the group’s mastermind, skilled at shielding his men from scrutiny while quietly transforming them from a notorious “drinking club” that clashed in the streets with antifa into a more organized and militarized group.
“Enrique Tarrio believed that the Biden presidency was a threat to the existence of the Proud Boys,” McCullough said.
Joining Tarrio and Pezzola in the courtroom were Nordean, from Seattle; Biggs, a Floridian; and Pennsylvania’s Zachary Rehl — three of the Proud Boys’ promoters say they led the charge.
Nordean led the group to the scene, prosecutors say, while Tarrio – who was not in Washington because of a court order to stay out of town – kept in touch from a hotel in Baltimore.
“President Trump was still speaking at 12:45 am when Ethan Nordean brought the men together,” McCullough said, noting that Nordean appeared to have a specific plan in place.
Prosecutors also introduced jurors to North Carolina’s Jeremy Bertino, who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and is expected to be a crucial witness in the trial. Bertino previously testified to the January 6 select committee. And they mentioned Charles Donohoe, also of North Carolina, who was charged alongside the five men until he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct the January 6 session of Congress. Both men, McCullough said, played key roles in instigating the crowd’s assault on the Capitol and directing movement at key points of violation.
Prosecutors noted that minutes after the attack, Tarrio sent a text message to allies taking credit for the attack, prosecutors noted. “Make no mistake…”, wrote Tarrio, “we did it”.
Others sent in similar celebratory comments. “I’m so fucking proud of what we accomplished yesterday,” Rehl texted associates.
Lawyers for other Proud Boys claimed that prosecutors overreacted in their case and that there was no grand plan within the group to storm the Capitol. Cooperating witnesses told prosecutors that there was no predetermined plan to attack or breach the Capitol building.
“Repeatedly the government heard from witnesses that there were no plans for January 6,” said Nicholas Smith, Nordean’s attorney.
He highlighted statements by cooperating government witnesses that underscore the point.
“We never planned any attacks or violations of the Capitol building,” John Stewart, a Proud Boy known as Blackbeard, told prosecutors.
Smith agreed with prosecutors that January 6 was “an embarrassment, an embarrassment to the country, an historic embarrassment”. But he said the evidence the government would show to underscore that point would stir up emotions and anger that shouldn’t be factored into the jury’s decision-making.
He urged them to “put aside the emotions, the anger, the politics and do something like a scientific diagnosis”.
Pezzola’s attorney, Roger Roots, sought to cast the entire attack on Capitol Hill as little more than a “six-hour delay” by Congress. He argued that Pezzola broke the window only after another protester had already damaged it with a wooden pole and that a video of Pezzola celebrating inside the Capitol with a cigar should be dubbed “the innocent video” for reasons that were unclear.
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