Leaders of the far-right Proud Boys loyal to then-President Donald Trump mounted a sophisticated effort to stop the transfer of power to then-President-elect Joe Biden that culminated in an organized push to breach the Capitol, prosecutors argued Thursday.
Proud Boys chair Enrique Tarrio and four allies took cues from Trump’s refusal to cede the election to Biden and inspiration from his debate-stage call for the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough said. He urged jurors to convict the five men of seditious conspiracy — a plot to use force to prevent Biden from taking office.
“These ‘lords of war’ joined together to stop the transfer of presidential power,” McCullough said during opening arguments, citing the Proud Boys’ own description of themselves sent in messages prior to Jan. 6, 2021.
The trial is the most significant to emerge from the Jan. 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 Capitol attack.
Prosecutors have 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 police at crucial points around the Capitol. They also helped remove some of the barriers that allowed the mob to advance closer to the building.
Members of the group marched on the Capitol well before Trump finished addressing a rally that morning and were present at nearly every significant breach of police lines. Dominic Pezzola, a Proud Boy from New York who is on trial alongside Tarrio, was the first to breach the building, when he smashed two Capitol windows with a stolen police riot shield.
Their presence at these breach points was no accident, McCullough contended. The group, under Tarrio’s leadership, had formed a new “fighting force” — dubbed the “Ministry of Self Defense.” That group took additional inspiration from Trump’s Dec. 19, 2020, tweet urging supporters to descend on Washington for a “wild” protest against the election results. Proud Boys, prosecutors said, took that tweet as a call to action.
“These men did not stand back. They did not stand by. They mobilized,” McCullough said.
During pretrial arguments, defense attorneys contended that prosecutors have overstated the group’s role in the Capitol attack and criminalized their political support for Trump. While members of the group were present at the Capitol, they argued, it wasn’t part of a broader conspiracy to prevent the incoming Biden administration from assuming power.
Tarrio’s attorney, Sabino Jauregui, laid the blame for the violence at the Capitol squarely at Trump’s feet, calling his client a “scapegoat.”
“President Trump told these people the election was stolen,” Jauregui said. “Trump told them to go there on January 6th. And it was Trump in his speech on January 6th that unleashed this mob over there to the Capitol. But he’s not on trial here today.”
Trump will be a looming presence in the background of the trial. The House Jan. 6 select committee’s report underscored his influence on the group, while some of the former president’s closest allies — like 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 maintained contact with pro-Trump figures like Alex Jones and his InfoWars associate Owen Shroyer in the days leading up to Jan. 6.
Prosecutors portrayed Tarrio as the mastermind of the group, masterful at shielding his men from scrutiny while quietly turning them from a notorious “drinking club” that clashed on the streets with antifa into a more organized and militarized group.
“Enrique Tarrio believed that a Biden presidency was a threat to the Proud Boys’ existence,” McCullough said.
Alongside Tarrio and Pezzola in court were Nordean, of Seattle; Biggs, a Floridian; and Zachary Rehl, of Pennsylvania — three of the Proud Boys prosecutors say led the attack.
Nordean led the group on the ground, prosecutors say, while Tarrio — who wasn’t in Washington because of a court order to stay out of the city — kept in touch from a Baltimore hotel.
“President Trump was still speaking at 12:45 when Ethan Nordean mustered the men,” McCullough said, noting that Nordean appeared to have a specific plan in place.
Prosecutors also introduced jurors to North Carolina’s Jeremy Bertino, who has pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and is expected to be a crucial witness in the trial. Bertino previously testified to the Jan. 6 select committee. And they referenced Charles Donohoe, also of North Carolina, who was charged alongside the five men until he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct Congress’ Jan. 6 session. Both men, McCullough said, played key roles instigating the mob attack on the Capitol and directing movements at key breach points.
Prosecutors noted that within minutes of the attack, Tarrio texted allies taking credit for the attack, prosecutors noted. “Make no mistake…,” Tarrio wrote, “we did this.”
Others sent similar celebratory remarks. “I’m proud as fuck at what we accomplished yesterday,” Rehl texted associates.
Attorneys for other Proud Boys contended that prosecutors overstated their case and that there was no grand plan within the group to storm the Capitol. Cooperating witnesses told prosecutors there was no predetermined plan to attack or breach the Capitol building.
“Over and over and over and over the government has been told by witnesses, there was no plan for January 6th,” said Nicholas Smith, Nordean’s attorney.
He highlighted statements from the government’s cooperating witnesses underscoring the point.
“We did not ever pre-plan any attack or breach of the Capitol building,” John Stewart, a Proud Boy known as Blackbeard, told prosecutors.
Smith agreed with prosecutors that Jan. 6 was “a disgrace, an embarrassment to the country, a historic embarrassment.” But he said the evidence the government would show to underscore that point would stir up emotions and anger that should not factor into the jury’s decision-making.
He urged them to “set aside emotions, anger, politics and make something like a scientific diagnosis.”
Pezzola’s attorney, Roger Roots, sought to cast the entire attack on the Capitol as little more than a “six-hour delay” of Congress. He argued that Pezzola smashed the window only after another rioter 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 not-guilty video” for reasons that were unclear.