By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, LINDSAY WHITEHURST and ALANNA DURKIN RICHER
WASHINGTON — Former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and four lieutenants led a coordinated attack on “the heart of our democracy” in a desperate attempt to keep Donald Trump in the White House, a federal prosecutor said Thursday at the start of their seditious conspiracy trial.
Jurors began hearing attorneys’ opening statements for the trial more than two years after members of the far-right extremist group joined a pro-Trump mob in storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough said the Proud Boys knew that Trump’s hopes for a second term in office were quickly fading as Jan. 6 approached. So the group leaders assembled a “fighting force” to stop the transfer of presidential power to Joe Biden, McCullough said. Tarrio saw a Biden presidency as a “threat to the Proud Boys’ existence,” the prosecutor said.
McCullough showed jurors a video clip of Trump infamously telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during his first presidential debate with Biden in 2020, a moment that led to an explosion of interest in the group.
“These men did not stand back. They did not stand by. Instead, they mobilized,” the prosecutor said.
Proud Boys leaders recruited new members “to help them achieve their goals,” McCullough said. On Jan. 6, they gathered at a pre-arranged spot and began to advance on the Capitol before Trump finished his speech.
“The time for action had arrived,” the prosecutor said.
The trial comes on the heels of the seditious conspiracy convictions of two leaders of the Oath Keepers, another far-right extremist group.
The case against Tarrio and his four associates is one of the most consequential to emerge from the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. The trial will provide an in-depth look at a group that has become an influential force in mainstream Republican politics.
Defense attorneys argue that the group’s high profile made Tarrio a target for authorities looking for a scapegoat for the riot. His lawyer Sabino Jauregui accused prosecutors of deceptively stitching together offensive online messages and said Tarrio actually tried to keep his Proud Boys out of fights by talking to police before rallies.
“They’re trying to build this conspiracy that does not exist,” Jauregui said. He acknowledged Tarrio and other self-described “Western chauvinists” in the Proud Boys shared “offensive” messages, but said it was Trump who unleashed the mob that attacked the Capitol.
“It’s too hard to blame Trump,” Jauregui said. “It’s easier to blame Enrique as the face of the Proud Boys.”
Defense attorneys also say there was never any plan to go into the Capitol or stop Congress’ certification of the electoral vote won by Biden.
“Over and over and over and over the government has been told by witnesses there was no plan for January 6,” said Nicholas Smith, attorney for Ethan Nordean, a Proud Boys chapter president from Auburn, Washington. Nordean went into the Capitol looking for friends and did not damage anything or hurt anyone there, he said.
The defense has also accused prosecutors of trying to silence potential defense witnesses.
The other co-defendants are Joseph Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Florida, a self-described Proud Boys organizer; Zachary Rehl, who was president of the Proud Boys chapter in Philadelphia; and Dominic Pezzola, a Proud Boys member from Rochester, New York.
The trial will lay out private communications between them, as well as their public statements, their coordinated actions at the Capitol and their celebrations of the riot before they tried to cover their tracks.
A message that Tarrio posted on social media before Jan. 6 said, “Lords of War” over a photo of Pezzola with hashtags ”#J6″ and ”#J20.”
“These lords of war joined together to stop the transfer of presidential power,” McCullough said.
Tarrio’s lieutenants were part of the first wave of rioters to push onto Capitol grounds and charge past police barricades toward the building, according to prosecutors.
Jurors saw a video of Pezzola using a stolen riot shield to smash in a window, allowing rioters to pour into the Capitol. Pezzola took a video of himself taking a “victory smoke” on a cigar inside the Capitol, the prosecutor said. His lawyer argued that a different rioter broke the window first.
Tarrio, who’s from Miami, wasn’t in Washington on Jan. 6 because he was arrested two days before the riot and charged with vandalizing a Black Lives Matter banner at a historic Black church during a protest in December 2020. He was ordered to leave the capital, but prosecutors say he remained engaged in the extremist group’s planning for Jan. 6.
Monitoring the riot from afar, Tarrio posted a message urging Proud Boys to stay at the Capitol.
“Make no mistake,” he wrote. “We did this.”
A day after the attack, Tarrio wrote a message that said, “God didn’t put me there for a reason.”
“We would still be there,” he added.
The Justice Department has charged nearly 1,000 people across the United States over the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, and its investigation continues to grow. Among those are Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs, who were convicted of conspiring to block the transfer of presidential power from Trump, a Republican, to Biden, a Democrat. Three other Oath Keepers were acquitted of the charge. They were, however, convicted of other serious charges.
The Proud Boys’ trial is the first major trial to begin since the House committee investigating the insurrection urged the department to bring criminal charges against Trump and associates who were behind his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss.
While the criminal referral has no real legal standing, it adds to political pressure already on Attorney General Merrick Garland and the special counsel he appointed, Jack Smith, who’s conducting an investigation into Jan. 6 and Trump’s actions.
Jury selection in the case took two weeks as a slew of potential jurors said they associated the Proud Boys with hate groups or white nationalism. The Capitol can be seen in the distance from parts of the courthouse, where a second group of Oath Keepers is also currently on trial for seditious conspiracy, which carries up to 20 years behind bars upon conviction.
Tensions bubbled over at times as jury selection slowed to a crawl and defense lawyers complained that too many potential jurors were biased against the Proud Boys. Defense attorneys challenged jurors who expressed support for causes such as Black Lives Matter, saying that could indicate prejudice against the Proud Boys.
Lawyers and the judge clashed during sometimes chaotic pretrial legal wrangling to the point where two defense attorneys threatened to withdraw from the case. U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, lashed out after defense lawyers repeatedly interrupted and talked over him on Wednesday, warning that he would find them in contempt if it continued.
Richer reported from Boston.
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