The DOJ is aggressively prosecuting Capitol insurrectionists — and dismantling GOP lies about Jan. 6

From the Proud Boys to the Oath Keepers, prosecutors are showing that the Capitol riot was no spontaneous "protest"

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 9, 2022 1:08PM (EST)

Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys (L) and Joe Biggs (R) gather outside of Harry's bar during a protest on December 12, 2020 in Washington, DC.  (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys (L) and Joe Biggs (R) gather outside of Harry's bar during a protest on December 12, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

The rioters Donald Trump sicced on the Capitol were still tearing the place apart on January 6, 2021, when the folks at Fox News began their effort to minimize the seriousness of the insurrection. Behind the scenes, hosts like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity were frantically texting the White House, begging Trump to call his people back, but on-air, they were vigorously defending the insurrectionists.

"It's not like it's a siege," Fox host Bret Baier said while thousands of Trump supporters literally overran cops, broke windows, and chased terrified members of Congress through the hallways. Various Fox News personalities would go on to claim that Trump's supporters were only there to "peacefully protest" and pinned the blame for the violence on "antifa" infiltrators.

In the months after the insurrection, the Republican deflection and minimization only escalated.

Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia claimed it was "a normal tourist visit." Tucker Carlson of Fox News insisted, "It was not an insurrection." Ingraham argued, "one of the big lies that this was a coordinated insurrection." Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo called it a "peaceful protest." Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said it "didn't seem like an armed insurrection." When Capitol law enforcement and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York spoke of the violence they witnessed and fear they felt that day, Fox News pundits accused them of lying. When faced with images of rioters assaulting police and trying to attack members of Congress, the pivot was to blame the left, usually by claiming the violence was committed by "antifa" or to accuse the FBI of orchestrating it as a false flag.  

To say these lies are relentless is to understate the case. The lies were also effective, as the majority of Republicans now endorse false claims that the insurrection was either "peaceful" or "antifa" and sometimes, contradicting themselves, they claim both at once. 

RELATED: Mocking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's trauma is really about covering for Trump's violent coup

But this week illustrated how the Department of Justice has been, through increasingly aggressive prosecution of the insurrectionists and their co-conspirators, building up a formidable wall of evidence to disprove all of the GOP lies about January 6.

On Tuesday, the DOJ had two major victories in the war to tell the truth about what happened after Trump sent thousands of his goons to storm the Capitol. First, Guy Reffitt, a Texas "militia" member who was turned in by his own son, was found guilty on all five felony charges he faced for his part in the insurrection. This was the first jury trial for an insurrectionist, and a good sign that future such prosecutions won't go well for the rioters. Then the DOJ revealed that it had formally charged Enrique Tarrio, the then-leader of the neo-fascist Proud Boys, for conspiracy for his role in trying to stop the certification of Joe Biden's presidential election. 

It's always exciting to see people who tried to overthrow democracy face punishment, but these court proceedings are consequential outside of the feelings of satisfaction they provide.

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Both the conviction and the new charges contribute heavily to the public record that demonstrates, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Republicans are lying when they minimize the events of January 6. It was, contrary to what Trump apologists would have you believe, a violent, armed, and organized insurrection. And yes, it was Trump supporters who did it — not "antifa" or the FBI. 

Unlike the various rioters who pled down to trespassing and other minor charges, Reffitt was convicted of some very serious crimes: two weapons charges related to the gun he brought to the Capitol, a charge of obstructing an official proceeding, and obstruction of justice, along with the trespassing charge. Similarly, Tarrio's indictment on conspiracy charges is not a small matter. Tarrio wasn't even at the Capitol that day, as he was busy dealing with charges due to other crimes he committed in the run-up to the insurrection. But he was the ringleader of the part the Proud Boys played in the riot, and for that, he's being hit with conspiracy charges. This follows a similar indictment of Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, who was charged in January with seditious conspiracy. Like Tarrio, Rhodes stayed out of the actual Capitol building that day, but there's a mountain of evidence that he was coordinating his followers that did participate in the attack. 

RELATED: Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes charged with seditious conspiracy for Jan. 6 role

Taken together, all this evidence paints a very clear picture of the insurrection as an organized conspiracy, one that was orchestrated by people who were eager and ready to use violence to steal the election for Trump. The only reason it wasn't worse is because there were enough Capitol police who were brave and competent and were able to get members of Congress to safety before the rioters could get to them. Indeed, the video footage of a Capitol officer shooting insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt is a chilling reminder of how close the rioters got to actually hurting or killing elected representatives and their staff. If he hadn't shot her and scared the crowd into backing off, they absolutely would have run down the fleeing congressional members. 

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Crucially, as the Washington Post reported last week, Trump's close friend and longtime unofficial aide Roger Stone was in frequent touch with both Rhodes and Tarrio in the lead-up to the insurrection. Stone erased some of these communications before the FBI got a hold of his phone, as well. That suggests that those charged with conspiracy are only one layer, in the grotesque Trump pyramid of lackeys, away from Trump himself. 

How much will that matter in the end? So far, there's been very little evidence that Attorney General Merrick Garland is interested in prosecuting Trump for inciting the insurrection, much less for any potential role Trump had in organizing it. It's reached the point where members of the House committee to investigate January 6 routinely go on cable news and practically beg Garland to go after Trump. If Garland really is refusing to prosecute Trump for fear that it will look "political," then he must reconsider.

It's not just a matter of protecting democracy from the next Trump coup. It's also a matter of professional pride. If Trump is able to successfully steal the White House in 2024, which he is openly plotting to do, all of these carefully pieced together cases against the January 6 conspiracists will go up in smoke, as Trump hands out pardons like candy. To show respect for all the hard work DOJ employees put into putting these people in prison, Garland needs to make sure that they stay there. 

RELATED: "If I do this, what do I have to lose?": New documents show Trump feared no consequences for a coup

That said, it is helpful to have a public record built up that definitively shows that the GOP and Fox News claims to minimize January 6 are all lies. It won't convince the diehard Trump supporters, of course. They're so well-practiced at endorsing lies that there's no such thing as evidence definitive enough to get them to back down. But polling and focus group data show there's a massive mushy middle of Americans who don't approve of January 6, but also have been impacted by right-wing propaganda so they don't understand how coordinated, purposeful, and violent the insurrection actually was. If and when the January 6 committee gets around to holding public hearings about the insurrection, we can expect a massive blitz of the same lies that both Republicans and right-wing media have been telling for months. These court documents offer a useful counterbalance and will help shame the mainstream media into not running with "both sides say, who can tell?" style coverage of the claims being made. 

Still, if the DOJ wants these charges to stick, they would be wise to prosecute Trump. Otherwise, he has a very good chance of installing himself as president and issuing the mass pardons he has already promised. If only to save their own work product, the DOJ needs to seriously consider charging Trump for some of his many, many crimes. A public record is nice. Actual consequences for trying to overthrow democracy are better. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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