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Proud Boys saw themselves as ‘Trump’s army,’ U.S. says in trial closings

Closing arguments are underway in the seditious conspiracy trial of five Proud Boys leaders accused of spearheading the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
9 min

The far-right Proud Boys believed they were soldiers waging war under the direction of President Donald Trump when they violently stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, prosecutors said in closing arguments at the seditious conspiracy trial of five group leaders.

“These defendants saw themselves as Donald Trump’s army, fighting to keep their preferred leader in power,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Conor Mulroe told jurors. “A fighting force lined up behind Donald Trump and ready to commit violence on his behalf.”

In wrapping up the 14-week trial, both the government and the defense framed the jury’s deliberations as an existential test for U.S. democracy. Mulroe called the court proceeding “every bit as solemn and important as the one these defendants sought to disrupt.” Nicholas Smith, representing one of the Proud Boys, said guilty verdicts would criminalize political protests.

“This is not who we are,” Smith told the jury. “This is very dangerous.”

Prosecutors allege that the Proud Boys members saw Trump’s call during a September 2020 presidential debate for the group to “stand by” as a directive to prepare for combat and his December 2020 tweet announcing a “wild” rally in Washington on Jan. 6 as the deployment order.

When the Proud Boys and other rioters briefly succeeded in halting the certification of the 2020 election results by chasing members of Congress out of the Capitol that day, Mulroe said, “They went into that building like soldiers into a conquered city.”

Mulroe said the Proud Boys used “1776” as “a rallying cry, a call to action, and shorthand of what they wanted to achieve” — a violent revolution. But Mulroe said the Proud Boys subverted the meaning of that historical reference. The Revolutionary War was “fought to found a nation where leaders were chosen by the people, and power was handed over peacefully under the rule of law — not ruled by a king for life through the power of his army,” he said. “What these defendants wanted was a revolution … but it was not 1776.”

Prosecutors said the Proud Boys were also motivated by a more personal vendetta against police over the arrest of longtime Proud Boys chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio for burning a stolen “Black Lives Matter” flag at a Dec. 12, 2020, pro-Trump rally in D.C. where member Jeremy Bertino was stabbed.

Tarrio and three of the other men on trial — Proud Boys leaders Ethan Nordean, Joe Biggs and Zachary Rehl — “preached violence to their followers” in a “constant drumbeat” leading up to Jan. 6, Mulroe said, using social media to “radicalize” men like Dominic Pezzola, the final defendant. Pezzola and other men “willing to fight” were brought into a handpicked group that Tarrio ironically named the “Ministry of Self-Defense” (MOSD), Mulroe said.

Defense attorneys responded that prosecutors made the five men scapegoats for Trump, who incited an unplanned riot, and for law enforcement leaders who failed to respond effectively. They accused prosecutors of trying to sway the jury with the Proud Boys’ offensive rhetoric.

“You … may think these guys are racist or sexist — some of them may be — but that’s not what they’re charged with,” said Carmen Hernandez, who represents Rehl.

U.S. prosecutors have charged more than 1,000 people and obtained about 600 convictions in the Capitol breach, with only one person acquitted of all counts. At the same time, special counsel Jack Smith is investigating whether Trump or anyone around him unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power from Trump to Joe Biden.

A conviction of Tarrio would mark a milestone in the sprawling Justice Department investigation, making him the first person not at the scene to be found guilty of conspiracy at trial. Defense lawyers say the government’s theory that Tarrio and his lieutenants used other rioters as “tools” in the violence could be applied to uncharged players who were not in the area.

Over video of lawmakers cowering under their desks and police officers battling the mob that day, Mulroe splashed the final message Tarrio sent his lieutenant, Biggs, before he was arrested Jan. 4: “Make it a spectacle.”

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The government showed evidence that Tarrio was in contact with Trump’s “stop the steal” campaign organizers. Yet after three Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy trials, prosecutors have not produced direct evidence of a wider plot tying violent actors to Trump or his advisers — either from a cooperating witness or in the hundreds of thousands of messages the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers shared. That could conceivably change if convicted defendants or some still facing charges decide to cooperate.

Hernandez said she agreed that “Mr. Trump has a lot to answer for,” along with advisers like Rudy Giuliani who helped “whip the mob into a frenzy” with lies about the election.

“‘The president made me do it’ is not a defense,” she acknowledged. “But … it’s about how it affected people’s minds.”

Mulroe emphasized that the Proud Boys converged on the Capitol even before Trump directed followers there from a rally at the White House Ellipse on Jan. 6. There, Nordean and Biggs led the group on a march to the Peace Monument, where Trump rallygoers had gathered. In minutes, prosecutors have said, about 20 Proud Boys, including several of the co-defendants, began leading the mob’s charge through police barricades and lines. Pezzola later used a stolen police shield to shatter a Capitol window — the first breach of the building.

Late in the trial, prosecutors also accused Rehl of assaulting police outside the Capitol with chemical spray, using a video Hernandez dismissed as too ambiguous to hold against her client.

“They made it plain as day why they were there,” Mulroe said. “It was not to see Donald Trump’s speech. It was not to protect patriots. It was certainly not to protest peacefully. They were there to threaten and if necessary to stop the certification of the election, and that was what they did.”

The Proud Boys said they were marching on Jan. 6 only to support Trump and expand their movement. Multiple defense witnesses testified they knew of no plan to stop the election certification, a conclusion attorneys said is supported by the presence of as many as eight or nine law enforcement informants in the Proud Boys midst who reported nothing to the FBI. In messages sent the night before the riot, Rehl and others expressed confusion about how the Proud Boys would organize themselves the next day.

“The people at the top don’t even know what the plan is,” Hernandez said.

Smith pointed out that his client, Nordean, intervened after another Proud Boy shoved a police officer outside the Capitol.

“Why would someone planning to interfere with law enforcement stop an assault?” Smith asked. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Prosecutors leaned on Bertino, a MOSD member who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and testified that although he knew of no specific plan to storm the Capitol ahead of time, there was an agreement “to do anything that was necessary to save the country” and keep Trump in office.

“I didn’t know the exact plan of how it was going to get done, [but] I know what the objective was,” testified Bertino, who watched Jan. 6 from his home in North Carolina while recuperating from being stabbed.

The government also cited communications in which Tarrio and other co-defendants and co-conspirators alluded to storming the Capitol and cheered the capture of the building afterward.

“Make no mistake … we did this,” Tarrio texted afterward from Baltimore, where he decamped after being arrested Jan. 4 and expelled from D.C. pending trial.

“Enrique Tarrio, the one responsible for bringing them all together in the first place, throughout Jan. 6 gave explicit approval, explicit encouragement, explicit direction, all of which makes up explicit agreement,” Mulroe told the jury.

Mulroe argued that even if there was no pre-Jan. 6 plan, the Proud Boys’ coordinated actions that day to breach the building constituted a criminal conspiracy. They used “the force of their combined numbers to stop Congress from certifying the election,” Mulroe argued Monday. “That joining together is an agreement.”

That claim echoed an argument used successfully against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, who was found guilty of seditious conspiracy in November. In that case, federal prosecutors argued that the Oath Keepers took advantage of the riot to advance Rhodes’s long-held belief that “bloody civil war” was necessary to fight encroaching federal tyranny.

Tarrio’s attorneys will address the jury Tuesday, along with lawyers for Biggs and Pezzola. The government will then have a chance to rebut the defense arguments.

Pezzola took the stand last week; he lashed out at prosecutors and at “this corrupt trial with your fake charges.” But he also said he was testifying to take responsibility for his actions and that the others should not be blamed for them. Rehl also testified, saying the riot was a “disgrace” he did not anticipate. He said he did not “recall” pepper-spraying a police officer.

Pezzola “blamed everyone but himself for his actions,” Mulroe said, while Rehl “lied under oath.” He dismissed both men and other Proud Boys who testified for the defense as “remorseless to this day.”

Smith said the defendants’ astonishment at being accused of planning for the Jan. 6 riot was genuine, as shown in encrypted messages after the attack where they expressed incredulity.

“Use your common sense,” he said. “There’s no reason for them to be lying to themselves. They’re stunned.”

The five defendants face a 10-count indictment. Several of the counts are punishable by up to 20 years in prison: seditious conspiracy (plotting to oppose federal authority, including Biden’s inauguration, by force), conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding of Congress, and actually obstructing Congress’s joint session to confirm the 2020 election results.

The Proud Boys trial

The latest: Some Proud Boys associates worked as FBI informants and were exposed at the trial. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio knew violence could erupt on Jan. 6, prosecutors alleged. Proud Boy Jeremy Bertino testified that members believed they had to “take the reins” to keep President Donald Trump in office.

How did we get here? Former chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio and four leaders of the Proud Boys face trial on charges in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. In November, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy.

Who is involved? Created in 2016, the Proud Boys is the most active right-wing extremist group in the country. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio learned of his arrest in advance from a D.C. police officer, according to a testimony. Here’s what we know about the Proud Boys’ involvement in Jan. 6.