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Capitol Conspiracy Cases Show Plans For Violence, Not Necessarily For Breach

Thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump storm the U.S. Capitol following a "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6. Prosecutors are working on hundreds of charges related to the breach.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump storm the U.S. Capitol following a "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6. Prosecutors are working on hundreds of charges related to the breach.

For nearly three months, federal investigators have been digging to get to the bottom of a major question hanging over the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol: Was it planned and coordinated?

The public has begun to see pieces of an answer to that question in recent weeks through court filings and statements from prosecutors. Those materials do not — at this point — show that those in the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 had a clear, coherent plan ahead of time to breach the building, according to an NPR review.

Instead, the public record suggests there were several smaller groups of people with ties to extremist organizations who coordinated ahead of time and traveled to Washington, D.C., ready for violence, but not with the explicitly stated goal of storming the Capitol.

"There have already been conspiracy charges, small, I would call them, sort of small cells of individuals working together, coordinating their travel, etc.," FBI Director Christopher Wray told NPR this month. "I don't think we've seen some national conspiracy, but we're going to keep digging."

Former prosecutors caution that it is still early in the investigation and authorities may uncover evidence that points to advance planning to breach the Capitol. There was, for instance, chatter online ahead of Jan. 6 about targeting Congress, although anonymous talk on social media doesn't necessarily reflect concrete steps for action.

Investigators are still sifting through mountains of evidence that includes thousands of videos, text messages and other electronic communications as they work to get a better understanding of how Jan. 6 happened. Wray and others have said that those efforts will yield a fuller picture with time.

Here's what we know about the conspiracy cases so far, according to the court filings and hearings:

The scope

About two dozen people are facing conspiracy charges at this point, which is a sliver of the more than 300 people who have been charged in connection with the Capitol riot.

The Justice Department has brought at least six separate Capitol conspiracy cases. One of them is tied to an attack on law enforcement officers, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer who later died.

The others involve members or associates of two far-right extremist groups — the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys — that have become a focus for investigators.

Those cases have been charged as separate conspiracies, although prosecutors presented evidence this month suggesting the two groups were in communication ahead of Jan. 6.

The Oath Keepers case

The biggest conspiracy case so far involves the Oath Keepers. Ten alleged members and associates of the anti-government, paramilitary group are accused of conspiring to disrupt Congress' certification of the Electoral College vote count.

Prosecutors allege that the defendants had extensive discussions in the days and weeks leading up to Trump's "Stop The Steal" rally on Jan. 6 about their plans for the day itself.

Government lawyers cite Facebook chats and text messages in which the defendants talk about what kind of weapons and gear to bring to Washington, D.C., what kind of clothes to wear. They also discuss using handheld radios to communicate.

One of the most alarming allegations the government has made is that the defendants had plans for a "quick reaction force," or QRF, to be stationed with weapons across the Potomac River in Virginia. The idea, according to court documents, was to have a force ready to speed into Washington, D.C., if things downtown got, as one defendant said, "heavy."

The government has cited texts from a group chat called "DC OP: Jan 6 21" on the encrypted messaging app Signal. Members of the group chat included at least two of the defendants and the Oath Keepers' founder, Stewart Rhodes. In that chat, Rhodes — identified as Person One — suggests that members bring a collapsible baton, gloves, eye protection and a helmet.

The group texts, however, don't provide a direct line to plans to breach the Capitol.

"There is no discussion of forcibly entering the Capitol until January 6, 2021," the government said in its filing disclosing the texts. "However, there is talk about being prepared for violence."

On Jan. 6 itself, several of the defendants are accused of taking part in a military-style "stack" formation to push up the steps of the Capitol and into the building. Prosecutors say Rhodes had a 97-second phone call with one of the defendants, Kelly Meggs, minutes before that happened.

That evening, Rhodes allegedly messaged the group: "Leaders check to be sure you have all your team members. If anyone is missing, post here."

Rhodes, who founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, has not been charged, although investigators are scrutinizing his role.

The defendants who have appeared in federal court in Washington, D.C., have pleaded not guilty.

The Proud Boys

Prosecutors have also brought conspiracy cases against members or associates of the Proud Boys, a far-right, nationalist group that has engaged in street fighting.

Ethan Nordean, with backward baseball hat and bullhorn, leads members of the far-right group Proud Boys in marching before the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
Ethan Nordean, with backward baseball hat and bullhorn, leads members of the far-right group Proud Boys in marching before the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The most notable case is against four alleged leaders of the group—Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zach Rehl and Charles Donohoe.

According to court papers, the men communicated on an encrypted messaging app about their plans for Jan. 6. The day before the riot, a new encrypted messaging channel titled "Boots on the Ground" was set up for Proud Boys in Washington, D.C. The four defendants and more than 50 people were in the channel, prosecutors say.

According to court papers, the participants discussed the use of handheld radios on Jan. 6. They talked about getting them programmed for the right frequency. They also were told not to wear the Proud Boys' traditional black and yellow colors.

Members of the channel were told to meet at the Washington Monument the following morning at 10 a.m. The defendants and other Proud Boys did show up at the appointed time and from there marched to the Capitol, where prosecutors say they busted through police lines and forced their way into the Capitol.

Nordean and Biggs have both pleaded not guilty. The other two defendants have yet to enter a plea.

A larger conspiracy?

Since the pro-Trump mob bashed its way through the police and overran the Capitol, questions have swirled about whether there was a larger conspiracy, and if so, how far up it went.

Prosecutors have not alleged an overarching conspiracy at this point, although investigators are looking into that possibility.

There are indications, however, of contacts between Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

Prosecutors have produced evidence that one of the defendants in the Oath Keepers case, Kelly Meggs, claimed to be coordinating with the Proud Boys and a far-right extremist militia to form an "alliance" on Jan. 6. The nature of any alleged agreement is unclear from the court document, and there is no mention of a plan to storm the Capitol.

While the full scope of any advance planning is still murky, what is clear is that the Capitol riot investigation is massive in scope. Even now, nearly three months after the breach, investigators are sorting through evidence and chasing down leads as they build out their cases.

"I think the fact that he brought charges against 300 people in under three months is really quite extraordinary," said Tom Firestone, a former federal prosecutor who's now with the law firm Baker McKenzie. "There's never been a case like that in U.S. history."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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