Proud Boys members Joseph Biggs, left, and Ethan Nordean, right with megaphone, walk toward the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster, File)
Before the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, the FBI had well-placed informants in the Proud Boys who the government hoped could glean information about the notorious far-right street-fighting gang’s inner workings. Now, some of those same informants are being called as witnesses in the Proud Boys’ high-profile seditious conspiracy trial—by the defense, who think their testimony will help get their clients off the hook and prove they had no plot to storm the Capitol.
According to defense lawyers, those informants were privy to Proud Boys’ chats and even marched alongside them to the Capitol on Jan. 6. After several delays, opening arguments finally got underway Thursday in the high-profile seditious conspiracy trial against the Proud Boy ‘s ex-“chairman” Enrique Tarrio, top organizers Joseph Biggs, Zach Rehl, and Ethan Nordean, and member Dominic Pezzola. All five men are accused of entering into a secret agreement to storm the Capitol, with the ultimate goal of disrupting and even preventing the peaceful transition of power. They face a maximum of 20 years in prison. Each of the defendants has their own legal teams—an array of personalities and characters who are employing a grab bag of strategies and arguments they hope will exonerate their clients. But it’s clear that the biggest asset to the defense’s case, by far, could be the testimony of those government informants. For example, attorney Nick Smith, who’s representing Nordean, showed jurors a screenshot of messages from one of the informants. “PBs did not do it or inspire,” the informant wrote. “Crowds did, herd mentality. Not organized.” Many questions remain, however, about just how much information these informants were privy to before the riot, which will likely be cleared up in the coming weeks. For example, Smith indicated that these informants were in a Proud Boy Telegram channel, but we don’t know which one—in particular, whether they’d gained access to a private channel that was created by Tarrio on Dec. 29, 2020, for a special chapter called “Ministry of Self Defense” (or “MOSD) channel.
We also don’t know how many informants were present on Jan. 6, or when the FBI gained access to the Proud Boys. “You’ll hear them testify that the march to the Capitol was “just for the camera,” Smith told jurors Thursday, referring to the informants. “Despite being involved in the Telegram channel, there was no plan.”
Judging by its opening statements, the government is likely to rely heavily on audio, video, and text messages from that encrypted “Ministry of Self Defense” channel which were sent before, during and after the Capitol riot. Some of those messages appear to be quite incriminating: In particular, a now infamous message Tarrio sent as the riot was happening, saying “Make no mistake… we did this.” Smith, in his opening statements and in pre-trial arguments, made painfully clear that by introducing informants to the case, he was in no way trying to support the baseless “fedsurrection” conspiracy theory that claims federal agents fomented the Capitol riot with the ultimate goal of smearing Trump supporters. “At no point in this case will you see Nordean produce evidence that anyone working in the government instigated Jan. 6,” Smith said. “We are not making that suggestion, and it is a repellent one.”
“You’ll hear them testify that the march to the Capitol was “just for the camera.”
Smith’s legal strategy doesn't seem to be particularly concerned with exonerating the reputation of the Proud Boys, or justifying the events of Jan. 6, but rather, identifying “logic flaws” in the government’s arguments. Smith began his opening statements by condemning the Jan. 6 riot as a “crass spectacle in front of the world” and a “historic embarrassment for the country.” “Surely the government is right that this was a disgraceful scene,” Smith told the jury. “Some of the evidence you’ll see in this case will make your stomach turn. I can say it makes my stomach turn and I've been looking at it for some time.” Other lawyers took a slightly different approach. Sabino Jauregui, who’s representing Tarrio—the former “chairman” of the Proud Boys— tried to argue his client was being “scapegoated” by the government because he’s an easy target. “Evidence is going to show that the government has to blame someone for the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6,” said Jauregui. “It’s too hard to blame Trump, too hard to bring him to the witness stand with his army of lawyers.” “It’s too hard to blame the FBI, even though they had embedded informants in the Proud Boy,” he continued. “You can’t blame the Secret Service, it’s too difficult, even though they had preemptive intelligence. Can't blame the leader of the Metro Police Department.”
Jauregui repeated some of the empty lines that the Proud Boys themselves have used to distance themselves from the political violence and bigotry they’re known for. He called them a “drinking club,” for example. “The group is all inclusive,” Jauregui said. “They think America is the best, this is what they fight for. Not a religious thing, not a racist thing.” He tried to cast Tarrio—who watched the riot from a hotel room in Baltimore, after a judge ordered him to stay away from the city for burning a church’s Black Lives Matter flag—as a pacifist. He said that the Ministry of Self Defense was really just “a joke, in a frat boy, Proud Boy, kind of way.” “Other Proud Boys were always making fun of Enrique because he never wanted to fight,” Jauregui said. “They call him the minister of self defense.”Some of the weakest arguments were presented by Roger Roots, who joined Pezzola’s legal team on Jan. 3. Roots has long-standing ties to anti-government and militia movements; he worked as a paralegal on behalf of the Bundy family when they faced charges for armed standoffs with the federal government in Nevada and Oregon.Roots asserted that the entire case came down to the government making a “huge deal” out of a “six hour delay of Congress.” In fact, Roots said, the delay wasn’t even that egregious because the Senate had passed an agenda that “explicitly penciled in at least a two-hour delay to hear objections, debates, and protests.”
Roots also insisted that the kind of foot traffic that Congress experiences on a daily basis wasn’t much different from the riot. “They operate every day with dozens of people in the hallway talking, meeting, expressing themselves,” he said. He showed a series of incriminating videos of his client and tried to argue that what jurors were seeing wasn’t all that bad. He showed the infamous video clip of Pezzola using a riot shield, stolen from a Capitol police officer, to smash through a Capitol window, allowing rioters to clamber into the building for the first time. He zoomed in on the windows and insisted that the quality of the windows did not meet the $1,000 threshold, and therefore Pezzola could not be found guilty of the federal charge to destruct property. He also showed the video where Pezzola—who’s also facing a single robbery charge in addition to seditious conspiracy and other counts—is seen wrestling with a Capitol police officer in a tug-of-war for his shield. “All of us know what a robbery might look like,” Roots said. “Suffice to say this was not a robbery.” He did not explain further. The other video Smith played (at least five times) was one Pezzola posted to Telegram, of himself smoking a cigar inside the Capitol. “Just having a smoke in the Capitol boys, this is fucking awesome,” said Pezzola. “I knew we could take this motherfucker if we just tried hard enough. Proud of your motherfuckin’ boy.”
Roots claimed that this video exonerates Pezzola because in it, he offered a definition of “victory”—which, he said, seemed to be more about smoking in the Capitol than “obstructing, influencing or impeding an official proceeding.” Carmen Hernandez, who is representing Rehl, also made her opening arguments on Thursday. Dan Hull, who is representing Biggs, is “reserving” his opening arguments. That means he’ll deliver his opening statements after the government has rested their case. The trial is expected to drag on for weeks, potentially even months.
“Just having a smoke in the Capitol boys, this is fucking awesome.”