Was the call coming from inside the White House?
The House Jan. 6 Select Committee will present evidence that members of former President Donald Trump’s circle were in touch with the extremist right-wing groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, the committee’s chairman told CNN on Thursday night.
When House Committee Chairman and Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson was asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper whether there would be “witnesses that describe actual conversations between these extremist groups and anyone in Trump's orbit,” Thompson responded “yes.” He confirmed his comment when Tapper asked a follow-up question.
“Obviously, you’ll have to go through the hearings, but we have a number of witnesses who have come forward that people have not talked to before, that will document a lot was going on in the Trump orbit while all of this was occurring,” Thompson said.
Those witnesses could help answer one of the key remaining questions in the story of who, and what, caused the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection: whether Trump himself was aware of, or directly encouraged, right-wing extremists to use violence try to block Congress from certifying his election loss.
The committee has kept its cards very close to its vest for these hearings—a committee staffer refused to answer a similar question to Tapper’s from VICE News on Tuesday. But if they can show a clear connection between Trump and the right-wing extremists, and especially if they can prove that people in Trump’s orbit knew about the insurrection before it took place, that would be particularly damning for the former president.
Prosecutors have zeroed in on two groups as part of their sprawling investigation into the events of Jan. 6, 2021: The Proud Boys, a far-right street-fighting gang, and the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia.
Members of those groups, including their respective leaders, have been charged with seditious conspiracy—the most serious charges brought against any Jan. 6 defendant so far. The government has compiled internal chats of both groups in the lead-up to the riot that appear to show members discussing their plans for violence that day.
On Thursday night, the House Select Committee showed video of Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes meeting in an underground parking garage on Jan. 5, the eve of the riot.
“There’s mutual respect there; we’re fighting the same fight and I think that’s what’s important,” Tarrio said after the meeting in footage shown by the committee.
There’s also already some public evidence that members of the extremist groups were in touch with people in Trump’s inner circle in the days leading up to the attack.
The most obvious connection is informal Trump adviser Roger Stone, whom Trump pardoned for an earlier criminal conviction—and then met with in person—in late December 2020, less than two weeks before the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Stone has a yearslong relationship with Proud Boys leaders, Tarrio in particular, and would regularly use members of the group as his personal security detail at political events.
Interestingly, Stone used Oath Keepers for security, not Proud Boys, on Jan. 6. One of them was Roberto Minuta, who was arrested in March 2021 and accused of forcibly storming the Capitol while wearing military-style tactical gear. Minuta had guarded other Trump-world figures at earlier events following the 2020 election, including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Tarrio also posted photos of himself at the White House on Dec. 12, 2020, with the caption “Last-minute invite to an undisclosed location.”
A White House spokesman said at the time that Tarrio was on a “public Christmas tour.”
“He did not have a meeting with the President nor did the WH invite him,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.
Tarrio and the Proud Boys were in town for an earlier “Stop the Steal” rally. The night he toured the White House, Proud Boys marauded around the streets of D.C., getting into fights with counterprotesters. Multiple people were stabbed, and Tarrio was later found guilty of destroying a “Black Lives Matter” banner that flew on the property of a historically Black church.
Minuta was there too. Tarrio posted a photo on Parler of Minuta and Dominic Pezzola, aka Spazzo, one of the other Proud Boys facing sedition charges. “Bad ass… thanks for the picture,” Minuta replied to the photo. “Honored to stand with you guys. See you Jan. 6.”
Earlier this year, a federal grand jury added seditious conspiracy charges to the indictment against Minuta, Rhodes, and nine other Oath Keepers.
Joshua James, another member of the Oath Keepers who was by Stone’s side on Jan. 6, pled guilty to seditious conspiracy charges in March and is cooperating with investigators.
Stone fled Washington on Jan. 6 as rioters sacked the Capitol, a sign he may have been caught off-guard by the insurrection. But he communicated with both Tarrio and Rhodes using an encrypted messaging app in late January, according to documentary footage. He also pushed for Trump to issue “blanket pardons” for himself, the president, and anyone involved in Jan. 6, a plot that Trump nixed.
Stone wasn’t the only Trump ally who may have ties with the two groups, however.
The Department of Justice released a trove of text messages between Rhodes and top allies in April that showed the discussing how they could provide security for Stone, but also Jones, Flynn, and “Stop the Steal” founder Ali Alexander for Jan. 5 and Jan. 6. Alexander said in a deleted video that he’d ask members of the groups to provide security on those days, though Alexander’s attorney has denied that he worked with the Proud Boys.
Flynn’s possible ties are especially notable. He played a key role directly in pushing lies about the 2020 election with Trump—including an effort to get Trump to use armed private contractors and U.S. marshals to seize voting machines and another push for Trump to declare martial law and “rerun” the 2020 elections.
Rhodes has said he previously did security work for the 1st Amendment Praetorian Guard, a group closely linked with Flynn.
One senior Oath Keeper who is cooperating with federal prosecutors, William Todd Wilson, said in court documents that he’d witnessed Oath Keepers head Stewart Rhodes call someone on the evening of Jan.6 and ask to speak directly to Trump. It’s unclear who that person was, but it has fueled speculation that the individual was someone in Trump’s orbit.
In his plea agreement, Wilson stated that he “heard Rhodes repeatedly implore the individual to tell President Trump to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to forcibly oppose the transfer of power. This individual denied Rhodes’s request to speak directly with President Trump.”
Months earlier, when Trump famously refused to disavow the Proud Boys, telling them to “stand back and stand by” during a September presidential debate, Tarrio seemed to take the comment as marching orders.
“Standing by, sir,” he wrote on Parler.
Trump later claimed he’d misspoken—but seemed to return to that rhetoric on Dec. 19 as he ramped up the pressure on Vice President Mike Pence and Congress to reverse his election loss.
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump tweeted. “Be there, will be wild!”