Posts

A New Emphasis on Threats of Violence in the Latest January 6 Conspiracy Indictment

As I laid out the other day, the government charged six Three Percenters from California — American Phoenix Project founder Alan Hostetter, Russell Taylor, Erik Warner, Tony Martinez, Derek Kinnison, and Ronald Mele — with conspiracy. As I described, the indictment was notable in that just one of the men, Warner, actually entered the Capitol. But it was also notable for the way it tied Donald Trump’s December 19 call for a big protest on January 6 with their own public calls for violence, including executions, as well as an explicit premeditated plan to “surround the capital” [sic].

That’s one reason I find the slight difference in the way this conspiracy got charged to be of interest.

As I’ve been tracking over time, the now-seven militia conspiracies are structured very similarly, with each including coordinated plans to get to DC, some kind of plans to kit out for war, and some coordinated effort to participate in the assault on the Capitol. These conspiracies intersect in multiple ways we know of:

  • Thomas Caldwell’s communication with multiple militia to coordinate plans
  • Kelly Meggs’ formation of an alliance between Florida militias
  • Joe Biggs’ decision to exit the Capitol after the first breach, walk around it, and breach it again with two other Proud Boys in tow just ahead of the Oath Keeper stack
  • The attendance of James Breheny (thus far only charged individually), apparently with Stewart Rhodes (thus far not charged), at a leadership meeting of “multiple patriot groups” in Quarryville, PA on January 3, which Breheny described as “the day we get our comms on point with multiple other patriot groups”

All three militias mingled in interactions they’ve had with Roger Stone, as well, but thus far Stone only shows up in the Oath Keepers’ conspiracy.

In other words, while these represent seven different conspiracies (along with around maybe 15 to 20 identified militia members not charged in a conspiracy), they’re really one networked conspiracy that had the purpose of preventing the democratic replacement of Donald Trump.

Of particular note, what is probably the most serious case of assault charged against a militia member, that charged against Proud Boy Christopher Worrell, has not been included in any conspiracy. So while individual members of these conspiracies — including Joshua James, Dominic Pezzola, and William Isaacs, have been charged for their own physical resistance to cops — the conspiracies as a whole don’t yet hold conspirators accountable for the violence of their co-conspirators. The conspiracies only allege shared responsibility for damage to the Capitol, not violence against cops.

That said, the purpose and structure of the Three Percenter conspiracy is slightly different than the other six. The other six (Oath Keeper, Proud Boy Media, Proud Boy Leadership, Proud Boy Kansas City, Proud Boy North Door, Proud Boy Front Door) are all charged under 18 U.S.C. §371, conspiracy against the US. While the timeline of each conspiracy varies and while some of the Proud Boy conspiracies also include the goal of impeding the police, all six include language alleging the conspirators,

did knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree with each other and others known and unknown, to commit an offense against the United States, namely, to corruptly obstruct, influence, and impede an official proceeding, that is, the Certification of the Electoral College vote, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1512(c)(2).

The purpose of the conspiracy was to stop, delay, and hinder the Certification of the Electoral College vote.

That is, those six conspiracies are charged (at least) as a conspiracy to violate the obstruction statute.

The Three Percenter SoCal conspiracy, however, is charged under the obstruction itself, 18 U.S.C. §1512(k).

Between December 19, 2020 and January 6, 2021, within the District of Columbia and elsewhere, the defendants … together with others, did conspire to corruptly obstruct, influence, and impede an official proceeding, to wit: the Certification of the Electoral College vote.

The object is the same — to impede the vote certification. But it is charged differently.

I’m still thinking through what the difference might mean. It might mean nothing, it might reflect the preference of the prosecutors, or it may reflect a rethinking at DOJ.

Nick Smith claims there’s no evidence Ethan Nordean corruptly influenced anyone else to violate their duty

But there are two things that may factor into it. First, since the government first started structuring its conspiracies this way, some defense attorneys have started challenging the applicability of the obstruction statute to the vote certification at all. For this discussion, I’ll focus on the argument as Nick Smith laid it out in a motion to throw out the entire indictment against Ethan Nordean. Smith makes two arguments regarding the conspiracy charge.

First, Smith argues that Congress only intended the obstruction statute to apply to proceedings that involve making factual findings, and so poor Ethan Nordean had no way of knowing that trying to prevent the vote certification might be illegal.

As indicated above, § 1512(c)(2) has never been used to prosecute a defendant for the obstruction of an “official proceeding” unrelated to the administration of justice, i.e., a proceeding not charged with hearing evidence and making factual findings. Moreover, there is no notice, much less fair notice, in § 1512(c)(2) or in any statute in Chapter 73 that a person may be held federally liable for interference with a proceeding that does not resemble a legal tribunal.

Of course, that argument ignores that Ted Cruz and the other members who challenged the vote claim they were making factual findings — so Nordean’s co-conspirators may sink this legal challenge.

Smith also argues that the obstruction charge fails under the findings of US v. Poindexter, in which John Poindexter’s prosecution for lying to Congress about his role in Iran-Contra was reversed, in part, because the word “corruptly” as then defined in the obstruction statute was too vague to apply to Poindexter’s corrupt failure to do his duty. Smith argues that the language remains too vague based on his claim that the government is trying to prosecute Nordean for his “sincerely held political belief that the 2020 presidential election was not fairly decided,” which prosecutors have no business weighing.

Here, the FSI’s construction on § 1512(c)’s adverb “corruptly” fails this Circuit’s Poindexter test. First, the FSI does not allege that Nordean obstructed the January 6 joint session “to obtain an improper advantage for himself or someone else. . .” Poindexter, 951 F.2d at 386. Instead, it contends he allegedly obstructed the session in support of the sincerely held political belief that the 2020 presidential election was not fairly decided. Such an interpretation of § 1512(c) is unconstitutionally vague because it leaves to judges and prosecutors to decide which sincerely held political beliefs are to be criminalized on an ad hoc basis. Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. at 1223-24. Second, the FSI neither alleges that Nordean influenced another person to obstruct the January 6 proceeding in violation of their legal duty, nor that Nordean himself violated any legal duty by virtue of his mere presence that day.

As I noted in my post on this challenge, this might be a nifty argument for a defendant who hadn’t — as Nordean had — started calling for revolution on November 27,  well before the state votes were counted. But Nordean had already made his intent clear even before the votes were counted, so Smith’s claims that Nordean was reacting to the election outcome is fairly easily disproven. (As with this entire challenge, it might work well for other defendants, but for a long list of reasons, it is far less likely to work with Nordean.)

There’s another, far more important, aspect to this part of the argument though. Smith claims, without any discussion, that Nordean didn’t “influence” any other person to violate their legal duty. Smith wants Judge Timothy Kelly to believe that Nordean did not mean to intimidate Congress by assembling a violent mob and storming the Capitol and as a result of intimidation to fail to fulfill their duty as laid out in the Constitution, whether by refusing to certify Joe Biden as President, or by running away in terror and simply failing to complete the task.

Unlike conspiracy, obstruction has a threat of violence enhancement

As I understand it (and I invite actual lawyers to correct me on this), the other difference between charging this conspiracy under 18 USC 371 and charging it under 1512(k) is the potential sentence. While defendants can be sentenced to 20 years under their individual obstruction charges (the actual sentence is more likely to be around 40 months, or less if the defendant pleads out), 18 USC 371 has a maximum sentence of five years.

If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

But 18 USC 1512(k) says that those who conspire to obstruct shall be subject to the same penalty as they’d face for the actual commission of the offense.

(k)Whoever conspires to commit any offense under this section shall be subject to the same penalties as those prescribed for the offense the commission of which was the object of the conspiracy.

And obstruction has special penalties tied to murder, attempted murder, and the threat of physical force.

(3) The punishment for an offense under this subsection is—
(A) in the case of a killing, the punishment provided in sections 1111 and 1112;
(B) in the case of—
(i) an attempt to murder; or
(ii) the use or attempted use of physical force against any person;
imprisonment for not more than 30 years; and
(C) in the case of the threat of use of physical force against any person, imprisonment for not more than 20 years.

Thus, anyone charged along with a co-conspirator who threatened to kill someone may be exposed to twenty or even thirty years in prison rather than just five years.

As noted, there are several things about the overt acts charged in the Three Percenter conspiracy that differentiate it from the other militia conspiracies. They were even more explicit about their intent to come armed to the Capitol than the Oath Keepers were with their QRF (and their stated excuses to be armed relied even less on what I call the Antifa foil, the claim they had to come armed to defend against people they fully planned to incite).

And Hostetter twice publicly threatened to execute people. He posted a YouTube on November 27 in which he said, “some people at the highest levels need to be made an example of with an execution or two or three.” And he gave a speech on December 12 in which he demanded, “There must be long prison terms, while execution is the just punishment for the ringleaders of the coup.”

In other words, I think by charging this conspiracy under the obstruction statute rather than the conspiracy one, the government has exposed all of Hostetter’s co-conspirators, along with Hostetter himself, to far longer sentences because he repeatedly threatened to execute people.

The Three Percenter conspiracy makes threats to intimidate Mike Pence and members of Congress an object of the conspiracy

My guess is that the government is going to argue that, of course, Nordean was trying to corruptly influence others to violate their legal duty to certify the electoral results. Every single militia includes at least one member who made explicit threats against Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi, and the Proud Boys, especially, have no recourse by claiming they showed up to listen to Donald Trump, since instead of attending his speech, they were assembling a violent mob to march on the place where Mike Pence was going to enact his official duties.

The Proud Boys were there to intimidate Mike Pence and members of Congress in hopes they would fail to fulfill their duty as laid out in the Constitution. If these charges make it to trial, I think prosecutors will be able to make a very compelling argument that assembling a mob in anticipation of Pence’s official acts was designed to intimidate him corruptly.

But, if I’m right about the criminal penalties, with the Three Percenter conspiracy, the government is going one step further. This conspiracy is structured to hold each member of the conspiracy accountable for the threats of murder made by Hostetter, the threat posed by planning to be armed at the Capitol, as well as the violence of others in their networked conspiracy. And even for those who didn’t enter the Capitol but instead egged on violence from some rally stage or behind some bullhorn, this conspiracy seems to aspire to expose co-conspirators accountable to a twenty year sentence for their (unsuccessful) efforts to intimidate Mike Pence to renege on his duty.

Update: I should add that someone with no prior convictions who goes to trial and is found guilty would face closer to 7-9 years with a full threats of violence enhancement. It would not be the full 20 years.

Update: Thanks to harpie for helping me count to seven (I had the wrong total number originally).

Crystalizing Conspiracies: Fourth Superseding, James Breheny, Puma’s GoPro, [Redacted], and the Willard Hotel

Since I’ve acquired new readers with my January 6 coverage and since the financial stress of COVID is abating for many, it seems like a good time to remind people this is not a hobby: it is my day job, and I’d be grateful if you support my work.

In this post, I used the imminent guilty plea of Paul Allard Hodgkins to illustrate that we really don’t know what evidence of conspiracy prosecutors are looking at, which means that we can’t really say whether the January 6 investigation will ultimately hold those who incited the violence accountable. I explained how a PhD in Comp Lit might be useful training to see the gaps in prosecution filings that show what secrets they’re holding in abeyance. And, as I further explained, if those most responsible for January 6 are going to be held accountable, it will likely be (at least in part) via conspiracies with the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, including the multiple ties Roger Stone has with both militias.

This post is meant to be read in tandem with that one.

This one will look at four developments in the case against the Oath Keepers in the last week or so.

The superseding indictment turns the screws

Most spectacularly, the government rolled out a fourth superseding Oath Keeper indictment yesterday. The ostensible purpose of it was to add four new defendants: Joseph Hackett, Jason Dolan, and William Isaacs, all from Florida, along with a fourth, accused of just three crimes, whose name is redacted.

The indictment broadens the kinds of communications used to communicate during the conspiracy, including Signal along with Zello, as well as orders to write key details in cursive, then send them via Proton Mail.

It adds a comment Stewart Rhodes made on November 9 laying out what I’ll call the “Antifa foil” — an affirmative plan, laid out months before the insurrection, to use the “threat” of Antifa as the excuse to come armed and a means to foment violence.

At a GoToMeeting5 held on November 9, 2020, PERSON ONE told those attending the meeting, “We’re going to defend the president, the duly elected president, and we call on him to do what needs to be done to save our country. Because if you don’t guys, you’re going to be in a bloody, bloody civil war, and a bloody – you can call it an insurrection or you can call it a war or fight.” PERSON ONE called upon his followers to go to Washington, D.C., to let the President know “that the people are behind him.” PERSON ONE told his followers they needed to be prepared to fight Antifa, which he characterized as a group of individuals with whom “if the fight comes, let the fight come. Let Antifa – if they go kinetic on us, then we’ll go kinetic back on them. I’m willing to sacrifice myself for that. Let the fight start there. That will give President Trump what he needs, frankly. If things go kinetic, good. If they throw bombs at us and shoot us, great, because that brings the president his reason and rationale for dropping the Insurrection Act.” PERSON ONE continued, “I do want some Oath Keepers to stay on the outside, and to stay fully armed and prepared to go in armed, if they have to . . . . So our posture’s gonna be that we’re posted outside of DC, um, awaiting the President’s orders. . . . We hope he will give us the orders. We want him to declare an insurrection, and to call us up as the militia.” WATKINS, KELLY MEGGS, HARRELSON, HACKETT, PERSON THREE, PERSON TEN, and others known and unknown attended this GoToMeeting. After PERSON ONE finished speaking, WATKINS and KELLY MEGGS asked questions and made comments about what types of weapons were legal in the District of Columbia.

The indictment provides more evidence of a plan to have Oath Keepers from North Carolina stationed as a Quick Reaction Force to pick up weapons from one of two locations in DC and deliver them to others already there (a recent filing arguing Thomas Caldwell needs to keep informing pretrial services of his movements included surveillance video from the Ballston Comfort Inn of the conspirators carrying around presumed guns draped in sheets).

On the evening of January 2, 2021, at about 5:43 p.m., KELLY MEGGS posted a map of Washington, D.C., in the Leadership Signal Chat, along with the message, “1 if by land[,] North side of Lincoln Memorial[,] 2 if by sea[,] Corner of west basin and Ohio is a water transport landing !!” KELLY MEGGS continued, “QRF rally points[.] Water of the bridges get closed.”

[snip]

On January 4, 2021, CALDWELL emailed PERSON THREE several maps along with the message, “These maps walk you from the hotel into D.C. and east toward the target area on multiple roads running west to east including M street and P street, two of my favorites . . . .”

[snip]

On January 4, 2021, WATKINS wrote in the Florida Signal Chat, “Where can we drop off weapons to the QRF team? I’d like to have the weapons secured prior to the Op tomorrow.”

On the morning of January 5, 2021, HARRELSON asked in the Florida Signal Chat for the location of the “QRF hotel,” and KELLY MEGGS responded by asking for a direct message.

It provides more details about what the Oath Keepers did in the Capitol (including descriptions of how the kitted out veterans folded — retreated — as soon as they were hit with some tear gas).

When officers responded by deploying a chemical spray, the mob—including CROWL, WATKINS, SANDRA PARKER, YOUNG, and ISAACS—retreated.

[snip]

JAMES briefly breached the Rotunda but was expelled by at least one officer who aimed chemical spray directly at JAMES, and multiple officers who pushed him out from behind.

Importantly, the superseding indictment adds civil disorder charges against six of the Oath Keepers for interactions they had with cops inside the Capitol. It adds an assault charge against Joshua James for his physical interaction with cops. It adds obstruction charges against Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, and James for deleting comms. Some of these charges were expected; it’s just that adding four new defendants was a convenient time to add them.

As these defendants are sitting here, though, their legal jeopardy is getting worse. Which is likely part of the point. They might stave off any further charges if they decide to cooperate with prosecutors.

When the government first charged this conspiracy, they were way over their skis, with detention requests and claims of danger that they did not yet have (or were not yet willing to show) evidence to support. That’s no longer true, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the government tries to detain a few more of these defendants when they are arraigned on the new charges this week.

James Breheny’s inter-militia network

One of the interesting details of this indictment is the exclusion of Oath Keeper James Breheny from it. Unlike the Proud Boys, all the Oath Keepers have been charged on one conspiracy indictment. The sole exception is Jon Schaffer, who from very early on was cultivated to flip, which he did on April 16. Remarkably, it’s not clear that Schaffer’s cooperation shows up in the new superseding indictment.

Now Breheny joins Schaffer in being charged (at least for now) on his own, which means, as of now, he’s only on the hook for his own crimes, not those of 16 co-conspirators. Breheny is an Oath Keeper from New Jersey who self-surrendered (suggesting ongoing discussions involving a lawyer) on May 20.

Breheny’s charging documents are interesting on several points. First, the affidavit excerpts a post Stewart Rhodes published on December 14, calling on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, including this paragraph:

You must act NOW as a wartime President, pursuant to your oath to defend the Constitution, which is very similar to the oath all of us veterans swore. We are already in a fight. It’s better to wage it with you as Commander-in-Chief than to have you comply with a fraudulent election, leave office, and leave the White House in the hands of illegitimate usurpers and Chinese puppets. Please don’t do it. Do NOT concede, and do NOT wait until January 20, 2021. Strike now.

This Rhodes post doesn’t appear in the Oath Keeper conspiracies, though it is a continuation of the November 9 comment from Rhodes also calling for insurrection, and it provides context for a comment he made on January 6 about what he expected Trump to do.

Then, Breheny’s complaint describes him inviting Rhodes to “a leadership meeting of ‘multiple patriot groups'” in Quarryville, PA on January 3, 2021. His invite directed Rhodes not to bring a phone and explained,

This will be the day we get our comms on point with multiple other patriot groups, share rally points etc. This one is important and I believe this is our last chance to organize before the show. This meeting will be for leaders only.

Breheny’s complaint also explains that Rhodes only added Breheny to the leadership list for the Oath Keepers on January 6. In explaining that detail, a footnote explains,

numerous individuals affiliated with the Oath Keepers who have been alleged to have participated in the riots participated in this chat and have been indicted in US v. Caldwell et al, 21-cr-28-APM.

It’s a neat way of saying that Breheny conspired with those charged in the main Oath Keepers conspiracy and they conspired with him, without charging him in that conspiracy.

The rest of the complaint explains how Breheny lied to the FBI about what he did on January 6, but after the government got a warrant for his phone, they obtained pictures and texts showing he had done far more on January 6 than he admitted to cops, including fighting his way in the East Doors that all the other Oath Keepers entered.

The government has been selective about whom they’re charging with obstruction for lying and deleting evidence, but their case that Breheny deliberately attempted to obstruct the investigation is quite strong.

Anthony Puma’s GoPro is arrested

On May 27, a guy from Michigan named Anthony Puma was arrested, more than four months after the FBI interviewed him on January 14 and after, on January 17, he shared the SD card from the GoPro he wore on January 6.

On April 23, the government obtained Puma’s Facebook account, which provided video and text evidence that, in his January 14 interview, Puma dramatically downplayed his knowledge of events on January 6. Most notably, they found texts he posted on January 5, knowing that, and precisely when, “we are storming” the Capitol the next day.

Tomorrow is the big day. Rig for Red. War is coming

We are here. What time do we storm the House of Representatives?

Hopefully, we are storming the House of Representatives tomorrow at 100 pm.

There’s no hint in his charging documents that Puma has association with the Oath Keepers. Assuming he does not, it seems likely he was arrested, as I believe a number of other recent defendants were, so he can be forced to authenticate the important video evidence he shot on the day of the insurrection.

As a Comp Lit PhD who had to read a fuck-ton of postmodern theory, my favorite picture from his GoPro shows him filming himself shooting a video on his phone as he approached the Capitol.

But there are two other clips that I suspect are more important — one, showing what I believe to be a second stack of likely Oath Keepers preparing to breach the Capitol.

And another, showing presumed Oath Keepers on their golf cart race from the Willard Hotel to reinforce the Capitol, calling out, “We are inside, they need help, we’ve breached the Capitol.”

So whether or not Puma has a tie to the Oath Keepers, he now has reason to cooperate with prosecutors on making this video available for any trial.

[Redacted]

As noted, there were four people added to the Oath Keepers conspiracy indictment, but the name of one remains redacted.

It can’t be Roger Stone, as a lot of people are wishing, because Stone’s not an Oath Keeper.

But whoever [redacted] is, he almost certainly traveled with Roberto Minuta and Joshua James from the Willard Hotel where they were “guarding” Roger Stone and others to the Capitol.

I say that because of four paragraphs from the third superseding indictment describing the golf cart race to the Capitol, three are redacted in the fourth.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that [redacted] has had a child with Roger Stone or anything as exciting as that. It does mean that someone who was a likely witness to what happened on the Willard Hotel side of phone calls between Person Ten (who was the ground commander for the Oath Keepers that day) and James has been added to the conspiracy.

[redacted] appears to have entered the Capitol with Minuta and James, as what had been ¶104 describing their entrance “together with others known and unknown” in the third superseding is redacted as ¶154 in the fourth.

But the potentially more interesting actions of [redacted] appear in ¶¶76 and 77, which explain pre-insurrection communications and planning, as well as ¶99, which must explain what [redacted] did the morning of the insurrection, probably with James and Minuta. And ¶102 likely describes what the three of them were doing at the Willard Hotel while everyone else started breaching the Capitol.

As I said in this post, it takes more than four months to charge a complex conspiracy. But these four developments together add a December call for insurrection (in tandem with events that day in DC), places the Oath Keepers — including Stewart Rhodes — in a January 3 meeting coordinating with other militias, and it seemingly adds a third witness to what went on in the Willard Hotel the morning of the insurrection.