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Politico Claims It Embarrasses Joe Biden that Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Merits Little or No Jail Time

Last week, Politico reported as news that non-violent January 6 trespassers might get little to no jail time which — it further claimed — might embarrass the Biden Administration.

Many Capitol rioters unlikely to serve jail time

The cases could embarrass the Biden administration, which has portrayed the Jan. 6 siege as a dire threat to democracy.

I have tremendous respect for the reporters involved, Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney. Yet the fact that experienced DOJ beat reporters could claim, as news, that non-violent civil disobedience might get no jail time made me really rethink the reporting on January 6, including my own. It’s crazier still that reporters might claim — generally, or in this situation — that a Democratic President might be embarrassed by DOJ treating civil disobedience as a misdemeanor offense.

In fact, Gerstein and Cheney are reporting on a subset of all the January 6 defendants, fewer than 60 of the 230 who had been formally charged by the time they wrote this, which they nevertheless describe as “many” of them.

A POLITICO analysis of the Capitol riot-related cases shows that almost a quarter of the more than 230 defendants formally and publicly charged so far face only misdemeanors. Dozens of those arrested are awaiting formal charges, even as new cases are being unsealed nearly every day.

Then, four paragraphs later, Politico explains why (they say) this might embarrass the Biden Administration: because both Biden himself and Merrick Garland called the larger event — in which 1,000 people, including 200 for assault and 100 for roles in a militia conspiracy, many still at large, must now be suspects — as a heinous attack.

The prospect of dozens of Jan. 6 rioters cutting deals for minor sentences could be hard to explain for the Biden administration, which has characterized the Capitol Hill mob as a uniquely dangerous threat. Before assuming office, Biden said the rioters’ attempt to overturn the election results by force “borders on sedition”; Attorney General Merrick Garland has called the prosecutions his top early priority, describing the storming of Congress as “a heinous attack that sought to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy, the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government.”

Nowhere in the article do they provide any evidence that the assault on the Capitol wasn’t a heinous attack.

They base their claim that Biden might be embarrassed on expectations that DOJ prosecutors set, without noting that the first charges were filed before Biden was inaugurated and long before Garland was confirmed.

Justice Department prosecutors sent expectations sky-high in early statements and court filings, describing elaborate plots to murder lawmakers — descriptions prosecutors have tempered as new details emerged.

Jacob “QAnon Shaman” Chansley was arrested on January 8 and indicted on January 11. Eric “Zip Tie Guy” Munchel was arrested on January 10 and indicted, with his mother, on February 12. Thomas Caldwell was arrested on January 19 and indicted along with Oath Keepers Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl on January 27. They (including Caldwell but not Watkins and Crowl) are the main defendants, of more than 350, about whom prosecutors can fairly be said to have tempered “sky-high” expectations. Their arrests and that expectation-setting happened under Jeffrey Rosen and Michael Sherwin, not under Biden and definitely not under Merrick Garland (under whom DOJ referred Sherwin to OPR for investigation after he did some expectation-setting on 60 Minutes). Even still, for all four (as well as other edge cases about whom the press set high expectations, like Riley June Williams), the investigation remains ongoing and there are reasons, including ties to the militia conspiracies, to believe there was some basis for the original suspicions about these people.

Likewise, the decision to arrest first and investigate later, a decision that led to the flood of arrests before prosecutors really knew who had done the most egregious things during the attack, also occurred under the prior Administration.

Indeed, under Garland (though not necessarily because of Garland or the departure of Sherwin), DOJ seems to have focused more of their ongoing misdemeanor arrests on suspects who might have video footage of interest to prosecutors or defense attorneys, with far more of a focus in recent weeks on arresting assault and militia suspects. And one of the reasons for the delays described in the story is that after Garland came in, DOJ asked for 60 days to catch up on discovery. We may yet learn that he and his subordinates decided to change the “arrest first, investigate later” approach adopted before he came in.

Sure, the press has claimed that the government has backed off some of its claims in the militia conspiracies. They did so, for example, when prosecutors backed off certain claims solely for the purpose of an Ethan Nordean detention hearing that, filings submitted weeks later suggested, may have been an effort to protect a pending conspiracy indictment and, probably, a cooperating witness. They’ve done so with the Oath Keepers, even though recent developments suggest even Jessica Watkins’ lawyer may now understand her role in what appears to be a larger conspiracy coordinated in Signal leadership chats is more damning than Watkins originally claimed. If anything, the Oath Keeper and Proud Boy conspiracies may be more sophisticated tactically than originally claimed, and that’s before any explanation about things like who paid for vans of Proud Boys to travel from FL and what happened at twin events in DC and Florida in December, in which conspirators (and key Trump figures) played central roles. That’s also while the person who laid a pipe bomb the night before the the attack remains at large.

To further back its claim that Biden might be embarrassed, Politico implies that all the plea deals expected in weeks ahead will be misdemeanor pleas without jail time, which will be “awkward” for DOJ to defend.

Prosecutors have signaled that plea offers for some defendants will be coming within days and have readily acknowledged that some of the cases are less complicated to resolve than others.

“I think we can work out a non-trial disposition in this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Cole told Judge Dabney Friedrich last week in the case of Kevin Loftus, who was charged with unlawful presence and disrupting official business at the Capitol, among other offenses that have become the boilerplate set lodged against anyone who walked into the building that day without authorization.

The Justice Department will soon be in the awkward position of having to defend such deals, even as trials and lengthy sentences for those facing more serious charges could be a year or more away. [my emphasis]

Politico makes this claim even though at least some of the expected pleas may be cooperation agreements. For example, Ryan Samsel — who breached the west side of the Capitol in coordination with Proud Boys Dominic Pezzola and William Pepe, knocking out a cop along the way — asked for a continuance to discuss a plea. One of the main Oath Keeper prosecutors, Ahmed Baset, asked for a continuance before indicting Oath Keeper associate Jon Schaffer, who was among the worst treated defendants and who agreed to the continuance in spite of remaining in pre-trial detention. Kash Kelly, currently charged with trespassing but also someone raised in discussions between Proud Boys affiliate James Sullivan and Rudy Giuliani, got a continuance to discuss a plea. Bryan Betancur, a Proud Boy who got jailed for a probation violation after he lied to his probation officer to attend the event, also got a continuance to discuss a plea to resolve his trespassing charges. The aforementioned Riley Williams, who was charged with obstructing the vote count and stealing a laptop from Nancy Pelosi, was filmed directing movement inside the Capitol, and has ties with Nick Fuentes, also got a continuance to discuss pleading before indictment. All five of these people likely have information that would be of use to prosecutors. All could limit their prison time (which would likely be significant for Samsel, who is accused of assault, played a key role in the insurrection, and has a criminal record) by cooperating with prosecutors. If any of these people sign plea deals — especially Samsel — it will likely provide new insight into how the conspiracy worked. Even with a plea deal, Samsel may still face a stiff sentence.

In other places, Politico conflates the discussions about the fate of misdemeanor defendants with discussions about detention (which prosecutors have only requested with a few accused trespassers), discussions about discovery, and Speedy Trial, all different things, many more urgent issues for misdemeanor defendants not included among those the story is purportedly about.

After I went on a rant about this story on Twitter, Gerstein defended the story by saying that people (none of whom were quoted in the story) seem to be surprised.

I agree with Gerstein that people have certain expectations. But that was clear before the end end of January. The record laid out here shows that such expectations did not come from Garland or Biden. Even Sherwin, with his totally inappropriate 60 Minutes interview, also explained from the start that DOJ was arresting the low hanging fruit at first while further investigating more serious suspects.

The fault, instead, lies with journalists, myself and these Politico journalists included, for not consistently and repeatedly explaining the various different roles people played on January 6, including that there were a number — though currently a shrinking fraction of the total set of defendants — who neither pre-meditated any effort to stop the vote count nor assaulted cops. I have tried to engage in this nuance (I included a list of such posts below), but given the sheer amount of court filings, much of the focus is currently on the militia conspiracies, suggesting a gravity that the MAGA tourists don’t merit. But in this article, rather than simply laying out the full range of defendants, describing how the MAGA Tourists played a key role in the success of the more serious conspirators (explicitly so for the Proud Boys, who talked about getting “normies” to do stuff they otherwise wouldn’t have done), describing how violence spread among participants and often as not among people who aren’t militia members, this Politico piece further distorts the record, not least by using this subset of “MAGA Tourists” — calling them “many” even though they represent just a quarter of defendants who have been formally charged — to stand in for the larger investigation, while minimizing the import of those charged with obstruction (likening that role to a CodePink interruption of a congressional hearing) because, evidence shows, they premeditated an attempt to undermine the election outcome.

So even while the piece describes how both judges and prosecutors understand that the mob as a whole posed a grave threat while some individual defendants did no more than provide cover for the more dangerous defendants (and many of the DC judges presiding over these cases have made such comments), Politico claims that there’s some embarrassment to this, including some kind of political risk for Biden.

Judges are also attempting to reckon with separating the individual actions of rioters from the collective threat of the mob, which they have noted helped inspire and provide cover for violent assaults, property destruction and increased the overall terror and danger of the assorted crimes committed.

That reckoning is coming sooner rather than later, lawyers say, putting prosecutors in the position of wrist-slapping many participants in the riot despite framing the crimes as part of an insurrection that presented a grave threat to American democracy.

If the MAGA tourists provided cover and helped overwhelm cops, thereby serving a useful role in the plans of those who had a more nefarious and organized purpose, then that’s the story that should be told, not some kind of both-sides political spin, particularly one that pits Biden’s claims about the seriousness of this on the footing as Trump’s outright lies about it. In spite of the overwhelming number of defendants, the record shows, DOJ is still assessing each one on the merits, which is what should happen. Declaring that politically embarrassing is an abdication of fair reporting on the legal system.

I believe DOJ has gotten it wrong, in both directions, in some cases. In addition to those listed above, I think DOJ has gone too harshly on some people who have openly supported far right, even Nazi views. But I also think DOJ has only considered whether militia members were members of premeditated conspiracies, focusing less on localized activist networks that have been implicated in violent (often anti-mask) pro-Trump actions in the past, taken on leadership roles at the riot, and engaged in ongoing communications about plans to shut down the vote, just like militias did. I think DOJ hasn’t come to grips with the organizational import of QAnon even while arguing that individual adherents of the cult must be jailed because they are delusional. And until DOJ decides how it will treat Trump’s actions and those of some close associates — something they likely cannot do without more investigation and cooperation deals from key participants — parts of this investigation will remain unsettled.

There are definitely things DOJ has reason to be embarrassed about: Gerstein has written more than any journalist about the unforgivable delays in moving defendants around the country and getting them arraigned. This piece also focuses on one of the handful of misdemeanor defendants who has been detained since being charged. While I understand the complexity of an investigation in which so much of the evidence — both exculpatory and inculpatory — remains in the hands of participants, defendants have a right to complain about the delay, especially those in detention. Defendants — particularly those in detention — are entitled to a Speedy Trial, even if DOJ moved too quickly to arrest them. While many of these things were exacerbated by COVID, they also largely arise from a decision to arrest first on those trespassing charges, and investigate later (which also has led to more defendants being charged with obstruction after the fact).

But none of those things have to do with Biden or Garland’s views about the investigation, or even the prosecutors who made decisions that created some of these problems in the first place (in part, probably, to avoid their own embarrassment at missing all warning signs, in part because they hadn’t investigated these threats aggressively enough and so had to make mass arrests to mitigate any immediate follow-on threats).

In short, this piece is an (uncharacteristic) mess, shoehorning complexity into a simplistic claim of political conflict, one inventing embarrassment out of thin air for Biden. If Politico has evidence that this wasn’t an unprecedented disruption to Congress, one that could have had a far worse outcome, including a threat to our democracy, or that this right wing violence is less of a threat than FBI says it is, by all means they should present that. At the same time, they can reveal the identity of the pipe bomber and the role (if any) that person played in the plot, without which no one can claim to actually know how serious this was.

Until then, they and all experienced DOJ beat reporters would be far better off by simply laying out a description of the different kinds of defendants we’re seeing, the different roles they played in disrupting the vote count and assaulting or undermining law enforcement, and explaining how those defendants are the same or different from defendants that have gone before them, on a spectrum of severity that stretches from CodePink to ISIS terrorists.

If people are going to be surprised when the subset of participants in January 6 who engaged in non-violent civil disobedience are treated as misdemeanor offenders, it’s not Joe Biden’s fault. It is a failure of journalism, my own included, for not making that more clear starting in January and reiterating it since then.

Update: Meanwhile, Jon Schaffer just agreed to two more weeks in jail.

Update: Corrected Munchel’s arrest date, which was January 10.

Update: Christopher Kelly (no relation to Kash) is another person with a consent continuance to discuss what would almost certainly be a cooperation agreement. He drove to and from the insurrection with some Proud Boys.


Posts attempting to contextualize the investigation

Here are some past attempts I’ve made at explaining how the parts of the January 6 investigation fit together:

The State of the Five Now-Intersecting January 6 Militia Conspiracies

Paragraph 64 of a new conspiracy indictment including Proud Boys Ethan Nordean, Joe Biggs, and the newly arrested Proud Boys Zachary Rehl and Charles Donohoe includes a seemingly gratuitous reference to the Oath Keepers. The paragraph describes how Biggs, after having entered the Capitol once already from the northwest side, then moved to the opposite side of the building and forced his way in on the east side. He did so right in front of a group of Oath Keepers.

Thirty minutes after first entering the Capitol on the west side, BIGGS and two other members of the Proud boys, among others, forcibly re-entered the Capitol through the Columbus Doors on the east side of the Capitol, pushing past at least one law enforcement officer and entering the Capitol directly in front of a group of individuals affiliated with the Oath Keepers.

This would have been around 2:44 PM. The Oath Keeper “stack” went in the east side of the Capitol at around 2:40.

That reference, along with the common use of the Zello application, brings two parallel conspiracies laid out over a month ago closer together, arguably intersecting. As of right now, DOJ has charged 25 people in five different conspiracy indictments, four of which share precisely the same goal: to stop, delay, and hinder Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote, with many similar means and methods. Three conspiracy indictments also share roughly the same goal of obstructing law enforcement. Those indictments are:

Here’s what a simplified version of the five different conspiracies looks like:

This is not the end of it: there are three Oath Keepers not included in that conspiracy, and a random bunch of Proud Boys who might eventually be included, as well as anyone else who coordinated this effort [wink]. But these conspiracy indictments will remain separate only for prosecutorial ease. They are, for all intents and purposes, now-intersecting conspiracies.

Update: Last night, NYT’s visual team released new videos showing that the Oath Keepers Stack was involved in forcing entry into the East entrance of the Capitol. These videos depict what happened moments after Biggs reentered the Capitol, as described above.

Update: To see how the other pieces of any coordinated action fit, I will list the other Oath Keepers and Proud Boys that have played a part in this operation.

Oath Keepers

Stewart Rhodes: The Oath Keeper President. He is not charged, but implicated in the existing Oath Keepers indictment and the Minuta complaint.

Roberto Minuta: Minuta was arrested on March 8. An SDNY Magistrate judge released him on bail (he almost put up silver bars for his security, but ended up coming up with the money itself), ignoring the government request he stay the order. Minuta’s arrest affidavit–which was written 12 days before James’ but executed roughly the same day–focuses primarily on Minuta’s harassment of cops. It doesn’t mention, as James’ affidavit does, Minuta’s role in providing security, including for Roger Stone. Minuta also deleted his Facebook account on January 13, for which he was charged with obstruction.

Joshua James: James was arrested on March 9 and held without bail (in part because of a past arrest associated with claiming to be a military police officer in 2011). His arrest affidavit makes it clear he was a close contact with Minuta as well as Kelly Meggs. The affidavit repeatedly describes James offering security to VIPs we know to include Roger Stone. According to public reporting, James received payment for his “security” services on January 6, which Stone was publicly fundraising for in advance (then denied spending).

Jon Ryan Schaffer: The front man for the heavy metal band Iced Earth and an Oath Keeper lifetime member, Schaffer was arrested for spraying some police with bear spray. But two months after his arrest and detention, he has not been (publicly) indicted and only arrived in DC on March 17. The government has not publicly responded to his motion to dismiss his case on Speedy Trial grounds. All of which suggests there’s something more there that we can’t see.

Person Four: The James affidavit refers to Minuta as “Person Five.” It uses that number, it says, because “Persons Two [Caldwell’s spouse], Three [the NC-based Oath Keeper who might serve as a Quick Reaction Force], and Four are not included in this affidavit, but are already-numbered individuals associated with United States v. Thomas Caldwell, et al, Case No. 21-cr-28 (APM). To maintain consistent nomenclature, the referenced individual here will be defined as ‘Person Five.'” I haven’t been able to find the reference to Person Four (though it might be Watkins’ partner, references to whom are inconsistent).

Three more Stack participants and four others who operated with Minuta and James on January 6: This image, from James’ complaint, identifies three other Stack members (the second, third, and last yellow arrow) and four others who interacted with James and Minuta during the day on January 6.

Proud Boys

Enrique Tarrio: Tarrio is the head of the Proud Boys, but got arrested as he entered DC on January 4 on charges relating to vandalizing a Black church in December, onto which possession charges were added. He is referred to in all the Proud Boy conspiracies, repeatedly in the Leader one (because they scrambled to figure out what to do after his arrest). While it’s unlikely he was on the Telegram channels used to organize the insurrection, he was in touch with members via other, thus far unidentified channels.

Joshua Pruitt: Pruitt was arrested for a curfew violation on the night of the insurrection. He told the FBI he hadn’t engaged in any unlawful activity and was just trying to deescalate the situation. But he was indicted on his own weeks later for obstructing the vote count and interfering with cops, and abetting the destruction of property, along with trespassing. The Nordean conspiracy indictment notes that he went in the West entrance shortly after Dominic Pezzola breached it (suggesting the government may now know he was part of a cell with Pezzola). Pruitt is being prosecuted by the same prosecutor as on most Proud Boy cases, Christopher Berridge, and before the same judge, Timothy Kelly.

Gabriel Garcia: Garcia, a former Army Captain, appears to have originally been identified by the Facebook order showing who livestreamed from the Capitol. It’s possible his livestreams were intended to serve as live reporting for those coordinating outside (he catches the names of cops, the size of the crowd, and instructs, “keep ’em coming.” He incites a big push through a line of cops. Later, he calls for “Nancy” to “come out and play” and calls to “Free Enrique” [Tarrio]. He was charged by complaint on January 16 and by indictment on February 16 with obstruction and resisting cops during civil disorder. The Nordean conspiracy indictment notes he went in the West entrance shortly after Pezzola breached it.

Christopher Worrell: The government originally charged Worrell, a committed Proud Boy who traveled to DC in vans of Proud Boys paid for by someone else and wore comms equipment, with trespass crimes on March 10. Among his criminal background, he pretended to be a cop to intimidate a woman. He lied in his first interview with the FBI, hiding that he sprayed pepper spray on some police who were the last line of defense on the West side of the Capitol. According to a witness who knows him, he also directed other likely Proud Boys. After first being released, he was subsequently detained and is awaiting indictment on what the government suggests are likely to be assault charges.

Robert Gieswein: Ethan Nordean spoke to Giswein shortly before he and Pezzola launched the attack on the Capitol suggesting that Gieswein, who had known ties to the 3% movement, was coordinating with the Proud Boys that day. Over the course of breaking into the Capitol, he allegedly assaulted 3 cops with a bat or pepper spray, and broke a window to break in. He was first charged on January 16, indicted on January 27. His docket shows none of the normal proceedings, such as a protective order, but his magistrate’s docket shows two sealed documents placed there in recent weeks.

Ryan Samsel: There’s no indication I know of that ties Samsel to the Proud Boys. But he marched with them and initiated the assault on the West side of the Capitol with Dominic Pezzola and William Pepe. He was charged with assault and obstruction on January 29 and arrested on February 3. In his case, he allegedly did so by assaulting a cop at the first line of barriers, knocking her out. He and the government are in talks for a guilty plea.

Ryan Bennett: Bennett was IDed off his own Facebook livestreaming, while wearing a Proud Boys hat, of the event, including his direct witness to the shooting of Ashli Bennett, with his voice yelling “Break it down!” in the background. He was arrested on January 26 and charged in a still-sealed March 17 indictment over which James Boasberg will preside.

Bryan Betancur: Betancur was busted by his Maryland Probation Officer, to whom he had lied about distributing Bibles to get permission to go to DC. He wore a Proud Boys shirt to the insurrection and is a known white supremacist who espouses violence. He was charged with misdemeanor trespass charges. His defense attorney is already discussing a guilty plea.

Daniel Goodwyn: Goodwyn’s online identity is closely associated with the Proud Boys. He was identified via an interview he did with Baked Alaska during the insurrection and texts sent to an associate; he was arrested on January 29. He was originally charged with trespass, with obstruction added in his indictment on February 24. Charles Berridge was originally the prosecutor on this case but has been replaced on it.

Christopher Kelly: Kelly revealed on Facebook before he headed to DC that he would be going with, “ex NYPD and some proud boys.” While inside, he bragged that they had “stopped the hearing, they are all headed to the basement.” He was originally charged with trespass and obstruction on January 20; he has yet to be (publicly) indicted yet. He has the same defense attorney, Edward McMahon, as Nicholas Ochs.

Around 40 other people who used the Proud Boys “Boots on the Ground” Telegram channel: As I noted here, the government must have at least monikers for — and likely email and/or device identifiers — for around 40 people who used the organizing channel set up less than a day before the operation. It will be interesting to see if they attempt to track all of them down.

Rolling Updates:

Marc Bru, a Proud Boy with ties to Nordean, was charged on March 9.

Paul Rae, a Proud Boy from Florida who trailed Biggs both times he entered the Capitol.

Arthur Jackman: a Proud Boy from Florida who trailed Biggs both times he entered the Capitol, including into the Senate.