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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).

Accused Terrorist* Leader Ethan Nordean Complains He Got Charged with Trespassing

The biggest advantages that Ethan Nordean and the other men charged in the Proud Boys Leadership conspiracy have are a judge, Tim Kelly, who is very sympathetic to the fact that they’re being held in jail as the government fleshes out the case against them, and the 450 other January 6 defendants who have been charged with one or another of the same charges the Proud Boys were charged with. The biggest disadvantages are that, as time passes, the government’s case gets stronger and stronger and the fact that seditious conspiracy or insurrection charges not only remain a real possibility, but are arguably are a better fit than what they got charged with.

That’s why it baffles me that, minutes after Judge Kelly noted that every time Nordean files a new motion, Nordean himself tolls the Speedy Trial clock, Nordean’s lawyer, Nick Smith, filed a motion to dismiss the entirety of the indictment against Nordean.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Smith is a good lawyer and I’m grateful for the January 6 defense attorneys who are making aggressive challenges to the charges against their clients; it’s an important check on the First Amendment risks of this prosecution. And I imagine the filing was all ready to go before yesterday’s status hearing, where Kelly kept repeating that he is sympathetic to the plight of the defendants, but noted that the last motion Smith filed — a motion for a Bill of Particulars, a kind of motion that, in general, rarely succeeds — probably tolls the Speedy Trial clock whether or not Kelly were prepared to rule against prosecutors’ request for more time.

But tactically, trying to throw out every single crime, up to and including his trespassing charge, charged against one of the key leaders of a terrorist attack that put our very system of government at risk trades away the two biggest advantages Nordean has on legal challenges that won’t eliminate the prosecution against Nordean.

The 66-page motion goes one by one, arguing that every charge against Nordean is vague or wrongly applied. Obstruction — 1512 — only applies for Congress when it is engaged in an investigative function, not what Nordean claims (notwithstanding the questions that sympathetic members of Congress raised about the vote count) was just a formal technicality. Leading an insurrection also doesn’t have the requisite corrupt nature, because threatening the Vice President and the Speaker of the House with assassination would not have the effect of influencing members of Congress to do what the mob wanted. Civil disorder — 231 — was designed to jail civil rights leaders and so (it suggests) shouldn’t be used against a guy trying to invalidate the votes of 81 million Americans. A riot affecting a vote count that affects every state and shut down much of DC did not affect interstate commerce. There were other police, in addition to the Secret Service at the Capitol, and so the specific terms of 1752 — the trespassing charge — don’t apply here. Plus, poor Ethan Nordean had no way of knowing that barriers that were clearly in place when he started the approach to the Capitol were barriers meant to keep him out. And, finally (though this comes off as half-hearted), Nordean has no idea what property his conspiracy depredated even though it has been discussed ad nauseum in past hearings.

Along the way, Smith shades the case in ways that prosecutors will easily rebut, as when he suggests Nordean, whom the indictment cites invoking revolution as early as November 27 (and so even before the states certified their votes), was motivated out of a sincere belief that the election was stolen because of voter fraud.

Nordean did so, the government alleges, in the misguided belief that the legislature should refuse to certify the vote upon a review of evidence that he mistakenly contended showed voter fraud.

[snip]

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.

He lays out the legislative history for many of these laws. He provides the entire history of the Executive Mansion. He falsely represents that the only people who are being charged with 1512 are gang members like Nordean. More ridiculous still is the claim that hundreds or thousands of other people aren’t being charged with 1752 and so Nordean’s charge must solely stem from his gang membership, when in fact, virtually every person who is being charged, is being charged with 1752.

Some of these arguments have merit. For example, I’ve repeatedly raised concerns about the way the government has hung all its felony counts on a fairly novel reading of obstruction (basically, the argument that the insurrectionists were obstructing the official proceeding of certifying the vote). But other defendants — albeit mostly Proud Boys — are already bringing these challenges (and more are likely to now that Paul Hodgkins’ plea has made it clear that the government will insist defendants plead to that count). The DC Circuit is far more likely to assess those arguments on their legal merits if someone like business owner Jenny Cudd, who actually attended Trump’s rally before heading to the Capitol, and who didn’t preassemble a mob of 100 gang members to attack the Capitol even before Trump’s speech (that said, Cudd’s challenges thus far have been motions to change venue and to sever).

I would like the 231 challenge to succeed, but similar challenges have thus far failed when launched by people in actual states rather than the nation’s capital that by its geographic nature can carry out little commerce without transit through Maryland and/or Virginia, and in protests that would have been prosecuted solely by state cops if Billy Barr didn’t bigfoot on the events

Even Smith’s challenge to the trespassing charge was genuinely interesting when he made the same argument for another of his clients, Couy Griffin, who attended Trump’s rally and is not alleged to have entered the Capitol itself. But it works very differently for a guy who, rather than attending Trump’s rally, instead spent the morning of January 6 preparing a mob to march on an event that was important precisely because Mike Pence, along with his Secret Service detail, would be there conducting official business.

That’s the thing about being charged along with 450 other people: Where a claim has legal merit, other defendants are going to make such challenges. Those other defendants will be taken more seriously by the DC Circuit (the detention case for Chris Worrell has already shown that the DC Circuit sees the Proud Boys’ role in this as distinct from the unaffiliated defendants). And most of those defendants, if they succeed, won’t be promptly charged with insurrection or seditious conspiracy to sustain the prosecution.

And if any of these challenges brought by others succeed, then at that point, Nordean could point to the appellate decision and get his charges dropped along with hundreds of other people. But launching the challenge now, and in an omnibus motion claiming that poor Ethan didn’t know he was trespassing, is apt to get the whole package treated with less seriousness. Meanwhile, Nordean will be extending his own pre-trial detention. The government will be given more time to try to flip other members of a famously back-stabbing group, possibly up to and including Nordean’s co-conspirators (whose pre-trial detention Nordean will also be extending). And Judge Kelly will be left wondering why Nordean keeps undermining Kelly’s stated intent to limit how much the government can draw this out.

The worst thing about this motion, though, is that both the substance of it and that it was filed by one of the key terrorist leaders of this attack serves as the single best argument I’ve seen for passing a domestic terrorism statute. I don’t want January 6 to lead to passage of a domestic terrorism statute so the government has a way to criminalize membership in the Proud Boys. But claiming that Ethan Nordean shouldn’t even be held accountable for trespassing is a good way to ensure that one is passed.


*I believe it is legally accurate to use the term “terrorist” with Nordean because the government has charged him with a crime that can carry a terrorist enhancement — and in fact the government laid that out explicitly in the superseding Front Door indictment. I also believe the January 6 attack was a classical case of terrorism: the use of political violence to achieve a political goal.

DOJ Got All the Proud Boy Telegram Texts from Ethan Nordean’s Phone

Judge Tim Kelly just wrapped up a status hearing with three of the four Leadership Proud Boy conspiracy defendants: Ethan Nordean, Joe Biggs, and Charles Donohoe (Zach Rehl’s attorney is still arranging her appearance before the DC court).

A really important detail came out about the Telegram texts that have been central to the conspiracy case against the defendants: According to Nordean’s attorney Nick Smith, they call came from Nordean’s phone.

He said that, in part, to anticipate some of the challenges he’ll make to the evidence. First, he’s going to claim the search was illegal and move to suppress it based off a ruling that the government has dropped that theory of crime (that won’t work under Fourth Amendment precedents, but you have to try).

More importantly, he said the government had gotten into the phone — rather than be forced to crack it, as they are doing with everyone else’s phone — because Nordean’s wife gave the FBI the passcode.

It had seemed like someone listed as Unindicted Co-Conspirator 1 may have shared them with the government. That person says some pretty damning things in the chats.

39. On after Chairman’s January 4, 2021, shortly after Proud Boys Chairman’s arrest pursuant to a warrant issued by D.C. Superior Court, DONOHOE expressed concern that encrypted communications that involved Proud Boys Chairman would be compromised when law enforcement examined Proud Boys Chairmans’ phone. DONOHOE then created a new channel on the encrypted messaging application, entitled, “New MOSD,” and took steps to destroy or “nuke” the earlier channel. After its creation, the “New MOSD” channel included NORDEAN, BIGGS, REHL, DONOHOE, and a handful of additional members.

40. On January 4, 2021, at 7:15 p.m., DONOHOE posted a message on various encrypted messaging channels, including New MOSD, which read, “Hey have been instructed and listen to me real good! There is no planning of any sorts. I need to be put into whatever new thing is created. Everything is compromised and we can be looking at Gang charges.” DONOHOE then wrote, “Stop everything immediately” and then “This comes from the top.”

41. On January 4, 2021, at 8:20 p.m., an unindicted co-conspirator (“UCC-1”) posted to New MOSD channel: “We had originally planned on breaking the guys into teams. Let’s start divying them up and getting baofeng channels picked out.”

42. On January 5, 2021, at 1:23 p.m., a new encrypted messaging channel entitled “Boots on the Ground” was created for communications by Proud Boys members in Washington, D.C. In total, over sixty users participated in the Boots on the Ground channel, including NORDEAN, BIGGS, REHL, DONOHOE, and UCC-1.

That, in turn, had led to speculation, and in no way just from me, that UCC1 had already flipped on his buddies and was cooperating.

What was said today appears to be inconsistent with that. Indeed, it seems all the talk of four informants from the Proud Boys working with the FBI mostly pertained to helping Attorney General Billy Barr gin up claims against Antifa, and not (yet, at least) informing on each other.