At the heart of the Jan. 6 investigation are the cases against the riot suspects.
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Nineteen months after the Jan. 6 attack, hundreds of criminal cases that stem from it are playing out in court. They have been getting less attention than the Justice Department’s scrutiny of Donald Trump, but my colleague Alan Feuer has spent hours and hours watching these trials. This morning, he offers you a glimpse of them.
Ian: Who are the Jan. 6 defendants, and what are they charged with?
Alan: It’s a wide range. People from all 50 states have been prosecuted. Most are white men from middle- or working-class backgrounds, but there are also women, Hispanic people, Black people. A lot have military backgrounds. There are also professional people, which is unusual for an event involving far-right extremism: doctors, a State Department aide, business owners, people who flew there on a private jet.
Most have been charged with misdemeanors and have gotten little to no prison time. Others have been charged with assaulting police officers or damaging government property. And a few hundred people have been charged with obstructing Congress’ certification that day of the Electoral College vote. About 350 defendants have pleaded guilty, and more than 200 have been sentenced. About half a dozen have gotten four years or more, and two have gotten more than seven years.
The government is still arresting people, and prosecutors estimate around 2,000 could ultimately face charges.
The hearings open windows into defendants’ lives, many of which seem quite dysfunctional. You covered the trial of a defendant named Guy Reffitt, a Texas militia member whose own son turned him in to the F.B.I. and testified against him.
If someone is being criminally prosecuted, there’s often some dysfunction in their past. But I’ve been struck by how trauma rests at the center of so many of the Jan. 6 defendants’ lives, whether it’s poverty, addiction or deep family dysfunction. You also see defendants say things to the judge like, I’ve lost everything because of what I did on Jan. 6. My job has been taken from me. My neighbors no longer talk to me. My church has essentially excommunicated me. Please don’t send me to prison as well.
Hundreds of defendants are being prosecuted, all in federal court in Washington. How do you keep up?
Covid restrictions enabled remote access, which lets me jump from courtroom to courtroom with the push of a button and listen to multiple hearings over the phone in a day.
The big exception is trials. I’ve covered two in Washington in person — the Reffitt trial and the case against Dustin Thompson, an unemployed Ohio exterminator. Two seditious conspiracy cases — against members of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, two far-right groups — will likely go to trial later this year, and I’ll almost certainly be in the courtroom for those. I prefer the courtroom. You pick up on body language and facial expressions that aren’t available when you’re just listening in.
How many Jan. 6 hearings have you listened to?
Hundreds. It’s not really countable at this point.
How did you become the reporter who covers these hearings?
I’ve covered courts and crime for over 20 years: murders, mafia and police corruption trials and the trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo. I’ve also spent a lot of time covering far-right extremist groups. As I watched the Jan. 6 attack on TV, I actually recognized people in the crowd. As people started getting arrested, I did what I’ve always done: track documents and set up a database of the now 850-plus cases.
How are these cases different from other criminal proceedings?
On one level, the process is the same: Defendants get charged. Some plead guilty, some go to trial. People are acquitted or convicted. But the context is very different. Jan. 6 was a political action that became a federal crime, and politics infuses these cases. Some defendants have argued that they’re being persecuted for their political beliefs. Thompson’s defense was that Trump authorized him to go into the Capitol that day and that he was merely following Trump’s orders. That did not fly in front of a jury. I’ve never covered anything that’s taken place in an atmosphere as polarized as this one.
Trump seems to have motivated not only some Jan. 6 defendants to commit violence, but also people who have threatened the F.B.I. after agents searched his home, Mar-a-Lago, this month. Do you see parallels between the groups?
The Ohio man who attacked the F.B.I. field office in Cincinnati this month was, in fact, outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. The F.B.I. investigated his role in the riot but never arrested him.
In a larger sense, one researcher has found that 15 to 20 million Americans think violence would be justified to return Trump to office. We’ve seen this in the reaction to the Mar-a-Lago raid, but I’m also concerned about what a potential criminal prosecution of Trump could bring. What will the reaction be if Trump is indicted? What will happen on the day he appears in court? What will happen if he goes to trial and is convicted? There may be moments when the risk of violence in defense of Trump is high.
As threats of violence become more widespread, it can create an atmosphere in which the threshold for committing actual violence is lowered. When violent rhetoric becomes pervasive, people willing to commit violence feel justified. They feel like there’s community support. It enables them. That’s a reality we all have to start grappling with.
More about Alan: Before becoming a reporter, he worked for a private detective agency run by two former New York City police officers. He later spent three years as a stringer for The Times, covering fires, murders and other middle-of-the-night stories in New York before joining the staff in 1999. In 2020, he published a book about El Chapo.
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Matthew Cullen, Claire Moses, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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