WASHINGTON (AP) — A defense attorney argued Tuesday at the close of a landmark trial over the January 6 riot that the US Justice Department is making Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio a scapegoat for Donald Trump after the former president’s supporters stormed the US Capitol.
Tarrio and four lieutenants are charged with seditious conspiracy for what prosecutors say was a plot to attack the Capitol to stop the transfer of presidential power from Trump to US President Joe Biden after the 2020 election.
In his closing argument, defense lawyer Nayib Hassan noted Tarrio wasn’t in Washington on January 6, 2021, having been banned from the capital after being arrested on allegations that he defaced a Black Lives Matter banner. Trump, Hassan argued, was the one to blame for extorting a crowd outside the White House to “fight like hell.”
“It was Donald Trump’s words. It was his motivation. It was his anger that caused what occurred on January 6th in your beautiful and amazing city,” Hassan told jurors in Washington federal court. “It was not Enrique Tarrio. They want to use Enrique Tarrio as a scapegoat for Donald J. Trump and those in power.”
Seditious conspiracy, a rarely used charge that can be difficult to prove, carries a possible prison term of up to 20 years.
Tarrio is one of the top targets of the Justice Department’s investigation of the riot, which temporarily halted the certification of Biden’s election win.
From the outset of the trial, Tarrio’s lawyers have accused prosecutors of using him as a scapegoat because charging Trump or his powerful allies would be too difficult. But his attorney’s closing arguments were the most full-throated expression of that defense strategy since the trial started more than three months ago.
Trump has denied inciting any violence on January 6 and has argued that he was permitted by the First Amendment to challenge his loss to Biden. The former president is facing several civil lawsuits over the riot and a special counsel named by Attorney General Merrick Garland is also overseeing investigations into efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the election.
A prosecutor told jurors on Monday during the first day of closing arguments that the Proud Boys were ready for “all-out war” and viewed themselves as foot soldiers fighting for Trump as the Republican spread lies that Democrats stole the election from him.
“These defendants saw themselves as Donald Trump’s army, fighting to keep their preferred leader in power no matter what the law or the courts had to say about it,” said the prosecutor, Conor Mulroe.
Jurors could begin deliberating as soon as Tuesday after hearing closing arguments and a rebuttal from prosecutors.
Tarrio, a Miami resident, is on trial with Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola. Nordean, of Auburn, Washington, was a Proud Boys chapter president. Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Florida, was a self-described Proud Boys organizer. Rehl was president of a Proud Boys chapter in Philadelphia. Pezzola was a Proud Boys member from Rochester, New York.
Attorneys for Nordean and Rehl gave their closing arguments on Monday.
Tarrio is accused of orchestrating an attack from afar even though he wasn’t in Washington that day. Police arrested him two days before the riot on charges that he burned a church’s Black Lives Matter banner during an earlier march in the city. A judge ordered Tarrio to leave Washington after his arrest.
Defense attorneys have argued that there is no evidence of a conspiracy or a plan for the Proud Boys to attack the Capitol. Tarrio “had no plan, no objective and no understanding of an objective,” his attorney said.
Pezzola testified that he never spoke to any of his co-defendants before they sat in the same courtroom after their arrests. Defense attorney Steven Metcalf said Pezzola never knew of any plan for January 6 or joined in any conspiracy with the Proud Boys leaders.
“It’s not possible. It’s fairy dust. It doesn’t exist,” Metcalf said.
Mulroe, the prosecutor, told jurors that a conspiracy can be an unspoken and implicit “mutual understanding, reached with a wink and a nod.”
The foundation of the government’s case, which started with jury selection in December, is a trove of messages that Proud Boys leaders and members privately exchanged in encrypted chats — and publicly posted on social media — before, during and after the deadly January 6 attack.
Another prosecutor, Nadia Moore, said the Proud Boys did more than just talk about their goal of keeping Trump in office. They marched to the Capitol and helped stop the certification of the Electoral College vote, she told jurors.
“These men aren’t here because of what they said. They’re here because of what they did,” Moore said Tuesday.
Norm Pattis, one of Biggs’ attorneys, described the Capitol riot as an “aberration” and told jurors that their verdict “means so much more than January 6th itself” because it will “speak to the future.”
“Show the world with this verdict that the rule of law is alive and well in the United States,” Pattis said.
The Justice Department has already secured seditious conspiracy convictions against the founder and members of another far-right extremist group, the Oath Keepers. But this is the first major trial involving leaders of the far-right Proud Boys, a neo-fascist group of self-described “Western chauvinists” that remains a force in mainstream Republican circles.