In the fallout over the Capitol attack earlier this month, some of the rioters have attempted to downplay their involvement, saying they were merely “caught up in the moment.” Although that does not and should not make them any less culpable, it’s certainly possible that they traveled to Washington to cosplay a revolt and ended up actually participating in one. But it has become disturbingly clear, in the weeks since Donald Trump’s coup attempt, that some of these extremists not only meant business, but came prepared.
Militia members reportedly strategized their attack on the Capitol both before it happened and as it played out, with designs on making “citizens’ arrests” of lawmakers. A Texas man, who has since been arrested, allegedly wanted to assassinate Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Some arrived with zip-ties and weapons, apparently intending to kidnap or kill officials, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Mike Pence, who had convened to formalize Joe Biden’s win. “This was more than a group of people swept up in the emotions of the moment,” as the Atlantic’s David A. Graham put it this month. “Within the mob were radicals plotting to kill or kidnap the vice president and members of Congress.” As investigators work to determine the scope of the plotting and coordination that went into the attack, and, potentially, whether any members of Congress may have been involved, they have increasingly seemed to pointe to the Proud Boys, the violent, far-right extremist group Trump infamously told to “stand back and stand by” during a debate with Biden last year.
Though six of the group’s members, including one of its leaders, have been arrested for their roles in the attack, law enforcement has not yet found evidence of a broad conspiracy. But, the New York Times reported Tuesday, investigators seem to be intensifying scrutiny on the pro-Trump nationalist group, executing search warrants on members and probing its chairman, Enrique Tarrio, who was arrested before the January 6 riot for burning a Black Lives Matter flag at a December demonstration. His arrest, the FBI has said, was part of an effort to prevent the violence that would eventually transpire; officials had “developed some intelligence that a number of individuals were planning to travel to the D.C. area with intentions to cause violence,” the bureau said.
Not only had Tarrio, who Reuters reported Wednesday was previously an informant for law enforcement, heavily promoted the so-called “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the siege; he also directed members on Parler to go “incognito” at the event rather than wearing Proud Boys identification, and to work in “smaller teams.” And while he tried to minimize the role his group played in the attack in an interview with the Times, he spent the day of the insurrection cheering it on, praising the “revolutionaries” on Parler and encouraging them to “do what must be done.” An exhaustive Wall Street Journal analysis found that the Proud Boys appeared to have coordinated and instigated major parts of the deadly attack.
One open question is whether any elected officials could be swept up in the probes. Democrats have called for investigations into what they say was suspicious behavior on the part of some colleagues in the lead-up to the riot, including what some have suggested were “reconnaissance tours” for those who later participated. Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, a gun zealot with ties to QAnon, has been under particular scrutiny, with Democrats accusing her of intentionally tweeting out Pelosi’s location during the attack and for allegedly leading Capitol tours in the days before. (Boebert has called the “reconnaissance tour” allegations “100% false.”) In a conference call to reporters Tuesday, federal law enforcement said there would be more arrests and charges against those involved, including for sedition, but declined to say if any elected officials were under legal scrutiny—or if the former president, his son Donald Trump Jr., or Rudy Giuliani could face charges for inciting the attack.
The Department of Justice had previously cast doubt on the prospect of Trump being charged over the riot, however, which seemed to make impeachment the only pathway to holding him accountable for his role in the violence. But that possibility appears to have dimmed as Senate Republicans rally against the idea of even holding a trial, let alone convicting their former leader. The rioters who attempted to overthrow the government on Trump’s behalf, whether they let their passions get the better of them or they had plotted aspects of the attack, seemed to believe that they, like him, were exempt from following the law. As the arrests pile up, though, Trump’s foot soldiers may be learning the hard way that the impunity he has long enjoyed does not extend to them.