Twenty-three days after a mob ransacked Congress in an attempt to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential win, federal prosecutors have charged more than 150 individuals for their involvement in the breach and have opened over 400 case files.
And over three weeks and a steady stream of charging papers, some themes have begun to emerge.
Yes, dozens of people simply incriminated themselves, posting selfies from the Capitol Rotunda or bragging to frenemies on social media who quickly ratted them out to the FBI.
But the feds have made pretty quick work of that group, and their priorities have shifted in recent days to others who engaged in violence against police and the media during the attack — and especially those who came prepared for battle.
“Look at Jan. 6 as like a bug light for domestic extremism: It brought everybody there, but everybody wasn’t of the same capabilities,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, which has catalogued the hundreds of court filings related to the Capitol attack.
As the government works through one of the most expansive investigations in its history, it’s largely dealt with the trespassers. Now, it’s after the conspirators and seditionists.
‘The Internet Stars’
In a conference call earlier this week, the capital’s top prosecutor distinguished between some of the more serious, complex criminal cases authorities continue to investigate and, well, the easy ones.
“We picked off the internet stars,” Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., told reporters.
“You know, the rebel flag guy, Camp Auschwitz, the individuals in Pelosi’s office. The easily-identifiable individuals that we were able to quickly find and charge with misdemeanors, then we tacked on federal felony charges.”
Easily-identifiable doesn’t really do it justice. There aren’t many “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies in circulation; the man who wore one to the Capitol was allegedly a regular at at a Newport News, VA convenience store. Investigators tracked his car and home address from there.
Then there’s the white supremacist from Maryland who convinced his probation officer to let him travel to D.C. to distribute bibles. His court-ordered monitoring device pinged his location as he milled around the Capitol steps.
The Violent Assailants
Beyond the straightforward trespassing and disorderly conduct cases, prosecutors are focused on violent and pre-planned behavior.
On bus shelters and highway billboards around the country, wanted posters show yet-unidentified faces with two consistent offenses: “ASSAULT ON FEDERAL OFFICERS AND VIOLENCE AT THE UNITED STATES CAPITOL.”
The leader of the Capitol police union on Wednesday detailed some egregious examples: One officer was “stabbed with a metal fence stake,” others are dealing with cracked ribs and spinal injuries. Some protesters used bits of inauguration scaffolding to attack police.
Those cases take more time than scanning Facebook or checking in with probation officers, because they fuse evidence from a number of sources; prosecutors have said they anticipate a swell in assault-on-police cases as hundreds of hours of body-worn camera footage are analyzed and combined with other evidence.
In one such officer assault case, filed against a man filmed crushing police officers as part of a large crowd attempting to force their way through a Capitol tunnel, an FBI agent’s affidavit describes the defendant’s minute-by-minute movements and cites footage from three YouTube videos and multiple officers’ body-worn cameras.
Prosecutors are also focused on rioters who assaulted members of the media, Sherwin said.
“It’s the height of hypocrisy, some of these individuals that claimed they were just First Amendment protesters targeted and directly attacked members of the media,” he said. “We take that very seriously, and we’ve devoted prosecutors to specifically look at that violence.”
‘Planning, Forethought, Intent’
But more than even the assault cases, the feds have described spending a great deal of their energy on conspiracy charges: Individuals that allegedly planned to break laws ahead of time, including those that may have committed sedition.
Their go-to example is that of three affiliates of the Oath Keepers militia group. They’re charged with conspiracy against the United States — specifically, an effort to obstruct the counting of Electoral College votes. Text messages allegedly show discussions of logistics details and committing violence on Donald Trump’s behalf for weeks ahead of the actual attack.
Even if the groups conspiring ahead of attack ultimately weren’t as violent as some unaffiliated individuals, as was apparently the case with the trio of Oath Keepers in question, Hughes noted that law enforcement may see them as more of a threat moving forward.
“It has less to do with Jan. 6, and more to do with Jan. 7, 8 and 9,” he said. “They’re looking if there’s a network they need to be worried about. That’s why the focus is squarely on the Oath Keepers and the militia folks, and less on the QAnon and the selfies.”
Faced with hundreds of individuals who may yet face charges, prosecutors work to assess who may be a concern moving forward. So while Capitol attackers who ascribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory are concerning (QAnon anticipates mass executions of Trump’s political enemies), “they’re also not training at a camp in Georgia. [That’s] just a different level of lethality,” Hughes said.
Prosecutors recently articulated these sorts of concerns in the case of a Capitol breacher who’s come to be known as “Zip Tie Guy,” due to photos showing him carrying flex cuffs inside the Senate chamber during the attack. He faces a conspiracy charge and other offenses.
In a recent filing that convinced a judge to keep the man detained, prosecutors noted that he fist-bumped an apparent member of the Oath Keepers, before the Oath Keeper allegedly told him, “There’s 65 more of us coming.” The filing draws the conclusion that Zip Tie Guy intended to “contribute to chaos, obstruct the Electoral College certification, and sow fear,” and notes that evidence amassed so far subjects him to further felonies, including sedition.
‘The nature and circumstances of the alleged offenses all indicate forethought and specific intent to obstruct a congressional proceeding through fear, intimidation, and, if necessary, violence,” the filing stated.
“These threads—planning, forethought, intent—are all indicative of a capacity and willingness to repeat the offense and pose a clear threat to community safety.”