As members of the Oath Keepers paramilitary group shouldered their way through the mob and up the steps to the U.S. Capitol, their plans for Jan. 6 were clear, authorities say. “Arrest this assembly, we have probable cause for acts of treason, election fraud,” someone commanded over an encrypted messaging app some extremists used to communicate during the siege.
A little while earlier, Proud Boys carrying two-way radios and wearing earpieces spread out and tried to blend in with the crowd as they invaded the Capitol led by a man assigned “war powers” to oversee the group’s attack, prosecutors say.
These two extremist groups that traveled to Washington along with thousands of other Trump supporters weren’t whipped into an impulsive frenzy by President Donald Trump that day, officials say. They’d been laying attack plans. And their internal communications and other evidence emerging in court papers and in hearings show how authorities are trying to build a case that small cells hidden within the masses mounted an organized, military-style assault on the heart of American democracy.
“This was not simply a march. This was an incredible attack on our institutions of government,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough said during a recent hearing.
The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers make up a fraction of the more than 300 Trump supporters charged so far in the siege that led to Trump’s second impeachment and resulted in the deaths of five people, including a police officer. But several of their leaders, members and associates have become the central targets of the Justice Department’s sprawling investigation.
It could mean more serious criminal charges for some rioters. On the other hand, mounting evidence of advance planning could also fuel Trump’s and his supporters’ claims that the Republican former president did not incite the riot and therefore should not be liable for it.
Defense attorneys have accused prosecutors of distorting their clients’ words and actions to falsely portray the attack as a premeditated, orchestrated insurrection instead of a spontaneous outpouring of election-fueled rage to stop Congress’s certification of Trump’s defeat by Democrat Joe Biden.
The Oath Keepers began readying for violence as early as last November, authorities say. Communications show the group discussing logistics, weapons and training, including “two days of wargames.”
As Jan. 6 neared, they discussed stationing a “quick reaction force” outside Washington that could bring in weapons, according to court documents. Days before the attack, one man suggested getting a boat to ferry “heavy weapons” across the Potomac River into their “waiting arms.”
The Oath Keepers are a loosely organized group of extremists who actively recruit current and former military, police and first responders who pledge to fulfill the oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies — foreign or domestic.
Trump encouraged thousands at the rally preceding the riot to “fight like hell,” but lawyers for the former president adamantly denied during his impeachment trial that he had incited the attack. They pointed to a remark during his speech in which he told the crowd to behave “peacefully” that day.
He was acquitted in a Senate trial of inciting the riot after he was impeached by the House, but GOP leaders said a more appropriate venue for his actions could be the courts.
Nine people linked to the Oath Keepers have been indicted on charges that they planned and coordinated with one another in the siege. At least 11 leaders, members or associates of the Proud Boys charged in the riots are accused by the Justice Department of participating in a coordinated attack.
Several from both groups remain in federal custody while awaiting trial.