The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He kicked back in Pelosi’s office on Jan. 6. Now he has ‘regrets.’

Richard ‘Bigo’ Barnett took the stand in his own defense in a federal trial on charges stemming from the attack

Richard Barnett sits inside the office of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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Richard “Bigo” Barnett’s first brush with fame, his viral moment, came during the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when, he said, he was “pushed” into the building by a surging mob and began wandering around, eventually finding himself in then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s deserted office suite. Clad in jeans and a ball cap and carrying a high-voltage stun device in his waistband, he kicked back in a swivel chair and plopped his left foot, shod in a size 11 work boot, atop a staff member’s desk.

Barnett, 60 at the time, was a sales employee of a construction business who had driven to D.C. from rural Arkansas to help save the country from “the liberals,” he later told FBI agents. In the House speaker’s outer sanctum, he reclined at the desk with an air of nonchalance, like the company boss, grinning and holding forth as a photojournalist snapped one of the most widely viewed images from that day’s riotous attack on a joint session of Congress.

An alleged trespasser, in repose.

“Nancy, Bigo was here, you b----,” he said he wrote in a note, leaving it on the desk before departing with an item that didn’t belong to him: an empty envelope addressed to a House Democrat and bearing the digital signature of Pelosi (D-Calif.). “I put a quarter on the desk even though she ain’t f----ing worth it,” he shouted hoarsely outside the Capitol, displaying his souvenir for video cameras.

A man accused of breaking into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on Jan. 6, 2021, holds up mail addressed to her outside the U.S. Capitol. (Video: Brandon Buckingham via Storyful)

On Thursday, Barnett, charged with eight crimes related to the incursion, including theft of government property (to wit, an envelope), sat in the witness box in a federal courtroom in Washington, where he has been on trial this month. Now he wore a charcoal blazer and dark slacks and kept his black-loafered feet on the carpet. His head was shaved and he sported a gray goatee bushy enough to cover the knot in his necktie. In a subdued twang, he said he has “regrets.”

“Because of all the controversies,” he testified. “I probably shouldn’t have put my feet on the desk. And my language.” Although he still suspects that former president Donald Trump was fraudulently denied reelection and that “nefarious characters” on the political left are intent on destroying the Constitution, he told the jury he would apologize to Pelosi in person if he could.

“I’m a Christian,” he said. “It just wasn’t good. It wasn’t who I am.”

As the Justice Department continues its sprawling investigation of the Jan. 6 mayhem, in which thousands of rioters stormed the Capitol while Congress was meeting to confirm President Biden’s 2020 election victory, Barnett’s sparsely attended trial was hardly this week’s main event in U.S. District Court. Elsewhere in the building, two separate, arguably more consequential prosecutions are underway against nine members of the right-wing extremist groups the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, all charged with seditious conspiracy stemming from the rampage.

Yet authorities aren’t taking Barnett lightly. In addition to theft, he is accused of carrying a dangerous weapon in the Capitol, plus a half-dozen offenses involving civil disorder, illegal entry, unlawfully demonstrating and obstructing a congressional proceeding. He could spend significant time in prison if convicted in what his attorneys suggested is a vindictive prosecution, with a stack of piled-on, thinly supported charges brought because of the brazenness of their client’s notorious pose in the speaker’s suite.

“The most famous trespassing case of all time,” lawyer Joseph D. McBride said sarcastically Wednesday in his deferred opening statement, after the government had finished presenting its evidence.

“This case is about a picture taken by a journalist who was perusing the Capitol looking for the perfect shot, and, boy, did he ever get it,” McBride said. He described Barnett as “this crazy redneck from Arkansas,” given to “hootin’ and hollerin’,” who “got pushed into the Capitol and put his feet up on the wrong person’s desk.”

McBride said the evidence in the case is insufficient to prove the legal elements of each charge beyond a reasonable doubt. More broadly, though, he cast Barnett as a harmless windbag — “that nutty uncle” who has “no sense of boundaries” or “societal norms,” who “doesn’t necessarily fit in today’s world” and “routinely offends others” with political incorrectness.

Hoping to bridge the cultural gap between his client and the D.C. jurors, McBride asked members of the panel to think of a cringey blowhard, loved but barely tolerated, in their families in cosmopolitan Washington. “Remove him from this urban sophistication and drop him off in the hills of western Arkansas,” McBride said, “and now you’ve got Bigo Barnett.”

On the witness stand in Judge Christopher R. Cooper’s courtroom, Barnett, with a wry smile, allowed that he is “sometimes a loudmouth.” He also is a “loving father and husband,” he told the jury, and an ardent “patriot.”

In Gravette, Ark., his tiny hometown in the Ozarks, he got most of his news from the internet, he said. Amid the racial-reckoning unrest of 2020, he feared the country was headed to ruin, with protesters “burning buildings down and pulling people out of cars and killing people.” That was the story he got from the websites he visited. And he said he was angry that Washington politicians seemed more beholden to special interests than to “we the people.”

Then came “the stolen election.” Barnett said he felt compelled to attend Trump’s incendiary rally Jan. 6 on the Ellipse, which preceded the Capitol riot. Before leaving for Washington, he stopped in a Bass Pro Shops outlet to gear up, purchasing six walkie-talkies, some canisters of pepper spray and a retractable walking stick called a ZAP Hike ’n Strike, equipped on one end with a 950,000-volt stun device.

“I bought it for protection,” he testified. In D.C., “I knew at night antifa might be wandering around killing and stabbing people. I wanted to be prepared.”

Antifa (short for anti-fascist) is an amorphous movement of far-left activists, some violent and others not, with an array of radical ideals and no coherent organizational structure, according to people who have studied the group. But Barnett thinks otherwise. “Apparently they have chapters all over the place,” is what he learned in chatrooms and elsewhere online.

Toting his Hike ’n Strike and an American flag affixed to a 10-pound metal pole, Barnett said, he was in a crowd of Trump supporters outside the massive Columbia Doors on the Capitol’s East Front when the mob surged through the entry. The tide swept him into the building, he said, and he meandered about until he ended up in Pelosi’s suite while searching for a bathroom.

Two news photographers arrived at the same time. “They said, ‘Do you mind if we take your picture?’” Barnett recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, I guess.’ So they said, ‘Why don’t you just sit down and act natural?’ … I’m just kind of going with the flow at this point. … I just plopped down in the chair and threw my legs up, because they said to act natural.” The money shots of Barnett with his boot atop the desk, his flag on a credenza next to him, are credited to Saul Loeb of Agence France-Presse and Jim Lo Scalzo of the European Pressphoto Agency.

Loeb, who was not called to testify in the trial, denied Barnett’s story in an email.

“I did not ask Mr. Barnett to pose for a photo, nor would I ever ask any news subject to pose for a photo,” he said.

“I am a photojournalist, and it is my job to capture news events as they happen. I take that obligation very seriously, and that is what I did in the Capitol on January 6."

Lo Scalzo echoed Loeb in a statement, saying: “Mr. Barnett’s claim that we asked him to pose is flat out false—and antithetical to what we do. We are photojournalists. We document scenes, we don’t create them.”

To the government, it matters little how the picture came to be taken.

“This is not about a photograph,” a prosecutor told the jurors Friday, stressing that the case concerned Barnett’s alleged criminal presence in the Capitol. On Friday, in his cross-examination of Barnett and in his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael M. Gordon sought to persuade jurors that Barnett knew that he was violating federal laws on Jan. 6. He urged the panel to reject McBride’s depiction of Barnett as as a good-natured, flag-loving rural American who simply got carried away.

It has always been his “natural” habit to lean back and plunk his feet on a table, at home and at work, Barnett said. He even sat that way during an FBI interview after his arrest. (“Look familiar?” he said to agents.) But this time it altered his future, leaving him chastened.

“Two years of lost life, misery for my family,” he said of his legal predicament.

Finishing his direct examination Thursday, McBride again asked Barnett about the now-former House speaker.

“I mean, I can’t turn around and quite honestly say I think Nancy Pelosi is a good person,” he replied. “But I shouldn’t have called her a b----. That’s not right.”

This story has been updated with comments from news photographers who shot images of Barnett in Pelosi’s office and developments in the trial that occurred after it first published.