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‘Make it a spectacle’: Proud Boys leader Tarrio key to Jan. 6, U.S. says

Henry ‘Enrique’ Tarrio aligned plans with Trump ‘stop the steal’ campaign organizers, knowing by Jan. 6 that followers might explode into violence, U.S. says

Proud Boys members, including leader Enrique Tarrio, center, protest the results of the 2020 presidential election in D.C. on Nov. 14, 2020. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)
12 min

One day after news networks declared President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, his campaign had a request for the Proud Boys: Members of the extremist group should attend rallies pushing Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen — but not in their recognizable black-and-yellow gear.

“The campaign asked us to not wear colors to these events,” Proud Boys leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio told one of his closest deputies in an encrypted Nov. 8, 2020, chat, according to court evidence.

Eight weeks later and days before Jan. 6, 2021, the Proud Boys chairman confided further to multiple girlfriends about members’ preparations for violence and the possibility of storming the Capitol.

“Whatever happens … make it a spectacle,” the 39-year-old Miami-born Cuban American said in a final text to another lieutenant and co-defendant as police arrested Tarrio on his arrival in D.C. on Jan. 4, government exhibits and testimony show.

As the seditious conspiracy trial of Proud Boys leaders accused of leading the Jan. 6 riot to keep Trump in office enters its eighth week, the government has cast Tarrio as a singular figure who holds the key both to what the group planned that day and whether it coordinated with others.

More than 200 encrypted Telegram chats, texts and other messages show Tarrio appeared at several points to align his plans with those of Trump’s “stop the steal” campaign organizers, while knowing by Jan. 6 that the Proud Boys and the president’s enraged supporters might explode into violence.

However, the messages also show that Tarrio and four co-defendants at times voiced doubt and ambivalence over what would actually take place and that plans remained in flux into the last 48 hours. Tarrio was not even in Washington on Jan. 6, having been arrested and barred from the city for burning a stolen Black Lives Matter flag at an earlier pro-Trump rally.

Prosecutors assert the Proud Boys at that point frantically hid their tracks and deleted evidence, but the texts they did recover show Tarrio methodically engaged in double-dealing, by turns embracing and disavowing violence depending on the audience, and using intimidation and provocation as tools.

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Tarrio himself told the House Jan. 6 committee that he believed the Proud Boys “got caught up in the moment” and “mob mentality.”

“I will tell you with almost 100 percent certainty that if I would’ve been on the ground on January 6th, there would be absolutely zero Proud Boys that got arrested,” he said.

But in messages on Dec. 30, 2020, Tarrio’s alleged co-conspirators warned him that Proud Boys as well as Trump’s other supporters could riot in Washington. The next day, Tarrio told chapter leaders that the threat of violence that others associated with the Proud Boys increased their influence and in itself deterred their far-left enemies. He also hinted a bigger scheme could be in play.

“I want them to be fearful,” Tarrio reassured followers, before adding cryptically that deterrence might not be the true goal of the Proud Boys in raising the prospect of violence: “Sometimes we don’t have to lift a finger anymore. Because maybe that isn’t the entire plan.”

“Misinformation is a good tool,” he added. He then indicated he may have said too much, making a glib reference to Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propagandist: “F--k … Did I just Goebbels this thing?”

‘Razzle dazzle’

Tarrio and co-defendants Joe Biggs, Ethan Nordean, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola have pleaded not guilty to a 10-count indictment that charges them with secretly conspiring to disrupt by force the transfer of power to Joe Biden.

Defense attorneys accuse prosecutors of cherry-picking statements from tens of thousands of Proud Boys communications to paint a damning picture, ignoring evidence of disagreement and confusion in the group over any specific plan for Jan. 6. They say Tarrio and his men are scapegoats for an unplanned riot caused by Trump’s incitement and police failures.

“The government’s case now seems to come down to the following: They had a motive. They didn’t like — like many Americans — the result of the election. They had the means. They were in town. And something bad happened,” Biggs attorney Norman Pattis argued.

Attorney Sabino Jauregui told jurors Tarrio was only interested in “razzle dazzle for the media,” rankling members who wanted to take bolder action: “The other Proud Boys were always making fun of Enrique because Enrique would never want to fight.”

But evidence shown at trial reveals Tarrio ties to the Trump campaign. Meanwhile, Proud Boys viewed the group’s fortunes as linked to Trump’s political fate.

After Trump famously urged the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during a September 2020 presidential debate, the Proud Boys reacted with “jubilation,” FBI Special Agent Peter Dubrowski testified.

“Trump basically said to go f--k [antifa] up! This makes me so happy,” Biggs posted on Parler.

“We are clearly brought into the Presidential conversation,” Rehl, like Biggs an Army veteran, texted others. “Lets hope daddy Trump plays it right.”

(Video: The Washington Post)

Hundreds of Proud Boys turned out to pro-Trump post-election D.C. rallies, which devolved into street violence in November and December.

On Dec. 15, Tarrio posted that he had begun planning for a third demonstration. He complained, however, that “it’s [tough] because we don’t know when their release is going to happen,” apparently referring to Trump’s announcement of his plans.

It was not the only time Tarrio alluded to Trump’s political operation. A friend and former aide of Trump political confidant Roger Stone, Tarrio once helped manage the phones and social media accounts of the self-proclaimed “dirty trickster.” Tarrio was in contact through the 2020 post-election period with Stone, “stop the steal” campaign organizer Ali Alexander and Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, who on Nov. 7 shared a proposal for storming Congress with Tarrio and others in a “Friends of Stone” encrypted chat group.

Tarrio flew to a pro-Trump rally a week later where he met Alexander on a private jet flight organized by Latinos for Trump President Bianca Gracia and paid for by another promoter of Trump’s false stolen election claims, former Overstock chief executive Patrick Byrne, according to the House Jan. 6 committee. Tarrio and Gracia were also at the White House together on Dec. 12.

By Dec. 19, 2020, the day Trump called demonstrators to Washington for a “wild” protest on Jan. 6, Tarrio handpicked co-defendants Nordean, Biggs and Rehl to join a leadership group chat for that day’s operations, prosecutors allege. Ironically named by Tarrio the “Ministry of Self-Defense” (MOSD), Tarrio and other members agreed to do whatever it took to stop Congress from confirming the electoral vote in Washington, Proud Boys leader Jeremy Bertino testified this week. Some believed storming the Capitol would accomplish it, the star government witness said.

“I don’t know the exact plan of how it was going to get done. [But] I know what the objective was,” Bertino told jurors.

‘Just let it happen’

Tarrio and co-conspirators — who included his best friends and podcast co-hosts Nordean and Biggs — began calling themselves “lords of war” and “soldiers of the right wing” in social media posts, urging others to join in the “revolution.”

“Is Trump gonna ‘cross the Rubicon’ [on Jan. 6] or does he just want a bunch of people to wave flags and stomp their feet[?],” one Proud Boys member asked on Dec. 20, using shorthand adopted by right-wing extremists for a violent uprising or civil war led by Trump.

“I mean. I’m not booking my ticket as a joke,” Biggs replied. Biggs also echoed Tarrio’s “misinformation” strategy, posting elsewhere that Proud Boys should continue to claim that they were just out to protect Trump supporters from far-left agitators or “commies” as a cover story for violence that could erupt.

Still, Tarrio and co-conspirators debated as late as Dec. 30, 2020, whether Proud Boys members could attack police.

“We could have a f-----g riot,” Pennsylvania leader John Stewart warned in the MOSD group chat.

“Just let it happen,” Bertino counseled, “Maybe it’s the shot heard round the world and the normies will f--k up the cops.” Both Stewart and Bertino have pleaded guilty in cooperation deals with prosecutors.

On New Year’s Eve, Tarrio posted a proposed packing list of “basic gear,” including military-style body armor and trauma kits, pepper spray, decontamination wipes, programmable radios, brass knuckles, slash resistant gloves, sealed goggles, helmets and gas masks. He told the MOSD group earlier that “Ali” — a seeming reference to Alexander — was helping arrange discounted hotel lodging.

Meanwhile, the Proud Boys’ anger at police deepened as they learned that Tarrio would be arrested in D.C., and members clashed with police elsewhere in the country.

“#F--ktheblue,” Bertino wrote, to which Stewart replied, “Agree, they chose their f-----g side so let’s get this done.”

Yet Proud Boys leaders were bemused at a Jan. 2 tweet from a Democratic social media influencer who claimed that “domestic terrorists” including Proud Boys were “planning to break into federal buildings, cause violence against law enforcement, burn down buildings and even try to shoot up federal employees and lawmakers.”

“I wish we were half as cool where we could coordinate something like this. … But the truth is we can’t even get guys to march in the same direction,” Tarrio wrote others.

Defense attorneys would argue that message shows Tarrio was no conspiratorial mastermind. But prosecutors suggest he was being disingenuous, based on conversations with three girlfriends between Dec. 30 and Jan. 3 revealed in court for the first time.

One, “Eryka,” urged Tarrio in an exchange at 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 31 to adopt a plan for “revolution” called “1776 Returns” that she had sent him one day earlier; it called for occupying “crucial buildings” in Washington’s Capitol Hill building complex with “as many people as possible,” and named the idea after the Bolsheviks storming of a winter palace of the czars during Russia’s 1917 civil war.

“[T]he revolution and storming the winter capital is at stake[.] The revolution is [more] important than anything,” Eryka wrote.

“[T]hat’s what every waking moment consists of,” Tarrio replied.

In a 3 a.m. conversation three days later with another girlfriend identified as “mamafe,” Tarrio shared a packing list for Washington that included plate-carrier vests, a gas mask and other gear. She joked back that if her child turned out “anything like you, I’m in so much trouble.”

“He’s gonna be like mom, I’m gonna go take the Capitol,” she said.

Tarrio replied, “The Winter Palace.”

‘Nuke chats’

Released videos show Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio meeting Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes the day before the attack on the Capitol. (Video: U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia)

Back in the main Proud Boys MOSD chat group, members discussed similar-sounding plans.

“I didn’t hear this voice note 'til now. You want to storm the Capitol,” Tarrio said in a voice message posted to the MOSD leadership group at 7:36 a.m. on Jan. 4 in an apparent reply to Stewart’s proposal to base operations “around the front entrance of the Capitol.”

At 3:23 p.m., one member asked, “[W]hat would they do [if] 1 million patriots stormed and took the capital building. Shoot into the crowd?”

“They would do nothing because they could do nothing,” Stewart replied.

Unknown to them at the moment, at 3:21 p.m. Tarrio was being pulled over by D.C. police as he entered the city from Reagan National Airport.

“Nuke chats,” Proud Boys leaders repeated in Telegram and elsewhere.

As police were making the stop, Tarrio and Biggs exchanged a 129-second phone call, and Tarrio texted, “Whatever happens … make it a spectacle.”

Biggs replied in a word, “Yup.”

After his release on bond but before leaving the city, Tarrio returned to an underground garage near his hotel room, where he met with Gracia and Rhodes. “You need to be here tomorrow,” Gracia objected in a video clip entered earlier in the trial, while repeatedly warning that his communications with them must be kept secret from law enforcement.

In a clip not given to jurors, a man who accompanied Rhodes to the meeting says while Tarrio is out of earshot, “It’s inevitable what’s going to happen. We’ve just got to do it as a team together, strong, hard and fast.”

On Jan. 6, prosecutors allege, Tarrio was monitoring events in Baltimore as co-defendants marched to the Capitol at the head of nearly 200 other men who joined the first wave that surged onto the Capitol grounds. Bands of Proud Boys emerged at the forefront of attacks on police before Pezzola smashed the first window with a stolen police riot shield.

Tarrio exulted afterward in a Telegram group chat: “We did this.”

The Proud Boys trial

Inside the Proud Boys trial: This month, former Proud Boys chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio and three other members were found guilty of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. In closing arguments, prosecutors said the Proud Boys saw themselves as “Donald Trump’s army."

How did we get here? Former chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio and four leaders of the Proud Boys face trial on charges in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. In November, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy.

Who is involved? Created in 2016, the Proud Boys is the most active right-wing extremist group in the country. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio learned of his arrest in advance from a D.C. police officer, according to a testimony. Here’s what we know about the Proud Boys’ involvement in Jan. 6.