The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What were the Capitol rioters thinking on Jan. 6?

(Robert Carter for The Washington Post)
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Robert Gieswein is a good man, according to family and friends, who describe him as gentle and compassionate. His mother says he has “an amazing work ethic.” His younger sister calls him “the most inspiring person in my life.” He bought clothes and shoes for the residents of a nursing home where he worked as a nurse’s aide. The 24-year-old had no criminal history when he traveled to D.C. in January and, according to the U.S. government, joined a violent siege of the U.S. Capitol.

Gieswein appears to be affiliated with the radical militia group the Three Percenters, the FBI says, and the leader of a “private paramilitary training group” called the Woodland Wild Dogs. On Jan. 6, he donned goggles, a camouflage shirt, an army-style helmet and a military-style vest reinforced with an armored plate, and a black pouch emblazoned with “MY MOM THINKS I’M SPECIAL.” Then, wielding a baseball bat and a noxious spray, he stormed the U.S. Capitol, attacked a federal officer and helped halt the certification of the 2020 presidential election, the government claims.

Gieswein has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts, including assaulting an officer and destruction of government property. Now he wants to be let out of jail, subject to very strict conditions, while he awaits trial — because the man he really is, according to his lawyer, is not the man the government says he was on that day.

“If what the government says is true, then Mr. Gieswein committed assault on January 6,” federal public defender Ann Mason Rigby said July 1 during a hearing on his detention. “The question before the court is: Is he incorrigibly violent? Is that a characteristic that cannot be controlled? And that’s why you have to look at his history.”

That’s what the U.S. District Court in D.C. is doing with at least 535 people who were somehow involved in the breach of the Capitol; there are hundreds of ongoing investigations beyond that, according to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.

Were these people acting on their most deeply held convictions, or were they somehow not themselves on Jan. 6?

Six months of evidence, court filings and motion hearings have created a composite sketch of the people arrested — in all their treachery or boneheadedness — and of the country many said they were fighting for.

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Some defendants seemed bent on bloodshed and were charged with felonies including conspiracy. One group dressed in combat attire, used walkie-talkies, adopted code names such as “Gator 1” and “Gator 6” and, once inside the Capitol, appeared to be searching for legislators, according to the government. One militiaman wore a patch on his vest that read: “I don’t believe in anything. I’m just here for the violence,” according to an affidavit from an FBI agent.

Many defendants are charged with misdemeanors, such as disorderly conduct; their legal defense rests on the distinction between causing the chaos and merely being swept up in it.

Lawyers blame Donald Trump, the media, naivete, trauma, unemployment, the pandemic, Washington elites, their clients’ childhoods and the singular nature of the event itself. The first sacking of the Capitol in more than 200 years — this time by Americans, not invading foreigners — has prompted extraordinary attempts to explain the actions of participants.

“Mr. Gieswein did not go to any great lengths on January 6,” Rigby wrote last month, arguing for his release. “He simply got in his car, drove to the District, joined an enormous crowd, walked up to the Capitol, and encountered what most agree was a very light, unprepared, and possibly surprised police presence at the Capitol facing the same crowd, many of them riled up by the Commander-in-Chief, and all of them undoubtedly riled up by each other.”

The insurrection itself, in other words, has been deployed as a defense. The mob mentality made them do it.

“I got caught up in the moment,” said Josiah Colt, the Idaho man who was photographed hanging off the Senate balcony in a helmet and kneepads and sitting in the chair reserved for the vice president. (Last week he agreed to plead guilty to felony obstruction of Congress.)

A “momentary lack of restraint” is how an attorney for Thomas Webster describes his tackling a police officer outside the Capitol. (Webster has pleaded not guilty to seven counts, including assaulting an officer with a dangerous weapon.)

“Never mistake the man for the moment,” said attorney Patrick Nelson Leduc, arguing Monday for a lenient sentence for his client Paul Hodgkins, who pleaded guilty to obstructing an official proceeding.

If you believe many of the defense arguments made during the past half year, you might conclude that what happened Jan. 6 was a brief eruption of collective madness, and that responsibility for the event is spread so thin that true culpability doesn’t exist.

The Capitol breach cases, as the Justice Department calls them, look black and white, but the defendants are being portrayed in shades of gray.

One of Gieswein’s friends wrote to the court about the Woodland Wild Dogs, the purported “paramilitary training force” that Gieswein leads in his hometown, not far from Colorado Springs. The friend described it as a group of buddies with a shared interest in camping, shooting and outdoor survival — not in overthrowing the government.

“I considered the idea of naming us as a bit silly,” the friend admitted.

“I have never seen Bobby threaten violence, let alone commit violence against another person,” another friend wrote in his own declaration.

In a February interview, another character witness told the FBI: “Bobby has been going through a lot in his life recently.”

Many of the Jan. 6 defendants had been going through a lot. This is both a sad truth and a crucial part of their legal strategy. The pandemic triggered job losses, and losses of direction and security. Searching for order and meaning, they immersed themselves in politics, conspiracy theories, Trump’s rhetoric and right-wing media. One attorney has cited “Trumpitis” and “Foxmania.” Lawyers have mounted what you might call an externalized-insanity argument: The defendants were hearing voices saying the presidential election would be stolen by sinister forces unless they intervened. It was a delusion, but the voices were real. And one of them belonged to the president of the United States.

Anthony Antonio lost his job because of the pandemic, moved in with friends who watched Fox News constantly and says he came to Washington because Trump commanded him. (Antonio, charged with five counts including obstruction of law enforcement during civil disorder, has yet to enter a plea.)

“The reason he was there is because he was a dumb--- and believed what he heard on Fox News,” Antonio’s attorney, Joseph Hurley, said in an interview in May.

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Folly and sadness abound in these cases. When a Pennsylvania man was arrested last month on charges of stealing government property amid the chaos, among his possessions were literature titled “Step by Step to Create Hometown Militia” and a model of the U.S. Capitol made of Legos.

Eric Munchel, who was photographed leaping through the Senate gallery carrying zip-tie handcuffs, was there to protect his mother, according to his attorney. Inside the Capitol, Munchel attempted to limit her movements, and he was recorded yelling things like: “What’s your goal here, Mom? . . . Wait, Mom. Mom! . . . Mom, where are you going? Mom, focus, don’t lose me.” (Munchel and his mother pleaded not guilty last month to eight counts, including conspiracy to obstruct Congress.)

Patrick Stedman, a self-proclaimed dating guru from New Jersey, was flagged to the FBI by former classmates who saw him bragging publicly about participating in the first wave of rioters to breach the building, according to an affidavit. After being charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of government procedure, Stedman continued to share his wisdom on Twitter.

“The essence of the masculine spirit is the impulse toward oblivion,” he tweeted shortly before his indictment was filed. (He has pleaded not guilty). Days later, he posted: “Women will fall in love with any man so long as he’s in the arena.”

Personal baggage has been submitted as evidence. Douglas Jensen — the Iowa man who wore a “Q” shirt and stalked Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman up a flight of stairs — is “the product of a dysfunctional childhood” spent mostly in foster care, according to his lawyer. Jensen, saddled with stress, the lawyer said, became a “true believer” in QAnon, an extremist ideology that the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat.

“Maybe it was midlife crisis, the pandemic, or perhaps the message just seemed to elevate him from his ordinary life to an exalted status with an honorable goal,” his lawyer wrote last month in a petition to release Jensen from jail as he awaits trial for disrupting government business and obstructing an officer during a civil disorder. (He has pleaded not guilty.)

“In any event,” the lawyer continued, “he fell victim to this barrage of Internet sourced info and came to the Capitol, at the direction of the President of the United States, to demonstrate that he was a ‘true patriot.’ ”

A sense of victimhood still burns in some defendants, who have offered a litany of grievances while caught in the gears of the legal system.

“It’s not fair,” yelled Richard Barnett — who famously propped a foot on a desk in Nancy Pelosi’s office — referring to his detention during a March 4 hearing. “Everybody else who did things much worse are already home.”

In trying to secure his release, Barnett’s attorney described him as a retired firefighter “beloved” in his community in western Arkansas. On Jan. 6, he was “swept inside with a mass wave of people.” The attorney accused government prosecutors of concocting a “cocktail of mischaracterization of truth and invention of fact” about his client and urged the court to “resist the temptation to consume its cocktail.” (Barnett has pleaded not guilty to seven counts, including obstructing an official proceeding.)

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Other lawyers have argued that their defendants are the ones who were served cocktails of misinformation. Albert Watkins, who represents multiple Jan. 6 defendants, likened them to the followers of Jim Jones, the 1970s cult leader who persuaded his followers to commit suicide by drinking grape punch spiked with cyanide.

Watkins tried the unique tactic of calling his clients “f---ing retarded” in the press. On television, the crowd that overtook the Capitol looked like a powerful, unruly mob, but participants arrived at this historic desecration burdened with “overwhelming hardships and vulnerabilities,” as Watkins said about Jacob Chansley, the so-called “QAnon Shaman,” during a recent hearing. (Chansley has pleaded not guilty to six counts, including obstructing an official proceeding.)

Jan. 6 was a product of the nation’s “divisiveness, intolerance, untruths, misrepresentations, and mischaracterizations through an unrelenting multi-year propaganda odyssey,” Watkins wrote last month in defense of Chansley, who was photographed on the dais of the U.S. Senate bare-chested and sporting a horned headdress of animal pelts. Now in jail awaiting trial, Chansley “struggles to cling on to and salvage his mental health,” Watkins wrote, and continues “to reconcile his role in his current lot in life” — as if the Capitol breach was something that happened to Chansley, and not the other way around.

The fear of mistreatment persists. One defense attorney referred to the Jan. 6 investigation and prosecutions as “the largest political witch hunt in Department of Justice (DOJ) history.” At least two defendants have requested that their trials be relocated out of the District, citing bias against Trump and his supporters.

The FBI released 10 new videos on March 18 of suspects in the most violent assaults on federal officers during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Video: FBI)

“The evidence in this case is emotionally political in every respect,” wrote an attorney for Jenny Cudd, who argued that her “stormed the Capitol” boast on Facebook Live only meant that she wandered around and took selfies. The “jury who would hear the facts in Washington D.C. is the most politically prejudiced jury in the entire country” against Trump. (Cudd pleaded not guilty to five counts, including obstructing an official proceeding.)

Thomas Caldwell, who pleaded not guilty to a conspiracy charge, wants his case heard in the Western District of Virginia, where he’s from, because D.C. residents “not only despise Caldwell’s politics — they despise many things that traditional America stands for,” wrote his attorney, David W. Fischer, earlier this month, arguing for a change of venue. The people living in the nation’s capital, he contended, “are repulsed by rural America’s traditional values, patriotism, religion, gun ownership, and perceived lack of education.”

His client, who is accused of coordinating with other Oath Keepers, posted video on Facebook from inside the Capitol, according to material obtained by the FBI. “Us storming the castle,” Caldwell wrote in a message, adding: “I am such an instigator!”

Caldwell, as Fischer noted in court filings, is not a “hillbilly” but a retired naval intelligence officer who once held a top-secret clearance. Nevertheless, Fischer put the quest for justice in a specific cultural context: “The ‘Two Americas’ couldn’t be more different and largely despise and distrust one another.”

It's a lot to absorb, psychologically and legally. The FBI is still tracking down participants and digging through their life stories. D.C. judges are handling multiple hearings per day; at least 11 were on the court's calendar on Monday alone. Defendants languish in jail as their families suffer. Attorneys are deluged with video and photo evidence produced by their own clients and gathered by the government. Amid the echoes and static of remote hearings, players are debating the differences between a principal actor and an aider or abettor, if a "momentary lapse in judgment" could last multiple hours, and whether a weapon meets the legal definition of "dangerous" if it didn't cause serious harm.

The question at the core of this massive effort is what to do with the people who led normal lives until Jan. 6, when a vortex of forces compelled them to engage in criminal behavior.

“These are weighty issues. All the judges are consumed by these issues,” said U.S. District Judge Emmett G. Sullivan during a motion hearing for Gieswein earlier this month. Many of the defendants “come to court with unblemished records — they never paid a fine over 50 bucks,” he added.

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“The event’s unprecedented,” said Mary McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general for national security who worked on a security review of Jan. 6 earlier this year. “Anytime you take an individual U.S. attorney’s office that is solely responsible for anything massive on this scale, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

McCord expects an acceleration of plea bargains, which have already begun. And placing blame on Trump or other forces won’t hold up in court, according to Aitan Goelman, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice.

“The really interesting aspect of this is the difference between moral responsibility and criminal legal culpability,” Goelman says. “I don’t think there’s any lawful authority that would agree that because the president was telling me to go, that’s a defense.” Trump has dismissed accusations that he is responsible for any criminal behavior, noting that his speech that day included the word “peacefully” (though it ended with “fight like hell”).

Some defendants have accepted responsibility and emerged from the legal process with a different view of both themselves and Jan. 6.

The day after the breach, Anna Morgan-Lloyd described it as “the most exciting day of my life.”

Last month, she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of demonstrating inside the Capitol. “I just want to apologize,” Morgan-Lloyd told a judge, becoming the first defendant to be sentenced: $500 in restitution and 120 hours of community service. She said that her goals were peaceful and that she was “ashamed” by the “savage display of violence that day.” At the suggestion of her attorney, she submitted repentant writing to the court, including book and movie reports on “Schindler’s List” and the legal memoir “Just Mercy.”

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“I’ve lived a sheltered life and truly haven’t experienced life the way many have,” wrote Morgan-Lloyd, who worked for a medical device maker in Indiana. “At first it didn’t dawn on me, but later I realized that if every person like me, who wasn’t violent, was removed from that crowd, the ones who were violent may have lost the nerve to do what they did.”

Before Hodgkins was sentenced Monday to eight months in prison for obstructing an official proceeding, he read a repentant statement in Courtroom 21 of the U.S. District Court of D.C.

“I allowed myself to put passion before my principles,” said Hodgkins, a Tampa resident who is training to be a mechanic. “This resulted in me violating the law for the first time in my life,” which “has weighed heavily on my conscience.”

After half a year in D.C. Jail, Jensen — the Iowa man in the "Q" shirt who followed Officer Goodman — now recognizes that he was "deceived" by "a pack of lies," according to his attorney.

“He came to DC to support the president; he did not foresee the destruction of his family,” his attorney wrote in June.

Last week, Jensen dialed in to a hearing on his potential release. For almost an hour, U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly explained the calculations behind his decision, saying that Jensen’s conduct on Jan. 6 falls “somewhere in the middle of the spectrum” of other defendants’ behavior. Jensen entered the Capitol, but through a window that was already smashed. He had a pocket knife, but didn’t brandish it. He disobeyed Goodman’s orders but didn’t fight him. He told officers to arrest Vice President Mike Pence, but there’s no evidence that he goaded other rioters, damaged property or planned any actions.

In fact, according to video he took, Jensen seemed to think he was at the White House, not the Capitol.

“I do consider what happened that day to be an equivalent to an attempt to steal one of the crown jewels of our country: the peaceful transfer of power,” Judge Kelly said. Jensen’s actions were “serious,” but “I don’t think the standard of ‘danger’ is met here. Mr. Jensen didn’t topple barricades, fight with anyone, plan or coordinate.” Plus, “he didn’t even know where he was.”

Kelly ordered Jensen to be released last Wednesday, pending trial, into a different kind of incarceration: house arrest back in Iowa, where he will trade his passport, cellphone, any weapons and all access to the Internet for an ankle monitor and court-appointed surveillance by his wife of 20 years, April, who planned to drive the 16 hours to pick him up in Washington.

Any personal plea agreements they might negotiate on the long trip home will not be part of the record.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this story misstated Mary McCord’s title. She is a former acting assistant attorney general for national security, not a former acting assistant U.S. attorney for national security. It also incorrectly reported that the last sacking of the U.S. Capitol was 209 years ago. It was just over 206 years ago. It also stated that Anna Morgan-Lloyd was sentenced to 40 hours of community service. It was 120 hours. This version has been corrected.