The investigation into potential ties between key figures in the riot and those who promoted former president Donald Trump’s false assertions that the election was stolen from him does not mean those who may have influenced rioters will face criminal charges, particularly given U.S. case law surrounding incitement and free speech, the people said. Officials at this stage said they are principally seeking to understand what the rioters were thinking — and who may have influenced beliefs — which could be critical to showing their intentions at trial.
However, investigators also want to determine whether anyone who influenced them bears enough responsibility to justify potential criminal charges, such as conspiracy or aiding the effort, the officials said. That prospect is still distant and uncertain, they emphasized.
Nevertheless, while Trump’s impeachment trial focused on the degree of his culpability for the violence, this facet of the case shows investigators’ ongoing interest in other individuals who never set foot in the Capitol but may have played an outsized role in what happened there through their influence, networks or action.
“We are investigating potential ties between those physically involved in the attack on the Capitol and individuals who may have influenced them, such as Roger Stone, Alex Jones and [Stop the Steal organizer] Ali Alexander,” said a U.S. official, who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the pending investigation.
Stone is a longtime adviser to Trump, while Jones is a radio and Web-streaming host behind Infowars.com. Both are frequent purveyors of conspiracy theories: Stone wrote a book suggesting Lyndon B. Johnson was behind John F. Kennedy’s assassination; Jones has spread and retracted claims that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a “hoax.”
All three amplified and intensified Trump’s incendiary and baseless claims that the 2020 election was illegitimate in the weeks leading up to the riot. But Stone and Alexander have directly credited each other with inspiring and planning the pro-Trump Stop the Steal campaign, with Alexander saying he came up with the idea and helped organize the Jan. 6 rally that drew Trump supporters to Washington. Stone and Jones also promoted the extremist groups Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and had preexisting business or personal ties with members the government has charged with coordinating and planning certain parts of the breach or in connection with violence at an earlier Trump rally, records and documents show.
A key task for prosecutors and agents is to sift through the multitude of motives and intentions of the roughly 800 people in the mob that descended upon the Capitol — from those who came as individuals drawn to the idea of derailing Joe Biden’s presidency before it began, to those who allegedly began organizing immediately after the election to show up in Washington in large numbers to use force to try to keep Trump in power.
The U.S. official and others familiar with the investigation cautioned that the role of firebrands like Stone and Jones may be important mostly to painting a complete picture of that day’s events, regardless of whether they ultimately rise to the level of conspiracy or other crimes.
Stone and Jones helped promote Trump’s false election fraud claims and earlier rallies in Washington and participated in pro-Trump events Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, but each has denied intending anything beyond peaceful protest.
Shortly after the riot, Jones said on Infowars that he was invited by the White House on about Jan. 3 to “lead the march” to the Capitol, and that he paid nearly $500,000, mostly donated, to help organize the event on the Ellipse.
Jones promoted the event vigorously, called for 1 million marchers and told his viewers on Jan. 1, “Roger Stone spent some substantial time with Trump in Florida just a few days ago, and I’m told big things are afoot and Trump’s got major actions up his sleeve.”
A day before the insurrection, Jones urged a pro-Trump crowd at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington “to resist the globalists” with his refrain, “I don’t know how all this is all going to end, but if they want to fight, they better believe they’ve got one!” In a Jan. 6 post from near the same spot, he declared “1776” — a term co-opted by Trump fans urging a kind of second revolution against the government. “We’re under attack, and we need to understand this is 21st-century warfare and get on a war footing,” Jones said.
On that day, however, Jones said, he followed, not led, the rally crowd as people moved toward the Capitol, and became alarmed by the chaos.
“Let’s not fight the police and give the system what they want,” Jones was recorded shouting. His attorney Marc Randazza said the video shows Jones urged calm, adding, “If you wish to know what Alex Jones’ role was [on Jan. 6] you need look no further than the video.”
Later Jones is heard saying, “Trump is going to speak over here! Trump is coming!” in what appears to be an attempt to distract and move a crowd away from the building’s embattled west front.
Stone has also publicly distanced himself from the violence and criticized it, telling Moscow-funded RT television on Jan. 8 that he was invited to lead a march but “I declined.” He said in the same interview that when he addressed a rally at the Supreme Court on Jan. 5, he intended “peaceful protest” and added, “I have specifically denounced the violence at the Capitol, the intrusion in the Capitol. That’s not how we settle things in America.”
In the Jan. 5 speech, Stone characterized the next day’s events as “an epic struggle for the future of this country between dark and light . . . the godly and the godless . . . good and evil.”
Stone’s attorney Grant Smith said in a statement, “There is no evidence whatsoever that Roger Stone was involved in any way, or had advance knowledge about the shocking attack that took place at the US Capitol on January 6th. Any implication to the contrary using ‘guilt by association’ is both dishonest and inaccurate.”
Alexander, in a since-deleted video on Periscope weeks before the Jan. 6 rally, said he and three hard-line Republican Trump supporters “schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting” to change the minds of those who wouldn’t go against certifying Biden’s win.
Alexander did not respond to an emailed request for comment for this story. But in an email to The Washington Post in mid-January, Alexander said he had “remained peaceful” during the riot.
“Conflating our legally, peaceful permitted events with the breach of the US Capitol building is defamatory and false,” he said. On Telegram, Alexander has since blamed outside “Capitol agitators” for sabotaging events.
In recorded videos and on Infowars, Stone and Jones have lifted the profiles of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, and Oath Keepers — a loose network of self-styled militias — branding them as street-level security forces for right-wing causes and VIPs. The government has charged nine alleged affiliates of the Oath Keepers with conspiracy, and accused an Ohio member of leading up to 30 to 40 others in the break-in. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes has said he gave no direction or signals to members to storm the Capitol. The leader of the Proud Boys has said the group did not plan to interrupt Congress.
Stone was recorded on video both at the Supreme Court and at his D.C. hotel on Jan. 5 and 6 with several Oath Keepers members who he has said were providing security. The charged Ohio leader, Jessica Watkins, told a court Saturday that after falling “prey to the false and inflammatory claims” of Trump, his supporters and right-wing media, she was assigned to escort lawmakers and others both days, was given a VIP pass to the Jan. 6 rally, and encountered Secret Service agents that day.
Stone in online columns accused news organizations that reported the recordings of engaging in guilt by association and “more ‘Russian-collusion hoax-style’ smears.” Stone wrote that he knew of “no wrongdoing by the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys” and that if credible information were to emerge revealing a conspiracy, everyone involved should be prosecuted.
Already, officials have charged three Proud Boys leaders in connection with the Capitol riot or an earlier pro-Trump rally in Washington — Proud Boys chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, organizer Joe Biggs and Seattle leader Ethan Nordean. The three registered a company together last year, and Tarrio and Biggs also have preexisting personal or business connections to Stone and Jones, respectively, according to records and documents.
In proceedings while charged with obstructing Congress, Stone testified that Tarrio was one of a handful of aides he entrusted with his phones and social media accounts, explaining why Stone’s Instagram account had posted an image of the judge’s head next to what appeared to be gunsight crosshairs. Stone was convicted but pardoned by Trump last year.
Tarrio, 33, promoted Stone’s legal defense fund, launched an online store selling Stone and Proud Boys gear, and led Latinos for Trump in Florida, which worked with the White House’s political liaison office. During last year’s campaign, Trump famously encouraged the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Biggs, 37, became an on-air personality for Jones’s online Infowars outlet starting in 2014, covering armed Oath Keepers’ emergence at protests against police brutality at Ferguson, Mo., and ranchers’ violent standoff against U.S. authorities at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
In a Nov. 20 podcast promoted by Jones, Tarrio suggested viewers “kick off this [Biden] presidency with f------ fireworks,” infiltrate his inauguration and “turn [it] into a f------ circus, a sign of resistance, a sign of revolution.” That podcast, which featured Biggs and Nordean, and was first reported by online news site the Daily Dot, was posted to YouTube but has since been removed. The Post has viewed the video.
Nordean, 30, who called himself Rufio Panman online, became a Proud Boys spokesman after a video of him punching out a Portland protester in June 2018 went viral and was featured by Jones. Last July, Tarrio, Biggs and Nordean started a Florida business called Warboys LLC, promoting right-wing causes online in the footsteps of Stone and Jones and through Tarrio’s store, the 1776 Shop.
Biggs’s defense attorney Michael Ryan has called the allegations against Biggs “speculative” and said he is not accused of damaging the Capitol.
Nordean’s attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Corey Endo of Seattle, has said his client is not accused of violence, and that prosecutors were targeting Proud Boys via “guilt by association.”
Endo declined to comment, and Ryan did not respond to requests for comment.
Tarrio was not at the Jan. 6 rally and has not been charged with any wrongdoing related to the riot. He was arrested on Jan. 4 and pleaded not guilty to weapons and property destruction charges at a previous pro-Trump protest in the District. Tarrio said he posted “What if we invade it” in reference to recruiting candidates to take over local and national Republican committees, not the Capitol. He said he was in touch with Stone and others about his plans to attend the Jan. 6 rally, but that was all.
“There was no plan to go into the Capitol . . . There was no plan to even interrupt Congress.”
The Proud Boys have been a major focus of the FBI investigation so far, in part because of their statements in the run-up to the attack, according to people familiar with the investigation. At least 18 Proud Boys or associates also have been charged, including several who, according to court documents, allegedly appeared to move in an organized fashion at the head of crowds storming police, forcing entry. Some also appeared to be wearing or using earpieces and two-way walkie-talkie-style communication devices, prosecutors and the FBI said.
The group’s actions pose another critical question for prosecutors and FBI agents: how individual rioters grew “radicalized” to allegedly commit crimes that meet the textbook definition of domestic terrorism, and whether any criminal culpability extends beyond the rioters to anyone who may have worked with them.
Prosecutors and the FBI have cast a wide net for evidence of radicalization that led to violent criminal conduct at the Capitol, obtaining more than 500 search warrants and grand jury subpoenas and opening case files on more than 400 potential suspects as of Jan. 26.
A Jan. 21 search warrant for the home and electronic devices of a Maryland man charged with assaulting police on Jan. 6 sought information relating to “radicalization against the U.S. Congress, the 2020 presidential election, the Jan. 6 certification . . . and the Jan. 20, 2021 presidential Inauguration.”
The warrant also sought information regarding animosity toward U.S. officials or law enforcement; interest in the security and layout of federal buildings; and others who “collaborated, conspired or assisted [--] knowingly or unknowingly,” in the assault, or who communicated about related matters.
Justice Department spokesmen referred questions to the FBI, which declined to comment.
First Amendment litigator Ken White said the legal hurdle for charging incitement rises the further removed in time and distance the speaker is from any lawless activity.
“It’s incredibly hard under current law to say that someone like Alex Jones saying something a day or a week before is going to meet that standard as the law has been interpreted,” White said. “I anticipate that you will see increasingly creative alternative approaches by federal prosecutors, like conspiracy.”
Current and former U.S. authorities said investigators are probably excavating “layers” of rioters’ motivations, including whether any might have been part of any wider conspiracy. Those officials likened the process to investigating street-level drug dealers or gang members who might “flip” and implicate higher-ranking captains or ringleaders.
“Every terrorism case I’ve ever worked on . . . has shown something about the radicalization process, or how a person came to harbor the views, animosity and intent to commit a crime of violence,” said Mary McCord, a top national security official at the Justice Department from 2014 to 2017.
Trump may have seeded and stoked rioters’ grievances with false claims of election fraud and thinly veiled calls for violence, said McCord, now at Georgetown Law School. But investigators are also probing whether rioters were lone actors or coordinated by others who directed them or provided resources such as money for travel, lodging or weapons, she said.
“Just like the kingpin in a conspiracy, the fact he [Trump] gave directions doesn’t mean other conspirators are not guilty,” McCord said.
Michael M. Clarke, former lead FBI case agent investigating the 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, added, “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to think some people conspired.” However, he added, “That doesn’t mean you have a grand conspiracy involving everyone, but you may have loosely connected groups.”
Keith L. Alexander, Manuel Roig-Franzia and Robert O’Harrow Jr. contributed to this report.