But in the months that followed, his nonprofit, the American Phoenix Project, instead organized rallies to support Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election and used it “as a platform to advocate violence against certain groups and individuals that supported the 2020 presidential election results,” federal prosecutors said in an indictment filed June 10.
As Hostetter faces felony charges of obstructing official proceedings and breaching restricted government property, federal prosecutors also say the 56-year-old might have run afoul of IRS regulations on nonprofits’ political activities.
His attorney, Bilal Essayli, argues that the Justice Department included the allegations about his nonprofit because the criminal charges against Hostetter are weak.
“The government had almost six months to investigate Mr. Hostetter and bring whatever charges they want, and they decided to only bring the charges related to January 6,” Essayli said in an interview with The Washington Post, noting Hostetter is not being charged over the nonprofit’s activities.
The IRS did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment on whether Hostetter’s nonprofit is under investigation. The agency told the Associated Press that privacy laws prohibit it from commenting on individual groups.
Hostetter was charged June 10 alongside five co-defendants, and accused of conspiring to “corruptly obstruct, influence, and impede the Congressional proceeding at the U.S. Capitol.” He is the latest of the hundreds charged with participating in the insurrection on Jan. 6. In recent months, a handful of defendants have accepted plea deals.
In the indictment, prosecutors describe political activities tied to Hostetter’s nonprofit leading up to and during the Capitol riot, including several instances in which Hostetter used the group’s social media accounts to support Trump.
According to IRS guidelines, tax-exempt nonprofits are prohibited from getting involved in political campaigns. The rules also forbid individuals to make statements supporting or opposing a candidate on behalf of the nonprofit. As of early Thursday, the American Phoenix Project is still listed on the IRS’s website as a tax-exempt organization.
Hostetter, who lives in San Clemente, Calif., spent time before the pandemic teaching yoga and meditation, and doing sound therapy, according to American Phoenix Project’s website. Before that, he served in the Army, and then worked as a police officer and a private investigator.
As the coronavirus pandemic forced statewide shutdowns, Hostetter became an outspoken critic of Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandates. In spring 2020, Hostetter founded the American Phoenix Project to “to oppose government-mandated restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the indictment.
But the organization’s message quickly shifted after the presidential election. Prosecutors allege Hostetter, among others, used the nonprofit to support Trump, to protest a “fraudulent election result,” and to advocate for violence against those who asserted otherwise.
In November, he posted a video on the nonprofit’s YouTube channel showing him driving from California to D.C. for the Nov. 14 “Million MAGA March.” In the video, he said the election was “stolen” and that votes cast for Trump were “switched” to votes for Biden.
He also threatened those who disagreed with his false assertions.
“Some people at the highest levels need to be made an example of with an execution or two or three,” he said, according to the indictment. “Because when you commit treason against this country and you disenfranchise the voters of this country and you take away their ability to make decisions for themselves, you strip them of their Constitution rights … tyrants and traitors need to be executed as an example.”
On Dec. 12, the organization hosted a “Stop the Steal” rally in Huntington Beach, Calif. In his speech, Hostetter called for a “reckoning,” “justice” and “execution” for those who were the “ringleaders” of the election “coup,” according to the indictment. He later posted the speech on the American Phoenix Project’s YouTube channel.
Prosecutors allege Hostetter used the group’s Instagram account and Telegram chat to conspire efforts to impede official election proceedings.
In one Instagram post on the American Phoenix Project account, Hostetter promoted Trump’s tweet about the Jan. 6 rally outside the Capitol, the indictment said. “I will be there, bullhorns on fire, to let the swamp dwellers know we will not let them steal our country from us,” Hostetter wrote.
In a Jan. 3 message in the group’s Telegram chat, Hostetter wrote he was prepared for “battle” and warned “things are going to come to a head in the U.S. in the next several days,” prosecutors said.
Following the rally on Jan. 6, Hostetter and a co-defendant, Russell Taylor, 40, made their way toward the Capitol. At about 2:30 p.m., Hostetter joined rioters who were “pushing through a line of law enforcement officers trying to hold them back” on the lower West Terrace of the building, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors allege Hostetter and Taylor “pushed through the area that the law enforcement officers had been blocking, moved up the stairs onto a structure erected for the Inauguration, and continued moving on to the Upper West Terrace.”
Once he arrived on the terrace, Hostetter declared, “The people have taken back their house. … Hundreds of thousands of patriots showed up today to take back their government!” according to the indictment. Hostetter then allegedly posted a picture of himself and Taylor on the terrace to the American Phoenix Project’s Instagram account.
Prosecutors do not allege that Hostetter was violent or entered the building, a fact that his attorney, Essayli, says proves his client was not trying to stop an election, but was there to lawfully protest.
“This whole thing — trying to make it sound like an insurrection or trying to block Congress — is troubling,” Essayli said. “He’s working within the legal process. He was there to support the objection to the election, which members of Congress did do. I am concerned because we are getting to a dangerous place where we’re trying to criminalize political differences.”