Four months after the Jan. 6. attack on the U.S. Capitol, Congress is starkly divided about how to investigate the deadly assault by supporters of President Donald Trump, many of whom were animated by his false claims that the election was stolen. House Republicans this week ousted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from party leadership for continuing to warn that Trump’s rhetoric led to violence, and some GOP lawmakers have echoed the former president in attempting to minimize the destruction that day.
In fact, the ongoing criminal probe has swept up at least 411 suspects in what federal officials have called an unprecedented domestic attack on a branch of the U.S. government.
“I have not seen a more dangerous threat to democracy than the invasion of the Capitol,” Attorney General Merrick Garland told senators in a hearing Wednesday. He called the assault “an attempt to interfere with the fundamental element of our democracy, a peaceful transfer of power.”
Since January, prosecutors have secured their first guilty plea and cooperation deal, charged about 75 people with assaulting police and filed conspiracy charges against members of two far-right extremist groups. Those charged publicly so far with federal crimes hail from 259 counties spread across 44 states and D.C., according to an analysis by The Washington Post of court filings.
Yet even as prosecutors build cases alleging prior planning and coordination, the majority of those facing criminal charges were not known members of self-styled militias or other organized extremist groups, the filings show.
“The bulk of people being charged is what law enforcement sometimes calls free agents, and that tells you we don’t really have a firm grasp on the radicalization process,” said Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm.
Some of the information that FBI agents have found so far in their investigation highlights more than just the intense violence and danger of that day — it points to the ongoing risk of politically motivated unrest. Officials estimate about 800 people were part of the human wave that stormed the Capitol complex as Congress was formalizing Joe Biden’s electoral college victory — meaning hundreds of perpetrators have still not been identified.
Privately, law enforcement officials acknowledge that it could take years to identify and apprehend some of the individuals they are hunting — if they ever do — and say that there is always the possibility that some of those people, knowing they are wanted, could decide to lash out violently again.
How they have been charged
The Jan. 6 riot has produced one of the most sprawling and complex investigations in the FBI’s history. In scale and scope, officials have said, only the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks is comparable.
A review of records of the 411 people publicly charged in federal court as of Monday shows that the majority of the more than 2,000 individual criminal charges levied against defendants are misdemeanors. More than 600 of the charges filed are potential felonies, and slightly more than half of the people charged face at least one felony.
Potential felony charges filed so far
The most common charge against the Jan. 6 defendants is knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building without authority — a kind of catchall count for trespassing on restricted grounds. The second most common charge filed is disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds — a count lodged against more than 300 people. Seventy-five have been charged with assaulting, resisting, or impeding police officers.
Early in the investigation, authorities suggested they would lodge seditious conspiracy charges against some of the worst offenders. But that charge, which dates back hundreds of years, has proven tricky in the rare times it has been used; so far, no such charges have been filed. Justice Department prosecutors are pursuing more basic conspiracy cases against members of two prominent far-right groups who allegedly played key roles in the violence, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, according to court filings.
The threat of heavy jail time has led to the first guilty plea stemming from Jan. 6, in which Jon Ryan Schaffer — described in court documents as a founding member of the Oath Keepers — agreed to cooperate fully with prosecutors. In a sign of how seriously authorities consider the potential for further violence, as part of his plea deal, authorities said they will consider whether to place him in witness protection.
Schaffer, 53, a guitarist and songwriter for the heavy metal band Iced Earth, pleaded guilty to obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress and trespassing on restricted grounds. Schaffer’s lawyer, Marc Victor, said his client contacted authorities as soon as he knew they were looking for him, surrendered to the FBI and wanted to “take responsibility for his role in the Capitol riot.” Under the terms of his deal, he could face roughly four years in prison, though if his cooperation is valuable to prosecutors in other cases, he might be able to shave a significant amount of time off that sentence.
As the charged cases proceed through the courts, the prosecutors will have to spell out how much of their evidence points to planning by some of the attackers, how much was spontaneous and what remains uncertain about the origins of the riot.
Ties to political or extremist groups
More than 50 people charged in connection to the Capitol riot have known affiliations with a political or extremist group, according to court records, and they account for nearly all the conspiracy charges brought so far by prosecutors.
The two far-right organizations that have come under the most scrutiny from the FBI for their alleged roles in the assault on Congress are the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.
More than two dozen alleged members or supporters of the Proud Boys have been charged with committing crimes surrounding the Capitol riot. The group, whose Canadian chapter recently dissolved itself after being designated a terrorist organization by the Canadian government, has a reputation for engaging in street clashes with left-wing protesters. Such confrontations fuel the group’s social media appeal to young audiences online.
The Proud Boys have been a major focus of the FBI’s Jan. 6 investigation from the start, in part because videos of the violence showed their members using tactics — such as radio earpieces and discreet pieces of orange-colored tape — suggesting a degree of prior planning, according to law enforcement officials. But their embrace of live-streaming their own actions also provided some of the best evidence against those who have been charged. The leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, has said that his group’s members never planned to do anything other than attend a peaceful rally that day. (Tarrio himself was not in Washington on Jan. 6, having been barred from entering the District by a judge after being accused of burning a Black Lives Matter banner at a local church.)
Authorities accuse Joseph Biggs of leading a group of Proud Boys on a march around the Capitol before several members allegedly led some of the earliest and most aggressive efforts to charge police and smash windows and doors. Even though Biggs was unarmed and did not assault anyone, prosecutors say the Florida man played a key role in sparking the violence that unfolded. Prosecutors say Biggs forcibly entered the Capitol twice and reached the Senate chamber where Vice President Mike Pence had been presiding before lawmakers had to flee the mob. Biggs has pleaded not guilty.
In contrast to the Proud Boys, extremism experts say, the Oath Keepers appeared more disciplined on Jan. 6, with members at times moving in unison together through the crowd, often wearing tactical vests and helmets. A self-styled militia founded in 2009, the group recruits current and former military and law enforcement members to join and help it prepare for its apocalyptic vision of the U.S. government careening toward totalitarianism.
So far, about 15 members of the Oath Keepers have been charged. The leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, has denied concocting any plan to storm Congress, while also acknowledging the investigation and the possibility he might be arrested.
Other, smaller extremist groups had members at the Capitol that day, but some of those charged adhere to an ideology that is not a formal group: QAnon. It is a collection of ever-evolving false claims, and QAnon followers claim Trump is battling Satan-worshiping liberals and child-traffickers. At least 17 of those charged so far expressed some form of support for QAnon ideas, according to court filings and news coverage.
Without a known leader or coherent goal, QAnon is difficult to categorize or combat, but law enforcement officials nevertheless have come to view QAnon as a motivating factor to some of the rioters, and worry that the movement could head off in strange new directions — or find common cause with other fringe groups — now that Trump is out of office.
Suspects with government and military backgrounds
Nearly 70 of the people charged in connection with the Capitol riot are current or former government, military or law enforcement officials. Many of them have said that they believe they were fulfilling their duties to the public or U.S. Constitution with their actions, driven by Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
“I know you don’t like Trump, but He is the rightful President!” Michael Lee Hardin, a former Salt Lake City police officer, texted a friend from inside the Capitol, according to court documents. “We will return until we win!” Hardin has pleaded not guilty to four misdemeanor counts of trespassing and disorderly conduct on restricted Capitol grounds.
Those who allegedly took part in the mayhem include a range of people responsible for upholding the law and protecting safety: both current and retired police officers, firefighters, local government bureaucrats and elected officials. There was a West Virginia state lawmaker, a county commissioner from New Mexico and a member of a Massachusetts town council. Among the defendants is a Trump administration appointee to the State Department who had top-secret clearance: Federico Klein, who is accused of fighting police officers that day in “hand-to-hand combat,” according to court filings. He pleaded not guilty.
The Post has confirmed with the U.S. military that of the 411 people charged as of Monday, at least 46 have military backgrounds. Of those, four are currently serving in a part-time capacity in the National Guard or Army Reserve. On Thursday, federal prosecutors charged a Marine Corps officer with five counts, including assaulting and obstructing police during a civil disorder — the first known active-duty service member charged in the case.
They include Michael Foy, a Marine Corps veteran from Wixom, Mich., who is alleged to have beaten a police officer with a hockey stick and Christopher Alberts, a former Army national guardsman from northern Maryland, who investigators say brought a gun to the Capitol. Two Marine Corps veterans, Alex Harkrider and his friend Ryan Nichols traveled together from rural East Texas to Washington and fought their way into the Capitol, armed with a baton, a crowbar and pepper spray, and wearing tactical vests of the sort troops might wear into combat, according to court filings. All four men pleaded not guilty.
“If you have a weapon, you need to get your weapon!” Nichols yelled through a bullhorn outside the Capitol, according to court documents that cite video evidence posted on social media. “This is the second revolution right here, folks!” he shouted at another point. “This is not a peaceful protest.”
At least 17 of those charged were current or former members of law enforcement, including two former New York City police officers and two current officers from Rocky Mount, Va.
Thomas Webster, a retired New York City police officer, beat a D.C. police officer guarding the Capitol with a metal flagpole and then tackled him, trying to rip off the officer’s face shield and gas mask, prosecutors said. He has pleaded not guilty.
Joseph Wayne Fischer, an officer from the North Cornwall Township Police Department in Pennsylvania, shouted, “Hold the line!” and “motherf-----s” as he charged a line of police, according to court documents, and even identified himself as “a cop” amid the scuffle. Fischer also pleaded not guilty.
A fraction remain detained
At least 53 defendants are currently detained — about 13 percent of the total who have been charged in federal court and nearly one-quarter of the 230 who face felony charges.
The percentage of Jan. 6 defendants jailed pretrial is far lower than the nearly 75 percent of federal defendants nationwide. Many of the former are not accused of violence, have no criminal history and have stable family and community ties and pose less risk of public danger or flight, the criteria judges use for requiring detention.
Judges have also been less willing to detain defendants pretrial because the pandemic has backlogged jury trials and the massive scale of the Jan. 6 investigation is requiring more time to decide individual cases, raising concerns that defendants could wait longer for trial in jail than any sentence they might face if convicted.
Those detained face charges that generally fall into at least one of three categories — violent offenses such as assaulting police, weapons violations or wider conspiracies in which defendants are alleged to have engaged in planning or preparations for unlawful actions.
For example, about half of Jan. 6 defendants charged with assaulting police remain held, about 30 of 75.
Many involve the most publicized confrontations with police, such as an alleged chemical spray assault on U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick, who died the next day; the dragging down stairs and beating of police officers guarding the building’s west side; the crushing of an officer in a tunnel doorway; the pursuit of Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman; and attacks with flagpoles, baseball bats, batons, crutches, bicycle racks and other weapons.
About a dozen are alleged members or associates of extremist groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers.
All defendants jailed pending trial are men except for one transgender woman, and nearly three-fourths are in their 30s and 40s, with the rest evenly split between older and younger, with a median age of 37.
About 15 are U.S. military veterans, and one is a former police officer.
The youngest defendant held is 21 — alleged Oregon Proud Boys member Jonathanpeter Klein, who has pleaded not guilty and sought release to home detention, arguing he is not a flight or safety risk.
The oldest person jailed is Lonnie L. Coffman, 70, of Falkville, Ala., accused of parking a pickup truck with 11 molotov cocktails and five loaded weapons on Capitol Hill. He has pleaded not guilty to firearms charges.
All of those currently detained face felony charges punishable by at least a year in prison, except one misdemeanor defendant, who is appealing his detention order.