The risk of overcomplicating January 6

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There were two new revelations Wednesday in the investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol, two new sets of details about preparatory work done by people who were in the building that day.

A revelation centered on the Proud Boys. A legal filing from lawyers for band member Zachary Rehl sought to steer Rehl away from the planning that preceded the day’s violence. The filing included a nine-page document titled “1776 Returns” – a document that had been mentioned in an indictment implicating Rehl. It laid out a roughly hewn plot to occupy a number of buildings on Capitol Hill that day.

The other revelation was the production of security footage inside the Capitol complex, showing a guided tour given by Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) on Jan. 5. We see members of the group accompanying Loudermilk taking pictures of stairs and access. One of the band members would film themselves in front of the Capitol the next day.

In each case, a particular search line is advanced. We learned more about the specific plan that was allegedly presented to Proud Boys frontman Enrique Tarrio. We learned more about the rumblings heard since the day of the riot about members of Congress allegedly showing attendees around.

And each time, we risk missing out on the forest for the trees.

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For one thing, it’s not entirely clear what we’ve learned from the new revelations. It may be, as is often the case, that the clarity is less overwhelming than the uncertainty.

Take the Proud Boys document. We’ve known for some time that the Proud Boys actively participated in the day’s violence, with video footage clearly showing individuals from the organization involved in the early stages of the riot. The House select committee investigating the riot scheduled a hearing focused specifically on what the group members did. Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the committee has witnesses who could testify to the group’s communication with people in Trump’s orbit. One such connection is known: longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone has public ties to the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. But Thompson may be referring to a communication related to a report last year that said the FBI had evidence of a communication between someone “associated with the White House,” as the New York put it. Times, and a member of the Proud Boys.

In a superseding indictment targeting Tarrio, Rehl and others that was released this month, the government described a document received by Tarrio that “outlined a plan to occupy a few ‘crucial buildings’ in Washington, D.C. on the day of the riot, “including the House and Senate office buildings around the Capitol, with as many people as possible.” In text messages included in the replacement indictment, a member of the group texted Tarrio after the riot, mentioning “1776.” Tarrio reportedly replied: “The Winter Palace”.

But the document is much vaguer than one might have expected. While it’s undoubtedly serious in intent, it has the aesthetics and completeness of something concocted by a guy whose source for security and Washington news was a television adaptation of a novel by Tom Clancy. He doesn’t mention the Capitol’s occupation, but a host of nearby buildings, including, bewilderingly, the Supreme Court – as if one could just walk around inside the Court with ease.

“They are OBLIGED to let us enter” the buildings, the document states, “they represent us”. Good luck with that.

One of the significant undercurrents of the Capitol Riot was the extent to which it mixed wish fulfillment, smugness, and real danger. There was military cosplay and expressions of violent hostility that would have been helpless outside the context of tens of thousands of other people doing the same thing. The Proud Boys were an organization of tough guys and budding tough guys; it’s unclear who wrote the newly revealed document, but it’s pretty clear that what the group did on January 6 was not what the document describes.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake has an equally cautious assessment of Loudermilk’s tour footage. What does it actually show? What did those who participated even do? Did they go on the tour to scout the Capitol – or to say they had spotted the Capitol? Was it a regular tour for some people who were in town or a nefarious effort to break the joint – or an overstimulated Trump supporter engaging in the functional equivalent of writing a detailed nine-page paper on the overthrow of the government?

The details of these events are important to understand, certainly. It is important to understand what the Proud Boys intended and what they did and it is important to understand what the alleged communication with the Trump team actually looked like. It matters whether members of Congress intentionally provided information that would help the rioters, a possibility not much closer after the release of the Loudermilk tour film.

But what’s most important to understand is that without that angry mob on Capitol Hill that day, even the worst speculation about Loudermilk and the Proud Boys would have been futile. Even if a congressman sneakily showed people how to sneak into the Capitol (as happened in Oregon), this small group would almost certainly have been quickly contained by Capitol police. The same goes for the Proud Boys. Had there been some coordination with Trump’s allies to halt the electoral vote count, he would have been arrested on Capitol grounds if the only people advancing were members of that group.

In messages obtained by the government, members of the group discussed the power of a large crowd. “[W]what would they do [if] 1 million patriots stormed and took the capital [sic] building,” we read. “Shoot into the crowd? I don’t think so.” Another explained how ‘normies’ – non-Proud Boys – could become so enraged that they committed violence on their own.

In other words, despite all the assessments of what the Proud Boys had planned or what the Loudermilk tour group tried to learn, the riot itself still hinged on that mob and the wrath of this crowd. It still didn’t depend on a detailed plan to invade the “Winter Palace” or inside intelligence on the routes of the tunnels leading to the Capitol. Rather, it hinged on Donald Trump’s well-known and well-understood months of dishonesty over voter fraud and Trump’s insistence that people come to Washington that day to express their anger.

The Proud Boys were on their way to the Capitol before the audience for Trump’s speech that day began heading to the Capitol at the president’s request – but the Capitol wasn’t breached until that audience hadn’t already started arriving on Capitol Hill.

We need to know what weaknesses existed and who facilitated the effort to invade the Capitol. But we must remember that the main trigger for the violence of the day has always been Donald Trump.


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