The Proud Boys Are Paying for Jan. 6. Are Trump and His Cronies Next?

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Enrique Tarrio — the capo of the Proud Boys on Jan. 6 — has been sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for his part in the seditious conspiracy to block the peaceful transfer of power to President Joe Biden following the 2020 election. Tarrio’s two-decade sentence — the stiffest yet for a Jan. 6 defendant — was handed down Tuesday afternoon in a packed Washington, D.C., courtroom.

Tarrio’s prison term tops that delivered to Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, who received 18 years for leading that militia’s seditious conspiracy plot on Jan. 6. The sentence puts a capstone on judicial accountability for the leaders from both extremist groups, who were willing to resort to violence to keep Trump in office. The harsh justice handed down to the brass of these organizations adds ballast to the federal conspiracy case against Trump, for his role in the effort to overturn the election three years ago, though it’s unclear what kind of repercussions the former president may face — if he faces any at all.

The Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol was not purely a spontaneous riot. Interspersed among the throngs of rabid Trump backers — who’d answered the president’s call to gather for a “wild” protest of Congress and the counting of the votes of the Electoral College — were the leaders of two militant groups that maintained connections with president Trump’s inner circle, and saw themselves as acting on Trump’s behalf. One was the Oath Keepers, a paramilitary group that was eagerly waiting for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, which they believed would empower them to wage war on the president’s enemies. (The Oath Keepers had stockpiles of weapons stored with “Quick Reaction Forces” at hotels across the river in Virginia explicitly for this purpose.) The other group was the Proud Boys, a fight club notorious for street brawls with antifa, who had created an elite unit in advance of Jan. 6 that sought to blend into the crowd and amplify and direct its anger.

The two groups did not work hand-in-glove, generally seeing themselves as rivals. But they each espoused violent, revolutionary aims in the build-up to Jan. 6, and they played off one another during the chaos of that day. The Proud Boys helped topple barriers and ultimately led the breach of the Capitol. Once that was accomplished, leaders of the Oath Keepers infiltrated the building — in military “stack” formation — contributing to the terror that sent members of Congress fleeing in fear for their lives. For their respective roles in breaking America’s sacred tradition of a peaceful transfer of presidential power, the top brass of both groups were tried and convicted of “seditious conspiracy” plots, as well as on charges of obstructing an official proceeding of Congress.

The stiff sentences doled out to the seditious Jan. 6 militants are historic in their own right. But they also add weight to the election conspiracy charges Trump now faces in federal court. Like the extremists, Trump is also charged with conspiracy to obstruct the official proceeding. The attorneys of several Proud Boys questioned aloud at sentencing why Trump, himself, is not also facing charges for in the sedition plot.

With Tarrio’s term now set, the five Proud Boys plotters who went to trial have been sentenced, collectively to 80 years in prison. Tarrio’s sentence is remarkable, in part, because he was not in Washington, D.C., for the violence of Jan. 6; he’d been ordered to leave the nation’s capital after a previous arrest for vandalizing a Black Lives Matter flag at a local church. But the Proud Boys loyal to Tarrio set in motion the plan he’d devised, seeking a “revolution” in the manner of “1776.” These Proud Boys “viewed themselves as revolutionaries, and they believed fully in their cause,” the government argued in its sentencing memo.

The prison term punctuates a precipitous fall from grace for Tarrio within the MAGA movement. In the build up to the 2020 election, Tarrio also served as Florida director of Latinos for Trump, an independent group that worked in the service of the Trump campaign. Tarrio bragged to The New York Times that he was a personal friend of Trump adviser Roger Stone. And, in his flirtation with Republican respectability, Tarrio was photographed rubbing elbows with top politicos, including GOP Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rick Scott (Fla.), Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, presidential son Donald Trump, Jr., and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, today the governor of Arkansas.

A government sentencing memo describes Tarrio as a “savvy” and “charismatic” criminal who used his leadership skills to “inflame and radicalize untold numbers of followers, promoting political violence.” As the memo describes it, Tarrio ultimately chose to dedicate his “uncommon” abilities “to organize and execute the conspiracy to forcibly stop the peaceful democratic transfer of power.”

A “Western chauvinist” fight club once mostly interested in street battles with leftist and anarchists, the Proud Boys evolved to become fiercely loyal to Trump. The president infamously refused to condemn the brawlers in a 2020 debate with Joe Biden, and instead called on them to “stand back and stand by.” When Trump announced a protest in D.C. to dispute the outcome of the election, Tarrio jumped into action, creating an elite unit within the Proud Boys he called the “Ministry of Self Defense” — or MOSD — whose objective was keeping Trump in power.

This MOSD unit was composed of committed extremists who were willing to take orders from the top and use violence as necessary. As spelled out in the government’s 80-page sentencing memo, these Proud Boys “participated in every consequential breach at the Capitol on January 6,” leading surge after surge against Capitol police, until foot-soldier Dominic Pezzola finally “smashed open a window allowing the first rioters to enter the Capitol.”

On Jan. 6, Tarrio helped coordinate the days’ violence remotely from Baltimore, posting public social media messages like, “Don’t fucking leave.” He also privately took credit for the violent chaos that brought the counting of the Electoral College ballots to a grinding halt, telling his lieutenants, “Make no mistake… we did this.”

As with the sentences handed down to his co-conspirators last week, the prison term for Tarrio is short the term of 33 years sought by the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors had sought to stiffen the conspiracy sentences by adding a federal “terrorism” enhancement for Tarrio and his men. Federal District Judge Tim Kelly, a Trump appointee, ruled that the Proud Boys were indeed terrorists under the law, but that the lack of a plot for mass murder — e.g. the bombing of a building — meant that the “astronomical” sentences sought by the government were not justified.

In deliberating on a prison term for Tarrio, Kelly emphasized his position at the top of the MOSD command structure as well as his lack of remorse, evidenced by a jailhouse interview he gave during his trial in which he insisted the Proud Boys had done nothing wrong. In his own statement to the court, Tarrio apologized for his role in the “national embarrassment” of Jan. 6, adding that while he used to view himself as “morally above others” he had been “humbled” by the trial. He said his invocation of the revolution of 1776 was a “perversion, admitted that Joe Biden won the 2020 election, saying “my candidate lost.”

Tarrio was originally scheduled to be the first of the Proud Boys conspirators to be sentenced last week, but an illness by judge Kelly postponed his day of judgement. Four others were sentenced ahead of Tarrio. Ethan Nordean, who “took command of the MOSD” in Tarrio’s absence, and had called on the Proud Boys to “fash the fuck out,” received 18 years. Joe Biggs, who the government called the “tip of the spear” of the Proud Boys Capitol assault, received 17 years. Zachary Rehl received 15 years, a sentence that reflected not only his calls to “Storm the Capitol!” but his having lied at trial about spraying Capitol cops with a chemical agent. Dominc Pezzola, who was not part of the seditious conspiracy but created the first opening at the Capitol by smashing a window with a shield he stole from a riot cop, got 10 years. After telling the judge at sentencing that he was remorseful, Pezzola nonetheless raised a fist, as he was being led out of the courtroom, and declared “Trump won!!”

A sixth member of the Proud Boys, Jeremy Bertino, avoided trial by pleading guilty to charges including seditious conspiracy and becoming a witness for the government against his co-conspirators. Bertino’s sentencing date has not yet been set.

The sentences handed down to the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are by far the harshest punishment doled out as a result of the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. But their members are only a fraction of the over 1,000 of those who have been charged — and hundreds who have been sentenced — for their actions on Jan. 6, which have ranged from from breaching the Capitol, to assaulting law enforcement officers, and beyond.

Justice has yet to be visited upon the man who inspired it all, however. Trump, whom the Jan. 6 Committee has said is to blame for the attack, has been charged federally and in Georgia for his efforts to stay in power, with several of his cronies listed as co-defendants in the latter indictment. He’s on track to stand trial next year — although the 2024 election has complicated the effort to hold him accountable for orchestrating such a concerted attack on American democracy. Rolling Stone has reported that Trump’s latest presidential bid is fueled in part by his desperation to skirt consequences. He’ll likely do so if he manages to defeat win back the White House next year.

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