• Tue. Sep 26th, 2023


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Proud Boys Ignored Orders Given at Pre-Jan. 6 Meeting

One week before scores of Proud Boys helped lead a pro-Trump mob in a violent assault on the Capitol last year, Enrique Tarrio, the chairman of the group, and some of his top lieutenants held a foul-mouthed video conference with a handpicked crew of members.

The meeting, on Dec. 30, 2020, marked the founding of a special new chapter of the Proud Boys called the Ministry of Self-Defense. The team of several dozen trusted members was intended, Mr. Tarrio told his men, to bring a level of order and professionalism to the group’s upcoming march in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, that had, by his own account, been missing at earlier Proud Boys rallies in the city.

Over nearly two hours, Mr. Tarrio and his leadership team — many of whom have since been charged with seditious conspiracy — gave the new recruits a series of directives: Adopt a defensive posture on Jan. 6, they were told. Keep the “normies” — or the normal protesters — away from the Proud Boys’ marching ranks. And obey police lines.

“We’re never going to be the ones to cross the police barrier or cross something in order to get to somebody,” Mr. Tarrio said.

There was one overriding problem with the orders: None of them were actually followed when the Proud Boys stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Far from holding back, members of the far-right group played aggressive roles in several breaches at the Capitol, moving in coordination and often taking the lead in removing police barricades, according to a visual investigation by The New York Times of hundreds of hours of video footage of the assault.

And despite what Mr. Tarrio said about keeping away from ordinary protesters, members of the group repeatedly instigated people around them in a tactic that some Proud Boys later described in private messages as “riling up the normies.”

While the video conference has been mentioned in court papers, it has not been widely seen. A recording of it was seized from Mr. Tarrio’s phone by the F.B.I. this year, and a copy was recently obtained by The Times.

Lawyers for the Proud Boys say the recorded meeting is a key piece of exculpatory evidence, contradicting claims by the government that a conspiracy to attack the Capitol was hatched several weeks before Jan. 6.

In court filings, prosecutors have claimed that the Proud Boys began to plan their assault as early as Dec. 19, 2020 — the day that President Donald J. Trump posted a tweet announcing his Jan. 6 rally and saying it would be “wild.” But the video conference shows that, just one week before the event, when Mr. Tarrio and other Proud Boys leaders gathered their team for a meeting, they spent most of their time discussing things like staying away from alcohol and women and taking measures to ensure their own security.

The recorded meeting makes no mention of any planning that might have occurred in the week directly before the Capitol attack. And while Mr. Tarrio suggests during the meeting that the complex structure he created for the Ministry of Self-Defense was meant to be self-protective — not offensive — in nature, prosecutors have claimed that the group’s “command and control” design was instrumental in facilitating the Capitol attack.

In the meeting, Mr. Tarrio laid out how the group — whose members were chosen because of their “throttle control,” as another Proud Boys leader put it — had a three-person leadership team that sat above a larger group of eight or so regional leaders. There was a “marketing” division too, Mr. Tarrio explained, that would craft and promote the Proud Boys’ “narrative” to the media. The group’s rank and file, he said, would work in 10-man teams on Jan. 6 with medics and communications experts.

Throughout the meeting, Mr. Tarrio and others used blatantly misogynistic, homophobic and antisemitic language, disparaging the Proud Boys’ female supporters and making references to the “J.Q.” — or the Jewish Question, a phrase that harks back to Nazi ideology. Mr. Tarrio also threatened participants in the video conference with expulsion from the Ministry of Self-Defense if they drank too much at the Jan. 6 event, noting that too many Proud Boys were sloppily intoxicated at earlier pro-Trump rallies.

As for the Capitol itself, it came up only occasionally.

At one point, as the floor was opened for questions, various Proud Boys asked Mr. Tarrio about the group’s goals for Jan. 6, including how much they would focus on Vice President Mike Pence’s certification of the election results that day. Mr. Tarrio deflected the inquiries, saying that the details of the Proud Boys’ mission would be discussed in future meetings.

Nayib Hassan, Mr. Tarrio’s lawyer, declined to comment on the video. Lawyers for Joseph Biggs and Zachary Rehl, two other Proud Boys leaders who were on the call and are facing sedition charges, also declined to comment.

Mr. Rehl’s lawyer, Carmen Hernandez, first mentioned the video conference in court papers filed this month, saying that it “refutes the notion that the MOSD” — or the Ministry of Self-Defense — “was formed to plan a violent attack on the Capitol.”

“Nothing in that video, which lasted 1 hour and 38 minutes, supports that claim,” Ms. Hernandez wrote.

Instead, she noted, the video conference was held to discuss how “to avoid the chaos and violence” that occurred on the evening of Dec. 12, 2020, when some Proud Boys were stabbed in a confrontation with leftist activists that followed a large pro-Trump rally in Washington during the day. Among those stabbed was Jeremy Bertino, a Proud Boys leader from North Carolina who helped to run the video conference.

The evening Mr. Bertino was stabbed, the Proud Boys, led by Mr. Tarrio, also set upon a historic Black church in Washington, ripping down a Black Lives Matter flag that hung from its facade and burning it in the streets.

Mr. Tarrio was arrested for the banner attack — and for carrying two high-capacity rifle magazines — when he returned to Washington on Jan. 4, 2021, in preparation for the Jan. 6 rally. As part of his release conditions, he was ordered to leave the city and was not there as his men took part in the attack on the Capitol 48 hours later.

While the Proud Boys and their lawyers have claimed that the Ministry of Self-Defense was intended to ensure that members of the group “would behave properly and avoid violence” on Jan. 6, the government, in its own court filings, has pointed out several times when members of the group used violent language in private messages in advance of the Capitol attack.

Three days before Jan. 6, one member of the group posted a message in a ministry group chat saying, “Time to stack those bodies in front of Capitol Hill.”

Another member of the group then asked his compatriots in the private chat: “What would they do if 1 million patriots stormed and took the capital building. Shoot into the crowd? I think not.”

The recording of the conference call emerged during a moment of tension in the Proud Boys investigation.

On Wednesday, Judge Timothy J. Kelly, who is overseeing the case, moved the trial from its initial date in August to December as both defense lawyers and prosecutors complained that the case had been badly affected by a parallel inquiry of the Capitol attack being led by the House select committee on Jan. 6.

Natalie Reneau contributed reporting.