Charges after US Capitol insurrection roil far-right groups

Former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election united right-wing supporters, conspiracy theorists and militants on Jan. 6, but the aftermath of the insurrection is roiling two of the most prominent far-right extremist groups at the U.S. Capitol that day.

More than three dozen members and associates across both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have been charged with crimes. Some local chapters cut ties with national leadership in the weeks after the deadly siege. The Proud Boys’ chairman called for a pause in the rallies that often have led to clashes with anti-fascist activists. And one Oath Keeper has agreed to cooperate against others charged in the riot.

Some extremism experts see parallels between the fallout from the Capitol riot and the schisms that divided far-right figures and groups after their violent clashes with counter-protesters at the “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The white supremacist “alt-right” movement fractured and ultimately faded from public view after the violence erupted that weekend.

“I think something kind of like that is happening right now in the broader far-right movement, where the cohesive tissue that brought them all together — being the 2020 election — it’s kind of dissolved,” said Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

But others believe President Joe Biden’s victory and the Jan. 6 investigation, the largest federal prosecution in history, might animate the militia movement — fueled by an anti-government anger.

“We’re already seeing a lot of this rhetoric being spewed in an effort to pull in people,” said Freddy Cruz, a Southern Poverty Law Center research analyst who studies anti-government groups. “It’s very possible that people will become energized and try to coordinate more activity given that we have a Democratic president in office.”

The mob marched to the Capitol and broke through police barricades and overwhelmed officers, violently shoving its way into the building to chants of “Hang Mike Pence” and “Stop the Steal.” Some rioters came prepared with pepper spray, baseball bats and other weapons.

Members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers make up just a fraction of the more than 400 people charged so far. Prosecutors have narrowed in on the two extremist groups as they try to determine how much planning went into the attack, but authorities have said they’re intent on arresting anyone involved.

The Proud Boys, a self-described “Western chauvinist” group, emerged from far-right fringes during the Trump administration to mainstream GOP circles, with allies like longtime Trump backer Roger Stone. The group claims it has more than 30,000 members nationwide.

Chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio hasn’t been charged in the riot. He wasn’t there on Jan. 6. He’d been arrested in an unrelated vandalism case as he arrived in Washington two days before the insurrection and was ordered out of the area by a judge. Law enforcement later said Tarrio was picked up in part to help quell potential violence.

Tarrio insists the criminal charges haven’t weakened or divided the group. He says he has met with leaders of chapters that declared their independence and patched up their differences.

“We’ve been through the wringer,” Tarrio said in an interview. “Any other group after January 6th would fall apart.”

But leaders of several local Proud Boys chapters, including in Seattle, Las Vegas, Indiana and Alabama, said after Jan. 6 that their members were cutting ties with the organization’s national leadership. Four group leaders, including national Elders Council member Ethan Nordean, have been charged by federal officials with planning and leading an attack on the Capitol building. One of Nordean’s attorneys said he wasn’t responsible for any crimes committed by other people.

The Las Vegas chapter’s statement on the Telegram instant messaging platform in February didn’t mention Jan. 6 directly, but it claimed the “overall direction of the organization” was endangering its members.

Meanwhile, 16 members and associates of the Oath Keepers — a militia group founded in 2009 that recruits current and former military, police and first responders — have been charged with conspiring to block the certification of the vote. The group’s founder and leader, Stewart Rhodes, has said the Oath Keepers had as many as 40,000 members at its peak, but one extremism expert estimates the group’s membership stands around 3,000 nationally.

Rhodes, has not been charged, and it’s unclear if he will be. But he has repeatedly come up in court documents as “Person One,” suggesting he’s a central focus of investigators.

On Jan. 6, several Oath Keepers, wearing helmets and reinforced vests, were seen on camera shouldering their way up the Capitol steps in a military-style stack formation. Rhodes was communicating on Jan. 6 with some who entered the Capitol and was seen standing with several of the defendants outside the building after the riot, prosecutors say.

Rhodes has sought to distance himself from those who’ve been arrested, insisting the members went rogue and there was never a plan to enter the Capitol. But he has continued in interviews with right-wing hosts since Jan. 6 to push the lie that the election was stolen, while the Oath Keepers website remains active with posts painting the group as the victim of political persecution.

Messages left at numbers listed for Rhodes weren’t immediately returned.

After the riot, the North Carolina Oath Keepers branch said it was splitting from Rhodes’ group. Its president, who didn’t return messages from the AP, told The News Reporter newspaper it wouldn’t be “a part of anything that terrorizes anybody or goes against law enforcement.”

A member of the Oath Keepers was the first defendant to plead guilty in the riot. Jon Ryan Schaffer has also agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation. The Justice Department has promised to consider putting Schaffer in the witness security program, suggesting it sees him as a valuable cooperator in the Jan. 6 probe.

Alanna Durkin Richer
Alanna Durkin Richer
Alanna is a legal affairs reporter