The leader of the far-right Proud Boys group does not care that lawmakers were terrorized by rioters inside the US Capitol on January 6 as they tried to do their jobs.
“I’m not gonna cry about people who don’t give a crap about their constituents. I’m not going to sympathize with them,” Enrique Tarrio says.
More than a dozen people affiliated with the often violent, far-right “Western Chauvinist” group have been charged for their roles in the insurrection, so CNN sat down with Tarrio to hear if he had any explanation or justification for their actions, or if he would now change tack.
He gives pointed responses, but then adds lots of caveats.
What he has not done is change his mind about the role the Proud Boys played on January 6 or his feelings about the targeting of members of Congress despite the release of so much stunningly violent video. The attack left five people dead and dozens of police officers injured.
The day after the attack, Tarrio posted a photo of House members crouched down and hiding, with a caption, “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny … When the government fears the people … There is liberty.” He told CNN he was quoting Thomas Jefferson, though there is no evidence the third President ever said that, according to his foundation.
“When they support drone-bombing children in the Middle East … [and] those people are dead and they’re just cowering because a group of misfits came into the Capitol, I’m not going to be sympathetic,” Tarrio tells CNN.
He doubles down, dismissing the specter of a mob that had hammered on doors to the House and Senate trying to get to those inside: “I’m not going to worry about people that their only worry is to be reelected.”
Tarrio was not at the Capitol on January 6. He was ordered to stay away from Washington, after being arrested in the city two days prior to the insurrection on a misdemeanor charge in connection to the burning of a church’s Black Lives Matter banner in December, in addition to weapons charges. He admitted to both to CNN.
He says over and over that he doesn’t support the attack on the Capitol, but he won’t condemn the attackers either.
It’s not that simple, he says. “I think condemn is a very strong word.”
Tarrio says he understands what got people so frustrated. Donald Trump supporters have felt demonized after being called “deplorables” and have been angry about protests that have turned violent in places like Portland and Minneapolis, shutdowns due to coronavirus and being kicked off popular social media sites, he says. Some, though not Tarrio, believe the lie that the election was stolen.
Tarrio believes members of his organization got caught up in the moment, adding he might have done the same if he had been there.
But he is also adamant the group never had plans to storm the Capitol.
Notoriety’s double-edged sword
Court documents show the Proud Boys are perhaps second only to the Oath Keepers when it comes to an organized group facing the most charges.
Proud Boys are accused of conspiracy, making threats to assault a federal officer, stealing a police officer’s shield, robbery, theft and destruction of government property, carrying a dangerous weapon, assaulting, resisting or impeding officers, and removing barriers and fences at the Capitol.
Dominic Pezzola, a Proud Boy from New York, used the stolen riot shield to repeatedly smash through a window at the Capitol.
Footage of the attack shows the pro-Trump mob entering through that broken window.
Tarrio says Pezzola merely “mess[ed] up.” “I just don’t see an egregious [act like] he assaulted somebody or he hurt somebody.”
He believes his members – along with some others in the right-wing, anti-government Oath Keepers – are being scapegoated because of their notoriety.
He says his men – and they are all men – were not violent that day and are being charged with felonies for trespassing and interrupting Congress.
“They need a head to roll. They need heads on pikes,” Tarrio argues. “The FBI and the DOJ [are] using the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers as their go-to, to show the people that they did something.”
The profile of the Proud Boys did soar after Trump told the group to “stand back and stand by” when he was asked to denounce extremists during the first presidential debate.
The Proud Boys did fundraise and sell merchandise off that mention, and Tarrio seems happy to report that their membership doubled in the days following.
But he is unwilling to accept more scrutiny along with more attention. Instead, he is quick to deflect.
While happy to criticize the violence sometimes associated with anti-fascist protesters known as Antifa in cities like Portland, Oregon, he won’t acknowledge the role of Proud Boys in the same violent clashes, saying they fight only to defend themselves.
He’s even backing down on calling for Antifa to be declared a terrorist organization, not because his loathing of them is any less but because he fears the same classification could be used against his group and others to “silence their freedom speech.”
Canada recently did make that choice, adding the Proud Boys to its list of terrorist groups. But Tarrio insists he had changed his mind about Antifa before that decision. Tarrio disagrees with Canada’s designation and says the Canadian Proud Boys are considering their legal options to fight it.
Tarrio is close to Trump confidant Roger Stone and even revealed he had been called to testify in front of a grand jury regarding Stone.
Stone was then facing seven counts for lying to Congress and witness tampering in the probe to find out if the 2016 Trump campaign colluded with Russia. A jury convicted Stone on all seven counts but Trump later pardoned him. During that case, an investigation was launched as to whether Stone had threatened the judge after a post appeared on his social media account showing a picture of the judge and what investigators thought could be a target behind her head. Stone testified that a person working with him on his social media accounts had chosen the image.
CNN’s Katelyn Polantz first reported last week that a grand jury had been convened in 2019. Tarrio said he testified because he had access to Stone’s phone a couple of times to post social media content.
Tarrio says he had nothing to do with posting that image.
What comes next
The Proud Boys leader says he has proof that his group never had any bad intentions on January 6. That proof, he says, is in internal communications in the days, weeks and months before the insurrection and is different from the public messages seen on Parler or Telegram. But in the next breath he says he won’t share the claimed exoneration, at least not yet. He’s waiting for the right moment when it has the biggest impact on the cases against his men.
He says yes, he told his group not to wear their normal colors for the rally on January 6. But, he says, that wasn’t planning to evade authorities, it was just to trick Antifa.
Tarrio admitted he was an informant for the FBI and other agencies after he was convicted in a federal fraud case, but he now says the FBI is not to be trusted and improperly uses its power.
He says that after what happened on January 6, though, his group is looking at changing some of its tactics.
“I think right now is the time to go ahead and overthrow the government by becoming the new government and running for office,” he says.
CNN’s Sara Sidner and Anna-Maja Rappard reported this story from Miami and Mallory Simon wrote in New York.