A version of this story appears in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
There is yin and yang to accountability for the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
Pushing toward justice, some of the people who planned and conducted the riot are going to jail for the serious crime of seditious conspiracy. And the universe of people convicted for trying to undermine the 2020 election grows.
Pulling in another direction, former President Donald Trump, the person who inspired the Capitol riot and tried to undo the election, is growing stronger as the odds-on frontrunner to be the Republican nominee for president next year.
If you’re wondering how it would be possible for the federal government to prosecute the person who is one of two main people with a chance to lead it, you’ve hit on the unanswerable and unprecedented question that could cause so much chaos as the republic prepares to consider transferring power again.
March toward accountability
The Department of Justice has moved methodically but very slowly as it brings increasingly serious cases against riot ringleaders.
That means that as special counsel Jack Smith considers what, if any, charges the government should bring against Trump for events surrounding the 2020 election, he will have to contend with the reality of the former president’s political power.
Most Republicans – 73% in one recent CBS News poll – would consider Trump as their nominee; should they have that right to vote him into office in a free republic? Or should charges, if they are warranted, be brought anyway, even years after the fact?
There was not enough political support to bar Trump from office through an impeachment trial when he was president. Would things be different in a criminal trial?
More seditious conspiracy convictions
Juries have shown a willingness to find people guilty of the complicated and hard-to-prove charges related to January 6. Four leaders of the far-right group Proud Boys were found guilty Thursday of seditious conspiracy in connection with the January 6 insurrection.
They join five members and one associate of another far-right militia group, the Oath Keepers, found guilty by DC juries of the same charge in separate cases resolved last November and this January.
None of these convicts have yet been sentenced, but they could face decades in prison.
The conspiracy portion of their crimes did not necessarily involve action on January 6, 2021. The Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was not even in DC on January 6; he had been ordered to leave town after being arrested with high-capacity rifle magazines two days before.
A fifth Proud Boys defendant, Dominic Pezzola, who used a stolen police shield to break through a window at the Capitol, was found not guilty of seditious conspiracy, but was convicted, along with the other four Proud Boys, of other charges.
Key points about the guilty verdict
The following insights come from CNN’s report by Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand on Thursday’s convictions.
Proud Boys planned for overthrow:
Text and Signal messages highlighted in the indictment suggest that Tarrio was preparing for a “revolution,” and reviewed documents that set forth a plan to occupy a few “crucial buildings” in Washington, including House and Senate office buildings around the Capitol. …
During the trial, using messages and videos posted by the defendants and other members of the group, prosecutors laid out the case that the Proud Boys, animated by Trump and his election lies after the 2020 defeat, began calling for violence and revolution against the incoming Biden presidency.
Some were on the front lines of the riot:
Proud Boys were at the front lines of the mob on Capitol grounds and were there when the first barriers were breached. Prosecutors have alleged that leaders of the group riled members up and communicated with them, through hand signals, to move ahead.
This was a longer-than-expected process:
The countless delays, brought on by newly unveiled evidence and informants, a juror who believed they were being followed, and internecine squabbles among attorneys pushed a trial originally estimated to last five to seven weeks to stretch across four months.
I asked CNN’s Marshall Cohen what we know about the universe of people charged and convicted for involvement in January 6. Combining data from the Justice Department and CNN, he offered this:
- 1,020-plus rioters have been charged (this includes around 339 charged with assaulting police).
- 590-plus rioters have been convicted.
- 235-plus have been sentenced to jail or prison.
- Around 55 have been charged with conspiracy of some kind.
What about Trump?
The charges so far have focused on the riot and its planning rather than the inspiration Trump provided to stop the counting of electoral votes and his effort to overturn the election. The investigation into Trump, led by Smith, is still underway.
The major development on that front is that former Vice President Mike Pence, a potential Trump rival for the 2024 GOP nomination, sat for hours of testimony before a grand jury in Washington.
Smith attended that testimony in person, according to CNN’s exclusive report on the development from Kristen Holmes, Jamie Gangel and Katelyn Polantz.
What might Pence have talked about?
From the CNN report:
Pence was poised to recount for the first time under oath his direct conversations with Trump leading up to January 6, 2021. Then-President Donald Trump repeatedly pressured him unsuccessfully to block the 2020 election results, including on the morning of January 6 in a private phone call.
A federal judge previously ruled Pence could be compelled to recount conversations the two men had where Trump may have been acting corruptly. Smith’s office had fought in sealed proceedings to force Pence to testify.
Trump clearly has other legal problems too. Smith is also investigating the mishandling of classified documents found at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort (President Joe Biden is the subject of a separate inquiry related to classified documents). And Trump is under indictment in New York for charges related to alleged hush-money payments that date back to the 2016 presidential election.
Rather than wound his political prospects, however, none of these developments have led Republican voters to move on. At least not yet.