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The Proud Boys’ convictions worsen Donald Trump’s legal woes

Even a single set of guilty verdicts for seditious conspiracy is rare.

With Thursday's criminal convictions of five Proud Boys, including leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, a third jury has stamped history’s judgment on January 6 as an organized, violent uprising meant to overturn the 2020 election. In courtrooms, it’s now established beyond a reasonable doubt that the Capitol siege was not spontaneous, but rather a planned assault by force on our democracy. Four defendants — Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Tarrio — were found guilty of the top charge of seditious conspiracy. (A fifth defendant, Dominic Pezzola, was found not guilty on that charge, but guilty on other charges, including assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers.)

Even a single set of guilty verdicts for seditious conspiracy is rare.

In less than half a year, juries have rendered three sets of guilty verdicts — 10 in total — for seditious conspiracy. The crime means that two or more people agreed “to try to overthrow... or to destroy by force the Government of the United States ... or [its] authority ... or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of [its] law.” Conviction carries a maximum 20-year term of imprisonment.

Even a single set of guilty verdicts for seditious conspiracy is rare. Targets have included Puerto Rican nationalists and al Qaeda sympathizers. The current convictions, along with those in November and January of members of the extremist Oath Keepers, were for domestic terrorism. As a headline in The Washington Post last year bluntly put it, “Right wing white men aren’t usually convicted of seditious conspiracy.”

Now, juries have affirmed that on Jan. 6, 2021, two groups of such militants planned and drove the violence. Force is the central element of an insurrection, notwithstanding the attempt by Republican legislators in Tennessee and Montana to turn the term’s meaning on its head by calling Democratic members’ nonviolent protests “insurrections.”

Today's verdicts, which include convictions for multiple other serious crimes, are sure to bolster federal prosecutors in Washington and local prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia, who are considering charges against former President Donald Trump in connection with events before and during Jan. 6.

Conversely, any other trial outcome would have emboldened the nation’s militia movement and congressional firebrands like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Green and Jim Jordan. To date, Jordan’s attempts as House Judiciary Committee chair to attack prosecutors and the FBI have flopped. Had the Proud Boys been acquitted, however, those previous political stunts would have looked like warmup acts for future theatrics alleging the Justice Department was prosecuting innocent Americans.

The convictions add to the former president’s legal woes. Recall the first presidential debate in 2020, when Trump famously told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” The effect of that callout to the militants became visible to the nation on Jan. 6, and again to the jury here. At trial, the government introduced a message from one Proud Boy who wrote right after the debate that “Donald has given us a command.” Prosecutors also introduced the group’s messages suggesting that some coordination with the White House may have occurred before Jan. 6.

But whether coordination occurred or not, there’s no doubt that the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and allied groups were the catalysts for the violence. Matthew Greene, a former Proud Boy, testified for the government that the group was “the tip of the spear.” The Proud Boys and other groups provoked other, already angry attendees to become the Jan. 6 mob.

Video evidence showed that Proud Boy leaders directed their members to arrive “incognito” on Jan. 6 — not wearing their identifying black-and-yellow “colors.” That way, they could “blend in” with and appear to be just like the “normies,” the ordinary folk who did not arrive planning to invade the Capitol. As former Proud Boy Jeremy Bertino texted Tarrio, “Brother, you know we made this happen.” Tarrio responded, “I know.”

Is it little wonder that he was convicted of seditious conspiracy?

No matter how overwhelming the quality and volume of evidence, though, any prosecutor who’s tried a conspiracy case, as this writer has, knows the monumental effort required to assemble it all, present it to a jury and effectively cross-examine defendants. Three convictions in a row for seditious conspiracy are a triumph for Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department.

Federal prosecutors have now convicted nearly 500 defendants for their roles in the Capitol violence.

Garland has been the subject of criticism by many, present company included, for the slow pace investigating Mr. Trump’s role in Jan. 6 and the events leading up to it. Still, no one should minimize the importance of the Garland Justice Department’s focus on the participants.

Federal prosecutors have now convicted nearly 500 defendants for their roles in the Capitol violence, including a perfect record with those who have gone to trial. You can be sure that those judgments played a part in why we saw no repetition of violence around the Manhattan district attorney’s indictment of Trump.

With these latest foot soldiers’ convictions, the baton now passes to special counsel Jack Smith and to Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis to complete the task by bringing accountability to the very top. History has been made. There is more to come.