The DOJ made a lot of news yesterday when it claimed in court documents that various members of the mob that stormed the Capitol last week had intended to “capture and assassinate elected officials.” Here’s how CNN initially reported it:
Federal prosecutors offered the most chilling description yet of rioters who seized the Capitol last week, writing in a new court filing that the intention was “to capture and assassinate elected officials.”
This Norah O’Donnell clip from the CBS Evening News Friday night shows how this was treated as the lead story of the day:
The specific language all of these reports are based on comes from documents filed in the case of Jacob Chansley, the so-called Q-Shaman who was seen entering the Capitol in a horned cap with his face pained red, white and blue.
Around the same time this was gaining traction, the Associated Press published a separate report about Retired Lt. Col. Larry Rendall Brock Jr., one of the men seen inside the Capitol holding flex cuffs, the kind of zip ties used by law enforcement to restrain people. Here’s what the AP reported:
A prosecutor said a retired Air Force officer who was part of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol carried plastic zip-tie handcuffs because he meant “to take hostages.”…
Without providing specifics, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Weimer said Brock “means to take hostages. He means to kidnap, restrain, perhaps try, perhaps execute members of the U.S. government.”
So in both cases the claim being made was that there was a plan to kidnap and execute Members of Congress. But then something curious happened. The government suddenly decided to take all of that back. It started when Michael Sherwin, the acting US Attorney for Washington, DC announced at a press conference that there was no evidence of any plot to capture/kill lawmakers:
So far, Sherwin said, officials have not found “direct” evidence of a kill-capture plot — as federal prosecutors had initially alleged in a court filing that said Capitol rioters sought to “capture and assassinate elected officials.” But they are pursuing that possibility as part of the investigation based on the evidence they have, CNN had learned, and Sherwin added that counterterrorism prosecutors are still looking at coordination between groups.
There’s a pretty big gap between the claim that some of the rioters intended to capture and kill lawmakers and the statement that there’s no evidence of that yet. Soon after the statement from Sherwin, authorities went further and actually requested that the claim made in court documents in the Jacob Chansley case be removed from those documents:
A federal prosecutor in Arizona asked a magistrate judge in a hearing on Friday to strike the line in a recent court filing about defendant Jacob Anthony Chansley, a man who is alleged to have led some in the crowd in the first wave into the Capitol with a bullhorn while carrying a spear and wearing a fur headdress.
The entire line the prosecutors want to omit from their court filing is: “Strong evidence, including Chansley’s own words and actions at the Capitol, supports that the intent of the Capitol rioters was to capture and assassinate elected officials in the United States Government.”…
In court, Todd Allison, a line prosecutor for the Justice Department in Arizona, said DOJ may want to argue that type of assertion if Chansley goes to trial, but cannot say that at the moment.
“We do not want to mislead the court by discussing the strength of any specific evidence” related to his intent, Allison said.
That’s a full walk back of the story that led the evening news. That’s more than just a minor error. As for the claims about Larry Brock, the flex cuffs guy, he claimed in an interview that he didn’t bring those to the Capitol but found them there and picked them up. He said he regretted doing that. Hopefully authorities will be able to pin whether that’s true, i.e. did he purchase those prior to the riot or did he find them inside. It’s the difference between having a plan to do something and not having one.
The prosecutors appear to have been pretty sloppy here and the media ran with the story because it’s sensational. Retracting the claim was the right thing to do but it still leaves open questions about how this became part of the documents in the first place if the evidence isn’t there. None of this is helping to restore confidence in public officials at a time when that’s needed. Simply put, this is a big screw up and someone should be held accountable for it.
On the other hand, I don’t think we can automatically dismiss the idea that some of these rioters were genuinely dangerous. For instance, whether or not he planned to take hostages in advance, there is evidence that Larry Brock believed he was part of a real insurrection.
Shortly after the November election, Brock posted on Facebook that the “battle isn’t winnable democratically” if the election was stolen, Moore said.
On New Year’s Eve, Brock said on social media that the country was occupied by a hostile force, the agent testified.
“The castle will be stormed. The question is, what then?” Brock said in another post, according to the FBI.
And Brock referred to a rioter who was shot and killed by police inside the Capitol last week as the “first patriot martyr in the second American revolution,” Moore said.
Maybe this was all just big talk but the fact that Brock wound up in the Capitol holding flex cuffs means it can’t be dismissed. Even if he didn’t have a plan going in, he still might have become a real danger if things had gone a little differently. What would Brock have done if he’d encountered Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi fleeing the Capitol? I’m not sure even he knows the answer to that. It’s like the old saying about a dog chasing a car, i.e. he wouldn’t know what to do if he caught one.
Most likely what would happen in that case is the dog would get hurt because the car is much more powerful. I think that’s what would have happened to Larry Brock as well. Had he and others gotten inside a little quicker, I think they would have been shot dead by the Secret Service. Fortunately for everyone involved, it didn’t get to that point.