Take William “Billy” Chrestman of Olathe, Kansas. A bearded Proud Boy who was mistaken for founder Gavin McInnes when video of the insurrection first appeared on social media, he now faces multiple federal charges related to his behavior that day, including conspiracy, civil disorder, and obstruction of an official proceeding. His attorneys are claiming that Trump invited him and his fellow Proud Boys to engage in the violence.
“It is an astounding thing to imagine storming the United States Capitol with sticks and flags and bear spray, arrayed against armed and highly trained law enforcement,” Chrestman’s attorneys said in a court filing this week. “Only someone who thought that they had an official endorsement would even attempt such a thing. And a Proud Boy who had been paying attention would very much believe he did.”
Chrestman’s attorneys claimed in their filing that the rioters were “actively misled” by Trump: “Trump told the assembled rabble what they must do; they followed his instructions. Then, he ratified their actions, cementing his symbiotic relationship with the rioters.”
He’s hardly alone in that stratagem. A Texas real estate agent who flew to Washington by private jet to attend Trump’s rally said she was there because of Trump, and invaded the Capitol on his behalf. “He asked us to fly there. He asked us to be there. So I was doing what he asked us to do,” she said.
“I think we all deserve a pardon,” she said. “I’m facing a prison sentence. I think I do not deserve that and from what I understand, every person is going to be arrested that was there, so I think everyone deserves a pardon, so I would ask the President of the United States to give me a pardon.”
She regretted having gone at all: “I bought into a lie, and the lie is the lie, and it’s embarrassing,” Ryan told The Washington Post. “I regret everything.”
A number of other arrestees are making the same claim, mostly for strategic legal reasons. Even though it is unlikely to be enough to establish their innocence, legal experts say, it could be a mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing, especially for those with clear criminal records.
“Trump didn’t get in the car and drive him to D.C., but it’s important to understand the context,” attorney Clint Broden, who represents Texas defendant Garret Miller, told USA Today.
“You have to understand the cult mentality,” said Broden, whose client is charged with entering the Capitol and threatening U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, saying she should be assassinated. “They prey on vulnerable victims and give them a sense of purpose. In this case, Trump convinced his cult followers that they were working to preserve democracy.”
Pittsburgh resident Kenneth Grayson had announced his intentions even before the rally on Facebook: “I’m there for the greatest celebration of all time after Pence leads the Senate flip!!” he wrote. “OR IM THERE IF TRUMP TELLS US TO STORM THE (expletive) CAPITAL IMA DO THAT THEN!”
Grayson’s attorney, Stanley Greenfield, said his client did not intend violence, and was only responding to Trump’s pleas. “He was going because he was asked to be there by the president,” Greenfield said. “He walked in with the crowd. But he went there, yes, with the invitation of the president. He just wanted to be a part of it.”
One of the insurrection’s most recognizable figures, “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley of Arizona, also blames Trump. He even said he would have be happy to testify against Trump in his February impeachment trial.
Chansley’s attorney, Al Watkins, told reporters: “Let’s roll the tape. Let’s roll the months of lies, and misrepresentations and horrific innuendo and hyperbolic speech by our president designed to inflame, enrage, motivate. What’s really curious is the reality that our president, as a matter of public record, invited these individuals, as president, to walk down to the Capitol with him.”
Watkins said Trump’s refusal to issue pardons to the insurrectionists served as a wake-up call for his client.
“He regrets very, very much having not just been duped by the president, but by being in a position where he allowed that duping to put him in a position to make decisions he should not have made,” said Watkins.
A 20-year-old Maryland man, Emanuel Jackson, similarly blamed Trump, even though bodycam footage showed him hitting police officers with a baseball bat. “The nature and circumstances of this offense must be viewed through the lens of an event inspired by the President of the United States,” Jackson’s attorney, Brandi Harden, wrote in court filings.
A profile of the people charged so far in the insurrection compiled by the Anti-Defamation League found that one-quarter of them have connections to right-wing extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.
Of the 212 individuals identified by COE, 52 (or 25 percent) have ties to known right-wing extremist groups, including Oath Keepers (six people), Proud Boys (17), Groypers and other white supremacists (10) and the QAnon conspiracy theory (14). A number of Proud Boys members and Oath Keepers have been charged with conspiracy in connection with the January 6 insurrection. A conspiracy charge means the government believes these individuals agreed to engage in criminal activity that day.
The remaining 75 percent are considered part of the new pro-Trump extremist movement, a decentralized but enthusiastic faction made up of self-described “patriots” who continue to pledge their fidelity to the former President.
The movement’s true believers who participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol siege and are now facing federal charges are similarly perplexed and outraged by the large numbers of fellow MAGA “patriots” who are now claiming that the insurrection actually was the work of violent “antifa” leftists. This fraudulent claim—promulgated not just by conspiracy theorists and fringe partisans, but by elected Republican officials, including members of Congress—has spread so widely that one poll found that a full half of all Republicans believe it.
This infuriates the people who participated and now face charges, because they all are ardent Trump supporters who believed then that they were participating in a nation-saving act of patriotism—and many still believe it now. They can’t fathom how quickly their fellow “patriots” have thrown them under the bus and are now depicting them as actually acting on behalf of their hated enemies.
“Don’t you dare try to tell me that people are blaming this on antifa and [Black Lives Matter],” wrote insurgent Jonathan Mellis on Facebook days after the event., prior to being charged with multiple crimes. “We proudly take responsibility for storming the Castle. Antifa and BLM or [sic] too pussy … We are fighting for election integrity. They heard us.”
“It was not Antifa at the Capitol,” wrote “Stop the Steal” organizer Brandon Straka, who has ties to Trump. “It was freedom loving Patriots who were DESPERATE to fight for the final hope of our Republic because literally nobody cares about them. Everyone else can denounce them. I will not.”