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NPR Investigative Team Examines Criminal Cases Related To Insurrection

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump begins today, and the central question in the trial is this - did Trump actually incite rioters to storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6? To help answer that, NPR's Investigations team has been examining every criminal case related to the insurrection. That is more than 200 cases so far. NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach joins me now. Good morning, Tom.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we know, of course, virtually everyone who stormed the Capitol that day was a Trump supporter. So what did you want to find out?

DREISBACH: Well, the lawmakers who support the impeachment have argued that Trump really laid the groundwork for the attack over several months with baseless conspiracy theories and that all of that culminated on January 6. And the president's attorneys argue, or the former president, I should say, that the people who stormed the Capitol had planned to do so for at least several days. They did so totally on their own. And in fact, they argued, Trump said he wanted his supporters to be peaceful. So we decided to take a look at what the alleged rioters said in their own words.

MARTIN: And what did you find out?

DREISBACH: Well, we can take, first, the case of one alleged rioter. Her name is Jennifer Ryan. She's a realtor in Texas, a Trump supporter. And federal prosecutors say she entered the Capitol, posted photos and videos of herself inside the Capitol building during the breach. And when she was interviewed by a local CBS station about her alleged role in the riots, here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER RYAN: I thought I was following my president. He asked us to fly there. He asked us to be there. So I was doing what he asked us to do. So as far as in my heart of hearts, do I feel like a criminal? No, I'm not the villain.

DREISBACH: And in that interview, she also asked for a pardon from then-President Trump. This was before the inauguration. She did not receive one. And so Jennifer Ryan is still facing charges of violent entry and disorderly conduct, among other alleged crimes.

MARTIN: So in your investigation, how common were those kinds of statements?

DREISBACH: Well, in looking at these more than 200 court cases, you know, of course, this is a group that is virtually all Trump supporters. But we were looking to see if they made these kinds of specific and explicit statements that Trump had inspired their actions. And so far, we found at least two dozen of those defendants made those kind of statements, that they went to the Capitol because of President Trump. So it's more than 10% of all the cases. For example, there's Kenneth Grayson of Pennsylvania. He allegedly texted someone in the weeks ahead of the riot, quote, "if Trump tells us to storm the bleeping Capitol, I'mma do that then." And he used a word we can't repeat on the radio. Others used similar language. At least one person in this group actually allegedly assaulted a Capitol Police officer - or actually two Capitol Police officers.

MARTIN: So as you noted, Trump's impeachment team, his defense lawyers say there's evidence people planned to storm the Capitol for at least several days before Trump's January 6 speech. What did you find on that?

DREISBACH: Yeah. Federal prosecutors have brought around a dozen conspiracy charges related to the Capitol rioting. They allege that some people started planning and prepping for the attack within days of the November election, gathering weapons and bulletproof vests. And those charges have been brought against alleged members of militia groups, as well as Proud Boys, the far-right and often violent gang. But the vast majority of the people charged in the attack have not been charged with conspiracy. And the court documents we looked at also suggest that on the day of the rally, some people were directly taking cues from Trump, especially this moment from his speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We're going to walk down to the Capitol.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: And we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.

DREISBACH: Trump said at that rally that he was actually going to join the march on the Capitol. And the FBI says that multiple people took Trump literally. They marched from that speech, stormed the Capitol and later allegedly told FBI agents they thought Trump was going to be right there alongside them.

MARTIN: So beyond the effects on the impeachment trial itself, does the fact that these people say they were inspired by Trump affect their criminal cases?

DREISBACH: Well, some of their attorneys have said they plan to use this as a defense. One went as far as to claim that their client was practically brainwashed by Trump. But of course, that could be a very risky legal strategy because it means those defendants would be essentially admitting to committing these acts, though there aren't necessarily a lot of arguments available for some defendants who were caught on tape inside the Capitol.

MARTIN: NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach, thank you.

DREISBACH: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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