WASHINGTON — The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection kicked off Tuesday against the backdrop of hundreds of criminal prosecutions that for months have detailed the violence at the Capitol — work that continued to unfold as police officers provided harrowing accounts of the attacks they experienced that day.
In the morning, shortly after Rep. Bennie Thompson, the committee chair, gaveled in the hearing, a married couple from Kentucky appeared virtually in court to plead guilty to participating in the riot. In the afternoon, a judge released a 54-page opinion explaining why a defendant charged with attacking police outside the Capitol with chemical spray should stay in jail. In between, a new set of charges alleging violence against police was unsealed.
As much as the House committee is focusing on the macro-level forces that led a mob of thousands of Trump supporters to descend upon the Capitol, the 500-plus criminal cases filed to date are largely focused on the micro level — unpacking what each alleged rioter did and how that one case fits into the constellation of chaos that temporarily stopped Congress from certifying the results of the presidential election.
The nascent congressional probe dovetailed with the seven-month-old criminal investigation within the span of just a few hours. As US Capitol Police officers Harry Dunn and Aquilino Gonell and DC police officers Michael Fanone and Daniel Hodges testified about being physically and verbally assaulted, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan issued a lengthy opinion explaining his decision to keep one defendant accused of attacking police that day, Robert Gieswein, in jail while his case goes forward.
Gieswein was indicted on multiple counts of assaulting and interfering with officers at the Capitol, including by deploying a chemical spray and wielding a baseball bat as he made his way around the grounds. He’s not charged with using the bat to actually hit anyone, and his lawyer argued that he had arrived armed and dressed in tactical gear in case he needed to defend himself, not because he intended to commit violence.
Sullivan wasn’t convinced. Echoing testimony that Fanone and the other officers were delivering to Congress at the very moment the court released the decision, the judge wrote that Gieswein continued to pose a danger to the community. In the opinion, Sullivan pointed to the level of violence he allegedly committed based on his belief that the presidential election was stolen from former president Donald Trump. The judge concluded that he showed a disregard for public safety and law enforcement; he wrote that he was troubled by evidence introduced by the government that Gieswein had expressed after Jan. 6 that he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong.
“The government’s evidence captures Mr. Gieswein, with a baseball bat and an aerosol spray can in his hands, forcefully advancing on law enforcement officers — who were greatly outnumbered by rioters and clearly in a defensive position — at multiple moments on January 6, 2021,” Sullivan wrote.
An hour before Sullivan’s opinion came out, the Justice Department announced a new case charging a Pennsylvania man with assaulting police at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Samuel Lazar, like Gieswein, is accused of using a chemical spray against officers positioned outside the building. His charging papers featured pictures of him wearing tactical gear and camouflage face paint and speaking into a bullhorn. Prosecutors also cited a video that appeared to show him admitting that he had attacked officers. As HuffPost reported, Lazar was identified in photos with Doug Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator who boosted Trump’s false claims about the election and was also on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6.
“They maced us, those tyrannical pieces of shit, and we maced them right the fuck back and now they’re taking the building,” Lazar allegedly said at the time. “I was right at the front, on the tip of the spear, brother. That’s where you gotta be.”
Meanwhile, earlier in the day, US District Judge Reggie Walton accepted guilty pleas from husband-and-wife defendants Thomas and Lori Vinson of Kentucky. Unlike Gieswein, the Vinsons weren’t charged with violence on Jan. 6. The couple pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count for parading, picketing, and demonstrating inside the Capitol. That charge, which has a maximum sentence of six months in jail, is the most common one defendants charged solely with misdemeanors have pleaded guilty to so far.
The Vinsons were charged with some of the least serious conduct in connection with the Jan. 6 riots, but Walton made clear that he believed they bore some responsibility for the totality of what happened — a theme that other judges handling these cases have stressed. Lori posted on Facebook about being among the first people to go into the Capitol; after she was fired from her job as a nurse, she did interviews with the press in which she said she wasn’t sorry for going and that she “would do it again tomorrow.”
Walton said he found the Vinsons’ case “troubling” — he described Jan. 6 as an “atrocious act” against democracy — and briefly questioned whether he should place the couple in jail until their sentencing in October. It was an unusual situation; they’d been allowed to go home since being arrested in late February, and prosecutors hadn’t asked to revoke that permission for the time being. The judge asked why he should believe they weren’t prepared to do something similar in the future if they were “gullible enough” to come to DC based on Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen.
The couple and their lawyers insisted they’d cooperated with the government since Jan. 6 and that nothing had changed that would suggest they were a danger to the community now. Walton backed off but expressed his dismay about Jan. 6 generally and the role that even nonviolent participants played.
“I teach in various countries, and I'm always touting the greatness of America, and it's going to be difficult for me to convince people in other parts of the world that we are that shining light on the hill in light of what happened that day,” Walton said. “While you all didn't maybe engage in any type of violence or destruction, you were part of the mob mentality that caused this to occur.”