WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Friday lamented that the people who believed “lies and falsehoods” about the election pushed by former president Donald Trump and others were the ones facing legal consequences when those who “created the conditions” that led to the Capitol riot “in no meaningful sense … have been held to account.”
US District Judge Amit Mehta didn’t use Trump’s name, but repeatedly referred to “an elected official” who called on people to come to Washington, DC, and told them to walk to the Capitol. In some of the strongest language from the bench so far denouncing the role that Trump and his allies played in stoking voter fraud conspiracy theories, Mehta said that the man he was preparing to sentence for illegally going into the Capitol, John Lolos, was “a pawn in a game that’s played and directed by people who should know better.”
The glimpse into Mehta’s thinking is especially significant since he’s presiding over one of the highest-profile prosecutions to date — the conspiracy case against more than a dozen people allegedly affiliated with the Oath Keepers, a right-wing extremist group.
“People like Mr. Lolos were told lies and falsehoods and told that an election was stolen when it clearly was not,” Mehta said. “Regrettably, people like Mr. Lolos for whatever reason are impressionable and will believe such falsehoods and such lies ... and they are the ones who are suffering the consequences.”
Lolos had pleaded guilty to one count of illegally parading, demonstrating, or picketing in the US Capitol, a class-B misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail. Mehta sentenced him to 14 days behind bars — less than the 30-day incarceration that the prosecutor argued for, but more than the sentence of probation that Lolos requested. Lolos will get credit for the two days he already served in jail after his arrest.
The judge noted that this was his first sentencing in connection with a Capitol riot case, and the first time he’d had an opportunity to share his thoughts on what happened. Several of his colleagues have similarly used sentencing hearings and other court proceedings to talk on the public record about the significance of the riot on American society and politics and also about the state of the prosecution effort.
Lolos first came to law enforcement’s attention when he was pulled off a flight on Jan. 8 for being disruptive by chanting “Trump 2020,” according to his charging papers. A police officer at the airport recognized Lolos from a video of the Capitol riot and he was detained and eventually placed under arrest.
As part of his plea agreement, Lolos admitted that outside the Capitol he’d sent text messages about “storming the Capitol.” He spent 43 minutes inside the building — he wasn’t accused of any violence or property destruction — and when he left, he was recorded on camera yelling, “They left! We did it!”
During Friday’s hearing, Lolos delivered a lengthy statement to the judge alluding to voter fraud conspiracy theories, insisting that he thought he was going along with the crowd to a “designated” protest location, and claiming that a police officer told rioters they could go into the Capitol. He nearly blew up his plea deal in August when he made the same claim about an officer inviting people inside, and Mehta on Friday said it sounded like Lolos was trying to justify his conduct that day. Lolos said that he took “full responsibility” for these actions, but wanted to put it “in context.”
Mehta said he didn’t believe Lolos’ version of events and that it was “disappointing” Lolos still believed falsehoods about the election. But the judge added that “at some level” it wasn’t “entirely without reason” because a lie was hard to unhear.
Earlier in his pronouncement of Lolos’ sentence, Mehta said that when he thought about Jan. 6, he thought about “people who fled tyranny and oppression in other countries, and come to this country because of its respect for the rule of law, because of its fair and free elections, because of its fair transition of power.” That had been the “uninterrupted” history of the United States until Jan. 6, the judge said.
“Everybody who was there and went into that Capitol building that day … contributed to it,” Mehta said. “So the notion that this was, you know, protests, expression of First Amendment rights, is just simply incorrect. It was a criminal effort.”