US Prosecutors Weighing Sedition Charges in Capitol Riot

Misdemeanor counts, including trespassing, against some of the dozens arrested so far may still be upgraded to sedition charges that are punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

  • Published 12 January 2021
Steven D'Antuono, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Washington field office, speaks as acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin, right, listens during a news conference Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Washington. Federal prosecutors are looking at bringing “significant” cases involving possible sedition and conspiracy charges in last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)
Image via AP Photo/Sarah Silbiger

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI warned law enforcement agencies ahead of last week’s breach of the U.S. Capitol about the potential for extremist-driven violence and prosecutors are now weighing sedition charges against at least some of the Trump loyalists who stormed the building, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The statements by FBI and Justice Department officials were intended as both a defense of federal law enforcement preparations before the deadly riot, especially amid fresh revelations of an FBI report warning of violence, and as a warning to participants that they are still subject to arrest and felony charges even if they have left Washington.

Misdemeanor counts, including trespassing, against some of the dozens arrested so far may still be upgraded to sedition charges that are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, said acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin in Washington. Sedition charges would effectively accuse rioters of attempting to overthrow or defeat the government, with House Democrats saying after an FBI briefing on the siege that the rioters had engaged in an “attempted coup.”

“This is only the beginning,” Sherwin said of the initial round of charges against more than 70 people. “We’re going to focus on the most significant charges as a deterrent because, regardless of it was just a trespass in the Capitol or if someone planted a pipe bomb, you will be charged and you will be found.”

Even for those who have left Washington, “agents from our local field offices will be knocking on your door,” said Steven D’Antuono, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office in highlighting the nationwide effort to track down participants in the rioting.

The Justice Department has created a specialized strike force to examine the possibility of sedition charges. Officials said they were utilizing some of the same techniques in the riot probe as they use in international counterterrorism investigations, examining the money flow and movement of defendants leading up to the breach. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, called for the rioters to be added to a no-fly list, a tool most commonly applied in foreign terror cases.

Still, the revelations that the FBI had received information foreshadowing the distinct possibility of violence contradict earlier pronouncements from law enforcement leaders about the potential for danger last week. Many, including the former Capitol police chief, said they were unaware of serious concerns and had prepared only for a free speech protest. Capitol police and others didn’t immediately respond to questions about the discrepancy.

The press conference came hours after the Washington Post reported on the existence of a Jan. 5 report from the FBI’s field office in Norfolk, Virginia, that forecast, in detail, the chances for “war” in Washington the following day. The existence of such a stark warning appeared to contradict the FBI’s earlier assertions that “there was no indication that there was anything other than first amendment protected activity.”

D’Antuono defended the handling of the information, saying it was shared in 40 minutes with other law enforcement agencies.

A U.S, defense official familiar with the discussions said Tuesday that Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy was not notified about the FBI warning.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said that it is unclear whether any defense or military officials heard about the notification from the FBI, but that statements in recent days from all the leaders indicate they weren’t aware that violence of that level was expected at the Capitol.

Defense and National Guard officials, including McCarthy, have said in interviews over the past several days they were told by D.C. that they believed the protests would be similar to the ones on Nov. 14 and Dec. 12. And they said that federal law enforcement authorities said that there was activity on Twitter, but that they weren’t expecting the level of violence they ultimately saw last Wednesday.

Even without intelligence from law enforcement, there had been ample warning about pro-Trump demonstrations in Washington. But U.S. Capitol Police did not bolster staffing and made no preparations for the possibility that the planned protests could escalate into massive, violent riots, according to several people briefed on the law enforcement response. Officials turned down help offered by the Pentagon three days before the riot.

When backup was finally requested, it took more than two hours for troops to mobilize near the Capitol. By then the mob had raged inside for more than four hours.

Once the mob began to move on the Capitol, a police lieutenant issued an order not to use deadly force, which explains why officers outside the building did not draw their weapons as the crowd closed in. Officers are sometimes ordered to keep their weapons holstered to avoid escalating a situation if superiors believe doing so could lead to a stampede or a shootout.

In this instance, it also left officers with little ability to resist the mob. In one video from the scene, an officer puts up his fists to try to push back a crowd pinning him and his colleagues against a door. The crowd jeers, “You are not American!” and one man tries to prod him with the tip of an American flag.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump on Tuesday took no responsibility for the violent insurrection at the Capitol. He said that his remarks moments before his supporters marched to the Capitol were “totally appropriate.” He made the comments during his first appearance in public since the Capitol siege, which came as lawmakers were tallying Electoral College votes affirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

The rampage through the halls of Congress sent lawmakers of both parties and Trump’s own vice president into hiding, as crowds called for Mike Pence’s lynching for his role overseeing the vote count. The scene also undermined the hallmark of the republic — the peaceful transition of power. At least five people died, including one Capitol Police officer.

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Associated Press writer Lolita C Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.