How the Jan. 6 FBI Investigation Is Progressing 1 Year Later
Officers were deployed in front of a simple house. One person filmed the SWAT team taking Mason Courson into custody and bringing him to his feet.
It’s a scene that has played out in hundreds of neighborhoods across the country over the past year. Courson, 26 years of age, was an alleged member of the mob supporting former President Donald Trump who stormed Washington, D.C.’s Capitol, Jan 6, 2021 with the intent of stopping his certification of loss in 2020. Shouting “Heave, ho!” Courson and a group of rioters had crushed a bleeding D.C. police officer between two doors as they forced their way into the Capitol, according to prosecutors. They said the group went on to beat another officer with a baton, which Courson allegedly kept as a possible “trophy” or “memento.”
It took 342 days for FBI agents to come to Courson’s door and charge him with eight federal offenses, including assaulting officers, civil disorder, and entering a restricted building with a deadly or dangerous weapon. “Crazy they still finding them,” one resident observed in the Facebook comments of a local news story. “Dudes probably thought they got away with it.”
After the Capitol Riot, tear gas was still a visible part of the scene when FBI began the most extensive federal investigation ever launched in U.S. History. With the help of a steady stream of tips from the Internet and the public, more than 720 individuals were charged in the attack which left five dead. Meanwhile lawmakers scrambled for help while a violent mob ransacked office windows. More than 140 police officers suffered injuries—including- concussions, cracked ribs, smashed spinal discs and stab wounds—and four officers who responded have since taken their own lives.
The country began to fall apart as the investigators began closing in. Polls reveal that half as many Republicans today support prosecuting Jan. 6, a mob, than they did one year ago. As judges, prosecutors and juries try to hold lawbreakers accountable, all aspects of the investigation have been attacked.
For many, the arrests of rioters who beat police officers and erected a fake gallows and chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!” have brought a sense of justice, even relief. Others see the investigation as part of an politically-motivated crackdown against a peaceful group exercising its First Amendment rights. GOP lawmakers, the conservative media and rightwing activists saw this as an illegal protest. By and large, they recall the day as an exuberant, even lighthearted, exercise in self–expression: the smiling grandmothers in red Trump hats posing for photos in the chaos; the Texas man drinking- a beer who bragged, “I don’t always storm the -Capitol of the United States of America, but when I do, I prefer Coors Light.”
As the probe enters its second-year, federal officials now face the unsettling possibility that more Americans will support the cause of persecuted patriots. “Within a week of Jan. 6, there was a recognition that how we address what happened had to be done very carefully because it can have unintended consequences of causing additional radicalization,” says Elizabeth Neumann, who until 2020 led the Department of Homeland Security office that oversees responses to violent extremism.
Even she was surprised by how fast some made fun of the rioters and portrayed them as champions of freedom speech. “More people may be vulnerable to suggestions that breaking the law or committing an act of violence is appropriate to preserve their agency,” she says. “That is a powerful narrative: that their government is out to get them.”
Following a breach of the Capitol rotunda on January 6, 2021 by Trump supporters, police clashed in the Capitol.
Mostafa Bassim—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
FBI is overwhelmed by evidence. Agents have sifted through 15,000 hours of footage from surveillance and law–enforcement body cameras, electronic communications from some 1,600 devices and more than 270,000 tips from the public. You can also look at all the digital media produced by the rioters. Many of them posted live on social media their exploits. At least 220 individuals were charged with resisting or impeaching officers. 75 others have been accused of using deadly or dangerous weapons or injuring officers. At least 150 people have pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the riot, out of more than 720.
This investigation is resource-intensive and has been conducted amid careful scrutiny of the FBI’s handling of warnings about possible unrest prior to Jan. 6. It and other agencies dismissed online threats to violently attack Congress, bring firearms to Washington, and even arrest and kill lawmakers as “aspirational,” not serious plans to break the law. This assessment was repeated by defendants. “It was a protest that became a riot,” argued the defense lawyer for Paul Allard Hodgkins, 38, before a federal judge in July. Hodgkins was sentenced at eight months imprisonment. Said his lawyer: “If we’re going to label this protest as domestic terrorism then please consider this: Where do we draw that line?”
Justice Department was unable to accomplish this task. Some members of the mob were part of extremist organizations like Oath Keepers. More than 20 Oath Keepers members face federal charges, including conspiracy. However, most did not have links to any such groups or organized plots that investigators claimed they had uncovered. Absent evidence of hidden criminal plans, the feds have relied on the rioters’ own words to establish motive, in some cases citing social media posts in which participants said they were prepared to commit violence.
Authorities also have weighed rioters’ behavior when they returned home. Do they bristle about their feats? Or do they show regret and admit the seriousness of what happened? At a hearing in early December, a federal judge read out a Pennsylvania man’s Facebook post bragging, “Overall I had fun lol,” before sentencing him to 30 days. These kinds of posts made it “extraordinarily difficult” to show him leniency, U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson said. “The ‘lol’ particularly stuck in my craw because, as I hope you’ve come to understand, nothing about Jan. 6 was funny,” Jackson said. “No one locked in a room, cowering under a table for hours, was laughing.”
The FBI is still asking the public to help identify at least 350 people “believed to have committed violent acts” at the Capitol. Many Americans seem to be moving on. The number of Republicans who said they thought it was “very important” to prosecute- those who broke into the Capitol dropped from 50% in March 2021 to 27% in September-, according- to a Pew Research poll. “There is no public outcry demanding that the government continue to comb through every snippet of video from Jan. 6, 2021, seeking people to indict,” the lawyer for Patrick McCaughey, a Connecticut man charged with assault, said in March. She called the investigation “the largest political witch hunt in DOJ history.”
A September “Justice for J6” rally in support of those arrested attracted only a few hundred supporters in Washington, D.C., yet the view of charged insurrectionists as “political prisoners” has become a popular rallying cry on social media. In November, a three-part documentary series released by Fox News host Tucker Carlson reframed the events of Jan. 6 as a “false flag” operation set up to trap and “purge” Trump supporters in a “new war on terror.” In September, Trump himself released a statement in support of the Jan. 6 protest, saying, “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly- relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election.”
It’s a narrative that resonates for those Americans struggling to reconcile the actions of their friends, family and neighbors with the larger forces that brought the mob to the Capitol. On Dec. 22, in a courthouse in Miami, Courson’s lawyer argued he had wanted only to attend Trump’s widely publicized rally, not participate in a violent event. “This became a chaotic situation,” he said. “Emotions took over for most of these folks, and they found themselves in a situation that they never intended.”
The judge admitted it was hard to assess Courson’s actions as an individual compared with those of the larger group, yet ultimately ordered him detained prior to trial, citing his direct participation: “There’s no way to interpret this offense other than that the Defendant engaged in an armed insurrection against the United States and against the very heart of our democracy.” But for many Americans, the case is still open.
—With reporting by Mariah Espada
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