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On Guns, Insurrections, and Magnetometers: A Sidelight From Cassidy Hutchinson’s Testimony

Roger Parloff
Thursday, July 7, 2022, 8:31 AM

Hutchinson’s testimony suggests that the crowd on Jan. 6 was armed even more extensively than previously thought.

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Published by The Lawfare Institute
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The most shocking testimony that Cassidy Hutchinson gave last week before the House select committee on the Jan. 6 attack—indeed, the most shocking that any witness has given at any of the six hearings to date—revolved around the magnetometers at the Ellipse that day:

I was in the vicinity of a conversation where I overheard the President say something to the effect of, you know, “I -- I don’t effing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the effing mags away. Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.”

Much post-hearing analysis of Hutchinson’s testimony has rightly focused on what her testimony reveals about former President Trump’s state of mind and whether he should now be charged criminally with corrupt obstruction of an official proceeding, incitement of a riot, or incitement of an insurrection. (See, for instance, “Cassidy Hutchinson’s Testimony Changed Our Minds About Indicting Donald Trump,” as well as here, here, and here.)

But beyond what Hutchinson’s testimony proves about Trump’s state of mind, the fact that the crowd was so heavily armed has an important bearing on how we should think about the Capitol siege. Those who have sought to downplay its significance, and who object to using the term insurrection to describe it, have often advanced the false claim that rioters were not “armed.”

The struggle over the label insurrection is an important one. Though riots are serious matters, insurrections are in a different category. They are seismic, historic events. In addition, inciting insurrection, which carries a 10-year maximum term, is a more serious crime than inciting a riot, which carries a five-year maximum. Perhaps most important, conviction of insurrection also carries a mandatory ban against “holding any office of the United States.” Similarly, officials who, having taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, nonetheless “engage in” insurrection may also be subject to disqualification from holding certain offices under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The 45th president is among those at risk. (See “After the Cawthorn Ruling, Can Trump Be Saved From Section 3 of the 14th Amendment?”)

In January, Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, a lawyer and former senior adviser in the Trump administration’s U.S. Agency for Global Media, made the following argument in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “Stop Calling Jan. 6 an ‘Insurrection’”:

The events of Jan. 6 also fail to meet the dictionary definition of insurrection, which Merriam-Webster defines as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” A usage note adds that the term implies “an armed uprising that quickly fails or succeeds.”

Shapiro then went on to note that during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, “500 armed men attacked the home of a U.S. tax inspector.” In contrast, he continued, “[t]he demonstrators who entered the Capitol during the Electoral College count were unarmed.” He concludes that use of the term insurrection for what happened on Jan. 6 is “false reporting and dangerous political gaslighting.”

Part of Shapiro’s argument seems to hinge on the assumption that when Merriam-Webster uses the word armed, it must mean, specifically, wielding firearms. But that dictionary actually defines armed as meaning “using or involving a weapon” (emphasis added), a much broader term.

Merriam-Webster is obviously right. While some of the Whiskey Rebellion attackers were armed with muskets, others were armed with pitchforks.

The definition of criminal insurrection makes no reference to firearms, and Shapiro cites no legal definition of the term that requires their use. I am aware of none, either. Here, for instance, is a portion of a grand jury instruction on criminal insurrection approved by an Illinois federal district court in 1894 in a case that stemmed from labor unrest:

Insurrection is a rising against civil or political authority—the open and active opposition of a number of persons to the execution of law in a city or state. … It is not necessary that there should be bloodshed; it is not necessary that its dimensions should be so portentous as to insure probable success, to constitute an insurrection. It is necessary, however, that the rising should be in opposition to the execution of the laws of the United States, and should be so formidable as for the time being to defy the authority of the United States.

That definition, which does not mention firearms, seems to fit the Jan. 6 rebellion like a glove.

Apparently building on Shapiro’s baseless definition of insurrection, and then compounding the error with inexplicably false factual assertions, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, that network’s highest-rated host, made the following claim as recently as last month: “Just to be clear on terms, an insurrection is when people with guns try to overthrow the government. Not a single person in the crowd on January 6 was found to be carrying a firearm. Not one.”

But Hutchinson’s recent testimony reinforces in spades what should have already been clear from the Justice Department’s federal prosecutions of more than 835 Jan. 6 rioters so far: Carlson is completely wrong. However you define armed, this crowd was armed to the teeth. Let’s take a look specifically at firearms, since efforts to belittle the gravity of the Capitol attack have falsely asserted their absence. 

One preliminary point: A defining feature of the Jan. 6 uprising was that rioters so overwhelmed the police in numbers that officers made a tactical decision not to attempt arrests on the scene. Accordingly, they frisked few if any rioters who breached the restricted Capitol grounds or building that day. Almost everyone charged was arrested days, weeks, or months after the event. So no one knows how many were armed the day of the event and, if so, with what.

Still, thanks to closed-circuit surveillance cameras, body-mounted police cameras, news footage, and rioters’ own plentiful selfies, videos, and boastful social media messages and texts, we do know that scores of Jan. 6 protesters were armed—by any definition. Close to 40 have been charged with crimes specifically relating to firearms.

And that’s all before you get to Hutchinson’s testimony. She revealed that, a few minutes before his Ellipse speech began, Trump was “furious” that an enclosed section of lawn closest to the stage was still only sparsely populated. This was embarrassing to Trump, Hutchinson explained, because the rally would appear poorly attended in news photos.

Trump quickly diagnosed the source of the problem: Crowd members did not want to pass through magnetometers at the entrance to the cordoned-off space, lest they have to surrender their weapons. Because of Washington, D.C.’s tough gun laws, they may have even feared arrest, if they were carrying firearms. We know from rioters’ texts to each other leading up to the event that a number were aware of those gun laws. Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs, for instance, messaged his colleagues on Christmas Day 2020: “DC is no guns. So mace and gas masks, some batons. If you have armor, that’s good.” As we will see, the Oath Keepers did bring firearms—an arsenal of them—but they stockpiled them at two nearby motels in the Virginia suburbs.

In other words, Hutchinson told us last week that while rioters came hundreds of miles, often thousands, to answer Trump’s call on Jan. 6, the most desirable spot from which to witness his speech—the section closest to the charismatic hero who had summoned them all—remained unfilled. Why? Because so few were willing to pass through magnetometers.

In fact, as Hutchinson noted, a shocking number of those who did voluntarily submit to screening were, in fact, armed. At about 10 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 6, Hutchinson attended a meeting, she testified, between former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Tony Ornato and former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Ornato reported then on the kinds of weapons the attendees were carrying, according to Hutchinson: “I remember Tony mentioning knives, guns in the form of pistols and rifles, bear spray, body armor, spears, and flagpoles. ... Tony had related to me something to the effect of: ‘And these effing people are fastening spears onto the ends of flagpoles.’”

We know from later federal charging documents and guilty pleas that this was an accurate description of many of the arms carried by those who were ultimately arrested. The flagpole carried by famed “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley was, for instance, actually a spear. According to the Justice Department’s latest tally, of the roughly 255 people charged with assaulting or impeding police officers, about 90—or 35 percent—were charged with the aggravated version of that offense because they either used “a deadly or dangerous weapon or caus[ed] serious bodily injury.” Of roughly 735 charged with entering a restricted area, more than 80 (or 11 percent) were carrying a “dangerous or deadly weapon.” And, remember, because there was no frisking at the scene, these numbers are hardly comprehensive. Rather, they show the tip of the iceberg: the subset of cases in which, because of unusual circumstances, the FBI learned that people were armed even without having frisked them on the scene.

In fairness, rioters spontaneously picked up some of the weapons mentioned above at the scene: fire extinguishers, planks, broken table legs, pallets, bike racks, and stolen police riot shields and batons. Others, however, were brought by the rioters. In addition to the categories listed by Ornato that morning, weapons described in criminal complaints and indictments have included baseball bats, stun guns, canes, crowbars, hockey sticks, knives, axes, and hatchets. Rioters also wore or carried an assortment of combat gear that betrayed their preparation for pitched battle: helmets, plate carriers, tactical vests, bullet-proof vests, tactical gloves, tactical goggles, brass knuckles, gas masks, paracord, and zip-tie hand restraints.

But it turns out that there were also a lot of guns. Last week, to reinforce Hutchinson’s point about how heavily armed the crowd was, the House select committee played police radio and video reports of sightings of protesters wielding firearms that morning. These included reports of a man in a tree with an AR-15, another in a tree with a “Glock style pistol,” and still another carrying an AR-15 at 14th Street and Independence Ave.

It’s not clear if any of those particular suspects were arrested. But because of a combination of happenstance and rioters’ public glee in what they were doing—answering Trump’s call—we do know that a number of Jan. 6 protesters and rioters brought firearms to Washington and, in some cases, to the Capitol.

The very first Jan. 6 defendant to go to trial, Guy Reffitt of Wylie, Texas, brought both an AR-15 assault rifle and a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol with him to Washington. On Jan. 6, he took the loaded handgun with him to the Capitol—as well as zip-tie hand restraints, body armor, and a helmet—and had it in his waistband when he battled with police officers on the Upper West Terrace. Though Reffitt wasn’t frisked at the time, we know these facts because, among other things, he later boasted about both weapons in recorded conversations, an immunized witness testified to seeing both weapons, and chance media videos showed Reffitt’s holster on his waist during his confrontation with police. Shortly after returning to Texas, Reffitt told his family in a conversation covertly recorded by his son: “The people that were around me were all carrying, too.” He made the same claim to a group of fellow militiamen in a recorded Zoom meeting: “We all had weapons but never fired a single round.”

Lonnie Leroy Coffman’s firearms were discovered due to bad luck on his part. At 9:20 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 6, Coffman, of Falkville, Alabama, parked his GMC Sierra pickup a few blocks from the Capitol. His parking spot happened to be near where two pipe bombs would be found a few hours later. Upon their discovery, a bomb squad with canine units combed the area. An officer noticed an apparent gun stock on the passenger seat of Coffman’s pickup. When Coffman returned to his vehicle at about 6:30 p.m., after having attended at least one “Stop the Steal” rally, officers found that he was carrying two loaded firearms on his person: a 9 mm Smith & Wesson handgun and a .22-caliber Derringer-style revolver. Inside the cab of the truck they recovered another 9 mm handgun, an assault rifle, and a shotgun. In the bed of the pickup, under a blanket, they found hundreds of rounds of ammunition, several “large-capacity ammunition feeding devices,” a crossbow with bolts, machetes, camouflage smoke devices, a stun gun, and the materials needed to make 11 Molotov cocktails. These included 11 mason jars filled with a mixture of gasoline and Styrofoam; each jar’s lid had a hole punched in it that was plugged with a golf tee. A government expert later determined that the mix of gasoline and Styrofoam would have had the “effect of napalm insofar as it causes the flammable liquid to better stick to objects that it hits.” Also found in the truck was a piece of paper with a quotation Coffman attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “We The People Are The Rightful Masters of Both The Congress And The Courts, Not To Overthrow The Constitution But The Men Who Pervert The Constitution.” (Coffman pleaded guilty to two felonies and is now serving a 46-month term.)

Christopher Michael Alberts’s firearm came to light through another combination of carelessness and hard luck. At about 7:25 p.m. on Jan. 6, as police officers were clearing people from the environs of the Capitol pursuant to a curfew order, officers noticed a bulge on Alberts’s right hip. There they found a loaded and chambered Taurus 9 mm pistol, plus two loaded high-capacity magazines on his left hip. (Alberts, of northern Maryland, also wore a bullet-proof vest and had a gas mask with him.) Later, after reviewing video footage, investigators alleged that Alberts had been among the rioters fighting with police earlier that day on the Upper West Terrace. Alberts now faces a 10-count federal indictment.

We know that still another Capitol rioter carried a firearm that day thanks to a combination of stupidity and dishonesty on his part. Mark Mazza, of Shelbyville, Indiana, was among the rioters who assaulted police officers during the fighting at the Capitol’s Lower West Terrace tunnel archway, as he later admitted in a guilty plea. When he got back to Indiana after the riot, Mazza filed a false police report, claiming that his Taurus revolver, a model known as the Judge, had been stolen from his car on Jan. 6 at a casino parking lot in Ohio—an impossibility given video and other evidence placing him at the Capitol that day. When the FBI caught up to Alberts, he admitted he’d had the Taurus with him at the Capitol but lost it in the melée in the tunnel archway. He had loaded it that day with two .45-caliber hollow-point bullets and three .410-gauge shotgun shells, he told the agents. Mazza is awaiting sentence; his sentencing guidelines call for a term of between 57 and 71 months.

We learned that two other rioters had firearms that day due to their reckless pride in their crimes. An off-duty, probationary Drug Enforcement Administration agent from Orange County, California, Mark Sami Ibrahim, posed for photos allegedly within the Capitol grounds’ restricted area, displaying his DEA badge and service weapon. He then allegedly shared those images to a social media group chat viewed by other law enforcement officers. He’s now facing a four-count indictment.

The other rioter was a self-described dating coach from New York City. On Jan. 6, Samuel Fisher, also known as Brad Holiday, posted photos to his Facebook account showing himself standing on the Capitol steps, a restricted zone. He also posted photos of firearms he implied he had with him—shown apparently in his D.C. hotel room—including a pistol and an assault rifle. Later that month, when FBI agents arrested Fisher at his New York apartment, they found him in possession of an AR-15 assault rifle, a ghost gun pistol, a shotgun, 11 high-capacity magazines, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and two machetes. He has since pleaded guilty to New York state gun crimes and is serving a 3.5-year sentence.

As an aside, I’d note that the sort of boastful pride that led to Ibrahim’s and Fisher’s arrests is more consistent with participation in an insurrection, which is perceived by its participants as a noble and historic event, than with spontaneous rioting. It’s not common for ordinary rioters to post videos of themselves on Facebook in the act of breaking store windows or stealing TV sets. Yet this sort of self-incriminating bragging was absolutely endemic among Jan. 6 defendants. More than 77 percent of Jan. 6 defendants were charged, at least in part, as a result of their own or others’ incriminating social media posts, according to the George Washington University Program on Extremism.

Because of car trouble, another armed, would-be “Stop the Steal” rally participant arrived too late to storm the Capitol, regardless of what he might have planned. He made up for lost time the next morning, however. On Jan. 7, Cleveland Grover Meredith, of Hayesville, North Carolina, texted a relative that he was “[t]hinking about heading over to Pelosi C[--]T’s speech and putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV.” The relative notified another relative, who contacted the FBI, whose agents promptly arrested Meredith at the Holiday Inn where he was staying in Washington. There—in his truck and trailer—Meredith had a 9 mm Glock 19; a Tavor X95 assault rifle with telescopic sight; 2,500 rounds of ammunition; and 10 large-capacity ammunition feeding devices. He has since pleaded guilty and is serving 28 months.

In addition to these federally charged defendants (most of whose cases were reported previously by NPR, among others), at least five others attending Trump rallies on either Jan. 5 or 6 were arrested for gun possession and charged in D.C. Superior Court, according to a publication called The Trace, which has tracked those arrests using news reports and Metropolitan Police Department records. Two Virginia men, for instance, were arrested near the White House on Jan. 6 with a .45-caliber handgun and a Glock 9 mm pistol. A Georgia man was arrested that same evening, around 6:20 p.m., with a loaded Ruger .380 automatic and two fully loaded magazines. The day before, a Colorado man was arrested near Freedom Plaza with a Glock 23 and a large-capacity magazine, while a North Carolina man was arrested near the Capitol with a 9 mm Springfield handgun, a .22-caliber Ruger rifle, a 110-round drum magazine, four 9 mm magazines, and 275 rounds of ammunition.

This brings us to the Oath Keepers—who are a bit of a special case. The government has charged 25 members of the group with conspiring “to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power,” in a case that has since been split into two main conspiracy indictments. Twelve members of the group—including leader Stewart Rhodes—have been charged with seditious conspiracy. Seven conspirators have pleaded guilty, including three to seditious conspiracy charges.

As mentioned earlier, in light of Washington’s strict gun laws, Rhodes and his crew allegedly decided to pool their firearms into several arsenals, called quick reaction forces (QRFs), stockpiled in Virginia. The conspirators “planned to use firearms in support of their plot to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power,” according to both indictments.

Three QRFs were housed in three separate rooms at the Comfort Inn in Ballston, Virginia, about 15 minutes from the Capitol. That hotel was selected, as one defendant explained, because of its “quick access to the city via Interstate 66.” Conspirators also allegedly stored arms at the Hilton Garden Inn in Vienna, Virginia—where Rhodes and several others were staying—about 28 minutes from the Capitol.

We don’t know yet exactly how many firearms were stored at these hotels, but the indictments allege that at least 14 named defendants, as well as additional unidentified co-conspirators, stowed firearms and ammunition there. Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs claimed, in an encrypted message to co-conspirators, that he would be bringing “a few thousand” rounds of ammunition with him, but urged others to bring their own, too. “No one ever said shit I brought too much,” he wrote.

According to his indictment, in the six days leading up to Jan. 6, Rhodes alone allegedly spent $22,500 on firearms and related equipment, including ammunition, magazines, scopes, bipods, and the like. It seems quite possible, if not likely, that the four QRFs distributed across these two hotels housed considerably more firepower than all the muskets and pitchforks brought to bear during the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion.

On Jan. 6, when at least 20 of the Oath Keepers went to Washington—with 17 of them allegedly storming and breaching the Capitol—others allegedly stayed back at the QRFs ready to rush firearms into the city if and when they got the call.

Oath Keeper Joshua James, who has pleaded guilty, explained one of the ways in which Rhodes allegedly envisioned using these firearms. According to a sworn statement James signed in connection with his guilty plea:

Rhodes instructed James and other coconspirators to be prepared, if called upon, to report to the White House grounds to secure the perimeter and use lethal force if necessary against anyone who tried to remove President Trump from the White House, including the National Guard or other government actors who might be sent to remove President Trump as a result of the Presidential Election.

In this context, the Wall Street Journal op-ed author’s claim that using the term insurrection to describe what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, is either “false reporting” or “political gaslighting” is itself either false reporting or political gaslighting.

Hutchinson’s testimony last week—revealing the astounding percentage of rally participants who were unwilling to pass through magnetometers even to reach the best vantage point from which to pay homage to the hero they’d traveled thousands of miles to see—tells us that this crowd was even more pervasively armed than ever imagined.

Roger Parloff is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. In recent years, he has regularly contributed to Yahoo Finance and Air Mail News, and has also been published in The New York Times, ProPublica, New York, and For 12 years, he was the main legal correspondent at Fortune Magazine. He is an attorney who no longer practices. He is a senior editor at Lawfare.

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