Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, Extremist Groups that Target Vets for Recruiting, at the Center of Jan. 6 Investigation

Insurrectionists try to open a door of the U.S. Capitol
In this Jan. 6, 2021 photo, insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump try to open a door of the U.S. Capitol as they riot in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

At the first prime-time hearing on Thursday evening of the congressional committee assembled to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, lawmakers focused their attention on the key role that extremist groups, led largely by veterans of the American military, played in the destruction and mayhem of that day.

Rep. Elizabeth Cheney, R-Wyo., previewed that the committee, which plans to unfurl the details of its investigation over six hearings, will "show specifically how a group of Proud Boys led a mob into the Capitol building on January 6."

The testimony served to underscore the importance of an indictment for seditious conspiracy that was leveled against five leaders of the group just days prior. Members of both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, organizations that have made specific appeals to veterans to join and have been labeled extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others, have faced the most serious charges from prosecutors that centered on accusations of sedition.

Read Next: Veterans Make Up Most of Proud Boys Members Indicted on Sedition for Jan. 6 Violence

The hearing, which lasted just under two hours, featured videos of not only testimony given to the committee but also explanations from investigators who were working for lawmakers.

"President Trump tweeted about the January 6 rally and told attendees, 'Be there. Will be wild,'" Marcus Childress, investigative counsel for the committee, explained in a video played during the hearing. "The extremists took this a step further: They viewed this tweet as a call to arms."

The Proud Boys' organization for the Jan. 6 attack began a day after that Dec. 19 tweet, Childress said.

Underlying all those plans and machinations is the fact that many of the people involved were former service members. Of the 16 people between the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys that the government has now charged with sedition crimes stemming from Jan. 6, nine served in the military. One of the Proud Boys -- Joseph Biggs -- was an Army combat veteran with a Purple Heart.

Biggs was one of the first people to break past police barricades, but he also spent 12 years in the Army and did two combat deployments as an artilleryman, earning several personal achievement awards and a Combat Action Badge.

"What we saw in the lead-up to Jan. 6 was that [veterans] were the ones making the decisions about how the group was going to behave, how it was going to organize on Jan. 6," Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland who studies extremism, previously told

While experts note that there's no evidence suggesting veterans or active service members are more or less likely to join extremist groups, they are more likely to be targeted for recruitment because of their tactical knowledge and the inherent social credibility they carry. And they tend to assume leadership positions quickly.

The Proud Boys allegedly assembled at least 100 people in the Washington, D.C., region, complete with radios and a command structure; marched on the Capitol; and became the vanguard for the destruction and mayhem that left more than 100 police officers injured and caused $1.5 million in damages, according to the indictment and a government watchdog report.

The Oath Keepers members broke into two stacks on the day -- a military term for a formation of people grouped in a line with their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them -- and joined the mob pushing past police barricades and breaching the Capitol. Prosecutors allege that, once inside the building, some of them began searching for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

"I documented the crowd [of Proud Boys] turning from protesters, to rioters, to insurrectionists," Nick Quested, a documentary filmmaker who followed members of the Proud Boys during the Capitol riot, told the committee Thursday.

"I was surprised at the size of the group, the anger and the profanity," he added.

The group was a fan of the former president, and Donald Trump had even seemingly directly addressed them during the first presidential debate in September 2020. When asked to condemn white supremacy and the Proud Boys, Trump told them to "stand back and stand by," which was widely seen as tacit approval of the group.

Jeremy Bertino, a Proud Boy who testified before the committee's investigators, said that this one quote increased their membership "exponentially." "I would say triple probably, with the potential for a lot more eventually," he said on a video played during the hearing.

There was even a brief moment where the quote made it onto shirts in the group's distinct black and yellow color pattern.

"One of the vendors on my page actually beat me to it, but ... I wish I would have made a stand back, standby shirt," another Proud Boy said in a video played during the hearing.

The committee also gave more evidence of the ties between the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. Childress played a video that showed the leaders of the two groups -- Enrique Tarrio and Stewart Rhodes -- meeting in a parking garage the night before the riot.

After the video of the meeting, the committee played a clip of Tarrio, who said that "there's mutual respect there."

"I think we're fighting the same fight, and that's what's important," he added.

As that meeting was happening, Oath Keepers from three different states were wheeling cart after cart of weapons and ammunition through the Comfort Inn Ballston hotel, located in Virginia, just a stone's throw from the Pentagon, according to the indictment filed against 11 members, including Rhodes, in January.

The militia group's guns were stashed in several hotel rooms and in cars parked outside, along with enough food and water to last 30 days. The plan was to respond with force and arms when "the President calls us up as part of the militia to to [sic] assist him inside DC," Rhodes envisioned, according to the indictment. Others in the group discussed a full-blown civil war.

While these groups were executing their plans, Cheney said that it was Vice President Mike Pence, not Trump, who was pleading with military leaders to send troops to the Capitol. 

"Not only did President Trump refuse to tell the mob to leave the Capitol, he placed no call to any element of the United States government to instruct that the Capitol be defended," Cheney said.

Instead, according to audio testimony from Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Meadows told him that "We have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions," while describing Pence as insistent that troops move to protect lawmakers immediately.

"We need to establish the narrative that, you know, that the president is still in charge and that things are steady or stable," Milley said Meadows told him. "I immediately interpreted that as Politics, Politics, Politics -- red flag for me, personally."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin. 

Related: Inside the Oath Keepers' Plan for an Armed Takeover of the US Capitol

Story Continues