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Dozens charged in Capitol riots spewed extremist rhetoric

February 17, 2021 8:59 am

In a text message, a radicalized Trump supporter suggested getting a boat to ferry “heavy weapons” across the Potomac River into the waiting arms of their members in time for Jan. 6, court papers say.

It wasn’t just idle talk, authorities say. Investigators found invoices for more than $750 worth of live ammunition and for a firearm designed to look like a cellphone at the Virginia home of Thomas Caldwell, who’s charged with conspiring with members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group in one of the most sinister plots in the U.S. Capitol siege.

Right-wing extremists, blessed by Donald Trump, were unleashed last month, and their menacing presence has reignited the debate over domestic extremism and how law enforcement should be handling these groups.

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Their talk of civil war, traitors and revolution mirrored fighting words echoed by right-wing social media personalities and websites for months as Trump spread bogus claims about a rigged presidential election.

In nearly half of the more than 200 federal cases stemming from the attack on the Capitol, authorities have cited evidence that an insurrectionist appeared to be inspired by conspiracy theories or extremist ideologies, according to an Associated Press review of court records.

The FBI has linked at least 40 defendants to extremist groups or movements, including at least 16 members or associates of the neo-fascist Proud Boys and at least five connected to the anti-government Oath Keepers. FBI agents also explicitly tied at least 10 defendants to QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory that has grown beyond its fringe origins to penetrate mainstream Republican politics.

In at least 59 other cases, authorities link defendants to violent or extremist rhetoric, conspiracy theories or other far-right connections on social media and other forums before, during or after the Jan. 6 siege, a deeper review by the AP found.

The AP’s review found that in many of those cases the defendants repeated false claims, made by Trump for months of his presidency, that the U.S. election was rigged. Some broadcast death threats at Democrats on their social media accounts or in messages. Others were deeply entwined in a world of far-right conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic. And dozens of the alleged rioters echoed words used by QAnon supporters, who push a baseless belief that Trump is a secret warrior fighting to expose a cabal of Satan-worshipping bureaucrats and celebrities who traffic children.

On Saturday, the Senate acquitted Trump in his second impeachment trial. A leading liberal advocacy group is urging its supporters to call on attorney general nominee Merrick Garland to “investigate and prosecute Trump and his entire criminal network for law breaking.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington has assigned a special task force of prosecutors examining whether to bring sedition charges against some of the rioters, as prosecutors and federal agents across the country develop more cases against extremists who plotted to attack the Capitol. Prosecutors have another task force examining attacks targeting journalists.

President Joe Biden, in office not yet a month, has already ordered law enforcement and intelligence officials to investigate domestic terrorism. But increased enforcement is not so simple. Much of the inflammatory rhetoric is protected by the First Amendment.

And some civil rights groups have expressed hesitation over any expansion by law enforcement, because Black and Latino communities have born the brunt of security scrutiny and they fear new tools to target extremism will end up tracking them.

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