The Slatest

Justice Department Compares the Capitol Riot to International Terrorism

Michael Sherwin, Acting US Attorney for the District of Columbia, speaks at a podium, standing in front of the seal of the Department of Justice and an American flag.
Michael Sherwin, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, speaks at a press conference on Tuesday. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

In a joint press conference Tuesday, officials from the FBI and the Department of Justice emphasized the seriousness of the riot at the Capitol last week, saying that they expected the “unprecedented” volume of criminal activity to lead to hundreds of arrests.

According to Steven D’Antuono, the assistant director in charge of the Washington field office of the FBI, the agency had already opened more than 160 cases into potential suspects and “that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherman said they had already charged 70 people but he expected they would charge hundreds more in the coming weeks. “I think the scope and scale of this investigation in these cases are really unprecedented, not only in FBI history, but probably in DOJ history,” he said.

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Thousands of Trump supporters attended Wednesday’s events, during which five people died, including a rioter shot by police and a police officer bludgeoned by rioters. The arrests over the weekend swept up several of the more notorious figures seen in images and videos from the riot, whose faces and antics gained national attention—such as the chillingly serious zip-tie guys, the buffoonish “Q Shaman,” the man in the “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt, the smiling lectern thief. Many were charged only with misdemeanors, but Sherman said some rioters were handed smaller charges, such as trespassing, to start in order to get them into the system as officials build the cases for more serious charges related to civil disorder and the possession of destructive devices and semiautomatic weapons. “These misdemeanors are only the beginning,” he said. “What the public isn’t familiar with is that the FBI, working with the U.S. Attorney’s offices across the country, [is] looking at significant felony cases tied to sedition and conspiracy. “

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According to Sherman, the Justice Department had organized a strike force to build sedition and conspiracy charges “related to the most heinous acts committed in the Capitol.” Such charges carry up to 20 years in prison. The investigators working for that task force are examining travel records, communications, and the movements of the suspects. (D’Antuono also said that the FBI was “actively looking at” the possibility of placing people on the no-fly list.) “We’re looking at and treating this just like a significant international counter-terrorism or counter-intelligence operation,” Sherman said.

A separate investigation is looking into the pipe bombs found outside the Capitol. Sherman acknowledged that the bombs were “real devices” set with timers, but he admitted that they did not know why the devices never went off. He also said authorities did not yet know the purpose of the bombs, suggesting they may have been planned as a “diversion.”

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Otherwise, authorities are prioritizing any cases involving assaults on police officers and the violent targeting of reporters. Sherman once again emphasized that Wednesday’s events were more serious than was sometimes reflected in the celebratory antics shown on TV. He reiterated that rioters “were in open-handed combat” with police and that some used tear gas against the police. “People will be shocked with the egregious contact that happened in the Capitol,” he said.

The sheer volume of leads to follow—there were, after all, thousands of witnesses, many of whom took videos and photos, plus the more than 100,000 “pieces of digital media” submitted by the public—means the investigations will not wrap for many months, Sherman said.

Sherman warned that the extreme actions of some of the rioters did not mean the less violent participants would escape scrutiny. “Regardless of if it was just a trespass in the Capitol or if someone planted a pipe bomb, you will be charged, and you will be found,” he said.

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