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A look at the role armed militia groups may have played in the weeks before Jan. 6

CHERYL W THOMPSON, HOST:

Another big story we're keeping track of is tomorrow's hearing from the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. At the first hearing this past Thursday, the select committee argued that the attack was highly coordinated among various groups and that violence was a central feature of their plan. Here's Marcus Childress, the investigative counsel for the committee, on some of their findings.

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MARCUS CHILDRESS: On December 19, President Trump tweeted about the January 6 rally and told attendees, be there; we'll be wild. Many of the witnesses that we interviewed were inspired by the president's call and came to D.C. for January 6. But the extremists - they took it a step further. They viewed this tweet as a call to arms. A day later, the Department of Justice describes how the Proud Boys created a chat called the Ministry of Self Defense Leadership Chat. In this chat, the Proud Boys established a command structure in anticipation of coming back to D.C. on January 6.

THOMPSON: The apparent coordination of these violent groups got us thinking more broadly about armed militias. So we called Mary McCord. She's the former acting assistant attorney general for National Security at the Justice Department, and she's done a lot of thinking about armed militias. When we spoke, she explained that these groups are a threat beyond events of January 6, and they maintain extensive networks of communication.

MARY MCCORD: Obviously, there's recruitment that takes place over social media that's open, you know, for others because that's how they try to propagandize and recruit and really spread disinformation, to try to sort of bring people into their camp ideologically. Then once within these groups, then they will often use private chat rooms, private channels. They'll use other platforms, like Discord, in order to create planning groups. And they will often use encrypted applications. You know, they do in-person meetings as well. But as we know from so many different events over the last few years, and certainly from January 6, that we're talking about people coming from multiple different states and sometimes traveling great distances. And so the in-person meetings often don't take place until they actually get to their destination.

THOMPSON: Well, talk about, you know, members coming from different states. Yesterday, authorities arrested 31 members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front near an Idaho Pride event. They were found in a U-Haul truck with riot gear, and law enforcement say they were planning to riot.

MCCORD: Yes, I've been looking at that too, and I know it was a number of states. And I think important here - Patriot Front is an offshoot of Vanguard America. Vanguard America was the white nationalist extremist group that was in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 at the Unite the Right rally. They were the guys in the white polo shirts and the khaki pants. They were the group who James Fields was seen with - James Fields, the person who drove his car into the crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and tragically wounding others. And their leader, Thomas Russo, was there at the Unite the Right rally. He was part of Vanguard America. And after that rally, he split from Vanguard America. He started Patriot Front. But their values, their ideology - their anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, racist, antisemitic ideology remains.

And that group has been continuing to engage in things like what we saw in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. And just real praise to the law enforcement authorities in Coeur d'Alene for actually getting out ahead of this before we saw, you know, open-street battles and clashes between the Patriot Front and those who were trying to engage in their Pride Day celebrations.

THOMPSON: Do you think, Mary, that we could see more of these kinds of coordinated extremist attacks in the future?

MCCORD: Well, that's definitely what they plan for, right? They work together to come out at different events. We saw it in 2020 when we saw armed assaults on statehouses in opposition to pandemic-related public health measures, such as the assault on the statehouse in Michigan and also in Idaho and at governor's mansions in various places - Ohio, Kentucky, et cetera. We saw it when militias, often from multiple different states, came out during racial justice protests after George Floyd was murdered - you know, ostensibly to protect property, but actually usurping law enforcement authority without any legal authority to do so, resulting in tragedies like the shootings in Kenosha. So this is something they've been doing for years, and they continue to plot and plan.

But I will tell you, their strategy now, post-January 6, is more a strategy of decentralization - starting at the local level, getting involved in politics. We've seen in Miami-Dade County, for example, Proud Boys running for office there. We've seen other extremists and militia members running for office in other local jurisdictions. And we've seen this new strategy actually published on Gab recently. The - I mean, I'm pulling it out to read to you. Focusing on county over country is really the only viable path forward at this point. Capture your local county, then several of them, then maybe your state. And so this is a strategy of decentralization, to really integrate themselves into the political mainstream. And yet there's no indication that these groups are any less white supremacist, any less anti-government, any less violent.

THOMPSON: So is this a problem that's bigger than just January 6?

MCCORD: I - yes, it is a problem that's bigger than January 6, and it's a problem that's not just about violence. It's a problem that's about an attack on our democratic processes. Now, one could say, hey, isn't entering mainstream politics, running for office, actually better than committing acts of violence? And I would say, yes, indeed it is. But it is worrisome here when the people who are running for those office have this strategy of taking over their county, taking over their state, because they're doing it on a platform that is antisemitic, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-government. And so, you know, other people's civil rights, other people's constitutional rights to take part in their democracy, end up being infringed because of intimidation and coercion by extremist groups who are known to engage in violence and who are known to oftentimes carry firearms and other weapons.

THOMPSON: Before we let you go, Mary, what will you be paying attention to as the hearings continue this week?

MCCORD: I am interested to see not only the, you know, new video, new interviews that haven't been disclosed before about what happened on January 6. But really, I'm interested to see what the committee has accumulated that goes beyond what we've all seen on January 6. What is the higher-level planning? What type of coordination have they gathered evidence of that involves people, you know, within Trump's orbit, within his campaign, within his advisers and outsiders in terms of what their planning was? Because, you know, I've thought all along, since January 6, that, of course, the government's going to start - whether it's Congress using its legislative and oversight authority or the Department of Justice using its criminal investigative authority - they're going to be looking to build up from those foot soldiers who carried out the violence to see how high this goes.

THOMPSON: That's Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and former acting assistant attorney general for National Security at the Justice Department. Mary McCord, thanks for your time.

MCCORD: Thank you so much for having me.

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