Heather Cox Richardson
Today a jury found three members of the Oath Keepers gang, along with a fourth defendant associated with them, guilty of seditious conspiracy for their actions surrounding the January 6th insurrection in 2021. In October a different jury also found the founder of the Oath Keepers, Elmer Stewart Rhodes, as well as their Florida leader, Kelly Meggs, guilty of seditious conspiracy. Five members of another extremist gang, the Proud Boys, are currently on trial on that charge and others.
Today’s defendants, Joseph Hackett, 52; Roberto Minuta, 38; David Moerschel, 45; and Edward Vallejo, 64, were found guilty of a rack of other charges, too, but the seditious conspiracy charges are the biggies. Such indictments are rare and indicate a careful plot against our democracy. They are hard to prove. These six convictions—so far—are a big win for Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department.
At Talking Points Memo, Nicole Lafond notes that defense attorneys for the Oath Keepers argued that the fault for January 6th was not that of their clients. “Responsibility really rests at our politicians’ feet,” attorney Scott Weinberg said. “The president and Stewart Rhodes were claiming that the world is coming to an end even before the election.”
The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol recommended that the Department of Justice consider criminal charges against former president Trump, the man behind the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. It also called a number of his associates co-conspirators.
So far, those charges have not materialized, and Trump is running for president in 2024.
That campaign is off to a rocky start. Trump is supposed to kick it off next week in Columbia, South Carolina, but Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey of the Washington Post report that he’s having trouble lining up politicians to show up. They’re not willing to indicate support for him yet.
Scherer and Dawsey note that South Carolina has two homegrown candidates, former governor Nikki Haley and current senator Tim Scott, who might want to run. In addition, Trump has recently alienated evangelicals—his formerly rock-solid base—by blaming them for his 2020 loss. It is also possible that his many legal troubles will catch fire, burning up his presidential chances. His secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton are apparently testing the waters themselves, publicly needling each other. Bolton recently said Trump’s support is in “terminal decline,” and after Trump called former cabinet members considering a campaign “disloyal,” Pompeo told Fox News radio host Brian Kilmeade, “I never said I wouldn’t run.”
Another issue dropped today, huge in itself and at least tangentially related to the former president.
On Saturday, authorities from the Department of Justice arrested Charles McGonigal, 54, at JFK Airport as he returned from a trip to Sri Lanka. McGonigal worked for the FBI from 1996 to 2018.
On October 4, 2016, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey named McGonigal the head of counterintelligence for the FBI’s New York field office. As the special agent in charge, McGonigal supervised and participated in investigations of Russian oligarchs. Before that, he was the section chief of the Cyber-Counterintelligence Coordination Section at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Charges against McGonigal—who is one of the highest ranking FBI members ever charged with a crime—stem from his connection to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin. The United States sanctioned Deripaska in 2018 for working for the Russian state to destabilize Ukraine. Deripaska was also a close associate of political operative Paul Manafort, who ran Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Manafort was convicted in 2018 of a number of crimes associated with his ties to Russia. Trump pardoned him.
McGonigal, along with Sergey Shestakov, a former Soviet and Russian diplomat who has worked as an interpreter for U.S. courts, is charged with violating sanctions by taking money from Deripaska to investigate one of his rivals, and with money laundering. In a separate indictment, McGonigal is accused of hiding multiple cash payments from a foreign intelligence official and of trying to get the sanctions on Deripaska removed.
As Marcy Wheeler of Emptywheelpoints out, the Department of Justice is pursuing this case so far as about public corruption, not about national security. But it is surely significant that the man who was supposed to be in charge of protecting the U.S. from Russian oligarchs went to work for one as soon as he left the FBI, and perhaps sooner. And that oligarch was connected to Trump’s 2016 campaign manager.
While there is a lot we still don’t know, we do know that in 2018, Comey told Congress he worried that officials in the FBI’s New York field office had given Trump ally Rudy Giuliani sensitive information in the last days of the 2016 election, after Giuliani had said so in front of television cameras. Giuliani made that claim in October, after McGonigal took over that office.
We know that Comey told investigators that he released news of the reopened investigation of Clinton’s emails—against Department of Justice policy, right before the election with voting already underway—out of concern that “people in New York” would leak that information. Former acting attorney general Sally Yates was clearer. She told the inspector general that Comey and other FBI officials “felt confident that the New York Field Office would leak it and that it would come out regardless of whether he advised Congress or not.”
We also know that after McGonigal left the FBI, he went to work for Brookfield Properties, the multibillion-dollar real-estate company in New York that handled the bailout of Jared Kushner’s 666 Fifth Avenue by a $1.1 billion, 99-year lease—all paid up front—thanks to the Qatar Investment Authority.
None of those things is currently on the table in the indictments, and they might not turn out to be significant. But my guess is that this case will continue to develop.
Prosecutors for the Southern District of New York told Magistrate Judge Sarah Cave that they had agreed with McGonigal’s attorney for him to be released on a $500,000 personal recognizance bond, co-signed by two other people.
Another prominent legal case touching on the Trump years wrapped up today when it took a jury only two hours to find another January 6 defendant guilty of all charges for which he was on trial. Richard “Bigo” Barnett, 62, of Gravette, Arkansas, who was photographed with his feet on then–House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, was found guilty of civil disorder, obstruction of an official proceeding, carrying a dangerous weapon into a restricted building—he was the one with a stun gun in a walking stick—and five other counts. Barnett said he ended up in the speaker’s office by accident while he was looking for a bathroom.
And legal commentator Joyce White Vance of Civil Discourse points out that tomorrow, a judge in Fulton County, Georgia, will hold a hearing to decide whether to release the report of the grand jury that investigated Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
You can see why Republicans are nervous about leaping aboard the Trump train for 2024.