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‘Mob mentality’: Some Texans arrested in Capitol riot blame Trump as impeachment trial begins

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 2/10/2021 By Benjamin Wermund, Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Central Texas winery owner Christopher Grider says he was in D.C. on Jan. 6 to show support for President Donald Trump at a rally outside the White House.

He never planned to be at the Capitol, much less take part in an insurrection, his attorney says. Now Grider is accused of pushing and kicking the doors of the House Chamber, where members of Congress were working to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory. The Department of Justice says he helped break the glass doors of the House Speaker’s Lobby, where a 35-year-old woman was shot and killed by Capitol Police.

“The president asked people to come and show their support. I feel like it’s the least that we can do, it’s kind of why I came from Central Texas all the way to D.C.,” Grider, a former Army National Guard member, said in an interview with a Waco TV station later that evening in which he admitted walking into the Capitol with rioters.

“He would never have anticipated finding himself in the situation, but for the president and the rally and the way everything went down,” said Brent Mayr, a Houston defense attorney representing Grider, one of nearly two dozen Texans charged in the Capitol riots. “We’ve heardmob mentality’ — and he describes it to a T.”

As the Senate begins its impeachment trial against former President Donald Trump this week — with House impeachment managers, including U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, trying to hold the president personally responsible for the violence on Jan. 6 — several of the two dozen Texans arrested after the riot claim they were inspired by the president’s words and actions, according to charging documents and interviews with their attorneys.

The same documents, however, say that others went to D.C. prepared to act — apparently with or without the president’s encouragement. And others claim they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, not intentionally taking part in an insurrection.

The impeachment trial launched Tuesday with arguments over whether the Constitution allows for a former president to be tried. “Presidents can’t inflame insurrection in their final weeks and then walk away like nothing happened,” U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., told senators.

Trump’s attorneys, meanwhile, argued that convicting the former president would “open the floodgates” for politically motivated efforts in the future.

Texans arrested include alleged members of extremist groups like the Three Percenters. They also include a former mayoral candidate from Midland, a police officer from Houston and North Texas real estate agents who flew to D.C. on a private jet. Several have been released from federal custody while they await trial — including the mayoral candidate, a florist who received a judge’s permission to travel to Mexico for a pre-planned retreat with her employees.

‘Patriots stood their ground today!’

Trump’s exhortation to his supporters that they “fight like hell” will be a key point in the impeachment trial. The theme was picked up on by at least one Texan.

“Today President Trump told us to fight like hell,” Troy Smocks, a Dallas man who was at the Capitol, wrote Jan. 6 on Parler, a social media site popular among those on the right. “He said that our case was a matter of national security and that these people behind the massive fraud must be arrested and brought to justice.”

Attorney James Whalen, who represented Smocks in Texas before his case was transferred to D.C., says the social media post reflects what was on his former client’s mind that day.

“It was clear from the messages, things he posted — it was like, well the president said … This is what we’re reacting to,” Whalen said.

Two days later, Smocks, who faces federal charges for making threats online, tweeted: “He is still the President. And when the President says that your country is under attack, then every American has a duty to rise and defend. But when the President calls for peace. There shall be peace. The end!”

No defendant will be able to avoid criminal culpability by saying they were incited by Trump, said Jay Town, who served as the top federal prosecutor in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Trump administration.

“If anything, it is an admission to criminal conduct,” said Town, now the general counsel of cybersecurity firm Gray Analytics. “While this ineffective tactic may help with headlines, it will not help the fate of any defendant.”

There is evidence that others had expected violence, no matter what Trump said at his Capitol rally that afternoon.

Garret Miller, a 34-year-old from Richardson, wrote in a Jan. 2 Facebook post about the “crazy” scene he anticipated:

“Dollar might collapse. . . . civil war could start . . . not sure what to do in DC,” he wrote, according to charging documents. The next day Miller said he was bringing “a grappling hook and rope and a level 3 vest. Helmets, mouth guard and bump cap.”

In a Facebook post after the riots, Miller wrote that he and others had “decided before the trump speech” that they were “going in . . . No matter what.”

In a statement given to CNN by his attorney, however, Miller said he was “following the instructions of former President Trump and he was my president and the Commander-in-Chief. His statements also had me believing the election was stolen from him."

Legal experts have questioned the “blame Trump” strategy.

“If anything, it is an admission to criminal conduct,” said Jay Town, who served as the top federal prosecutor in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Trump administration, in an interview with Reuters. “While this ineffective tactic may help with headlines, it will not help the fate of any defendant.”

Even after the riot, some did not seem to grasp the trouble they were in, bragging about what they did on social media and echoing Trump’s rhetoric about a stolen election.

“Patriots stood their ground today! We aren’t done yet, either! You want to steal our election, and not hear us in court? Good! Now you’ll hear our civil unrest!” says a Facebook post by Ryan Taylor Nichols, a 30-year-old resident of Longview who also posted a selfie in front of the U.S. Capitol with Alex Kirk Harkrider, a 32-year-old from Carthage. Both face federal charges.

The tourist defense

Attorneys for others describe their clients as tourists who went to D.C. to see the president speak and protest peacefully. They say they did not know they weren’t allowed to enter the Capitol and were unaware of what some in the crowd were doing inside.

Among them is former Houston police officer Tam Pham, whose attorney says Pham was in D.C. on a trip with family and friends and had tagged along with others to see Trump’s speech.

“By the time he got inside the building, there were no barricades. It was the belief far back in the crowd that they were being allowed to go in,” Pham’s attorney Nicole DeBorde said. “By the time he was told to leave he leaves immediately.”

Another is Nolan Cooke, a 22-year-old from Sherman, who contends he never went into the Capitol and was only protesting outside. The barriers outside were already down by the time he arrived, his attorney said.

“He’s not a real partisan person or real die-hard Trump supporter,” Cooke’s attorney Donald Flanary said. “Him and his family wanted to go and see the rally.”

Trump’s attorneys insisted in their trial brief that he not be blamed for the behavior of a “small group of criminals.”

Some of his former supporters who now face charges harbor hard feelings about him, as well.

As Grider, owner of Kissing Tree Vineyards near Waco, faces eight different federal charges for his role in the riots, “there’s some frustration in the fact that he’s sitting in a federal detention facility awaiting transport to Washington, D.C. while Donald Trump is down in Florida doing whatever he wants to do,” said his attorney, Mayr.

“He didn’t go there to do what the government is trying to make him out to have done,” Mayr said. “My client went to Washington to support his president. He’s not QAnon, he’s not Proud Boys, he’s not any of that stuff. He’s a winery owner, he owns a vineyard. He just, he loved Trump, like millions of people throughout this country.

“He really thought Ted Cruz was going to come out and congratulate them and thank them for being there and letting their voices be heard.”

ben.wermund@chron.com

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