WASHINGTON (AP) — A former leader in the Proud Boys took the witness stand Tuesday to fight seditious conspiracy and other serious charges in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, telling jurors the group had “no objective” that day.
Zachary Rehl, who was a chapter leader from Philadelphia, became the first defendant in the high-stakes trial of five Proud Boys to testify. It’s a potentially risky move in one of the most serious cases to emerge from the riot.
“There was no objective on Jan. 6. I even asked the night before in the chat,” Rehl, 37, testified, referring to the chat the Proud Boys used to communicate ahead of the riot. “There were no objectives. We were just going to walk around the city. I said over and over again, I want the legal process to play out. That’s the process our country was founded on.”
Rehl is on trial alongside with former Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio and three others accused of plotting to forcibly stop the transfer of power from President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden. They face up to 20 years behind bars if convicted of seditious conspiracy.
One other defendant, Dominic Pezzola of Rochester, New York, is also expected testify before the long-running trial comes to a close as soon as next week.
Tarrio is not expected to take the stand. Nor is Ethan Nordean of Auburn, Washington, or self-described Proud Boys organizer Joseph Biggs of Ormond Beach, Florida.
Rehl marched with other Proud Boys on Jan. 6 and entered the Capitol through a door on the west side of the building, but he testified he waited until he knew all members of Congress were out before he went inside. He said no one told him to attack the Capitol, hurt anyone or damage anything, and he didn’t do any of those things.
He said he joined the group in 2018 to build his network as he tried to launch a business, though he acknowledged it likely had the opposite effect. He framed his membership in the group as more of a social way to drink with friends, and referred to Trump as a businessman he had respected since childhood but also a “loudmouth.”
Rehl’s decision to testify could open him up to grilling from prosecutors when the case resumes Wednesday.
He was a member of a group Tarrio created for “national rally planning” called the Ministry of Self Defense. He warned prospective members about a week before Jan. 6 that it was going to be a “completely different operation” and wouldn’t be a “night march” for “flexing” their arms, prosecutors said in charging documents.
His social-media messages cited by prosecutors included one from on Nov. 27, 2020, that said, “Hopefully the firing squads are for the traitors that are trying to steal the election from the American people.”
The evening of Jan. 6, in response to his mother asking if he was OK, Rehl responded that he was, and said it “seems like our raid of the capital set off a chain reaction of events throughout the country. i’m so (expletive) proud.”
Former Proud Boys who have testified for the prosecution after pleading guilty to criminal charges have said that while they weren’t aware of a detailed plan for storming the Capitol, they shared a common goal to keep Trump in office.
Rehl is not the first Jan. 6 defendant facing seditious conspiracy charges to take the witness stand. In the first trial of members and associates of another far-right extremist group, the Oath Keepers, three out of five defendants testified — with mixed results.
Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes testified that he had no idea they were going to join the mob and storm the Capitol and said he was upset after he found out that some members did. Despite his testimony, he was convicted of seditious conspiracy and other felonies, and is expected to be sentenced next month.
But two other Oath Keepers defendants who took the witness stand were cleared of the sedition charge. Jurors, however, found all five defendants guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding: Congress’ certification of Biden’s electoral victory.
Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman and Alanna Durkin Richer contributed to this story.