WASHINGTON — Three years after a right-wing mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election, the federal government has secured hundreds of convictions on charges ranging from unlawful picketing to seditious conspiracy.
Now, in a year shaping up to be one of the most consequential in American politics, prosecutors are preparing for the trial of the biggest Jan. 6 defendant of them all: former President Donald Trump. Trump is currently set to go on trial as soon as March in the election interference case brought by special counsel Jack Smith; he has pleaded not guilty.
The third year of the sprawling investigation into the Jan. 6 attack — the largest criminal probe in Justice Department history — saw some major achievements for federal prosecutors and the FBI as hundreds of cases made their way through the court system, even as hundreds of additional rioters remain at large, with just two years left to bring charges before the statute of limitations expires.
Looming over all of the Jan. 6 criminal cases — more than 1,200 of them — is the potential of a Trump presidency. Trump has promised to pardon “a large portion” of the rioters “very early on” if he wins in 2024. After spreading lies about the 2020 election in the lead-up to Jan. 6, Trump is now making false claims about the events of that day, proclaiming on the eve of the third anniversary that the attack was “antifa” and the “FBI” was “leading the charge” on Jan. 6. (There is zero evidence to support Trump’s claim, and many of the rioters who far-right figures have alleged were antifa or undercover federal agents were subsequently arrested and revealed to be Trump supporters.)
Online sleuths, or “sedition hunters,” who have aided the FBI in hundreds of cases against Jan. 6 rioters, meanwhile, say they will continue to put pressure on federal authorities to take action against the hundreds of additional rioters they’ve identified who have not faced charges to date. Online sleuths told NBC News that there are about 1,000 other Jan. 6 participants who have been identified but not arrested.
One citizen investigator who has played a critical role in the effort, speaking to NBC News on the condition of anonymity, said it was “frustrating” to know the identities of hundreds of rioters, many of them caught on tape committing violent attacks on law enforcement, and be stuck waiting on action from federal authorities.
“On my mind would be making sure to keep Jan. 6 in the public eye, to continue to not only try to hold rioters accountable for their actions but also law enforcement, the DOJ as a whole,” the investigator said.
“There is a struggle even within the community of harnessing that frustration and using it in a way that’s not harmful to our work but productive and gets the attention of the people that need the attention brought on them,” she said.
Matthew Graves, the top federal prosecutor in Washington, confirmed at a press conference this week that there are plenty of future arrests in the pipeline.
“Many citizens from around the country have already come forward to identify individuals connected with the Jan. 6 attacks. As a result of these tips, scores of individuals have been identified and will soon be prosecuted for violent acts at the Capitol and other violations of federal law,” Graves said.
One of the individuals featured in Graves’ presentation, as well as in an ad released by Joe Biden’s 2024 campaign, has been identified for more than 700 days, online sleuths say. Sleuths dubbed him #BluePlaidSprayer and have been calling out the FBI field office in his home state on social media, asking for action.
Even with hundreds of cases likely to go, 2023 was easily the most consequential year of the Jan. 6 investigation to date. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes — one of the first Jan. 6 rioters convicted of seditious conspiracy — was sentenced to 18 years in prison, with a judge calling him “an ongoing threat and a peril to this country.” Former Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio — whose lawyer told jurors that prosecutors were making him a “scapegoat” for Trump — was also convicted of seditious conspiracy, along with three other Proud Boys. Tarrio received a sentence of 22 years in federal prison, the longest sentence ever given to a Jan. 6 defendant.
Nearly every weekday over the last year, Jan. 6 rioters were facing judges at the federal courthouse in Washington, pleading guilty, on trial or being sentenced for their roles in the Capitol attack.
There was Richard “Bigo” Barnett, who was photographed placing his feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk in a notorious photo from Jan. 6. He received 4.5 years in federal prison.
Julian Khater was sentenced to over six years in prison for assaulting Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards and officer Brian Sicknick, the latter of whom died shortly after the Capitol attack. Sicknick had two strokes after the attack and died of natural causes, and a medical examiner said the events at the Capitol played a role in his death. (Khater was charged with assault but not with causing Sicknick’s death.)
A retired firefighter who assaulted law enforcement with a fire extinguisher — and then sought “cult deprogramming” to explore how he fell for the lies spread by Trump about the 2020 presidential election — received a four-year sentence.
A former bodybuilder and romance novel cover model was sentenced to three years in prison for dragging an officer down the steps of the U.S. Capitol face-first.
A self-proclaimed “idiot” who stole a photo of John Lewis from Nancy Pelosi’s office was sentenced to four years.
A man who charged a police line while carrying a concealed gun was sentenced to seven years.
And a MAGA-hatted rioter who drove a stun gun into former Metropolitan Police officer Michael Fanone was sentenced to 12.5 years in federal prison. Even still, he said to the courtroom, as U.S. marshals led him away: “Trump won.”
Arrests continued to roll in throughout the year. Among them: Jay Johnston, an actor featured in “Arrested Development,” “Anchorman” and “Bob’s Burgers”; a man dubbed “Conan O’Riot,” for his resemblance to the comedian; and a former Boston K-9 officer charged with attacking a Capitol Police officer with a chair. A former FBI supervisory special agent — who was previously a member of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York — was arrested on Jan. 6 charges and accused of yelling, “Kill ’em! Kill ’em! Kill ’em!” as other members of the mob attacked officers. Authorities even arrested a man they say wore the head of a Panda costume inside the Capitol and assaulted police officers. All of those cases are still working their way through the court system, and of those who have entered a plea, all have pleaded not guilty.
Threats against law enforcement officers have continued. A Texas man shot at law enforcement after he was informed he was facing Jan. 6 charges. Another Jan. 6 defendant was arrested near former President Barack Obama’s home after Trump posted a message on his social media platform featuring the address. A Tennessee man admitted that he conspired with a Jan. 6 rioter to kill the FBI agents working on the Capitol attack defendant’s case.
There will be challenges ahead. The Supreme Court is reviewing one of the charges being used to prosecute more than 300 Jan. 6 defendants, including Trump.Meanwhile, the person who left pipe bombs outside the Republican and Democratic national committees on the eve of Jan. 6 has still not been identified, and the $500,000 reward the FBI offered up last year remains in effect.
In comments on the eve of the anniversary, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the nation must “never forget the terrible violence inflicted on law enforcement officers on Jan. 6,” calling the investigation one of the more complex and resource-intensive in Justice Department history.
“Our work continues,” he said. “The Justice Department will hold all Jan. 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under the law — whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy.”