The two-day testimony of Jeremy Bertino, a former leader of the far-right group, shed new light on the Proud Boys’ growing desperation in the weeks before the riot.
WASHINGTON — As a gang of Proud Boys stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Jeremy Bertino, one of the leaders of the far-right group, was at home in North Carolina, watching livestreams of the riot and offering advice to his compatriots on the ground.
Recovering from stab wounds he sustained during an earlier pro-Trump rally, Mr. Bertino was trying his best to aid his fellow Proud Boys in what he believed was another American Revolution. In a barrage of messages, he told his friends to “form a spear,” encouraging them to move en masse toward the Capitol.
“I was excited,” he testified Wednesday. “I thought I was watching history and watching the guys about to go into the building.”
Appearing for a second day of testimony at the seditious conspiracy trial of five members of the Proud Boys in Federal District Court in Washington, Mr. Bertino gave the proceeding a sudden burst of drama by taking the stand against his former associates. After nearly six weeks of arcane arguments about evidence and often lackluster testimony, Mr. Bertino offered jurors an insider’s glimpse of the growing sense of desperation within both the Proud Boys’ leadership and rank and file in the weeks leading up to the Capitol attack.
Since opening statements on Jan. 12, prosecutors have been seeking to convince the jury that Enrique Tarrio, the group’s leader at the time of the riot, and the other four defendants in the case — Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola — conspired to use force to stop the transfer of presidential power from Donald J. Trump to Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Mr. Bertino recalled frenetically swapping texts with Mr. Tarrio while the mob — with the Proud Boys in the lead — overran the Capitol. Mr. Bertino expressed pride and amazement to Mr. Tarrio, openly hoping that the rioters would track down Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Brother, You know we made this happen,” Mr. Bertino wrote. “I’m so proud of my country today.”
“I know,” Mr. Tarrio responded.
- Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
- A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
- Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
- Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.
The defense sought to cast doubt on Mr. Bertino’s account on Wednesday, noting that he had told federal investigators in several previous statements that the group never explicitly planned to stop the certification of the election.
Under questioning by Nicholas Smith, Mr. Nordean’s lawyer, Mr. Bertino seemed argumentative at times as he replied that some of his prior statements were false but added that the group was acting on an unspoken understanding, rather than a telegraphed plan to topple the government.
As anxiety spread throughout the group after the Supreme Court declined to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania in December 2020, Mr. Bertino said that he and the group’s top leaders came to believe that “time was running out to save the country.” The Proud Boys, he went on, would have to take the lead in galvanizing other Trump supporters who came to Washington into realizing an “all-out revolution.”
But as he witnessed that effort break down in real time on Jan. 6, Mr. Bertino said he became outraged that other rioters had failed to follow the group’s leadership and commit fully to halting the certification of the vote.
“Going halfway into the Capitol and then relinquishing it did nothing but cause a lot of problems for people in the country and people that went in there,” he added. “It didn’t accomplish anything,”
Over more than 12 hours on the stand, Mr. Bertino described his personal trajectory from a new Proud Boys recruit to the only member of the group to have pleaded guilty to charges of seditious conspiracy. He also talked about the respect and status he gained for his often frontline role in clashing with the group’s political adversaries.
On Tuesday, Mr. Bertino recalled a rally in Washington on Nov. 14, 2020, when at least 100 Proud Boys went in search of counterprotesters and chased them away after “a big street brawl.”
Something similar took place when the group returned on Dec. 12, 2020, picking a fight after dark with leftist activists. During that melee, Mr. Bertino was stabbed and hospitalized with a broken rib and a punctured lung.
At times on Wednesday, he spoke fondly of the “brotherhood” he formed with other leaders and the shared ideals he would discuss with the men he is now testifying against.
“Most of us would have taken a bullet for each other,” he said. “We all shared some sort of trauma within the club.”
But at other times, Mr. Bertino betrayed a sense of frustration about simmering disorganization and “drama” within the group, and a feeling that Mr. Tarrio sometimes concealed his intentions from junior members and failed to keep the group as a whole focused on its political goals.
Mr. Bertino’s testimony also helped reinforce a key pillar of the government’s case: that the group became increasingly hostile toward the police in the wake of violence that erupted after the pro-Trump rallies in Washington.
The knife attack he suffered turned him and other Proud Boys against their perceived allies in the police, who they believed had protected the assailant, Mr. Bertino testified. He said it fueled a paranoid perception that the group was standing alone against a broad coalition of political opponents that included law enforcement, liberal-leaning mayors and the incoming Biden administration.
“The tide was changing,” he said. “Everything was shifting around us. We were becoming the enemies of the people.”
By the time Mr. Bertino was watching the riot form on Jan. 6, he said the group’s souring view of police and establishment politicians had many in the organization thrilled to see “normies,” or normal conservatives, unleashing their fury toward Washington police officers and members of Congress.
In text messages during the riot, Mr. Bertino and other members appeared eager to whip other demonstrators in Washington into a frenzy, expressing hope that they would “burn that city to ash.”
But as rioters cleared the building and Congress reconvened later that day to certify the results of the 2020 election, conversations between Mr. Bertino and others in the group shown to the jury on Wednesday took a darker turn.
“We failed,” Mr. Bertino texted other top members. “The house is meeting again.”
Even as some members expressed hope that evening that the mob had succeeding in sending a message to lawmakers, Mr. Bertino said he was despondent, and felt the group had been let down by those rioters the group led into the Capitol.
“Half measures mean nothing,” Mr. Bertino wrote back. “They need to be hung.”