As hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump’s stormed past police barricades to overrun the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Zach Rehl, president of the Philadelphia Proud Boys, stood by the site of the first breach, shooting video on his phone.
“F— them!” he shouted at the mob. “Storm the Capitol.”
And after the country had witnessed the most significant threat to the peaceful transfer of presidential power in centuries, he privately messaged top leaders of the organization: “I’m proud as f— of what we accomplished.”
Two years later, those words lie at the heart of the seditious conspiracy case against Rehl, 37, and four other leaders of the far-right group, whom the Justice Department has accused of fomenting the riot to ensure that Trump remained in office.
But with opening arguments in the trial set to begin Tuesday in a federal courtroom in Washington, Rehl and his codefendants maintain that there’s no evidence they planned anything and that they’re being scapegoated based solely on their intemperate words.
Here’s what you need to know about Rehl, the case against the Proud Boys, and the trial expected to play out over the next six weeks:
Who is Zach Rehl?
A Marine veteran and son and grandson of Philadelphia police officers, Rehl has led the city’s chapter of the Proud Boys since at least 2018 — a role that has put him at the forefront of many of the group’s most controversial moments.
When Proud Boys were spotted mingling with officers at a “Back the Blue” rally outside the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Northeast Philadelphia shortly after the racial justice protests of 2020, Rehl was there, drinking beer and chanting with others in the parking lot who were openly carrying a Proud Boys flag.
He was one of the organizers behind a 2018 pro-Trump “We the People” rally outside Independence Hall that drew a minuscule crowd of supporters but led to heated clashes with a much larger group of counterprotesters.
When Trump appeared to lose the 2020 presidential election, he posted on the right-wing social media site Parler: “Hopefully, the firing squads are for the traitors that are trying to steal the election from the American people.”
And as Trump called his supporters to a Jan. 6 rally to protest Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s victory, prosecutors say, he was selected by top Proud Boys leadership to organize the group’s presence in Washington that day.
He has remained in federal custody since his March 2021 arrest at his Port Richmond home.
What was his role in the Capitol riot?
Videos from the Jan. 6 attack widely shared on social media showed Rehl, dressed in a “Make America Great Again” cap and with a Temple Owls backpack, leading a group of more than 100 Proud Boys and followers on a meandering march from the Washington Monument to the Capitol.
Photos also surfaced of Rehl inside the building, smoking a cigarette while carousing with a mob of rioters in the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.).
But prosecutors allege his role that day extended far beyond illegally entering the building. They say he and the other charged Proud Boys leaders went to Washington with a detailed plan to attack.
Their goal, the Justice Department says, citing reams of encrypted chat log transcripts since seized from group members, was to “rile up the normies” — or Trump supporters unaffiliated with their organization — into storming the Capitol and disrupting the certification vote.
Who else is charged? What are they charged with?
Rehl will stand trial alongside Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, the Proud Boys’ former national chairman, and two other regional leaders of the far-right group, Ethan Nordean, of Washington state, and Joseph Biggs, of Florida. Dominic Pezzola, a Proud Boys member from New York best known for having broken one of the first windows in the Capitol building with a stolen police riot shield, is also charged.
In addition to the seditious conspiracy charge, all five men face counts including conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, assaulting police, and destruction of government property — the most serious of which could send them to prison for up to 20 years.
What is seditious conspiracy?
The charge is the most serious accusation prosecutors have brought against any of the more than 940 people charged to date with playing a role in the Capitol attack.
A conviction requires prosecutors to prove that the men were seeking to either overthrow the government or interfere with the execution of federal law by force.
To date, the Justice Department has levied sedition charges in only one other case — a sprawling indictment against Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the extremist group the Oath Keepers, and 10 other members of his organization.
The government won convictions against Rhodes and one lieutenant at a trial in November, but a jury acquitted three others who stood trial with them on the sedition charge.
What is the evidence against the Proud Boys?
Much as they did during the Oath Keepers’ trial last year, prosecutors are expected to draw on thousands of internal text messages and chat logs to demonstrate the Proud Boys’ planning and organization before Jan. 6.
The government may also seek to introduce evidence about a document called “1776 Returns” that was given to Tarrio by one of his girlfriends and lays out a plan to surveil and seize several government buildings around the Capitol.
Working with top lieutenants including Rehl, Tarrio handpicked a group of “rally boys” to take the lead in the group’s on-the-ground efforts in Washington, according to prosecutors. Rehl was put in charge of “operations” along with Carlisle, Pa.-based Proud Boy John Charles Stewart, according to transcripts of those conversations since attached to court filings.
As the day of the rally approached, Rehl and the other leaders participated in a series of chats with members of the group across the country with plans to organize into 10-man teams with medics and communications experts. They planned to eschew their traditional black-and-gold Proud Boy colors to better blend into the crowds.
Jan. 6 would be a “completely different operation,” Rehl said in a Dec. 30, 2020, chat. This time the Proud Boys would be doing more than “flexing our [arms] and s—.”
He opened a crowdfunding account on the Christian website GiveSendGo, popular among extremist groups, that raised more than $5,500 to fund travel and equipment costs for the group.
Text messages show Rehl also took specialized radios to Washington that day to allow Proud Boys members to communicate over encrypted channels.
And despite claims from Rehl and the others that they went to Washington only to support Trump and had no preconception of the violence that erupted that day, prosecutors say their social media postings in the days after say otherwise.
“This is what patriotism looks like,” Rehl posted on Jan. 7. Of the law enforcement members who defended the Capitol, he added: “They deserve to be tarred and feathered. These cops turning on us are what they call ‘turncoats.’ Just saying.”
What does Rehl say?
Rehl and his codefendants have signaled their intent to mount a robust defense. Recent court filings suggest they don’t intend to deny breaching the Capitol but will argue they did not plan to do so and were merely swept up in the crowd like the hundreds of others the Justice Department has charged with much less serious offenses.
They maintain the FBI had as many as eight informants in the group before Jan. 6 and would have known whether any seditious plot was brewing among its ranks.
Rehl’s lawyer, Carmen Hernandez, has argued in recent court filings that he is the least implicated of the bunch and that prosecutors have no evidence that he used force to try to disrupt government functioning that day.
She’s accused prosecutors of trying to force a sedition conviction based solely off her client’s constitutionally protected speech.
“Mr. Rehl, a husband and father, who served his country honorably and who did not force his way into the Capitol, did not destroy or vandalize any property, did not battle law enforcement or use violence against any other person and did not conspire with anyone to do any of those things,” she said in court papers in June. “It is difficult to see how the broad brush used to paint him in such an unfair light will not result in violating his constitutional rights to a fair trial.”
How long is the trial supposed to last?
Both sides estimate the case will take roughly six weeks.
What does the jury look like?
Picking a jury to hear the trial has proven more challenging than originally expected.
Rehl and his codefendants initially urged U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly to move the trial out of Washington, where they say residents are too close to the events of Jan. 6 and too prejudiced against the Proud Boys to give them a fair trial.
But although Kelly has repeatedly refused that request, dozens of potential jurors were weeded out during a selection process that began last month over their less than positive views about the organization and its members.
Several since excluded jurors described the group as “white nationalists” or “white separatists” who “conquer through fear and terror.”