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The 1st Jan. 6 hearing put a spotlight on the Proud Boys' involvement in the attack

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For more than a year, federal prosecutors have said the Proud Boys played a key role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Several Proud Boys have been charged with seditious conspiracy. They have pleaded not guilty. Well, at Thursday's hearing of the congressional committee investigating the attack, Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney said intelligence had identified plans to, quote, "invade and occupy the Capitol." And she singled out the group's role in those plans.

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LIZ CHENEY: In our hearings to come, we will show specifically how a group of Proud Boys led a mob into the Capitol building on January 6.

CHANG: NPR's Tom Dreisbach has this look at the committee's investigation into this extremist group.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: On Thursday, Congresswoman Cheney suggested that the proud boys led that mob with the implicit support of Donald Trump. To build that case, she went back to the 2020 presidential debate, when Trump was asked to condemn the Proud Boys and said this.

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DONALD TRUMP: Stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what...

DREISBACH: Congressional investigators asked a Proud Boy named Jeremy Bertino, aka Noble Beard, about that moment.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Would you say that Proud Boys' numbers increased after the stand back, stand by comment?

JEREMY BERTINO: Exponentially. I'd say triple probably.

DREISBACH: Then on December 19, 2020, Trump tweeted that there would be a big protest in D.C. on January 6. Will be wild, Trump tweeted. Here's Cheney again.

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CHENEY: The tweet led to the planning for what occurred on January 6, including by the Proud Boys, who ultimately led the invasion of the Capitol and the violence on that day.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. Just for awareness, be advised there's probably about 300 Proud Boys. They're marching eastbound towards the United States Capitol.

DREISBACH: The committee showed footage of Proud Boys with the frontline of rioters who knocked over bike racks set up around the Capitol and allowed a massive mob to surround the building. Police used flashbang grenades and pepper spray to try to stop the rioters, but they were overrun. The committee showed footage then of Proud Boy Dominic Pezolla allegedly using a stolen police shield to bash open a Capitol window.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Get it! Get it!

DREISBACH: Breaking that window open allowed the very first group of rioters to climb inside the building, forcing the panicked evacuation of Congress.

A key question for the committee is, were there more direct links between the Proud Boys and the Trump team? We've known that former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio has been close to Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser. Two days before the riot, Tarrio was arrested in D.C. for burning a church's Black Lives Matter flag. And Trump adviser Steve Bannon said on his podcast that he tried to help get Tarrio out of jail ahead of January 6.

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STEVE BANNON: I don't know those guys, really. But I got to tell you, we put calls out last night. Trump put bail up for the guy. This is not acceptable. Guy comes into town...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It's outrageous.

BANNON: A guy comes in the town to protest. I mean, come on.

DREISBACH: Stone has denied all wrongdoing. Bannon's spokesperson and his attorney did not respond to our requests for comment.

Thursday's hearing did not provide new evidence of possible links. On CNN, Jake Tapper asked committee chair Bennie Thompson if that was coming.

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JAKE TAPPER: Are there going to be witnesses that describe actual conversations between these extremist groups and anyone in Trump's orbit?

BENNIE THOMPSON: Yes.

TAPPER: There will be?

THOMPSON: Yes.

DREISBACH: Congressional investigators interviewed leaders of the Proud Boys and the extremist group the Oath Keepers under subpoena. When the committee continues its televised hearings next week, we may hear exactly what they had to say.

Tom Dreisbach, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.