Before the smoke even settled on the January 6th attack, NBC News Justice Reporter Ryan Reilly set out covering the legal aftermath, which has since grown to encompass hundreds of arrests, investigations, and prosecutions. He's also followed the extensive effort by online amateur sleuths to identify suspects and gather evidence alongside the official effort.
With the country now taking a fresh look at the attack via the House Select Committee's hearings, we asked Reilly to help put their findings in perspective. Here's our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Q: You’ve been covering the aftermath of January 6th since day one. What has stood out the most to you in the hearings so far?
Reilly: I’ve watched far too many videos, so the violence of Jan. 6 wasn’t as shocking personally, but the committee has done a very effective job of reminding the broader public how awful that day was and connecting that violence to the false rhetoric about the 2020 election.
It’s also been illuminating to see the gap between what people were saying behind the scenes and what they were willing to say publicly in the months leading up to Jan. 6. As a Justice reporter, I’m obviously very interested in what was happening behind the scenes at DOJ between the 2020 election and Jan. 6.
At the time I was prodding DOJ for comment on some of the baseless claims that Trump was making, but former Attorney General William Barr and other top officials stayed very quiet while these conspiracy theories continued to marinate. So tomorrow’s hearing will be one to watch as we see Justice Department officials appointed by Trump himself talk about the commander-in-chief’s efforts to get them to weaponize the Justice Department to help him stay in power after he lost the election.
Q: The committee has tried to draw a direct line between President Trump’s rhetoric and the rioters on the ground. You’ve followed hundreds of arrests and prosecutions around 1/6, how does this line up with your sense of what happened?
Reilly: There’s not really a ton of mystery as to why Trump fans stormed the Capitol, they literally chanted “Stop the Steal” as they roamed the hallways in search of members of Congress, bashed in the doors to the House chamber and invaded the Senate floor. But every time a new case comes along, it still is remarkable to see Trump’s rhetoric echoed, or just to visit their Facebook pages and see defendants spreading and consuming propaganda about the Big Lie.
That’s something I tried to get at in my latest story: For those who actually truly believed there was some massive criminal conspiracy to steal the election from Donald Trump, storming the Capitol was (in their mind) a rational response to what Donald Trump has repeatedly described as the “crime of the century.”
Plenty of defendants, often at the urging of their own lawyers, have told a court that they now realize they were tricked into believing election conspiracy theories. But there are a huge number of defendants who still believe the Big Lie. It’s got to be a tough pill to swallow for these defendants to admit that they, in many cases, threw their lives away because they lacked critical thinking skills and fell for some internet memes promoted by the commander-in-chief and his team.
Q: What are the biggest remaining gaps in our understanding of what happened on January 6th?
Reilly: One of the biggest questions I see right now is how extensive were those ties between the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys and the Trump campaign and the White House. When the third Oath Keeper defendant pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy, he told the court that Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes tried to get in touch with Trump on Jan. 6 and spoke with a Trump intermediary. DOJ and the FBI certainly know who that Trump intermediary is. Does the committee? That’s certainly one thing to keep an eye on going forward.
Q: The Department of Justice recently sent a letter to the House committee demanding access to their interview transcripts. It seems like there’s some tension between the two investigations, can you explain what’s going on here?
Reilly: The Justice Department has been a bit frustrated with the committee. Withholding the transcripts complicates trial schedules that are in the works, and DOJ wrote that it would have also impeded their broader investigation.
The committee was focused on the hearing, and originally indicated that the request for the committee’s work product was "premature." They’ve since reassessed. The committee has now said they will release the transcripts on an expedited basis.
From DOJ’s perspective, this is a one-way street. The committee can access anything that DOJ publicly filed in court, but they’re not going to access information about cases that are still in the works. DOJ also didn’t want to request individual transcripts from the committee because that could’ve leaked, and the Justice Department is supposed to follow the “four corners” doctrine, meaning they only speak through the legal process. Attorney General Merrick Garland is big on norms. He’s also facing down a massive decision that will alter the future of American democracy, and he wants to make sure he does it right and doesn’t give critics ammunition to paint this investigation as partisan.