WASHINGTON — It was an oddity amid the chaos. As a rowdy pro-Trump mob tried to force their way into the Capitol on Jan. 6, a Capitol Police lieutenant emerged out of the Columbus Doors on the eastern side of the building, where windows had been shattered by the mob. Following a civilian in a brown Eddie Bauer jacket with a police bullhorn, the lieutenant led a procession of officers in riot gear down the stairs and through the crowd.
As the officer made his way through the sea of rioters, he put on a red MAGA hat. Trump supporters on the stairs celebrated, thinking that officers were giving up the building and that perhaps Donald Trump was going to remain president after all.
“Make a hole! They’re leaving!” one man yells in one of many videos that captured the moment. “The cops are leaving! We won!” says another. A man slaps the police officers’ helmets in support, as others slap them on the back. A woman in a USA sweatshirt hugs the officers, who do not hug her back as they make their way out of the Capitol and through the crowd. Through their face shields, none of the cops looks thrilled. A man in a black QAnon hoodie and a Trump hat blesses the officers as they go down the stairs.
Stephen Ayres, a Capitol rioter and later a defendant who testified before the Jan. 6 committee, is there, watching from the sides. So is the “QAnon Shaman,” Jacob Chansley, fresh off a visit to the Senate chamber that would later lead to a sentence of more than three years in prison.
Standing at the bottom of the stairs, as police in riot gear march out, is 37-year-old Roberto Minuta of Texas. “That’s the police being escorted by the people, that’s what that is, cause it’s our f---ing building,” says Minuta, filming the scene on his phone. “Escorted!”
The man escorting them, with the bullhorn in the Eddie Bauer jacket, was a member of the far-right Oath Keepers organization. Video from earlier in the day shows him flashing what appears to be a police badge at the officer and offering to help.
The Wall Street Journal reported on the officer in the MAGA hat — Tarik Khalid “T.K.” Johnson, a former Capitol Police lieutenant — in the days after Jan. 6, but questions remain about what exactly happened on the Capitol steps that day. Some saw it as evidence of a far too cozy relationship between law enforcement and the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, while others on the right, including some lawyers for members of the Oath Keepers now on trial for seditious conspiracy, argue it is evidence that members of the Oath Keepers assisted law enforcement on Jan. 6 and that the charges against them are overblown.
But an NBC News review of the incident doesn’t align with those narratives. NBC News, with help from a group of open-source researchers that have focused on the Oath Keepers, reviewed multiple videos of the moment and spoke with Johnson’s lawyer and with Michael Nichols, the Oath Keeper and retired police officer who assisted the Capitol Police that day.
Johnson put on the MAGA cap as a ruse to get people in the crowd to help him, his lawyer confirmed. He was trying to rescue over a dozen officers who were pinned down inside the Capitol, caught between rioters who had already broken into the building and a flood of other Trump supporters who had breached a door and were trying to push their way in.
And it seems he succeeded. Once the officers were safely out of the way, other officers were able to temporarily shut the doors, which rioters had breached by taking advantage of the fire exit mechanism, which allowed them to open the magnetically-locked doors by pushing a bar for three seconds. The officers Johnson rescued were then able to redeploy elsewhere in the Capitol, Johnson’s lawyer said.
Johnson, who was demoted in connection with the incident, recently resigned from the U.S. Capitol Police, NBC News learned.
Nichols does not appear to have any ties to the Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy, and there is no evidence he communicated with them before the Jan. 6 attack, despite their defense lawyers’ arguments, in court and in the press, that his assistance to Johnson helps their case.
Eleven members of the Oath Keepers — an anti-government group primarily consisting of former members of law enforcement and the military that formed after the election of Barack Obama as president — are facing seditious conspiracy charges in connection with their conduct on Jan. 6, including Minuta, who filmed Nichols and Johnson descending the steps with the rescued officers. Five of those members — Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell — are currently on trial after pleading not guilty. A second group of Oath Keeper defendants — Minuta, Joseph Hackett, David Moerschel, and Edward Vallejo — are scheduled to go to trial at the end of the year.
Three other Oath Keepers — Joshua James, Brian Ulrich and William Todd Wilson — have already pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy. Wilson is expected to testify that Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, tried to speak directly with Trump on Jan. 6 when they were in a hotel suite after the Capitol riot and that Rhodes was imploring his Trump contact to tell the then-president to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers.
Defense lawyers have argued that video of Nichols helping law enforcement undermines the government’s case that the Oath Keepers conspired in advance to overthrow the U.S. government on Jan. 6. “Video of Oath Keepers Rescuing 16 Police Officers Deflates Jan. 6 Sedition Narrative, Attorneys Say,” declares a headline in the far-right Epoch Times, one of many conservative outlets that has spread disinformation about Jan. 6. Members of the second “stack” of Oath Keepers charged, which includes Minuta, assisted the rescued officers once they reached the bottom of the stairs, their lawyers have argued. That group “provided security and escort to overwhelmed Capitol police officers and assisted them in escaping that immediate threat and danger,” Rhodes’ attorneys wrote in one filing.
But the rescue effort was led by Nichols and there’s no evidence that he was coordinating that day with Oath Keepers who have been charged. Barring some unforeseen development, it’s unlikely Nichols will be charged himself after he proactively assisted law enforcement on Jan. 6.
Nichols said he’s been visited by the FBI twice: in January 2021, and last September. He says he was questioned about his connections to the Oath Keepers organization, whether he was communicating with anyone via radio, and whether there were plans to attack the Capitol again. “I’m like, whoa, we were there for a speech,” Nichols said. An FBI official declined to comment on Nichols.
“They wanted to connect me to these groups and connect me to these things that I’m not a part of,” Nichols said. “I’m an American soldier and a retired police officer, and I’ll stand up for anyone at any time, and that’s it. I don’t know Stewart Rhodes, I don’t know any of those people. … I wasn’t communicating with any of these people.”
“You might be a Boy Scout but you don’t know all the Boy Scouts in the world,” Nichols said.
‘How can we help?’
Nichols had a great spot for Donald Trump’s speech at the Ellipse on the morning of Jan. 6; video shows him and his wife toward the front of the crowd. They stayed for the whole thing, too: video shows he’s still there when “YMCA” begins to play after Trump told his supporters to march down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol when his speech wrapped up around 1:10 p.m.‚ just after the first barricades were breached on the western front of the Capitol grounds.
But Nichols and his wife didn’t go immediately to the Capitol, he said. First they walked around a bit, intending to head back to their hotel in Arlington, and then wound up at some food trucks, he said in an interview. Video shows him walking down toward the Capitol, hand-in-hand with his wife. It’s more than a mile and a half from the White House to the Capitol, so walking can take awhile, even without crowds and a pit stop. Given the timing of Trump’s speech, Nichols would’ve arrived at the Capitol long after the barricades were gone, having been breached by the mob on the east side of the Capitol at about 2 p.m.
“There were no barricades, there were no officers, there were just people wandering around, so we just wandered around,” Nichols told NBC News. They made their way to the east side of the Capitol, where Nichols said they joined a group that was praying and singing Christian music on a staircase leading to the Senate, which is confirmed by video viewed by NBC News.
Nichols said that going to the Capitol wasn’t on his agenda on Jan. 6, and his wife posted that he went with her because he “knew how important it was to me for us to be a part of this incredible moment.”
Nichols said he saw a commotion at the top of the stairs as rioters tried to break into the Capitol and tried to help. That’s when he saw Johnson.
“I’ve got to let him know and see if I can help him get this crowd off the stairs,” Nichols said he thought.
Video captures what happened next. Johnson, sporting the MAGA hat, tells Nichols and another man that officers are getting beat up and tries to portray himself as a like-minded conservative, saying that “the people who didn’t vote for him [Trump] are laughing at us.” (Johnson’s lawyer confirmed reports that he is a Democrat.)
“How can we help to take control?” Nichols asks. Johnson asks for help extracting officers from inside. Nichols says he can help, flashes a badge and makes a plan with the officer to head up the stairs. “You can even use my megaphone, and I’ll follow you,” Johnson tells Nichols.
They make their way up the stairs, at points hand-in-hand. Another man accompanying Nichols and Johnson tells one bystander that they’re Oath Keepers; that man has not been charged either. The three men make their way to the doors, and before long, begin escorting a group of officers out of the building and down the stairs, where Minuta is waiting with his phone.
Unlike the colleagues behind him, Johnson has no additional protective gear on him, unless you count his blue medical mask. He was also more vulnerable: a Black officer amid a mob that included neo-Nazis, Confederate flags and — as court documents have made clear — plenty of fascists and racists.
Multiple Black officers and first responders have said they were the subject of racist taunts that day, and an attorney for Johnson said at least one video shows a rioter using a racial slur to refer to the lieutenant during the rescue, telling others in the mob: “That n----- is tricking us.” Johnson did not hear the slur himself that day, his lawyer said.
Moments after the men came down the stairs, police were able to — temporarily, at least — secure the east rotunda door, preventing more rioters from entering or re-entering the Capitol.
As the day wore on, Nichols returned to the door. There’s video of him, without audio, that shows him speaking to rioters near the door of the Capitol and then talking at length to police officers through the door — he says he was trying to calm the situation and help police close the door, which wasn't locking.
“There was like a broken piece of metal that was stuck to the magnet part way up above where it would have locked the doors,” Nichols said.
Nichols identified himself as former law enforcement and one of the officers asked him if he could shut the larger, decorative Columbus doors, he said. But those heavy doors wouldn’t budge, and the crowd started to turn on him. Nichols decided to leave because there wasn’t much more he could do to help, he said, and he was worried that he or his wife would be hurt. They went down and found Johnson again and told him what was happening, a moment that is also captured in a photo reviewed by NBC News.
Nichols is a former police officer in Cortland, New York, outside of Syracuse. Lt. Dan Edwards of the Cortland Police confirmed that Nichols retired in February 2017 and that the department does give out retirement badges like the one that Nichols appeared to flash during his exchange with Johnson.
‘Our officers fought like hell’
In the wake of the attack, Johnson was demoted for donning the MAGA hat. “Mr. Johnson contested the disciplinary process — including the demotion,” Johnson’s attorney said.
“A thorough investigation found he [Johnson] did not help the rioters before, during or after the attack. The Department took appropriate actions to address the official’s conduct about his personal decisions and the acceptance of the hat,” the U.S. Capitol Police said in a statement to NBC News. “It is important to remember that our officers fought like hell that day to win back the Capitol so Congress could carry out their legislative duties.”
Two officers who served on Jan. 6 said that while some on the force certainly questioned the wisdom of Johnson’s techniques, nobody questioned that he had the right intent that day: protecting officers and securing the Capitol.
Johnson’s lawyer said that he helped “to rescue U.S. Capitol Police officers from then being surrounded and subject to life-threatening attacks by the rioters (who already had gravely assaulted and threatened to kill other USCP officers on the Capitol West Front, who then were defending against the rioters’ intrusions” before he provided tactical guidance on the eastern side of the Capitol until rioters dispersed.
Johnson wasn’t aware that Nichols was an Oath Keeper, nor of who the Oath Keepers were, his lawyer said.
Gus Papathanasiou, the chairman of the U.S. Capitol Police Labor Committee, told NBC News that he does not believe any USCP officer should have been disciplined for their actions on Jan. 6 since no higher ups in management were disciplined. Papathanasiou’s union did not represent Johnson in the incident because Johnson was a lieutenant at the time, but he said that the union was “fighting for officers who’ve been disciplined relating to January 6th” and that Johnson’s actions were honorable.
“From what I’ve seen on social media video of T.K. Johnson and what I heard on the radio that day, T.K. should have been promoted after Jan 6th, not demoted,” Papathanasiou said, calling the department’s treatment of him “a travesty.”
Nichols said that he thought Johnson went “above and beyond” and “put his life” at risk on Jan. 6.
“He was on his radio, he was calling for instruction, and they were just left with no resources there,” Nichols said.
Johnson’s lawyer said that the then-lieutenant spent the first hour of the attack giving tactical direction to more than 20 officers and was “instrumental, through his initiative, in evacuating Senators and their staffs from the Senate Chamber and then, a few minutes later, evacuating House Members and their staffs from the House Chamber — all just shortly before the rioters entered those Chambers in search of Senators and House Members.”
After Johnson returned to duty demoted from his position as a lieutenant, but “in good standing as a USCP police officer,” his lawyer said that he decided to resign, effective Sept. 23.
‘They’re being scapegoated’
The Oath Keepers charged in the seditious conspiracy, according to the government’s evidence, came prepared on Jan. 6. Rhodes, the leader, set up quick reaction forces — or “QRFs” — outside of D.C., prosecutors say, and spoke with a Trump associate the night of Jan. 6, urging the person to put him in contact with Trump and to have Trump call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to keep him in power.
It’s unclear how much of Nichols’ and Johnson’s cooperation the Oath Keepers’ lawyers will be able to work into the first trial, given that this set of defendants don’t appear to have interacted with Johnson. The judge overseeing the Oath Keepers case said that the evidence can be introduced only if the defendants witnessed it directly. Brad Geyer, an attorney for defendant Harrelson, told NBC News after opening arguments on Monday that he was going to try to bring in as much evidence about the incident as he could.
Although Nichols draws a distinction between himself as an “oathkeeper” — someone who swore an oath to protect and defend the country — and the Oath Keepers organization, of which he is a member, he gets defensive about those members who have been charged.
He said he was under the impression they went there to protect speakers at events surrounding Jan. 6, not overthrow the government.
“I don’t know those people,” Nichols said. “I don’t know what anyone’s mindset is, but based on my understanding of it, they’re being scapegoated.”