By Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand | CNN
(CNN) — The sole Proud Boy to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy in connection to the US Capitol riot testified on Wednesday that members of the far-right organization believed the country was barreling toward revolution and that they were the “tip of the spear.”
Jeremy Bertino, a top lieutenant to Proud Boys Chairman Enrique Tarrio, testified as part of a cooperation deal that he struck with prosecutors against Tarrio and four other members of the Proud Boys charged with conspiring to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
“We had a big fight on our hands. It was going to be an uphill battle, and everyone had turned against us,” Bertino testified. “My belief was that we had to take the reins and pretty much be the leaders that we had been building ourselves up to be.”
His testimony allowed prosecutors to show jurors how the events of January 6, 2021, unfolded in the mind of a top member of the organization as he watched it online from his North Carolina home, sending messages to his “brothers” about targeting then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and assuring them that members of the far-left group Antifa weren’t there to stop them.
Some of the messages featured in court were from defendants in the case, whom Bertino said he would “take a bullet for.” But Bertino and the five defendants — Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, Zachary Rehl, Joseph Biggs and Dominic Pezzola — rarely made eye contact during the testimony.
There was not a premeditated or specific plan to storm the Capitol, Bertino testified, adding that getting the Proud Boys to communicate and work together was like “herding cats.” The Proud Boys had several group messages from the days before the riot where members mentioned descending on the Capitol building, according to exhibits shown by prosecutors.
‘Foot soldiers of the right’
As court challenges to the 2020 election failed, members of the Proud Boys — who saw themselves as the “foot soldiers of the right” — began to believe the country was headed toward an “all-out revolution,” Bertino testified.
“I felt it coming,” he said.
The Proud Boys believed that the government was controlled by “commies,” he testified, and they began to turn against the police, whom the group increasingly saw as their enemy. Everybody in the organization felt “desperate,” including Tarrio, Bertino told the jury.
“His tones were calculated,” Bertino said of Tarrio. “Cold, but very determined. He felt the exact same way that I did.”
Members also were inspired by then-President Donald Trump’s reference to their organization in a 2020 presidential debate, where he told the group to “stand back and stand by.” Bertino testified that there were “nonstop requests for membership” after the debate, specifically from people who wanted to attend rallies, and that the group did less vetting of new members to keep up with applications.
During cross examination, Bertino said that he thought the Proud Boys had a goal to stop the 2020 election but had no knowledge of how that goal would be achieved.
“I didn’t have a direct idea of where they were going, how they were going to get there.”
Bertino was not in Washington, DC, on the day of the riot because he was at home recovering from a stab wound he suffered during a previous pro-Trump rally, but he testified that he watched on a livestream video. He saw the mob as starting the “next American revolution,” and told others Proud Boys he was brought to tears during the attack.
“I was happy, excited, in awe and disbelief that people were doing what they said they would do,” Bertino told the jury. When the crowd descended on the Capitol building, “it meant that we influenced people, the normies, enough to make them stand for themselves and take back their country and take back their freedom,” he said.
In chats to other Proud Boys, Bertino encouraged members to move forward, telling them that he could see the Capitol building on a livestream and that no members of Antifa would be at the building to stop the pro-Trump mob.
Bertino also messaged: “They need to get peloton” — which he testified was a misspelled reference to Pelosi. “She was the talking head of the opposition and they needed to remove her from power,” he said.
By the evening of January 6, Bertino grew angry at Trump supporters for leaving the Capitol building, he told the jury.
“The way I felt at the moment, if we give that building up, we were giving up our country,” Bertino testified. He sent encrypted messages to other Proud Boys members, saying that “we failed,” and “Half measures mean nothing,” and, referring to lawmakers inside the Capitol, “Fuck fear: They need to be hung.”
“Once they took that step, there was no coming back from it,” Bertino testified Wednesday. “And they decided basically to balk and walk away after creating all that chaos down there.”
“The revolution had failed,” he continued, “because the House was still going to go on and certify the election.”
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Bertino told the jury that after January 6, he tried to delete what he saw as incriminating messages on his phone and he wasn’t fully truthful with FBI agents when they asked him about the Capitol attack.
“I guess it’s a natural instinct to protect yourself and protect those you love,” Bertino testified.
“I love them,” he said of the five defendants. “I didn’t want to see anything bad happen to them. Still don’t.”