By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
WASHINGTON (AP) — A former Proud Boys member who pleaded guilty to plotting with group leaders to violently stop the transfer of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden told jurors Tuesday that he viewed their far-right extremist organization as “the tip of the spear” after the 2020 election.
Jeremy Bertino, who is testifying against former Proud Boys national leader Enrique Tarrio and four lieutenants as part of a cooperation deal with federal prosecutors, recalled feeling stunned and then excited when Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during his first debate with Biden.
After the election, Bertino viewed the Proud Boys as leaders of the conservative movement, a perspective fueled by his regular viewership of the conspiracy theory-promoting Infowars website.
“I believed we were supposed to be the leaders of the country, of the right wing,” Bertino said. “The tip of the spear.”
Bertino, 43, of North Carolina, is the only member of the far-right extremist group who has pleaded guilty to a seditious conspiracy charge stemming from a mob’s attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The five Proud Boys associates on trial are charged with the same felony count, a Civil War-era offense punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The trial is scheduled to resume Wednesday with more testimony by Bertino. The trial recessed Tuesday before a prosecutor began questioning Bertino about the Jan. 6 attack.
Bertino is the second former Proud Boys member to testify at the trial. The first, Matthew Greene, testified in January that group members were growing increasingly angry about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and were expecting a “civil war.”
Jurors have heard over a month of testimony by government witnesses in the trial of Tarrio, a Miami resident, and co-defendants Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola.
Nordean, of Auburn, Washington, was a Proud Boys chapter president and a member of the group’s national “Elders Council.” Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Florida, was a self-described Proud Boys organizer. Rehl was president of a Proud Boys chapter in Philadelphia. Pezzola was a Proud Boys member from Rochester, New York.
Bertino said he believed the election had been stolen from Trump and was hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn the election results. He wasn’t in Washington when the Capitol riot erupted. He was stabbed during an altercation in downtown Washington after a Proud Boys march on Dec. 12, 2021, and was still recovering from his injuries on Jan. 6.
Bertino said he became increasingly angry after hearing that his alleged assailant had been freed on bail. He directed much of his anger at police, feeling they had “abandoned” the Proud Boys.
“I felt like they were not on our side anymore,” he testified. “And basically if you were not with us, you were against us.”
Bertino said Tarrio, Nordean and Biggs shared his anger toward police after his stabbing. Bertino added that many Proud Boys began referring to police as “coptifa,” a twist on the term “antifa,” which refers to antifascist activists.
The indictment in Tarrio’s case alleges that the Proud Boys held meetings and communicated over encrypted messages to plan for an attack in the days leading up to Jan. 6. On the day of the riot, Proud Boys dismantled metal barricades set up to protect the Capitol and mobilized, directed and led members of the crowd into the building, according to prosecutors.
Tarrio wasn’t in Washington on Jan. 6, either. Police arrested him in Washington two days before the Capitol riot and charged him with vandalizing a Black Lives Matter banner at a historic Black church during a December 2020 protest. Tarrio heeded a judge’s order to leave the city after his arrest.
Bertino joined the Proud Boys’ Charlotte chapter in 2018 after seeing videos of group members fighting with antifascist activists. He said he enjoyed the comradery with men who shared his right-wing political views. He viewed their enemy as “pretty much anybody who didn’t vote the same way we did.”
Bertino said he became “very close” to Tarrio and was friendly with Biggs, Nordean and Rehl, but he only recalls meeting Pezzola once. He met Tarrio in person at a Proud Boys convention in Las Vegas and later at a January 2020 gun rights rally in Virginia, where he said they bonded over their escape from a confrontation with “armed opposition.”
Proud Boys members describe their group as a politically incorrect men’s club for “Western chauvinists.” Bertino said there was tension within the Proud Boys ranks between “rally boys” who relished fighting with antifa in public forums and “party boys” who preferred to drink together.
Bertino recalled his growing anger in the summer of 2020, as protests erupted across the country in response to George Floyd’s killing in police custody. He blamed violence and rioting on antifa, calling them the “foot soldiers of the left wing.”
“I thought we should have gone out there and stopped them, to restore order,” he said.
Bertino pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy in October 2022 and agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department’s investigation of the role that Proud Boys leaders played in the mob’s attack on the Capitol. He hasn’t been sentenced yet.
The House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 insurrection featured video testimony by Bertino at its first hearing last year. The committee showed a clip of Bertino saying that the group’s membership probably tripled after then-President Trump’s comment during a debate with Biden that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.”
In his trial testimony, Bertino recalled feeling stunned and then excited by Trump’s remark.
“I just couldn’t believe the president was talking about our club,” he said. “I thought it was going to grow the club exponentially at that point.”
Bertino joined Tarrio at a bar in Washington on the night of the 2020 presidential election. He said he became a “fourth-degree” member of the Proud Boys — the group’s highest rank — after intervening in a bloody altercation that night.
Jurors saw text messages that Bertino and Tarrio exchanged four days after the election, as news outlets declared a victory for Biden.
“They called it. Now we have to mobilize. Should we roll out to the state houses?” Bertino asked.
“Yes,” Tarrio responded.
For full coverage of the Capitol riot, go to https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege