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Rioters plea guilty this week as Jan. 6 panel alleges Trump broke the law

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The congressional committee investigating January 6 says that then-President Trump broke laws in his efforts to derail the certification of the 2020 election, and in federal court there was a guilty plea from an anti-government militia member who was in contact with Trump's inner circle the day of the assault.

Marcy Wheeler is a journalist who covers national security and civil liberties issues. She joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARCY WHEELER: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The guilty plea on Wednesday, Marcy, was from a man named Joshua James. Explain the significance of this plea and why the James case stands out to you.

WHEELER: So rather than pleading guilty to assault or to obstruction, which is the felony charge the DOJ is using with many of these defendants, he pled guilty to seditious conspiracy. That's not a charge that you see very often, and it's sometimes hard to prove. So this is a crime that I think speaks to the gravity of January 6. But it's also important because of information that he is sharing under a cooperation agreement with the government. He had a lot of information about Stewart Rhodes, who is the head of the Oath Keepers, and that was laid out in his guilty plea documents the other day.

What we don't know, however, is what he has told the government about his interactions with Roger Stone the day of and the day before the riot. We know that they were together. He was providing security for Roger Stone. We know that he was calling in from the Willard Hotel, checking in the morning of the riot. But we don't know what he has told the government about his interactions with Stone.

SIMON: And what did the congressional committee base its claim that Trump engaged in a criminal conspiracy to overturn the election?

WHEELER: It's the same crime as DOJ is using - the obstruction that I just mentioned. The theory that they're using there is that John Eastman, who is an attorney who was involved in the false claims about the election - between Eastman and Trump, they asked Mike Pence to halt the vote count on January 6, and that amounts to the same obstruction of the vote certification that tens of defendants so far have pled guilty to and dozens more are fighting in court. So - and I think that that's really important because what the January 6 committee is saying is that Donald Trump and his close associates committed the same crime that people are being prosecuted for right now as we speak.

SIMON: Marcy, any indication you see that Attorney General Garland is following the lead of the congressional committee, which might wind up with the Department of Justice mounting a criminal case against Donald Trump?

WHEELER: I think it's important to understand that the congressional committee is working from the top down, so interviewing the people who were in the Willard Hotel, and the DOJ investigation is working from the bottom up, so starting by arresting all of these militia members, for example, who were interacting with Roger Stone. So I would expect DOJ's investigation to go through people like Stone, like Alex Jones, who led all of these mobsters to the Capitol, probably also Rudy Giuliani, who had ties to somebody involved with the rioters. And these two investigations may meet in between. The question is whether DOJ will succeed in getting through Stone, through Alex Jones, through Rudy Giuliani to Trump, and we won't know that, I think, anytime soon. It still would take some time to get there.

SIMON: Well, and there's no indication as to when these investigations might be done?

WHEELER: No. And, I mean, they do take a lot of time. The Oath Keeper investigation has been relentless. They've just slowly gotten one after another after another cooperator. So James is the sixth cooperator against the Oath Keepers. There was a hearing yesterday where the prosecutor suggested that some of the other people who've been charged with seditious conspiracy are also considering taking plea agreements. They have different information that would be useful to move up the chain.

And as I said, I think these two investigations may well meet in the middle. I think the information that the January 6 committee shared about John Eastman and about the communications with Mike Pence's top aides - those will be very useful to make the same argument the DOJ has been making in court filings - basically that Trump used the mob to try and threaten Mike Pence to halt the vote count.

SIMON: Marcy Wheeler reports on national security and writes at emptywheel.net. Thanks so much for being with us.

WHEELER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.