Capitol riot federal trial opens for ‘Cowboys for Trump’ founder

Mar 21, 2022, 2:58 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 3:17 pm
FILE PHOTO: Otero County Commission Chairman and Cowboys for Trump co-founder Couy Griffin. Griffin...
FILE PHOTO: Otero County Commission Chairman and Cowboys for Trump co-founder Couy Griffin. Griffin was convicted of illegally entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds — though not the building — amid the riots on Jan. 6, 2021 (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

(CNN) — The second trial in the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot case is underway Monday, with New Mexico county commissioner, self-proclaimed cowboy and noted conspiracy theorist Couy Griffin appearing before a federal judge for a bench trial in Washington, DC.

The trial will highlight key details prosecutors must prove about participants’ alleged crimes during the attack — such as that the rioters jeopardized the security of the area where then-Vice President Mike Pence was visiting.

Griffin arrived at the courthouse Monday morning, stepping out of a truck with “We the People” written across the side and pulling a large horse trailer.

“We’re rolling on in,” Griffin said. “By God’s grace and by his power the law will be followed impartially without a political narrative.”

Dressed in a black suit and donning a black cowboy hat, Griffin prayed with supporters outside the courthouse before entering.

Griffin, a founder of the group “Cowboys for Trump,” is charged with two misdemeanor offenses for his alleged actions during the attack: entering and remaining in a restricted area and disorderly and disruptive conduct. He chose to be tried by Judge Trevor McFadden, who will hear arguments from prosecutors and the defense before ruling, instead of a jury.

During a lunch break in Monday’s trial, Griffin was approached by several people who had driven to DC to support him, praying for him and asking for pictures.

Almost 800 defendants have been charged related to the Capitol riot. Nearly one-third have pleaded guilty, with many admitting trespassing-like crimes similar to Griffin’s charges, while the rest continue to fight their charges and are headed to trials. Earlier this month, prosecutors secured a conviction from a jury of riot defendant Guy Reffitt, who was caught on video taunting police on the Capitol’s West Terrace and found guilty of intentionally trying obstruct the congressional certification of the election.

The Justice Department’s case is set to focus on video of Griffin’s movements during the attack, including those filmed by his traveling partner, who is set to testify against him, according to court filings in the case as recently as this weekend.

“At trial, the government expects Matthew Struck’s testimony and videos will provide a precise picture of the defendant’s actions and his intentions,” prosecutors wrote.

Griffin’s legal defense team also has made clear they want to inquire about the location of Pence during the riot and whether Griffin was aware that he had entered a restricted area that day — a line of questioning of a law enforcement witness that could reveal more information about the vice president’s whereabouts than is known a year after the attack, and potentially jeopardize other DOJ prosecutions against Capitol riot participants.

“To mount a meaningful defense Griffin must be allowed to test the veracity of the Government’s contention that Vice President Pence was on the Capitol grounds during the relevant period,” the judge determined in recent days.

The Justice Department has said in court it does not want to reveal “the precise location” where Pence was once he was evacuated from the Senate chamber for security reasons.

Who is Couy Griffin?

An ex-pastor, cowboy Disney performer in Paris and owner of three failed barbecue eateries, Griffin has built a platform touting wild right-wing conspiracy theories — even telling CNN he wasn’t sure whether January 6 rioter Ashli Babbitt and US Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick were really dead — and using extremely inflammatory rhetoric.

In a video posted the day after the Capitol attack, Griffin said “we could have a Second Amendment rally” at the Capitol, and if they did there would “be blood running out of that building.”

“But at the end of the day, you mark my word, we will plant our flag on the desk of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” he added.

A week later, Griffin told his colleagues on the county commission he would go back to DC for Biden’s inauguration with his revolver and rifle. While his threat to return may not be part of the trial Monday, prosecutors plan to show video in court of Griffin speaking at a local officials’ meeting a week after the attack. Griffin was arrested when he returned to DC on January 17.

Griffin says he will ride into DC on a horse before his trial Monday.

“Praying for justice to be served on the hand of the oppressor!” he tweeted Wednesday. His group “Cowboys for Trump” has pulled off similar stunts in the past.

What to expect in the trial

According to court documents, while he did not enter the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Griffin climbed over barriers and a stone wall, eventually making his way to the stage under construction for President Joe Biden’s inauguration — where he stayed for over an hour with his personal videographer, who documented Griffin that day.

Prosecutors are poised to argue that Griffin was part of the large mob that entered a restricted area established by the Secret Service to protect Pence and that he did so knowingly. The prosecution will call three witnesses to testify, including a US Capitol Police inspector, Secret Service agent and Struck, Griffin’s videographer that day who has been granted immunity to testify.

In court filings, Griffin’s attorneys have said they’ll show he did not cross over barriers, did not see any signage telling him the area was restricted and that Griffin believed the certification of the Electoral College vote had “been completed long before he arrived at the Capitol Grounds.”

McFadden, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, will allow Griffin’s attorneys to cross-examine a Secret Service witness on Pence’s whereabouts on January 6. The defense believes the location of Pence is an essential issue in the case because, they say, Pence was not in the Capitol Building at the time Griffin entered the alleged “restricted area.”

Prosecutors have said that the Secret Service witness will not testify as to Pence’s exact location during the riot and that the location doesn’t matter since the “restricted area” includes “an area in which a person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting.”

In the 48 hours before the trial is set to begin, Griffin’s team has also taken issue with video prosecutors now say they want to show the court. Griffin’s team believes video DOJ has assembled in a montage and gave to the defense was revealed too late to them to be used as evidence against him. The dispute over evidence is likely to set the tone for the proceedings Monday morning.

“The last-minute production was the government’s fault alone: it served a trial subpoena on the videographer witness Matt Struck on Wednesday, March 16 — because it neglected to previously ask the witness for the right video files. Now the government is attempting, absurdly, to use the new files as last-minute evidence. Though this misdemeanor case is over a year old, the government is scrambling to put it together the weekend before trial. This is fundamentally prejudicial to Griffin’s due process rights,” Griffin’s lawyers Nicholas Smith and David Smith wrote to the court on Sunday.

This headline and story have been updated with additional developments Monday.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

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Capitol riot federal trial opens for ‘Cowboys for Trump’ founder