A judge unleashed a tirade on a prominent Jan. 6 defendant for his post-plea comments
A federal judge reprimanded a prominent pro-Trump social media personality and Jan. 6 Capitol riot defendant for making "questionable" comments in the media about his plea agreement and cooperation with law enforcement. Those comments, U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich said, were "inconsistent" with what he previously told the court.
"He's losing more and more credibility by the moment," Friedrich said at the hearing, which was held via teleconference.
Judge Friedrich said the defendant, Brandon Straka, was possibly opening himself up to prosecution for lying to federal investigators.
"What he needs to appreciate is he is potentially incriminating himself for [18 U.S. Code Section] 1001 prosecution," said Friedrich, referring to the criminal law against making "materially false" statements to the federal government.
Straka, the founder of the conservative "#WalkAway" campaign, did not attend Wednesday's hearing and was represented by his attorney. By this point, his case has largely been resolved.
Back in Sept. 2021, he agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of Engaging in Disorderly and Disruptive Conduct in the Capitol Building or Grounds. At sentencing, he avoided jail time, and instead received 90 days of home confinement and three years' probation.
Wednesday's hearing was ostensibly focused on an apparent mistake made by the court, in which a clerk accidentally unsealed sensitive records detailing Straka's cooperation with federal investigators. A coalition of media organizations, which includes NPR, had asked the court to unseal documents in the case. The court inadvertently made more available than the judge had intended.
The records described how Straka provided "significant information" about pro-Trump "Stop The Steal" organizers including Ali Alexander, Amy and Kylie Kremer, and Cindy Chafian. Prosecutors said Straka provided investigators with a voicemail he had received from another Jan. 6 defendant, and that evidence was "valuable in the government's prosecution." In another instance, the records say Straka helped identify yet another potential suspect who "was not previously identified by the FBI."
Straka publicly reacted to the release of the records - which were first reported by Washington, D.C.-based TV station WUSA9 - by appearing to minimize how much he cooperated with the government.
"To me, making the choice to sit down and answer questions was a no-brainer - nobody I know committed any crimes and I have no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing from anybody," Straka wrote in an open letter he posted online. "There is NOTHING WRONG with talking to the DOJ and telling them your friends are innocent."
He claimed that, "Nobody that I answered questions about was arrested. As far as I know, none were visited."
Judge Friedrich was apologetic for the mistaken release of the sealed records, which she chalked up to "human error." She acknowledged that the release was especially concerning, because records of cooperation with the government can put law enforcement sources in danger.
But Friedrich, who was nominated to the federal bench by former President Trump, grew audibly frustrated when she turned to Straka's recent public comments about both his cooperation and his plea deal.
"To the extent he's making claims that are inconsistent with what he said to federal agents, he needs to understand that this definitely is not in his best interest," Friedrich told Straka's attorney, Bilal Essayli.
At sentencing, Friedrich had given Straka credit for his cooperation with law enforcement.
"Though I do view Mr. Straka's criminal conduct as very serious," Friedrich said back in January, "it's been mitigated somewhat by his early plea and by his willingness to assist the government by providing complete and truthful information."
Among both judges and prosecutors, Friedrich is not alone in her frustration when it comes to certain post-plea commentary in the Capitol riot cases. One judge said he felt burned after a Jan. 6 defendant went on Fox News not long after sentencing and seemed to downplay her actions. This summer, prosecutors notified the court after another riot defendant went on a podcast and "made several statements inconsistent with the contrition that the government credited and on which the Court relied" at sentencing.
Friedrich also rebuked Straka for his recent public comments, where his story about what he did on Jan. 6 seemed to differ from what he previously told the court under oath.
Straka moved with the crowd to the steps of the Capitol building during the Jan. 6 riot and was filming on his smartphone. According to a statement of offense Straka signed and agreed to as part of his plea, he yelled "go, go, go" as members of the mob tried to enter the building, and said "take it, take it," after rioters grabbed a shield from a police officer. Straka never entered the Capitol building, and left shortly afterwards.
That evening, as officers were trying to clear the Capitol building, Straka tweeted "Patriots at the Capitol – HOLD. THE. LINE!!!!" He later said that he did not understand the full extent of the violence when he tweeted that comment.
At his sentencing hearing, Straka said he was "deeply sorry and shameful for being present at an event that sent members of Congress running in fear to evacuate a building."
He also expressed remorse for the incident involving the shield.
"I want to apologize to all members of the Capitol Police whose safety was put in danger by the unruly mob, in particular the police officer whose shield can be seen in my video being grabbed by members of the crowd," Straka told the court.
Since then, however, Straka has been active on social media and making the rounds in conservative media. And, in Judge Friedrich's view, he has made "questionable comments regarding the truth of his plea."
It was unclear what specific comments Friedrich was referring to, but in multiple interviews, Straka has appeared to cast doubt about the "statement of offense" he signed - particularly the section where he admitted saying "take it, take it" on video as rioters grabbed a police officer's shield.
"I vehemently denied that was my voice, to my attorney. I was in shock when I was accused of that," Straka told Fox News host Tucker Carlson. He said he was under intense pressure to sign a plea deal including that allegation in order to resolve the case. "I have now confessed to doing those things," he said.
Straka said that people should watch the video of the incident with headphones on, "Because when I speak on the video, it always comes through the left channel. And the other voices which were attributed to me - well, just decide for yourselves if you feel like that sounds the same."
At Wednesday's hearing, Judge Friedrich said Straka's public comments make "me question every statement he made to me at the time of sentencing - every single one of them."
"I'm wondering: should I be anticipating a motion to withdraw his plea?" Friedrich asked Straka's attorney. "Because I want you to know I would gladly hold an evidentiary hearing to address his claims. Is that something that I should be expecting?"
"No, your honor," Essayli replied.
Essayli explained that Straka "is more of a public figure. He faces a lot of reporting - a lot of it he views as false reporting or misleading reporting, and it is difficult for him not to respond or be emotional."
Friedrich was unpersuaded by that line of argument.
"I suggest that you tell him to exercise some discretion that he didn't show before Jan. 6, during Jan. 6, and apparently after Jan. 6," Friedrich said. "And also inform him that I will be asking probation for periodic status reports about his performance on supervision."
She added, "I expect that what I hear from these reports to be different in nature than what has been brought to my attention in recent days."
Essayli said he would pass the message on to his client. Essayli did not respond to NPR's request for comment.
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