A federal judge on Friday squarely placed the blame for the Jan. 6 Capitol attack on Donald Trump, suggesting that the former president’s role in seeding lies about the 2020 election — and the effect it had on his followers — has been an underappreciated part of the entire episode.
Judge Amit Mehta issued his commentary as he delivered a 14-day jail sentence to Jan. 6 rioter John Lolos — a sentence Mehta said he shortened in part to reflect the fact that Lolos was responding to Trump’s call.
“He didn’t purposely come to Washington, D.C., to storm the Capitol,” said Mehta. “The fact remains that he and others were called to Washington, D.C., by an elected official, prompted to walk to the Capitol by an elected official.”
“People like Mr. Lolos were told lies, told falsehoods, told our election was stolen when it clearly was not,” Mehta continued, adding that the defendants were paying for conduct that was largely enabled by Trump and his allies. “We’re here today deciding whether Mr. Lolos should spend 30 days in jail when those who created the conditions that led to Mr. Lolos’ conduct, led to the events of Jan. 6 [haven’t been] held to account for their actions and their word.”
“In a sense, Mr. Lolos, I think you were a pawn,” Mehta continued. “You were a pawn in a game directed and played by people who should know better. I think that mitigates your conduct.”
Mehta’s commentary is among the most notable yet in Capitol riot cases. Aside from the Lolos case, Mehta is also presiding over the conspiracy case against 20 members of the Oath Keepers, charged with planning to stop Congress’ certification of the 2020 election. That case is widely seen as one of the most pivotal of the entire Jan. 6 investigation.
In his remarks on Friday, Mehta said other judges on the federal court in Washington, D.C., hadn’t fully emphasized the fact that many of the participants in the Jan. 6 mob had been fed a relentless diet of lies about the election.
“Once you hear people who should know better tell you that an election was stolen and they say it loudly enough, frequently enough,” he said, “it’s not surprising that people will believe it.”
Mehta’s commentary on Trump comes as the Jan. 6 select committee in the House has worked to home in on the former president’s role in efforts to overturn the election results and sow disinformation about his defeat. The panel has subpoenaed Trump’s top aides and was buoyed last week by the Justice Department’s decision to indict Steve Bannon for contempt of Congress after he defied a committee subpoena.
Although Mehta blamed Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riot, the judge faulted Lolos for refusing to take responsibility for his actions and attempting to justify his conduct repeatedly in remarks at his sentencing hearing. Mehta said he believed the 14-day sentence would be sufficient to deter Lolos from seeking to commit future politically motivated crimes.
Even after the sentence was imposed, Lolos continued making his case, speaking over the judge. Lolos could be heard defending his conduct towards the police on Jan. 6 and saying that videos from the day will vindicate him.
Eventually, Lolos’ own attorney, Edward McMahon, urged him to stop.
“Mr. Lolos, the hearing is over,” MacMahon said just before reporters were disconnected from the audio line.
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.