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A new book's behind-the-scenes look at Congress' Jan. 6 Capitol riot investigation

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2017 file photo Republican candidate for Virginia Governor, Denver Riggleman pauses during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Riggleman announced Thursday, March 16 that he had no choice but to stop campaigning because of "resource shortages" and other considerations. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2017 file photo Republican candidate for Virginia Governor, Denver Riggleman pauses during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Riggleman announced Thursday, March 16 that he had no choice but to stop campaigning because of "resource shortages" and other considerations. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
https://ondemand.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/atc/2022/10/20221004_atc_a_new_books_behind-the-scenes_look_at_congress_jan_6_capitol_riot_investigation.mp3?orgId=1&topicId=1150&d=362&p=2&story=1126770030&ft=nprml&f=1001

Denver Riggleman served eight months as a senior technical adviser for the congressional select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In a new book, titled "The Breach," Riggleman delves into a few key parts of the committee's investigation, including an examination of a trove of text messages sent and received by former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in the lead-up to the Capitol riot. The book also revealed for the first time that during the Capitol breach, someone at the Trump White House made a call to a rioter who had entered the building.

Riggleman took a somewhat unusual path to the committee. After serving in the United States Air Force and working as a contractor for the National Security Agency, he ran for - and won - a seat in Congress representing a district in Virginia in 2018.

At the time, Riggleman was a Republican. He describes himself as "a full-blooded redneck." Former president Trump actually endorsed him - twice - and Riggleman joined the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Despite Trump's endorsement, Riggleman lost a primary to a more hard-right Republican, and Riggleman became more outspoken about the former president's embrace of extremism and amplification of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. After the Nov. 2020 election, Riggleman was one of the few Republican elected officials to quickly acknowledge Joe Biden's victory.

When Congress eventually launched its investigation into the Jan. 6 attack, Riggleman raised his hand and joined the committee, where he found himself examining some of his former colleagues who tried to overturn the election. He ultimately left the investigation in April 2022, before the committee began holding public hearings. Some members of the committee have expressed frustrationwith Riggleman's decision to write a book, especially before the final hearing has taken place.

In an interview with NPR, Riggleman discussed his work on the investigation, his experience as a member of congress, and whether the committee should submit a criminal referral to the Department of Justice.

Here are four takeaways from that conversation:

The significance of the White House call to a Jan. 6 rioter remains unclear

"The Breach" revealed for the first time that congressional investigators discovered at 4:34 pm on Jan. 6, 2021, someone used a White House phone to call a man who had participated in the rioting.

"The call was outgoing to an individual rioter as the violence played out," Riggleman writes.

The identity of the person who made the call remains unknown.

However, multiple newsoutlets have identified the recipient of the call as a low-level Capitol riot defendant, who pleaded guilty to a non-violent misdemeanor. According to court documents, he had already left the building by the time of that phone call.

The call lasted nine seconds, and the content is also unknown.

Since this detail was made public, some members of the Jan. 6 Select Committee have appeared to downplay its significance.

"That's one of thousands of details that obviously the committee is aware of," said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) on NBC's Meet the Press. "And so, you know, to me, it's interesting, but much less interesting than the fact that Donald Trump told the crowd in public, 'You've got to fight like hell. And if you don't, you're not going to have a country anymore.'"

Still, Riggleman told NPR that the mere existence of the call demands further investigation.

"Nine seconds is an eternity to a counterterrorism analyst," Riggleman said. "The fact that the call came from inside the White House at a desk, was routed through the switchboard or defaulted to that number and went out to a rioter, is something that's extremely important."

Political pressure is driving some elected Republicans further right

During his short-lived political career, Riggleman vocally supported Trump and joined the House Freedom Caucus not out of principle, he says, but out of political expediency.

"There's some things that you do that you think you have to [do to] win," he said. "I had a consultant who was correct. He said, 'hey, Denver, you gotta be a little bit crazy if you're gonna beat the crazier people on the right.'"

He said a similar dynamic may have played a role in the thought process for some House Republicans, who supported Trump's lies about the election.

"I know there's a few that absolutely didn't believe the election was stolen, but there was no way they could go against the grain," Riggleman said.

In Riggleman's case, conservatives in his district turned on his campaign in 2020, in part because he officiated a same-sex wedding for his campaign volunteers. That contributed to his loss of a primary contest against an ever more conservative opponent.

"Being a politician - I wasn't as talented as I thought I was gonna be at it," Riggleman told NPR.

He says he now regrets his support for Trump, and in 2020, he did not vote for the then-president.

"I might have been one of the first Republicans that was a sitting member to see that Trump was retweeting some pretty crazy QAnon-based sort of troll-farm conspiracies and some things that were very dangerous, even things that were calling for violence," he said. "So no, I did not vote for him."

Instead, Riggleman said he decided to write in himself for president.

Riggleman believes there are grounds to investigate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows provided a large number of text messages to congressional investigators, which Riggleman describes as "the crown jewels" for the committee's work.

"What we found in the texts was a road map to an insurrection fueled by apocalyptic propaganda," Riggleman writes in the book. "It was a toxic stew of old-school zealotry and internet authoritarianism."

Among the trove of messages were texts sent by Ginni Thomas, a longtime conservative activist and spouse of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In those texts, Thomas expressed the view that the 2020 election was stolen, and appeared to brainstorm legal and congressional strategies to overturning the result.

Shortly after the Nov. 2020 election, Thomas wrote a message to Meadows that bore some similarities to rhetoric spread by adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory:

"Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition."

"The first time I saw the Ginni Thomas texts, I called it a 'bourbon text,'" Riggleman said. "You have to take a shot of bourbon to get through it."

Ginni Thomas testified to the Jan. 6 committee last week, and denied ever discussing her post-election activities with her husband.

In a statement, her lawyer, Mark Paoletta, said, "Mrs. Thomas had significant concerns about fraud and irregularities in the 2020 election. And, as she told the committee, her minimal and mainstream activity focused on ensuring that reports of fraud and irregularities were investigated. Beyond that, she played no role in any events after the 2020 election results."

Riggleman expressed skepticism that Ginni and Clarence Thomas maintained such a strict firewall when it came to discussions of the election.

"It's possible that Clarence Thomas didn't know about Ginni Thomas' activities not just around Jan. 6 and the election but through the years as a Republican activist," he said. "But I don't know if it's probable."

Riggleman said Congress would be justified in taking the extraordinary step of seeking information from Justice Thomas himself, though he said it was unlikely given that the committee is currently wrapping up its work.

"I think it would've been appropriate to talk to Justice Thomas," he said. "I think Ginni [Thomas] coming in is a heck of a great step by the Committee. But I do believe, at some point, the American public is going to have to come to their own conclusions about that."

Should the Jan. 6 committee issue a criminal referral to the Justice Department?

Political and legal commentators - as well as members of the Jan. 6 committee themselves - have debated whether Congress should make a criminal referral to the Department of Justice at the close of their investigation.

The decision on whether to charge former President Trump or any other target of the investigation would still remain with the Justice Department, but a referral could potentially add political pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Riggleman told NPR he opposed sending a referral.

"Let the DOJ make that decision," he said. "Instead of getting caught up in the politics of referrals, just present the best case you can to the American public."

"They've already proven that based on conspiracy theories, based on coordination, that based on really a president that decided to really cavort with the craziest in the far-right base...all that suggests that you had a president that was unfit for office," Riggleman said. "Because even with criminal referrals, it's gonna be up to the voters if they want to support that kind of nonsense."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A new book is providing some behind-the-scenes details about the congressional committee that's investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Denver Riggleman served as an adviser to the committee for eight months. He talked to NPR's Tom Dreisbach about his time working on that investigation and the revelations in his book, "The Breach."

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Denver Riggleman is not exactly a typical congressional staffer. After serving in the Air Force and working as a contractor for the National Security Agency, he actually got elected to Congress himself in 2018, and Donald Trump endorsed him. As a freshman Republican, Riggleman even joined the House Freedom Caucus alongside congressmen who would later try to overturn the 2020 election. Riggleman now says that his support for Trump and the Freedom Caucus was less about principle than winning election, and that is something he regrets.

DENVER RIGGLEMAN: Oh, of course. You know, there's some things that you do that you think you have to win. And I did. I had a consultant who was correct. You know, he said, hey, Denver, you got to be a little bit crazy if you're going to beat the crazier people on the right. I would say, being a politician, I wasn't as talented as I thought I was going to be at it. How about that?

DREISBACH: In the summer of 2020, Riggleman lost a primary to a more hard-right Republican. Heading into the election, he criticized Trump and his embrace of extremism.

RIGGLEMAN: I might have been one of the first Republicans that was a sitting member to see that President Trump was retweeting some pretty crazy QAnon-based sort of troll farm conspiracies - even things that were calling for violence. So no, I did not vote for him.

DREISBACH: Who did you vote for?

RIGGLEMAN: Actually, Denver Riggleman got a vote for president then, so...

DREISBACH: Oh, you voted for yourself.

RIGGLEMAN: I did. I did.

DREISBACH: When the January 6 committee started, Riggleman joined the staff as a senior technical adviser. In his book, Riggleman reveals a new detail. Someone at the White House actually placed a call during the riot to someone who breached the Capitol. There are still some mysteries about that call. It lasted just nine seconds, and we don't know what was said or who at the White House made the call. The writer that received the call is not high profile. He pleaded guilty to a nonviolent misdemeanor for spending about 10 minutes inside the building, and the call took place after he left. Still, Riggleman says, that call is a crucial clue.

RIGGLEMAN: Well, nine seconds is an eternity to a counterterrorism analyst. And the fact that the call came from inside the White House, at a desk, was routed through the switchboard or defaulted to that number and went to a writer - it's something that's extremely important.

DREISBACH: Since Riggleman book came out, members of the committee have kind of downplayed the significance of that call. Here's Congressman Jamie Raskin on NBC's "Meet the Press."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

JAMIE RASKIN: That's one of thousands of details that, obviously, the committee is aware of. And to me, it's interesting, but much less interesting than the fact that Donald Trump told the crowd in public, you got to fight like hell. And if you don't, you're not going to have a country anymore.

DREISBACH: As part of his work, Riggleman examined the text messages from former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows' phone, especially messages sent by Ginni Thomas. She's a longtime conservative activist and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In her messages to Meadows leading up to January 6, Ginni Thomas brainstormed congressional and legal strategies to overturn the election.

RIGGLEMAN: You know, I called today - you know, the first time I saw Ginni Thomas' text, I called it a bourbon text. You have to take a shot of bourbon to get through it.

DREISBACH: Why is that?

RIGGLEMAN: It's just so crazy. You know, you need a drink.

DREISBACH: In one of those texts, Ginni Thomas shared a QAnon-esque conspiracy theory that the, quote, "Biden crime family was being arrested for ballot fraud and sent to Guantanamo Bay." Last week, Ginni Thomas testified to the committee and denied ever discussing politics with her husband. Those messages pose a challenge for the January 6 committee. Should they take the extraordinary step of investigating a sitting Supreme Court justice? Riggleman says yes.

RIGGLEMAN: I mean, it's possible that Clarence Thomas didn't know about Ginni Thomas' activities, not just, you know, around January 6 and the election, but through the years as a Republican activist, but I don't know if it's probable. It does call into question, you know, if there were any conflicts.

DREISBACH: Do you think the committee would actually take a step to investigate Justice Thomas?

RIGGLEMAN: It's been 14 months, 15 months since it started. I don't think they're going to go there. I think this is a long process with thousands of witnesses. A committee is wrapping up, so I don't think they're going to get to that.

DREISBACH: Do you think that's a mistake?

RIGGLEMAN: You know, the way it's going with the evidence that they have that I might not have seen, I'm just not sure. With what I've seen, I think it would have been appropriate to talk to Justice Thomas. I think Ginni coming in is a heck of a great step by the committee. But I do believe, you know, at some point, the American public is going to have to come to their own conclusions about that.

DREISBACH: As the committee starts wrapping up its work, I asked Riggleman about another big question they'll have to decide.

There's been some debate about whether the committee should ultimately make a criminal referral to the Department of Justice, possibly for Trump himself or for other people. What do you think the committee should do?

RIGGLEMAN: I don't think they should.

DREISBACH: Really? Why is that?

RIGGLEMAN: Yeah, I don't. And I think, with the evidence that they have - if they're sharing evidence with the DOJ, let the DOJ make that decision. What I would do, instead of getting caught up in the politics and referrals, just present the best case you can to the American public that, regardless of criminal charges, we can't have the lunatics running the asylum. They've already proven that, based on conspiracy theories, based on coordination, based on, really, a president that decided to really cavort with the craziest in the far-right base - all of that suggests that you have a president that was unfit for office. 'Cause, even with criminal referrals, it's going to be up to the voters if they want to continue to support that kind of nonsense.

DREISBACH: Riggleman's decision to publish "The Breach" did not sit well with members of the January 6 committee. A committee spokesperson said he has limited knowledge of the entire investigation, and they've suggested that Riggleman may have violated an agreement to keep details of the investigation confidential. Riggleman denies that. He says the information the committee has uncovered ultimately belongs to the public.

Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.

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