Almost from the moment a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, conspiracy theories bounced from the fringes of the internet to the corridors of Congress. Republican officials and others on the right dismissed the attack as the work of mere tourists, or sought to portray it as a false flag operation by shadowy leftist groups — or even the federal government.
Those baseless claims seeped into dozens of criminal cases stemming from the riot, and for more than two years the government had to fight them back.
On Thursday, prosecutors may face their stiffest challenge yet when Alan Hostetter, a former police chief turned yoga teacher from Southern California, goes on trial in Federal District Court in Washington. Few people connected to the Jan. 6 attack have embraced conspiracy theories about the attack as fully as Mr. Hostetter, who plans to put them at the heart of his defense.
Acting as his own lawyer, Mr. Hostetter said he intends to fight charges of conspiracy and obstruction based on what he calls “three fundamental pillars”: that the 2020 election was stolen by President Donald J. Trump; that he and other rioters had no desire to disrupt the challenges to the vote results that took place inside the Capitol on January 6; and that, therefore, the attack on the building must have been staged by “federal law enforcement and secret services.”
To prove all this, Mr. Hostetter initially told the judge who will hear his trial that he wanted to call as many as 30 witnesses as part of his defense.
Among those on his list were former speaker Nancy Pelosi and her daughter; Jacob Chansley, a fellow rioter better known as the QAnon Shaman; a New York Times reporter who wrote an article about his wife; and the general manager of the Kimpton George Hotel near the Capitol, where Mr. Hostetter was staying on January 6 and which, as one of his motions said, was probably the place the “feds” used to surveil him .
While Mr. Hostetter eventually backed down from his request, the trial is likely to draw together many of the disparate strands of conspiracy theories that have stubbornly taken root on the right in the two and a half years since the Capitol was attacked.
Prosecutors have warned for weeks that the proceedings could turn into chaos.
“The defendant’s goal with this lawsuit — rather than a true engagement with the elements or the evidence — is to create a circus atmosphere and promote his own brand,” they wrote last month to Royce C. Lamberth, the presiding judge.
The vast majority of the more than 60 Capitol riot cases that have gone to trial in Washington so far have fallen into one of two buckets. They were either short and simple assault or trespassing cases, or longer and heavier conspiracy cases involving complex charges such as sedition against members of extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers militia.
From time to time, the trials have veered from this normal course, as defendants have taken the stand to offer unusual — and generally unsuccessful — arguments such as blaming Mr. Trump for his decision to storm the Capitol. But while some of the tests were sometimes dramatic, most were relatively uneventful and largely problem-free.
A leader of a group called the American Phoenix Project, which was founded to fight the “based tyranny” of coronavirus-related restrictions, Mr. Hostetter was accused of conspiring with several members of the Three Percenters militia movement to storm the Capitol and stop the certification of Mr. Trump’s defeat.
Shortly after the election, prosecutors said, Mr. Hostetter and another leader of the American Phoenix Project, Russell Taylor, began using the group “to advocate violence” against people who “supported the 2020 election results.” In late November, for example, Mr. Hostetter posted a video on the group’s YouTube channel accusing those who did not challenge the findings of treason.
“Some people at the highest level,” he said, “need to make an example of an execution or three.”
Prosecutors say Mr. Hostetter and Mr. Taylor communicated with their Three Percenter co-defendants mostly through a Telegram group chat called “California Patriots-DC Brigade.” Mr. Taylor once described the channel as being for “able-bodied individuals who are going to DC on January 6th” and are “ready and willing to fight.”
Mr. Hostetter went to Washington on Jan. 3, 2021, prosecutors said, checking into a room at the Kimpton George. Three days later, carrying an ax in a backpack, he accompanied Mr Taylor – who also had an ax as well as a knife and a stun baton – into a restricted area on the Capitol grounds.
In April, nodding to the unusual nature of Mr. Hostetter’s proposed defense, Judge Lamberth severed his case from the four co-defendants who were accused of Three Percent and conspiring to disrupt the certification of the election on January 6. by that time, Mr. Taylor had already pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and under a deal with the government had agreed to serve as a witness and testify against Mr. Hostetter at trial.
Prosecutors said they intend to bolster their case with testimony from FBI agents who conducted the investigation and police officers who witnessed the violence at the Capitol. But this standard presentation could be overturned if Mr. Hostetter tries to address the more outrageous parts of his defense.
Last month, for example, during a routine pretrial hearing, he went on a tirade, accusing the government of prosecuting Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, on sedition charges to disguise the fact that Mr. Rhodes was working. with the authorities on January 6.
Judge Lamberth cut him short and dismissed his baseless claims.
“You have no facts to support your allegations,” he said.