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Seeking Link to Trump, Prosecutors Questioned Proud Boys Leader

Last October, a few months before he went to trial on sedition charges linked to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the Proud Boys, got an invitation: The federal prosecutors in charge of his case asked him and his lawyers to sit down for a meeting.

During that meeting, Mr. Tarrio recounted on Friday in a phone interview from jail, the prosecutors told him that they believed he had communicated in the run-up to the riot with President Donald J. Trump through at least three intermediaries.

The prosecutors, Mr. Tarrio said, offered him leniency if he could corroborate their theory.

Mr. Tarrio said he told them they were wrong. And the discussion with prosecutors — which took place in Miami, Mr. Tarrio’s hometown — apparently went nowhere. Mr. Tarrio was later convicted of seditious conspiracy in federal court in Washington and was sentenced on Tuesday to 22 years in prison.

But his account of his interaction with the Justice Department suggests that prosecutors took extraordinary steps in seeking out evidence of ties between Mr. Trump and the Proud Boys, the far-right group that was instrumental to the violence that erupted at the Capitol. To have approached Mr. Tarrio soon before his trial in search of information that could implicate the former president shows the government’s interest in connections between Mr. Trump and the extremists at the center of the riot.

People storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Mr. Tarrio said that prosecutors had told him they believed he had communicated in the run-up to the riot with President Donald J. Trump through at least three intermediaries.Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times

It remains unclear what evidence, if any, the government had to support its contention that Mr. Trump had communicated, even indirectly, with Mr. Tarrio in the weeks leading up to the Capitol attack — or if prosecutors were simply fishing for information.

None of the charges that Mr. Trump now faces in two indictments stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 election accuse him of encouraging or instigating the physical attack on the Capitol.

Neither a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, which prosecuted the Proud Boys case, nor a spokesman for the special counsel, Jack Smith, who is overseeing Mr. Trump’s election interference case, responded to messages seeking comment.

Mr. Tarrio offered his account of the meeting during a 30-minute interview from the Washington jail where he is being held pending transfer to a federal prison. His sentence of 22 years for seditious conspiracy and other charges stemming from the Capitol attack was the most severe penalty to have been imposed so far on any of the more than 1,150 people charged in connection with the riot.

During the interview, Mr. Tarrio declined to identify any of the three people prosecutors said they believed he had used as intermediaries to speak with Mr. Trump. But he specifically denied that one of them was Roger J. Stone Jr., an associate who is also a longtime political adviser to Mr. Trump.

Jack Smith, the special counsel, did not respond to a request for comment on Mr. Tarrio’s account. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Prosecutors have asked questions about Mr. Stone in grand jury interviews with witnesses and have examined ties between the Proud Boys who went to trial on sedition charges and other members of the group who are linked with Mr. Stone.

Before his arrest, Mr. Tarrio, who took control of the Proud Boys in 2018, was a gadfly in right-wing circles and had a wide acquaintance with people in Mr. Trump’s inner and outer orbits.

He has been involved in political rallies and other events with Bianca Gracia, the founder of a group called Latinos for Trump, and with Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who runs the website Infowars. He has also been photographed with prominent Republicans like Mr. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

During the sedition trial, prosecutors introduced a text message that Mr. Tarrio wrote in November 2020 suggesting that he had coordinated some rallies the Proud Boys were involved in with Mr. Trump’s campaign.

“The campaign asked us to not wear colors to these events,” Mr. Tarrio wrote, referring to the Proud Boys’ traditional black-and-yellow outfits. “Keep identifying colors to a minimum.”

The meeting in Miami took place around the same time that prosecutors formally extended plea deals to Mr. Tarrio and his four co-defendants: Joseph Biggs, Ethan Nordean, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola. Under the government’s offer, Mr. Tarrio could have received a lighter sentence of nine to 11½ years in prison, according to a copy of the plea deals released by lawyers in the case this week.

During his interview from jail, Mr. Tarrio declined to comment on the plea offer and whether he regretted not taking it. He also proclaimed that he was innocent of the charges in the case and that his sentence was excessive.

“I get that people hate my guts,” he said. “But this is not how the American system of justice is supposed to work.”

As he did in court on Tuesday, Mr. Tarrio denounced the violence at the Capitol, saying that he did not fully understand the “gravity” of what happened there on Jan. 6 until well after the attack had ended. He was in Baltimore that day, having been kicked out of Washington two days earlier by a local judge presiding over a separate criminal matter.

As for the meeting with prosecutors, he said it felt to him like a “shakedown” designed to get him to implicate Mr. Trump. And he was insistent that he had no connections to the former president, who would have the power, if re-elected, to pardon him or commute his sentence.

“There is absolutely no connection between me and President Trump,” Mr. Tarrio said.

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