Capitol riot defendant: I was following Trump’s instructions

Apr 13, 2022, 4:07 PM | Updated: Apr 14, 2022, 7:26 am
FILE - Violent insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump storm the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021, in...

FILE - Violent insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump storm the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. An Ohio man charged with stealing a coat rack from the U.S. Capitol doesn't deny that he joined the mob that stormed the building last year. But a lawyer for Capitol riot defendant Dustin Thompson vows to show that former President Donald Trump abused his power to authorize the attack on Jan. 6. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

An Ohio man charged with storming the U.S. Capitol and stealing a coat rack testified Wednesday that he joined thousands of protesters in ransacking the building last year on what he thought were orders from the president, Donald Trump.

Dustin Byron Thompson, 38, of Columbus, Ohio, said he took to websites after being laid off from his exterminator job in March 2020 and in his pandemic doldrums fell under Trump’s sway as he bought into conspiracy theories and “went down the rabbit hole on the internet.”

On trial in U.S. District Court in Washington, Thompson testified that the claim that the election was stolen seemed credible to him because it was coming from the president. His defense team is the first to argue that Trump and those connected to him were responsible for the actions of the mob that day.

“It seems like everyone was attacking him (Trump). He needed someone to stand up for him, and I was trying to do that,” Thompson said.

Under questioning by the prosecution, Thompson acknowledged that he ignored signs he shouldn’t be at the Capitol — broken glass, alarms, chemical irritants in the air — and said he stole the coat rack to keep others from using it as a weapon. He also said he witnessed fierce fighting between police and rioters outside the building, and later ran away from officers. He said he realized weeks later that what he had done was wrong and now feels shame for his actions.

Thompson’s jury trial is the third among hundreds of Capitol riot prosecutions. The first two ended with jurors convicting both defendants on all counts. Thompson’s defense team is the first to argue that Trump and those connected to him were responsible for the actions of the mob that day.

“If the president is giving you almost an order to do something, I felt obligated to do that,” Thompson testified.

Thompson’s lawyer sought subpoenas to call Trump and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as witnesses, but U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton rejected that request. Jurors on Wednesday began listening to recordings of speeches that Trump and Giuliani delivered at a rally before the riot. They were expected to finish listening to recordings Thursday morning and begin deliberations later in the day.

Thompson’s wife, Sarah Thompson, testified that she voted for Democrat Joe Biden, as well as Democratic presidential nominees Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. She said her husband’s views were more moderate then but shifted during the Trump years as he started encountering conspiracy theories. She said she did not share his views but helped arrange his travel to Washington for the “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House because he had a right to protest and she enjoyed having a quiet house.

Much of the prosecution’s case was built around testimony from several Capitol Police officers placing Thompson at the scene, wearing a bulletproof vest that he said he found, and carrying a coat rack he took from the Senate Parliamentarian’s Office.

More than 770 people have been charged with federal crimes arising from the Jan. 6, 2021, riot. Over 250 of them have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanors. Thompson is the fifth person to be tried on riot-related charges.

On Monday, a jury convicted a former Virginia police officer, Thomas Robertson, of storming the Capitol with another off-duty officer to obstruct Congress from certifying Biden’s 2020 electoral victory. Last month, a jury convicted a Texas man, Guy Reffitt, of storming the Capitol with a holstered handgun.

A judge hearing testimony without a jury decided cases against two other Capitol riot defendants at separate bench trials. U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden acquitted one of them of all charges and partially acquitted the other.

Thompson is charged with six counts: obstructing Congress’ joint session to certify the Electoral College vote, theft of government property, entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly or disruptive conduct in a Capitol building, and parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building.

A co-defendant, Robert Lyon, 27, pleaded guilty in March to theft of government property and disorderly conduct. Both counts are misdemeanors punishable by a maximum of one year imprisonment. Walton is scheduled to sentence Lyon on June 3.

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Capitol riot defendant: I was following Trump’s instructions