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Alleged 'Nazi sympathizer' testifies in his own defense in Capitol riot trial

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The latest trial stemming from the violent January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is underway in Washington, D.C. The defendant is a man named Timothy Hale-Cusanelli. He's a former Army reservist who worked as a security guard at a Navy base. Prosecutors say he's also a Nazi sympathizer who fantasized about a second Civil War. Today, he testified in his own defense.

And NPR's Tom Dreisbach joins us now from the courthouse. Hey, Tom.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what exactly is Hale-Cusanelli accused of doing on January 6?

DREISBACH: Well, both the prosecution and defense in this case say that Hale-Cusanelli went from his job at that naval weapon station in New Jersey, drove down to Washington, D.C., after he worked the night shift. And he went inside the Capitol in one of the first waves of rioters to breach the building. You can see him on video walking around the Capitol for about 40 minutes, waving a flag at one point, waving at other rioters to join him inside the building. Now, he's not accused of assaulting police or damaging property in the Capitol building, but he has conceded, I should not have been there.

So the most serious charge, though, he's facing is that he intentionally stormed the Capitol in order to disrupt the Electoral College count that was happening in Congress that day. The defense says he did not have that goal. They say he got caught up in groupthink.

CHANG: Groupthink - OK. Well, how did prosecutors try to make their case?

DREISBACH: Well, prosecutors have cited a lot of evidence that Hale-Cusanelli has extreme views. We saw text messages where he used slurs against gay people, Jewish people, Black people, including the N-word several times. He said those things in the context sometimes of his belief that Joe Biden was controlled by, quote, "Jewish interests" and that Biden stole the 2020 election. We also saw a video where he yelled at Capitol Police that the revolution will be televised.

Now, a key piece of testimony was from Hale-Cusanelli's former roommate and friend at the base. He's a Navy medic, a Black man, and he testified under a pseudonym because the government said he now feared for his safety. After January 6, investigators got this roommate to wear a wire and ask Hale-Cusanelli about what he did on January 6. And in that taped conversation, Hale-Cusanelli said no one had a plan to storm the Capitol, but he was enthusiastic about what he had done. He talked about his belief that a civil war was coming, about how it would give the country a clean slate. And prosecutors portrayed that as evidence that Hale-Cusanelli wanted to overthrow the government, essentially.

CHANG: OK. Well, let's go to the defense. As we mentioned, Hale-Cusanelli testified in his own defense. What exactly did he say about all this?

DREISBACH: Well, he acknowledged that he has said horrific things, and he said he did that to get attention and to shock people and that he constantly exaggerated. He described himself as a, quote, "nihilistic millennial." Now, I've actually been following this case for more than a year. And today, for the first time in court, he said on the stand that he was actually half-Jewish and half-Puerto Rican, and his slurs were sometimes self-deprecating to get attention. Though, I should say that prosecutors wanted to introduce more evidence about his alleged white supremacist ideology, his statements, the judge would not allow it in this case.

In any case, he watched the Trump speech and went to the Capitol because Trump said that's where people were headed. Hale-Cusanelli said it was wrong to enter the building. He recognized that. But he said he did not intend to disrupt Congress because he claimed he did not know that Congress met at the Capitol building.

CHANG: How did that argument go over?

DREISBACH: Well, he acknowledged that it sounded, quote, "idiotic" and that it was embarrassing to admit. His own lawyer said Hale-Cusanelli was not especially complicated in his thoughts. And even though he was 30 years old, his lawyer said he acted like, quote, "a child having a temper tantrum."

Prosecutors really pushed back on it. They said this idea defied common sense. This man studied American history in college. He texted friends about the Electoral College counting process. In any case, the jury will have to decide which story sounds more credible. The case goes to them tomorrow.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Dreisbach at the federal district courthouse in Washington, D.C. Thank you, Tom.

DREISBACH: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.