- An accused Capitol rioter claimed he “saw stars” after being punched in the face on Jan. 6.
- “It was a blow,” said Thomas Webster, a former New York cop charged with punching an officer.
- Webster’s self-defense allegation drew skeptical questioning from a federal prosecutor.
In the weeks leading up to January 6, 2021, Thomas Webster wondered if he should travel to Washington, DC, for rallies supporting then-President Donald Trump.
For the former New York police officer, who helped with snow removal in retirement, the decision was ultimately made based on the weather. “If it snows, I stay home,” Webster said of his reflection at the start of 2021.
Webster recalled that fateful decision Thursday as he testified in his own defense against federal charges of assaulting a Washington, D.C. police officer amid the chaos of the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. . A former Marine who retired from the NYPD after a 20-year career, Webster claimed he was acting in self-defense when he swung a flag pole at an officer guarding the Capitol before tackling this officer on the ground and grab his gas mask.
Recounting his encounter with the officer, Webster said, “I’m trying to protect myself in a way that doesn’t hurt that officer.”
“I wanted him to see my hands, and I pressed against his gas mask,” he added.
The FBI has arrested nearly 800 suspected participants in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Webster is the fourth alleged member of the pro-Trump mob to stand trial before a jury. In each of the three previous jury trials – including one against a member of the far-right Three Percenters militia and another against a police officer – the Justice Department has obtained convictions on all charges.
But in so-called bench trials — in which a judge hands down a verdict — prosecutors have suffered setbacks. In the first such trial, Judge Trevor McFadden found a New Mexico County Commissioner guilty of trespassing on capitol restricted grounds, but acquitted him of a separate misdemeanor charge. A subsequent bench trial ended with McFadden entering the first outright acquittal in a January 6 case, finding a New Mexico engineer not guilty on four misdemeanor counts.
Webster’s case tests a self-defense argument against charges stemming from the Jan. 6 attack, which injured more than 100 people.
On Thursday, Webster explained that he got into a fight with Officer Noah Rathbun on Jan. 6 only after he was punched in the face.
Rathbun testified the day before that he was trying to create distance with Webster and “incidentally” made contact with his face as he motioned for him to back off. The officer said his hand was open – not clenched into a fist – and he recalled feeling choked by the chin strap of his helmet after Webster tackled him to the ground.
On Thursday, Webster’s self-defense claim drew skeptical questioning from Assistant US Attorney Katherine Nielsen, who showed footage of Webster with an angry expression as he charged at Rathbun.
When asked if there was “fear” on his face, Webster replied, “It’s hard to interpret.”
“That’s anger, isn’t it?” Nielsen asked.
“Yes,” Webster conceded. “I was touched.”
In a February 2021 interview with the FBI, Webster said he was “hit like a freight train” outside the Capitol on January 6. Webster repeated that description in court Thursday and said he “saw stars.”
“It was a blow, and all I wanted to do was defend myself,” Webster said.
“It was one of the hardest hits I’ve had,” he added. “I am not exaggerating.”
Webster said he interpreted a gesture by Rathbun as “obvious provocation” and suspected the officer was a “rogue cop”. Prior to his meeting with Rathbun, Webster said, he was upset by the sight of members of the pro-Trump crowd crying or appearing hurt.
Drawing on his experience as a New York police officer, Webster molded himself into something of a field examiner of security measures on January 6.
He said the bike racks weren’t locked, an alleged oversight he called “unprofessional”. And when he pushed a bike rack into Rathbun, it was to “indicate to him that I could have opened it like a barn door very easily,” Webster said Thursday.
At one point during their meeting, Rathbun grabbed the flagpole and held it in what Webster on Thursday called a “gladiator’s stance.” Webster refused to admit he tackled Rathbun after he punched through the metal bike racks, testifying, “He kind of fell over.”
But, in cross-examination, Nielsen noted that Webster was “on top” of Rathbun when he fell to the ground.
During Nielsen’s interrogation, Webster said he had a “clear conscience” about his fight with Rathbun when he spoke in February 2021 with the FBI. At another point in the day, jurors viewed video taken by another member of the pro-Trump crowd in which Webster looks into the camera and says, “Send in more patriots.”
Webster dismissed the footage on Thursday as an attempt to get his “15 minutes of fame.”
He will return to the witness box on Friday for re-examination of Nielsen.
At the close of Thursday’s proceedings, Judge Amit Mehta expressed frustration with the slow pace of questioning, giving both sides “homework”.
Mehta urged prosecutors to come up with “short and concise” questions that would elicit clear answers.
Of Webster, who resisted giving yes or no answers, Mehta demanded that he “answer the questions put to you.”