Federal Judge Ominously Warns That Trump Won’t Accept Defeat In 2024

During a sentencing hearing for a Jan. 6 defendant, Judge Reggie Walton said that at least former Vice President Al Gore was “a man about it” in 2000.
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A federal judge on Thursday said the United States was “in trouble” if Americans don’t accept the results of legitimate elections, as was the case with Donald Trump and many of his supporters following the 2020 election.

Separately, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said he was sure “there won’t be an acceptance of a defeat” if Trump loses again in 2024.

Speaking during a sentencing hearing for a Capitol attack defendant who’d previously pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer and civil disorder, Walton also said that unlike Trump, former Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore “was a man about it” when he conceded the contested 2000 election.

Gore, then the incumbent vice president, conceded the 2000 election to George W. Bush after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Bush camp’s favor, ending a recount of the vote in Florida.

Walton sentenced Jacob Zerkle, an Arizona pistachio farmer, to 24 months in prison for the two felonies to which Zerkle previously agreed to plead guilty: assaulting, resisting, or impeding certain officers, as well as civil disorder. Zerkle and prosecutors reached a plea agreement in October. In addition to the prison time, Zerkle will pay a $2,000 restitution to the architect of the Capitol and serve supervised release and community service following his imprisonment.

Zerkle shoved police officers, called them “traitors,” and separately chanted “hang ‘em high!” during Trump supporters’ attack on the Capitol. He was not accused of entering the building, but assistant U.S. attorney Joseph Hutton Marshall referred to him as a “consequential member of the mob” in court Thursday, disputing the defense’s argument that Zerkle came into contact with police during an attempt to aid his brother, who was not charged, though he was in the crowd with Zerkle.

Addressing the court, Zerkle apologized for his language and actions on Jan. 6. Pressed by Walton on the reasons for his actions, Zerkle said “I guess you had to be there.” Jan. 6 was the first protest he’d ever attended, he said, adding that he found himself repeating the chants he heard in the crowd around him and that he got “caught up in the moment.” He called his actions a “horrible mistake.”

“I don’t think I’m very good at protesting,” he said.

Before delivering his sentence, Walton said the crowd’s actions on Jan. 6 caused “significant harm to this country” and specifically to law enforcement. He noted the multiple suicides of police officers responding to the riot and speculated that Zerkle’s words may have “riled up” the people around him. He referred to his sentence as a deterrent, saying it was “difficult ... for me to impose.”

“We cannot exist as a peaceful society,” Walton said, if people reject the results of elections “because the vote didn’t go the way they wanted it to go.”

Pro-Trump supporters clash with law enforcement on the west steps of the U.S. Capitol as people gathered on the second day of pro-Trump events fueled by President Donald Trump's continued claims of election fraud on Jan. 6, 2021.
Pro-Trump supporters clash with law enforcement on the west steps of the U.S. Capitol as people gathered on the second day of pro-Trump events fueled by President Donald Trump's continued claims of election fraud on Jan. 6, 2021.
Kent Nishimura via Getty Images

Walton, who’s handled a number of Capitol attack cases, said last year that the United States was in a “scary moment,” and that the attack “still haunts us because the individuals who instigated what occurred are still engaging in the same rhetoric that resulted in the frenzy that took place on that day.”

Prior to Thursday’s hearing, prosecutors had requested that Zerkle spend 34 months behind bars, which Zerkle’s attorney, Christopher Macchiaroli, called “wholly disproportionate.” The defense sought no time behind bars.

In a statement to HuffPost the day following the sentencing hearing, Macchiaroli stressed Zerkle’s cooperation with law enforcement, his taking responsibility for his actions, and his hope that the court would consider mitigating factors like past military service or character letters submitted on his behalf.

Macchiaroli wrote, “the district court focused on how the world viewed those present outside the Capitol on January 6 and the possible ramifications of the upcoming election and ordered Mr. Zerkle immediately detained at the DC Jail, while not allowing him to self-surrender at a federal facility (which is common).”

The attorney added, “Notwithstanding D.C.’s long history of protests (with some violent) and willingness to afford probationary or diversion dispositions for pushing that does not result in any injury, counsel is unaware of any other such lengthy sentence of incarceration nationwide based on pushing during a protest, especially for an individual who deliberately chose not to take part in entering the U.S. Capitol and had zero criminal history points prior to being sentenced.”

Prosecutors accused Zerkle of entering restricted congressional grounds and assaulting a line of Metropolitan Police Department officers who were attempting to assist U.S. Capitol Police that day.

According to the Justice Department, Zerkle is one of more than 400 Jan. 6 defendants charged with either assaulting or impeding law enforcement. Stills from police body-camera video cited by investigators allegedly showed Zerkle, with distinct mutton chops and a leather jacket, grabbing and shoving the D.C. cops as they try to get through the West lawn of the Capitol.

In a statement of offense Zerkle agreed to as part of a plea deal last October, he acknowledged “placing his hands on [three] officers’ persons and forcibly pushing these three officers with his hands.” The statement of offense noted that as a result of the actions of Zerkle and those around him, the group of police officers attempting to reinforce Capitol Police “were split in two groups” and only a few initially reached the intended police line at the Capitol’s West Plaza.

“This hindered the officers from responding to security threats in the area and from reinforcing strategic locations that were subsequently breached,” the statement read. Zerkle admitted as part of the plea that he made contact with an officer with the intent to commit another felony, namely civil disorder.

Zerkle was initially indicted on several more counts, including two more assault charges, but those were dropped as part of the plea deal.

After investigators zeroed in on Zerkle’s identity, an FBI agent interviewed him outside his Arizona home on Oct. 28, 2021. In the agent’s words, Zerkle acknowledged that “he pushed into some police officers and that he probably did something dumb,” and also “that he was shoved into the police and was trying to protect himself but did not intend to assault a police officer.”

Last week, in a sentencing memorandum, Macchiaroli put it differently, writing that his client “did not initiate the physical encounter, nor did he kick or hit any of the officers. Instead, as the [police civil disturbance unit] attempted to push through a dense crowd, Mr. Zerkle pushed up against officers and pushed back when he was pushed and when his brother was trapped between officers and protestors in the middle of a skirmish.”

In a letter to the court ahead of sentencing, Zerkle acknowledged that he pushed officers, but said he did so in the process of rushing to his brother, who’d traveled to D.C. with him and who Zerkle said was in a “bad position” relative to police. “It was never my intention to have any physical contact with anyone,” Zerkle wrote, adding that he was ashamed of “repeating the chants of the crowd,” that day.

“What happened on January 6 is not who I am,” he wrote.

Zerkle was arrested on federal charges on March 15, 2022, and released on a personal recognizance bond, according to court records. He was formally indicted on eight counts the following week.

In court filings last year, Macchiaroli described his client’s actions as a “brief 29-second encounter that Mr. Zerkle had with officers outside the U.S. Capitol prior to heading in the opposite direction from the 2,000 people who breached the building.” (Prosecutors argued that, actually, “defendant pushed toward officers for a second time minutes later.”)

Macchiaroli also unsuccessfully sought a delay in Zerkle’s trial because one of the D.C. police officers Zerkle was charged with assaulting, Carlton Wilhoit, had subsequently resigned from the Metropolitan Police Department, joined the Peace Corps, and left the country, and would therefore not be able to participate in the trial.

Zerkle, dressed in khakis and a windbreaker, was taken into custody at the end of Thursday’s hearing, waving goodbye to family members who’d attended in support of him.

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