NEW YORK —An enthusiastic supporter of former president Donald Trump who is facing federal charges that he threatened to kill prominent Democrats in the days surrounding the Jan. 6 insurrection did nothing more than make inflammatory statements online that are commonplace “in the Twittersphere,” the man’s attorney argued Wednesday at the start of his trial in Brooklyn.
Brendan Hunt, 37, is believed to be the first defendant to stand trial in a case authorities have connected to the failed bid by hundreds of Trump supporters to prevent Congress from counting the electoral-college votes affirming his defeat in November. Although Hunt did not join those who stormed the U.S. Capitol, prosecutors say he advocated deadly violence against lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leaders Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
But Hunt’s attorney, Jan Rostal, told jurors Wednesday that the people targeted by her client’s alleged threats did not even know about his social media posts.
“The government is telling you about posts that were made in the middle of a vitriolic time in our history, a time when people were taking liberties in language perhaps like never before, when they felt safe to say things in the Twittersphere, if you will, that they wouldn’t say or do in person,” Rostal argued in her opening statement.
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Rostal suggested that her client’s Internet chatter was constitutionally protected speech and was not to be taken seriously, and she sought to distance her client from the hundreds of other Trump supporters whom the Justice Department has charged in connection with the attack on the Capitol, telling the court that Hunt is a registered Democrat who had voted for Barack Obama for president before becoming disillusioned with his policies.
She pointed to Hunt’s behavior at the end of an 88-second video — titled “KILL YOUR SENATORS: Slaughter them all” — posted two days after the Capitol riot. Rostal likened Hunt’s performance to that of a famous comedic actor who often breaks character during skits on live television.
“He’s like Pete Davidson on [“Saturday Night Live”] but not as good,” she argued.
Investigators who searched Hunt’s apartment in Queens found marijuana, beer bottles and comic books — but no weapons, the lawyer added — further proof, she said, that he had no intention of harming anyone.
Prosecutors argued the opposite.
“The defendant’s threats were specific, they were scary and they were violent,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Francisco J. Navarro told the jury. “It’s a federal crime to threaten to kill a member of Congress for doing their job.”
At the time of his arrest in late January, Hunt was a state court employee and a part-time actor and filmmaker. He is charged with threatening to assault and murder a U.S. official. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.
[Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who engaged rioters, suffered two strokes and died of natural causes, officials say]
The Capitol riot terrorized elected officials, their staffers and other workers on Capitol Hill. The U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which is handling the case, intends to call a Capitol Police officer to testify, according to a letter submitted to U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen before the trial.
Hunt’s fixation with Democratic leaders was seen in his online postings as early as Dec. 6, when he allegedly called for the “public execution” of Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez and Schumer on Facebook — and asked Trump to carry out the act, authorities say. “And if you dont do it, the citizenry will,” he added, according to the criminal complaint against him.
“We’re not voting in another rigged election,” the alleged social media comments continued. “Start up the firing squads, mow down these commies, and lets take america back!”
Hunt also called for the killing of police officers tasked with enforcing mask mandates during the coronavirus pandemic, authorities have alleged — a sentiment posted in response to a news story about a Staten Island bar owner who was accused of running over a deputy sheriff as the bar owner was about to be arrested.
The insurrection seemed to energize Hunt, who in his video encouraged his social media followers to return to the Capitol with weapons “when all of the Senators and a lot of the Representatives are back there,” the complaint says.
In an exchange on Parler, a popular social media venue among conservatives and those on the far right, Hunt said Trump’s supporters should return to Washington armed on Jan. 20, the day President Biden was inaugurated, to engage in a “#millionmilitiamarch,” authorities say.
Hunt was fired from his job with the Office of Court Administration after his arrest.