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Staffer for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez testifies in trial of man accused of threatening lawmakers

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A staffer for New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took the stand in Brooklyn federal court Monday to testify about their office's response to alleged threats from Brendan Hunt. Hunt is on trial after being accused of making violent statements targeting several lawmakers. CBS News reporter Cassidy McDonald joins CBSN's "Red & Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano with more on the trial and the latest in the federal investigation into the Capitol riot.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: Prosecutors have charged more than 400 people in connection with the January 6 Capitol riot. Now we're learning that number is expected to rise. But first, as the federal investigation expands, some republicans are defending former President Trump's response on the day of the attack. In an interview over the weekend, House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, claimed Mr. Trump was unaware of the rioters until McCarthy called him that afternoon.

KEVIN MCCARTHY: What I talked to President Trump about, I was the first person to contact him when the riots was going on. He didn't see it. What he ended the call was saying telling me he'll put something out to make sure to stop this. And that's what he did. He put a video out later.

- Quite a lot later. And it was a pretty weak video. But I'm asking you specifically, did he say to you, I guess some people are more concerned about the election than you are?

KEVIN MCCARTHY: No. Listen. My conversations with the president are my conversations with the president. I engaged in the idea of making sure we could stop what was going on inside the Capitol at that moment in time. The president said he would help.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, that's a stark contrast to the tone McCarthy has previously taken, including when debating the resolution about Mr. Trump's second impeachment. Here is the minority leader on January 13.

KEVIN MCCARTHY: The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump. Accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest, and ensure President-elect Biden is able to successfully begin his term.

And the president's immediate action also deserves congressional action, which is why I think a fact finding commission and a censure resolution would be prudent. Unfortunately, that is not where we are today.

ELAINE QUIJANO: For more on the ongoing federal investigation, let's bring in CBS News reporter, Cassidy McDonald. Hi there, Cassidy. Welcome. So a Capitol police officer testified last week at the trial of a man accused of threatening US lawmakers. And it's believed to be the first time a member of the Capitol police force testified in a criminal trial connected to the January riot. What happened?

CASSIDY MCDONALD: That's right. A trial is underway for a man named Brendan Hunt who is charged with making threats against US members of Congress. So Brendan Hunt was not actually in DC. He did not participate in the siege on the Capitol that day. But he is charged for statements that prosecutors say he made before and after the attack online. In one video that prosecutors say that he posted which was allegedly called kill your senators, prosecutors say that in that video, he spoke to the camera and he urged viewers to return to the Capitol with guns and quote "slaughter members of Congress."

So that Capitol police officer who testified Friday, his name is Christopher Desrosiers. He's a Special Agent with the threat assessment section of the Capitol police force. And as you said, he is believed to be the first agent from that force to testify in a jury trial, rather, related to the Capitol attack. And he was asked to describe the tone at the Capitol that day. He said it was very uneasy. And he also provided some insight into the way that intelligence gathering worked after the attack.

He said that after January 6, Capitol police resources were, quote, "maxed out" as they were preparing for the inauguration of President Joe Biden, which was scheduled just two weeks later. And so he said because of that, they relied on the FBI to monitor online statements such as those attributed to Mr. Hunt. And they said that a Capitol police officer who had been embedded with the FBI, he made Capitol police aware of the investigation into Mr. Hunt on January 8.

Now that trial is ongoing. And it is expected to center around issues related to freedom of speech as a jury decides whether Mr. Hunt's alleged online comments amounted to illegal threats against members of Congress.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Brendan Hunt also stands accused of advocating violence against Democratic lawmakers Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Chuck Schumer, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Have they been involved in the investigation?

CASSIDY MCDONALD: That's right. And just this afternoon, we learned that a staffer from the representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from her office was called to take the stand in this case. So Hunt's online posts echoed ideology that was shared by some who have been arrested in the Capitol riot investigation. And in Facebook posts on December 6, he said that he would not quote, "vote in another rigged election." And he called for the killing of those three lawmakers who you mentioned.

And so prosecutors said that they called this staffer to testify and describe how he took the defendant's threats seriously. He said that Hunt's threats were concerning even though he only learned of them after Mr. Hunt had been arrested. He said that Hunt's language was particularly concerning because he targeted representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez specifically and described her as a high value target in statements that he made referencing firing squads and public execution.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Wow. High value targets, that's a term that is typically used to describe terrorists and something that we have heard in law enforcement and intelligence circles. So really remarkable to hear that language being used to describe an elected US official. In recently filed court papers, prosecutors revealed that Capitol police offered tours to lawyers representing the Oath Keepers, a far right extremist group indicted in a conspiracy case. What is the significance of that?

CASSIDY MCDONALD: Right. On Friday, we saw in a document filed by the Department of Justice prosecutors notified the lawyers for 12 Oath Keepers who were indicted together in a conspiracy case. So lawyers in this case are currently engaged in a process that's known as discovery. So that means that prosecutors are reviewing evidence. And they're sharing it with defense attorneys so that both sides have the information they need to prepare for a trial.

So in a document discussing this discovery process, prosecutors told defense attorneys about evidence that they would be sharing. So think surveillance footage and interviews. And in this document, they also said that they reached out about tour dates that Capitol police had offered to defense attorneys.

And so this is really part of the evidence gathering, the evidence sharing process. And we also get a glimpse into an ongoing discussion around the terms of what that tour would entail. So prosecutors note that defense attorneys had raised concerns about prohibitions that Capitol police had put on taking photos during these tours. So they're continuing to work that out.

But this is similar to issues that other cases have run into in this capital investigation as some of the evidence in these cases has been identified as sensitive information. So in some cases, parties have agreed to keep some of this evidence under seal, or not make it public, and also sort of put limits on some of the dissemination of this information. So this is all just a behind the scenes look, a peek behind the curtain at what happens as attorneys prepare in a case such as this with 12 co-defendants who are facing some of the more serious charges in this investigation.

They stand accused of conspiring together, planning to come to the capital, in some cases, some of these Oath Keepers, alleged Oath Keepers, are accused of using sophisticated military style techniques to travel through the crowd and enter the capital. And they are also all charged with conspiring to interfere an official proceeding, in this case, the certification of the electoral college votes.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, earlier this month, the first member of the Oath Keepers pleaded guilty in connection with the riot. How will that impact the case?

CASSIDY MCCDONALD: Right. And that was another thing that we saw in this Friday court filing was that prosecutors said that they had notified lawyers for the Oath Keepers who stand accused in this case about John Schaffer. So he is another Oath Keeper who was charged in connection with the riot. And he pleaded guilty earlier this month. He was the first defendant in this Capitol riot investigation to plead guilty. And he happens to be a guitarist and a member of a heavy metal band known as Iced Earth. If you're a heavy metal fan, you may be aware of him.

And he was arrested and initially charged with six crimes. And those included, one of those was attacking police officers with bear spray. And so he initially faced up to 30 years in prison if he were found guilty. But he ultimately pleaded guilty to just two felony charges, which were obstructing an official proceeding and being in a restricted area with a weapon. And so in exchange, he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. And so that might entail providing interviews, taking the stand as a witness.

And in exchange, he was offered a lower recommended sentencing range, which a judge said could be around three to four years. So on Friday, prosecutors notified the other defendants. They said they notified them about whether they'd been in touch with Mr. Schaffer because his testimony could present evidence that would be relevant to the trial. And so defense attorneys need to be aware of evidence that could come out of his cooperation.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right. Well, Cassidy McDonald for us. Cassidy, thank you very much.