The leaders of two Long Island pro-Trump groups said their members attended the rally in support of President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, but that they neither participated in, nor supported the mob that later stormed the U.S. Capitol building.
Federal law enforcement authorities have made several arrests in the attack on the Capitol, including a Republican lawmaker from West Virginia and an Arkansas man who was photographed sitting at a desk in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. More arrests are expected.
James Robitsek, a leader of the pro-Trump group the Setauket Patriots, said his group sponsored four charter buses with 200 people and had another 100 members drive themselves to the rally. Their goal, he said, was to bring attention to what they believe were irregularities in the presidential election. The accusations repeatedly have been rejected by the courts and by federal authorities.
Robitsek said members of his group did not go inside the building. "No, absolutely not. We never got that close to the building," he said.
He also acknowledged that he was not with all the members during the entirety of the chaos on Wednesday, and does not know for certain that none of his members went inside the Capitol.
"At this time, everyone says nobody went in," he said.
Shawn Farash, 29, of West Babylon, a founder of Long Island Loud Majority — another pro-Trump activism group — said he and about 300 of the group's members went to Washington to listen to Trump speak and take part in "Stop the Steal" protests.
But, he said, none of them participated in the siege.
"I saw people climbing scaffolding, Capitol Police trying to control the crowd, people being tear-gassed," Farash said. "I realized it was becoming pretty dangerous and possibly criminal, so I decided it was time for us to get out of there."
The two leaders' comments come amid widespread condemnation of the pro-Trump protesters who broke into the building during a joint session of Congress, forcing an evacuation. Police tried unsuccessfully to hold off the mob, which had been egged on by Trump during his speech. Five people died as a result of the siege, including a Capitol Police officer and a protester shot by police.
Shanequa Levin, co-founder of the Long Island Black Alliance, a 500-member group that works to improve the lives of Black people on Long Island, said the groups are trying to distance themselves from the violence.
"What's happening is, now after they went and did what they did, trying to start a 'revolution' … they want to backtrack, they want to hide, they want to say rioters were not true Trump supporters," said Levin, who helped organize and participated in several Black Lives Matter protests on Long Island last summer.
Levin continued, "But these are the same people who have been spewing hate all summer and winter long, who by the way are Trump supporters," she said. "What did they really expect would happen?"
The Setauket Patriots Facebook page, on which people made supportive comments about posted photos of rioters inside the Capitol, was taken down by Facebook, Robitsek said. The posts were saved by screenshots from people not associated with the group. The group still has a private Facebook page operating, Robitsek said.
Robitsek said the photos inside the Capitol were not taken by members of the Setauket Patriots, and that he did not know the people who were making the accompanying comments. He said the group's public Facebook page has about 23,000 followers.
"Those pictures were shared. We didn’t know the severity of the situation. We didn’t take those pictures," he said.
In a statement, the group said: "The actions by those storming the capital [sic] building [Wednesday] should not be tolerated, are condemned, and were not conducted by any of the members that came on our buses to attend a peaceful protest."
Farash said the demonstration began peacefully.
"The first part of the day, when the president and his allies spoke, was peaceful … really, no issues, just an incredible display of patriotism," said Farash, who organized dozens of pro-Trump events this past summer on the Island.
Farash emphasized his group does not condone "political violence" and condemned the "shameful acts of a few bad actors" who he believes should be "held responsible."