“I can help.”
Amid the bedlam of 10,000 voices chanting, singing, and shouting on the east terrace of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, those three words cut through the haze like a lighthouse beam.
The target of the message was U.S. Capitol Police Lt. Tarik Khalid Johnson, 46, who scanned the crowd for someone to help with an urgent mission. The speaker was retired New York police sergeant Michael Joseph Nichols, 46, an Oath Keeper who knew all about riots and making decisions under fire.
Their mission’s success depended on a partnership of exhausted, besieged Capitol police and a group of Oath Keepers, a patriot organization that would soon be the target of an unrelenting war on alleged “domestic terror” by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI.
Nichols and his wife Whitney, 33, had no intention of being at the Capitol on the afternoon of Jan. 6.
After hearing President Donald Trump’s speech at the Ellipse, they wanted to return to their Virginia hotel. But blocked streets and the “herding” of crowds by police put them at the bottom of the east steps of the Capitol at around 3 p.m.
Before the afternoon was over, Nichols, an Oath Keeper named Steve, and others would go into the Capitol at the request of a desperate lieutenant and rescue 15 riot-gear-clad officers and one uniformed officer trapped inside.
It was a good deed, to be sure. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, it would later punch a hole in the government’s narrative that the Oath Keepers’ purpose that day was to violently overthrow the U.S. government and forcibly keep Trump in office at any cost.
Lt. Johnson and Nichols approached each other by chance at the ground level not far from the east steps.
“I went right up to him and said, ‘How can I help you get control of this situation? It doesn’t look good over here,’” Nichols told The Epoch Times during a series of interviews.
“If you can help me move aside these people, I’d appreciate it,” Johnson said on the video, pulling on his COVID mask. “…I just need to get these other officers out.”
Nichols’ and Steve’s facial expressions instantly changed when they heard police officers were in need of assistance.
“Oh, they’re trying to get out?” asked Steve, a retired medevac helicopter pilot and Army veteran.
“I can do that,” Nichols said. “I’ll go with you. I can help.”
Nichols started heading for the steps, then turned around and flashed his gold retired-sergeant’s shield and reiterated, “I can help.”
Johnson handed him a bullhorn and the group moved out for the steps.
What was about to take place would have been largely lost to history if Rico La Starza, 30, a Florida-based videographer, had not approached at just the right time.
“I happen to look over … and I see a Capitol Police officer with a Trump hat on and I go, ‘Well, that’s interesting,’” La Starza told The Epoch Times. “Let’s go figure out what’s going on there.”
As the men began climbing the stairs to the giant Columbus Doors, the crowd was treated to the suspicious droning of the still-unidentified and never-indicted masked man who researchers dub the “Scaffold Commander,” who stood unmolested for hours high above the crowd, bellowing that “patriots” should go into the Capitol.
Johnson grabbed Nichols’ left hand with his right and they started working through the crowd. Steve kept his right hand on Johnson’s back. “I’m with you brother,” La Starza said to Steve as he brought up the rear.
La Starza trailed the trio with his camera and kept a watchful eye on Lt. Johnson’s holstered service weapon.
“I realize nobody’s even watching this guy’s gun,” La Starza said. “So my plan is I’ll just fall back a little bit, hang back like a foot or so. If any of these guys try to grab his gun, I can do something about it.”
Previous Attempt Failed
A short time before Nichols and Steve approached the Columbus Doors, Oath Keepers members Roberto Minuta, 38, and Joshua James, 35, were asked by a different Capitol Police official if they would help get officers who wanted to leave out of the building.
“He said we can have this area, they’re trying to get their guys out,” Minuta told The Epoch Times.
“We followed behind law enforcement into the foyer through the Columbus Doors,” he said. “So our intention was to help get the cops out. They said they wanted out.
“As Oath Keepers, we work alongside law enforcement,” Minuta said. “I mean, a lot of [members] are law enforcement. So it’s not uncommon for us to interact with them and offer help or ask if they need anything.”
Seeing a gathering of police, Minuta and James headed toward the Rotunda.
“I started yelling from behind him, ‘Let’s go! Get these cops out of here! Come on, let him out. Get him out of here.’ The last thing I said was, ‘Let them out.’
“I was loud, though,” Minuta said. “Because you’re in a crowd full of people. There’s pepper spray and tear gas. It was intense. So I was yelling. I was aggressive. But that’s what we went in there for—to get the cops out.”
James got into a tangle with one of the police officers. “You want out?” he shouted, just before the officer struck him on the left shoulder. James then “lost his [expletive],” Minuta said, and began pulling the officer and shouting, “‘Get out of my Capitol! Get out! This is my [expletive] building. This is not yours!’”
Minuta theorized that James—a combat veteran with a Purple Heart—got “triggered” by the hit and shove from the officer, causing him to lash out in a fight-or-flight response.
It was uncharacteristic of James—and the Oath Keepers, Minuta said, recalling they specifically discussed earlier that day not to get into any skirmishes with law enforcement.
“I got crushed,” Minuta said, “and pushed into the Rotunda. I couldn’t even breathe. I was like, ‘This is bad.’ Someone from the group of rioters shut the door to the Rotunda behind me. I screamed, ‘Don’t shut those doors!’”
James, whose family wrote on social media that he agreed to a plea deal to avoid a threatened life prison sentence, pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and agreed to testify if called on by prosecutors.
With the police rescue gone south, Minuta escaped through the Columbus Doors shortly before Nichols and Lt. Johnson arrived to make their rescue attempt.
“It’s a little bit of a blur how I ended up seeing officers coming out and standing in a line and holding a line for them to come down the stairs,” Minuta said.
Tip of the Spear
As Nichols climbed the stairs with Lt. Johnson, he drew on his more than 17 years of experience as a decorated police officer in the Southern Tier of New York State, 20 years as a volunteer firefighter, and years as a military policeman in the U.S. Army in Bosnia-Herzegovina and at other duty stations.
Nichols was used to being at the tip of the spear.
One of those times came in the late summer and fall of 1996 when Nichols got up-close experience with combat violence. A bomb almost ended his Army deployment—and his life.
“We drove through the ZOS [zone of separation] again,” he wrote in his journal. “Destruction everywhere. Hundreds of houses and buildings, blown away. I saw a car this afternoon that had been blown up by something just before we passed by it.
“Last night some kid shot off a 9mm outside our camp at checkpoint one,” he said. “When MPs gave chase, the kids ran into a field. One of the kids stepped on a personnel mine and blew up.”
Six weeks later, a teenager tried to take out Nichols and his watch partner as they sat in their High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, popularly known as a Humvee.
“While [Specialist Duane] Brucker and I were working checkpoint, some kid threw a bomb at our truck. The force of it knocked me back in the gun turret and shook the whole truck,” Nichols wrote in a journal entry.
In a letter home to his parents, Nichols added, “It was very loud and the guy in the truck with me thought I had been shot.”
Nichols had long had to think on his feet during rescue operations.
A six-year member of the Cortland Police Department SWAT team, he was called on Oct. 14, 2006, to a home where an armed, distraught father was holed up with his 5-week-old infant son. The man’s wife had just disclosed a one-year extramarital affair. The man, 32, later said he “felt boxed in” and that “my life was over.”
The man had an AR-15 rifle, a Mossberg 500 12-gauge shotgun, and more than 400 rounds of ammunition.
Elsewhere in the home, he had a Marlin .22-caliber bolt-action rifle, a Winchester 270 rifle, and a .50-caliber muzzleloading rifle.
The AR-15 and the Mossberg lay on the bed near him, along with handfuls of loaded magazines and three boxes of shotgun shells. The baby was asleep in his portable crib, oblivious to the unfolding drama.
“I could hear people outside and doors slamming, so I thought the police were just going to come in after me without even getting a hold of anyone to talk to me,” the man later told police.
He was feeling desperate, telling his mother in a phone call he felt “like going postal.” He “started thinking to myself whether I should surrender or blow my head off,” noting, “The guns were next to me but I never picked one up and put it to my head.”
Amid the high-stakes confusion, the man saw a possible way to solve the crisis. He told the two patrol officers who had positioned themselves on the stairs to get out of his house. He said he would only speak to Mike Nichols.
“I have known Mike Nichols since the 7th Grade in school and I knew he wouldn’t let anything stupid happen to me,” the man later said.
Nichols was not on duty at the time, but dispatch located him and he raced to the scene on Elm Street in Cortland. Within five minutes he was on the phone with the desperate man.
“I told Mike I wanted to do the right thing and come out,” the man said, “but I had to feed my son one last time.”
The man called his mother and said he was going to surrender, but only to Nichols. “I knew he wouldn’t be trigger-happy and blow my head off,” he told his mother.
Nichols stood alone near the front door. The man emerged, handcuffed in the front and holding his infant son in a car seat. “Nichols was right in front of me, then reached out and grabbed me,” he said after the incident.
“Mike hugged me and told me I did the right thing and we would see this through.”
‘We’re Oath Keepers’
As Nichols, Lt. Johnson, and Steve reached the 17-foot-high bronze Columbus Doors at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the crowd reluctantly moved aside.
“We’re Oath Keepers,” Steve said as they walked past.
Nichols said he noticed some of the people around the entrance were loud and extremely aggressive—nothing like the crowds he had been in the rest of the day. He worried about bringing a group of officers out through these doors with such hostile agitators.
The inner set of doors opened long enough for the trio to enter. Nichols was pulled inside and before he could get his bearings, he saw a police officer with a closed fist ready to throw a haymaker at him.
“Blue! Blue! Blue!” he shouted, a code to identify himself as a police officer. Lieutenant Johnson confirmed, “He’s with me,” Nichols said.
To the right side of the entrance, Nichols saw a group of Capitol Police in riot gear. Some were bent over and seemed sick to their stomachs, he said, likely from pepper spray used on police and spectators outside the Columbus Doors. Others looked almost terrified, Nichols said.
Using the bullhorn handed to him by Lt. Johnson, Nichols told the group they were going to link up and leave the Capitol. He told them to stay connected to the person in front and don’t stop until the group cleared the bottom of the stairs.
Nichols noted that the doors into the Great Rotunda were closed and locked. All he saw in the foyer were police, so the fear he observed did not make sense. Why was everyone so afraid? They were dressed as if members of the “hard squad,” wearing heavy protective tactical gear. He looked into their eyes and said he came to believe they were exhausted.
“I asked what the plan was and if we were going to take the stairs back,” Nichols said. “Johnson said he just needed to get his guys out. I said, ‘Ok everyone leaving get behind me and hold onto the guy in front of you. Don’t let go, and don’t stop moving until we get through this crowd.’
“We made sure everyone that was leaving was ready and then moved out.”
The same agitators outside the Columbus Doors were screaming obscenities. Nichols shouted back, “Make a hole!” A woman took the bullhorn mic and told the protesters not to interfere.
“We don’t do this [expletive],” she said, prompting one of the agitators to reply, “[Expletive] you!”
As the officers passed by, the woman gave each of them a hug. A man in the crowd shouted, “The cops are leaving! Let them go!” He then told the officers, “Thank you. God bless.”
A Quick-Reaction Force?
As Nichols, Lt. Johnson, Steve, and the police officers began the slow parade down the east steps, more Oath Keepers emerged from the crowd to help clear the way.
Brian Ulrich, 44, of Guyton, Georgia, got out in front of Nichols by a few steps and signaled for protesters to stand aside.
Ulrich is one of six Oath Keepers to take a deal from prosecutors, pleading guilty earlier this year to seditious conspiracy. He was joined on the steps by Oath Keeper Ricky Jackson of Georgia, who does not face any Jan. 6 charges.
Minuta, who had been on the patio outside the Columbus Doors after abandoning his rescue effort, hustled down the steps to lend assistance. Minuta faces a late November trial with three other defendants on charges of seditious conspiracy, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, and other counts.
Just to the right of him was Jonathan Walden, of Birmingham, Alabama, and his 82-pound security K-9, “Warrior.” Walden is charged with two Jan. 6-related crimes.
A young man in a MAGA cap near the bottom of the steps put his hand on the shoulder of each police officer and said, “Thank you,” according to a video shot by journalist Stephen Horn.
Whitney Nichols said she views her husband, Steve, and the other Oath Keepers on the steps as a true “quick-reaction force” (QRF) because they “were trying to extract people from the building.”
That’s a stark contrast to how prosecutors view the Oath Keepers QRFs that were standing by in Virginia on Jan. 6.
Prosecutors trying five Oath Keepers defendants in Washington said the QRFs were there to attack the Capitol by force to keep Trump in office.
Defense attorneys insist the QRFs only would have been used if Antifa attacked the Oath Keepers or Trump supporters in D.C. Weapons were only for use if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act and called up a militia to protect the White House from feared attacks by Antifa, numerous Oath Keepers have said.
Several of the riot officers thanked Nichols and Steve for helping to get them out of the Rotunda foyer.
The U.S. Capitol Police department, however, was anything but thrilled about the whole thing. An internal-affairs investigation aimed at Lt. Johnson was opened. He was eventually suspended from his job and has since left the USCP.
Some fellow officers complained to the USCP Office of Professional Responsibility because Johnson wore a bright red MAGA cap while the rescue operation took place. He was criticized for letting Nichols hold and use the department bullhorn, and for a radio dispatch in which he said he obtained “permission” from the crowd to bring officers out of the building.
According to a USCP internal report obtained by The Epoch Times, a protester gave the MAGA cap to Johnson the first time he emerged from the Rotunda foyer with a couple of riot police, just minutes before he encountered Nichols and Steve.
At least two fellow officers tried to take the cap away from Lt. Johnson, but he put it back on both times. He told OPR investigators that people in the crowd “listen to me” when the hat was on his head, and he viewed the cap as his protective helmet.
Media stories on La Starza’s video of the rescue operation said the MAGA cap was a ruse by Lt. Johnson to fool Trump supporters into helping him.
Nichols and his wife disagreed, based on what they said Johnson told them. “He told me he had it because he voted for Trump and he wanted the crowd at the Capitol to understand that the people inside were also Trump supporters,” Whitney Nichols told the FBI in 2021.
That could cast a new light on the criticisms peppered throughout the investigation report, which at least partially contradicted Johnson’s explanations for the rescue operation. Several officers were highly critical of Johnson and his actions.
In reply, Johnson told the OPR agents he was motivated by one thing: to safely get officers out of the Capitol because they were vastly outnumbered and in harm’s way.
Nichols said he found the Capitol Police response unfair to Lt. Johnson, whose actions he deemed heroic.
“He adapted to the environment, put the officers’ and people’s safety before his own, and succeeded in defusing a tense situation that could have resulted in a mass-casualty incident,” Nichols said.
“He read the crowd and with no alternative means, put together a rescue operation using members of the crowd and himself to extract 16 officers who had radioed for help due to being stuck between an angry group and the building.”
Nichols said he tried to stay in touch with Lt. Johnson after Jan. 6. They spoke on the phone a couple times, Nichols said, and have exchanged text messages on occasion. During one call not long after Jan. 6, both men were in tears reliving what they both went through. Johnson thanked Nichols and Steve for helping him.
La Starza said he was impressed by Lt. Johnson’s calm leadership on Jan. 6.
“He’s the leader people pray for,” La Starza said. “Quick on the feet and willing to go through flames for his team.”
The Epoch Times asked U.S. Capitol Police for comment on the OPR report, but did not receive a reply by press time.
The Backlash Begins
After Nichols and his wife returned home to New York state, the Jan. 6 backlash began.
They were shunned by friends and heavily criticized by some family for even being at the Capitol.
“We literally have footage of people just slowing down and flipping us off,” Whitney Nichols told the FBI. “And we have two little girls.”
Some extended family lashed out and threatened to call child protective services, claiming their attendance in Washington was evidence they were unfit parents.
Whitney Nichols said she lost clients from her small business. Other family and friends severed ties with the couple.
“We lost all the friends we had at the time,” Mike Nichols said. “It was very nasty, a side of people you really don’t expect.”
The father of one of their friends penned a derisive song about them with the line, “I Think It’s Time I Call the FBI,” then posted it on YouTube, they said.
A short time later, an FBI agent showed up on the Nichols’ front deck.
Clad in a black trench coat, blue dress pants, blue shirt, and salmon-color tie, the agent wanted to know if the Nichols had any plans to return to the Capitol or to gather at or attack any state capitols. They told him “no.”
The stress was evident in Mike Nichols’ voice.
“It’s not a very trusting time right now, so excuse my feelings, as the world is making us feel like we did something wrong,” he said, according to a video Whitney Nichols made of the FBI visit. “The news makes it seem like going to our Capitol was a crime.”
The agent asked if they knew Lt. Johnson before Jan. 6. He wanted to know if they planned the visit to Washington with any groups or other individuals.
“Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with what took place in the context of that video,” the agent said.
He was not thrilled with being recorded, but Whitney said she wanted a record of all that was said.
“I know you’re recording me right now. Is that accurate?” the agent asked. “I’m not stupid, I know it’s been done.”
Mike Nichols said the video would not be shared with anyone. He asked the agent if they should turn off the recording.
“No,” he said, “because I’m open and honest and transparent with what I’m here for.”
While the agent seemed to be reassuring based on his analysis of La Starza’s video—which had briefly been posted on YouTube—the couple wondered if they were now a target.
Memories of Hardship
The strain of the January FBI visit brought back vivid memories of hardships from across more than 17 years of Nichols’ police work. The kinds of days that burned into his brain are always with him, he said, including one year-long stretch during which he was called to the scene of the deaths of six children.
On July 18, 2008, Nichols responded to the Tioughnioga River near a highway overpass for a possible body in the water. When he reached the river, Nichols saw what appeared to be a young child under the water. He jumped in and quickly realized it was an unconscious teenager in the fetal position.
Nichols struggled to get the boy onto shore because the youth’s body was slippery. He started resuscitation efforts and before long was relieved by emergency medical technicians from the Cortland Fire Department.
The boy did not make it.
Nichols had to guard the body and the scene while waiting for the medical examiner. He said he will never forget the boy.
An investigation later found the teen had been “huffing” a can of compressed air, a common way of getting high. The boy went on a rope swing and lost consciousness when he hit the water.
Another call brought Nichols to the home of a friend with two twin boys. One was found unresponsive in his bed. Life-saving efforts by Nichols and EMTs failed. Again, Nichols had to guard the scene and the body for more than an hour while waiting for the medical examiner.
There can be a cumulative effect of trauma in the life of any first responder. From his earliest days in the U.S. Army, Nichols sought to be someone who would lend a hand, save a life, and even save the world if he could.
“I can’t find a way to fix it all,” he wrote in 2002.
The strain caught up with him in 2004. Exacerbated by alcohol, trauma from many things he witnessed, and no clear way to forgive himself for not living up to his own expectations, he hit the wall. He awoke in the hospital, wondering why God had spared him—and where his path would lead next.
During a year-long medical leave, Nichols learned a lot about himself. Through the trials, though, he never lost his core beliefs.
“I am here to help others and to make a difference somewhere,” he later wrote in his journal. “I may not know where it is yet, but I can feel in me that there is more to why I am here than is physically visible.”
More Visits by Federal Agents
The Nichols family received two more visits from federal agents in 2021 regarding their time at the Capitol.
An agent from the Department of Homeland Security who stopped by in March told them they were free to attend a rally and exercise their First Amendment rights. Nichols expressed frustration with the general backlash he and Whitney experienced.
“We all saw what happened that day. I was witness to what happened that day,” he said. “And since that day took place, we’ve been called radicals and racists and all kinds of things, and all we did was the right thing.”
Nichols said the two agents told him they were not given access to the Capitol’s security videos by the Department of Justice, nor were they aware the FBI had visited the home in January 2021.
The last visit of the FBI to the Nichols home came in September 2021, with an agent from Syracuse, who said he was trying to fill in some gaps and get some “clarifying details.”
Before the agent even reached the house, Whitney shouted to him. “I had called out to them from the bathroom window that they need to stop investigating people like us and go start looking into Nancy Pelosi,” she said. “And I think that threw them off guard.”
“We’re not here to accuse you of anything,” the agent said from behind his Oakley tactical sunglasses. “Quite the contrary. I watched that video. You look like you helped out those Capitol Police officers who were in a jam that day, right? I’m not here to question anything else other than just try to figure out some additional details about when you guys went down there.”
Nichols was visibly impatient with the repeated visits, breaking into an occasional profanity and criticizing the FBI for some of its tactics investigating Jan. 6.
His demeanor caused a plainclothes New York state trooper along on the visit to do a “splitting” maneuver, casually positioning himself to the right and just behind Nichols, ostensibly in case he had to do a takedown and arrest. After a few minutes, the trooper returned to his spot near the FBI agent.
“I’ll share with you what actually happened at the Capitol from a first-hand account,” Nichols said.
“I provided statements to give to your last partner that he didn’t want. I’m happy to help out. But if you’re here to try to get me jammed up for something, I can’t allow that to happen. Then I need to reach out and like protect myself.”
The agent did not take any of the information Nichols offered. Nichols said he still wonders what the visit was about.
The next day, the same FBI agent was in a neighboring county, arresting a local man on misdemeanor charges for being at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The FBI declined to comment on the case, referring all questions to the Department of Justice, which has a standing practice of not commenting on cases outside of court filings.
Reasons for Hope
Sitting at an old-fashioned wooden desk in his home office, Nichols often takes pen in hand and shares his thoughts. He has been doing this for more than 35 years, filling untold pages with memories.
One day, he said, it will become a book. The working title is “Remember This Day Forever.”
That is especially fitting for Jan. 6, which he recalls mostly as a good day of patriotism and friendship. Even the chaos on the east steps led to good that he believes speaks to the true heart of the Oath Keepers.
“What it became is now a January day which will never be forgotten and will always be twisted,” he wrote in his journal on Jan. 6, 2022. “I choose to remember the good and wonderful moments of truth. Helping Lt. Johnson and saving countless lives was an honor. Thank you, Lord, for bringing our paths together at the moment the world needed it.”
Whitney Nichols has done plenty of reflecting in the nearly two years since Jan. 6. Despite the deep troubles in the world, she has an optimism that is contagious.
Sitting at her kitchen table in August, she told The Epoch Times she and Mike learned just the day before they are expecting their fourth child. “I have to have hope for my children,” she said.
She said her love and admiration for her husband of eight years has grown dramatically because of what he did on Jan. 6. They’ve taught their children to love America.
“Our children have flags under their car seats and wave them out the windows as we drive the countryside,” she said. “‘We’re for America. We believe in freedom,’ Meredith says from the back seat on the way to our homeschool co-op.
“Amid the fear and lies being peddled these days, there is still a purity that exists in our world. If you spend even five minutes with our children, you begin to live and breathe that wholesome goodness.
“Just like them, Mike continues to wave the American flag with vigor and pride,” she said.
“This is who he is, at his core, despite what the world has tried to do to so many strong Americans like him. There is a resiliency coursing through the veins of all us who value family, truth, and honor, and our love is what will ultimately conquer all.”