Sept. 16, 2021, 1:04 p.m. ET

Daily Political Briefing

Biden urges Putin to ‘take action to disrupt’ Russia-based hackers behind ransomware attacks.



Biden Calls for Putin to Act on Ransomware Attacks

President Biden urged President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to act when ransomware attacks originate in his country and said the U.S. reserves the right to respond against hackers who launch attacks from Russia.

“Well, I made it very clear to him that — that the United States expects when ransomware operations is coming from his soil, even though it’s not — not — sponsored by the state, we expect them to act if we give them enough information to act on who that is. And secondly, that we’ve set up communications now on a regular basis to be able to communicate to one another when each of us think something’s happening in another country that affects the whole country. And so it went well. I’m optimistic.” Reporter: You said three weeks ago, there would be consequences. Will there be, sir?” “Yes.”

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President Biden urged President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to act when ransomware attacks originate in his country and said the U.S. reserves the right to respond against hackers who launch attacks from Russia.CreditCredit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden on Friday urged President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to “take action to disrupt” online criminal organizations in his country and said that the United States reserves the right to respond against hackers who launch ransomware attacks from inside Russia, according to a White House readout of a telephone call between the two leaders.

“I made it very clear to him that the United States expects when a ransomware operation is coming from his soil, even though it’s not sponsored by the state, we expect him to act, and we give him enough information to act on who that is,” Mr. Biden said to reporters after signing an executive order at the White House.

Asked if Russia would face consequences for the spate of recent attacks, Mr. Biden simply replied “yes.”

The call came in the wake of a ransomware attack over the July 4 weekend in which a Russia-based group called REvil, an abbreviation of “ransomware evil,” hacked a Florida company that provides software to thousands of smaller firms. Russian hackers were also accused of breaching a contractor for the Republican National Committee last week.

“Biden underscored the need for Russia to take action to disrupt ransomware groups operating in Russia and emphasized that he is committed to continued engagement on the broader threat posed by ransomware,” the White House statement said. “President Biden reiterated that the United States will take any necessary action to defend its people and its critical infrastructure in the face of this continuing challenge.”

The United States intelligence agencies have said they do not believe that the Russian government was directly involved in the REvil attack. But Mr. Biden and top officials have repeatedly said that they believe Russia should be doing more to disrupt the networks of criminals that launch such attacks.

Mr. Biden said he told Mr. Putin that during a face-to-face meeting in Geneva several weeks ago. And after meeting with his top cyber officials earlier this week, Mr. Biden told reporters that he “will deliver” that message again to Mr. Putin, but he did not make clear when that would happen.

The readout of Friday’s call ended the suspense.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, offered few details about the call beyond what the White House released in the statement. She declined to say what Mr. Putin’s response was during the call.

But she said the call was evidence that Mr. Biden intends to remain in frequent touch with the leader of Russia, in person and otherwise.

“First, let me say that the president is a believer in face-to-face diplomacy when possible, and leader-to-the-leader diplomacy, when that’s not possible, and this is an example of that,” she said.

President Biden fired the head of the Social Security Administration.

Credit...J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

President Biden on Friday fired the man President Donald J. Trump appointed to lead the Social Security Administration, triggering a legal showdown over who rightfully holds the position.

Mr. Biden asked on Friday morning for the resignation of Andrew Saul, the Social Security commissioner, and David Black as deputy commissioner. Mr. Black resigned as requested but Mr. Saul refused to relinquish his position and was notified by the administration that he had been fired. He has vowed to fight Mr. Biden’s move as illegal.

Mr. Biden moved to appoint an acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, while the administration looks for permanent replacements for the two jobs. Ms. Kijakazi is currently the deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy at the agency.

The developments were first reported by The Washington Post.

The firing was the latest move by Mr. Biden to oust a Trump-appointed director of an independent executive agency. In June, the president removed the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, after the Supreme Court ruled that the president had the authority to remove the head of the agency.

Democrats have sought to oust Mr. Saul from his position since the early days of Mr. Biden’s administration. Those calls grew in the wake of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that Democrats passed in March, which included $1,400 direct payments to individuals. Lawmakers have said Mr. Saul helped to delay payments to retirees by not transmitting necessary files to the Internal Revenue Service.

Mr. Saul’s agency said it did not receive funding to do that work.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy, called for Mr. Saul’s resignation in February, saying Mr. Saul had sought to issue regulations meant to reduce access to Social Security disability benefits — including denying benefits to an estimated 100,000 potential recipients who do not speak English fluently.

“Social Security is the bedrock of our middle class that Americans earn and count on, and they need a Social Security commissioner who will honor that promise to seniors, survivors, and people with disabilities now and for decades to come,” Mr. Brown said on Friday. “Instead, Andrew Saul tried to systematically dismantle Social Security as we know it from within.”

A White House official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the firing publicly, said the administration believed that Mr. Saul had undermined Social Security’s disability benefits, terminated a telework policy at the agency and alienated federal employee unions over work force safety planning amid the pandemic.

Mr. Saul did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Republicans seized on the firing, portraying it as a political decision.

“Social Security beneficiaries stand the most to lose from President Biden’s partisan decision to remove Commissioner Andrew Saul from leadership of the Social Security Administration,” said Represenative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, and Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, the top Republican on the Finance Committee.

“It is disappointing that the administration is injecting politics into the agency, given that Commissioner Saul was confirmed with bipartisan approval, worked closely with both parties in Congress, and provided smooth benefit and service delivery during the largest management challenge ever faced by the agency.”

The president signs an executive order aimed at spurring competition across the economy.



Biden Aims to Spur Competition Across U.S. Economy

President Biden signed an executive order aimed at increasing competition among businesses after some economists warned that declining competition was hobbling the U.S. economy’s vitality.

Now that the economy is back on track, we’re making progress on the second phase of our strategy, ensuring long-term growth. That’s what my Build Back Better agenda, including my American Family Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure agreement we reached last month, that’s what they’re all about, long term. But to keep our country moving, we have to take another step as well. And that’s bringing fair competition back to the economy. That’s why today, I’m going to be signing shortly an executive order promoting competition to lower prices — to increase wages and to take another critical step toward an economy that works for everybody. My executive order includes 72 specific actions. I expect the federal agencies, and they know this, to help restore competition. So that we have lower prices, higher wages, more money, more options. I know America can’t succeed unless American business succeeds. Let me be very clear: Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation. Without healthy competition, big players can change and charge whatever they want. and treat you however they want, and for too many Americans, that means accepting a bad deal for things that can’t go — you can’t go without. Thank you. Thank you.

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President Biden signed an executive order aimed at increasing competition among businesses after some economists warned that declining competition was hobbling the U.S. economy’s vitality.CreditCredit...Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

President Biden signed a sweeping executive order on Friday aimed at spurring competition across the economy, encouraging federal agencies to take a wide range of actions, including more closely scrutinizing the tech industry, cracking down on high fees charged by sea shippers and allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter.

The order reflects the administration’s growing embrace of warnings by some economists that declining competition is hobbling the economy’s vitality, raising prices and reducing choices for consumers in key areas, while dampening pay and restricting workers’ freedom to change jobs.

“What we have seen over the past few decades is less competition and more concentration that holds our economy back,” Mr. Biden said on Friday. “We see it in big agriculture, in big tech, in big pharma — the lists goes on.”

But Mr. Biden may find challenges in addressing that competition decline across diverse sectors of the economy — including Silicon Valley, Wall Street, chain restaurants and large hospital networks — solely through executive action. Experts warn that in many areas, the president will need to work with Congress to change federal laws if he hopes to have more success than former President Donald J. Trump, who also issued competition-focused executive orders and saw limited results from them.

In interviews this week, senior administration officials acknowledged the limitations of executive authority, but said the order chose actions, like directing federal regulators to take steps to boost competition in several areas, that had the best chance of success in driving change across the economy.

The order is a victory for the growing group of lawmakers, academics and rival companies who say government regulators failed to check the growth of corporate America for decades, instead aligning themselves with a conservative view of the law that set a high standard for when the government should block mergers or break up monopolies.

They say that policymakers need to aggressively enforce antitrust laws and possibly rewrite them entirely. Without drastic action, they argue, consumers will have less choice, suppliers of bigger companies will get squeezed and giant corporations will only grow larger.

Biden’s order includes 72 initiatives that take aim at very specific practices the White House wants changed.

Credit...Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

In seeking to protect workers and consumers from what his administration views as the harmful consequences of corporate consolidation, President Biden is enlisting support from regulators across the executive branch in what the White House has described as an overarching, “whole-of-government” effort.

As part of the executive order Mr. Biden signed on Friday, the White House is asking more than a dozen federal agencies for input and action on 72 initiatives designed to increase competition and limit the power of large corporations across a wide range of industries. The order takes aim at a number of highly specific practices the White House has identified as problematic in sectors as diverse as agriculture, health care, transportation and technology.

It calls on the Department of Transportation to create rules requiring airlines to refund fees when baggage is lost or delayed, or when services like in-flight Wi-Fi aren’t provided. It directs the Department of Health and Human Services to propose rules within 120 days allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter. And it encourages the Federal Trade Commission to curb the power of farm equipment manufacturers who often block farmers from repairing their own appliances.

It directs the Federal Communications Commission to bar internet companies from charging consumers termination fees when they switch providers. And it asks the Agriculture Department to prevent meatpacking companies from underpaying chicken farmers.

But the order also aims to address more far-reaching issues the government has struggled with for years. The order asks the health department to standardize health care options in the National Health Insurance Marketplace to make it easier for shoppers to compare plans. And it directs the F.C.C. to revive the net neutrality policy repealed under the Trump administration in order to bar internet providers from blocking or slowing down access to certain web content.

White House officials announced some of the other initiatives on Wednesday, including action to restrict the widespread use of noncompete clauses and occupational licensing requirements that the White House has described as harmful to workers.

“Roughly half of private sector businesses require at least some employees to enter noncompete agreements, affecting over 30 million people — this affects construction workers, hotel workers, many blue-collar jobs, not just high-level executives,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Wednesday. “If someone offers you a better job, you should be able to take it.”

Biden officially named Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles as his ambassador to India.

Credit...Ashley Landis/Associated Press

President Biden on Friday selected Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles as U.S. ambassador to India, nominating the leader of one of the world’s most diverse cities to a key overseas posting, rewarding an ambitious but embattled ally and unleashing a lively scramble to replace him at City Hall.

The announcement, which had been expected since May, came in a batch of high-profile nominations that included career diplomats Peter D. Haas and Bernadette M. Meehan and longtime Democratic fund-raiser Denise Campbell Bauer as the respective ambassadors to Bangladesh, Chile and Monaco.

The selection of Mr. Garcetti put to rest weeks of speculation over whether the president might be reconsidering the invitation, as a flurry of controversies engulfed the mayor’s administration and as homelessness and crime have spiked in Los Angeles.

Mr. Garcetti, 50, has served in city government for two decades in Los Angeles, where more than a third of the population in the greater metropolitan area is foreign-born, and where the port and airport are among the world’s busiest and largest. He is a former Rhodes scholar who has taught international affairs and diplomacy at the University of Southern California and Occidental College.

Mr. Garcetti has been mayor since 2013, leading the city of nearly 4 million people through the pandemic and helping Los Angeles land the 2024 Summer Olympics. After flirting with a presidential run in 2020, he became a co-chairman of President Biden’s campaign.

But as Mr. Garcetti completes his final term as mayor — a stint that has been elongated by a year and a half because of a 2015 voter initiative switching to even-numbered years for city elections — his administration has been confronted by an assortment of sweeping challenges and political scandals.

The city is fighting a federal court order to house everyone on the downtown Skid Row by October, even as estimates of the homeless population countywide have topped 66,000. Homicides in the past year have more than doubled in parts of L.A. Federal prosecutors have charged a former deputy mayor in a bribery scandal. And a former member of Mr. Garcetti’s security detail has sued the city, accusing a former top aide of sexual harassment.

Last month, the mayor placed his chief of staff on unpaid leave after she posted disparaging remarks on a private Facebook page about a number of California political figures, including the 91-year-old labor icon Dolores Huerta.

The controversies, none of which directly involved Mr. Garcetti, had fueled speculation that Mr. Biden might prefer a nominee with less political baggage in a post that will require U.S. Senate confirmation. The mayor initially had been widely discussed as a contender for transportation secretary or another cabinet position. But by December, as those jobs were filled, Mr. Garcetti said he had turned down another unnamed post and preferred to remain in Los Angeles rather than leave in the midst of the pandemic.

The lag in the announcement also complicated the political calculus for local leaders who hope to succeed Mr. Garcetti as mayor, either now or in the 2022 mayoral election. Under the City Charter, the president of the City Council can act as mayor in his absence or the Council can appoint an interim mayor or call a special election.

Several candidates have already officially launched campaigns, including the city attorney, Mike Feuer, and at least one member of the City Council, Joe Buscaino. A number of other officials — including Representative Karen Bass; Nury Martinez, the Council president; and Rick Caruso, a real-estate developer — have been raised as potential successors or have indicated they may run.

Garland’s Justice Department grapples with the legacy of the Trump era.

Credit...Tom Brenner for The New York Times

In his first months as attorney general, an early challenge is coming into focus for Merrick B. Garland: to convince the public that a post-Donald J. Trump Justice Department is not the same as an anti-Trump one.

Mr. Garland, slight, owlish, soft-spoken and deliberative, has had to quickly learn that the scholarly approach that served him as a judge cannot on its own restore independence and credibility to an agency battered by the former president’s attempts to improperly wield its power.

He has struggled to convey his message, according to former law enforcement officials, watching as his agenda was repeatedly subsumed by headlines about politically fraught matters left over from the Trump administration.

In one prominent example, the department defended a legal position taken under the Trump administration in a case involving E. Jean Carroll, a writer who in 2019 publicly accused Mr. Trump of sexually assaulting her 25 years earlier.

The decision to continue that defense was among a spate of moves in Mr. Garland’s first months in office that critics — many on the left — denounced as unnecessarily shielding Mr. Trump and his top officials. The department also moved to keep secret a memo that former Attorney General William P. Barr relied on to clear Mr. Trump in the Russia investigation, and Mr. Garland was reticent when Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee asked for more information about why prosecutors seized their account information from Apple.

Mr. Garland has also reckoned with prosecutors’ fight to obtain reporters’ phone and email records, including imposing gag orders on media companies. Begun during the Trump administration, that effort spilled over into Mr. Garland’s tenure, and he took responsibility in recent discussions with news executives, according to two people briefed on the conversations.

“Everyone should want in an attorney general someone who makes decisions about high-profile cases and the work of the department free from political influence,” said Jonathan Kravis, a former federal prosecutor who clerked for Mr. Garland when he was a judge.

“I don’t think that the goal should be to replace someone like Bill Barr with the left’s version of Bill Barr,” Mr. Kravis added.

‘We have a lot of work to do.’ Schumer warns Democrats to expect a busy July.

Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Late nights. Weekend votes. Maybe even the cancellation of part of Congress’s prized August recess. The Senate’s top leader warned Democrats on Friday to expect an arduous sprint when the chamber returns to session next week to try to push forward much of President Biden’s ambitious economic agenda in two hulking bills.

In a letter mapping out the weeks ahead, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, confirmed that before the Senate leaves town for the summer, he intends to hold votes on both a bipartisan infrastructure package and a budget blueprint for a much larger Democratic bill focused on health care, the environment and social services.

“Please be advised that time is of the essence and we have a lot of work to do,” Mr. Schumer wrote. “Senators should be prepared for the possibility of working long nights, weekends, and remaining in Washington into the previously scheduled August state work period.”

Democratic leaders are hoping the specter of squandered plans will help motivate senators to get through a crush of complicated legislative work that could yield some of the most impactful policy in a decade. If Mr. Schumer is successful, it would advance the largest investment in roads, bridges and other infrastructure in generations and pave the way for a vote by late September to adopt a dramatic expansion of the social safety net and aggressive programs to fight climate change.

But they are likely to face a minefield of challenges in the weeks ahead, any of which could derail the process. A group of moderate Democrats and Republicans agreed to a $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure framework late last month, but they still have to turn it into legislation that can win 60 votes in the Senate and pass the Democratic-led House, which has its own alternative proposal.

At the same time, Democrats will be undertaking a separate effort to push through a far broader economic package using a budget maneuver known as reconciliation that would allow them to sidestep a Republican filibuster. Moderates and progressives are at odds over how much to spend on that measure, which would require the support of all 50 Democrats and independents.

Progressives led by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont are pushing for up to $6 trillion in new spending, paid for by tax increases on corporations and the wealthy, but potentially also new debt. Moderates led by Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia are eyeing a figure that may be one-third of that or less, and are wary of deficit spending.

In his letter, Mr. Schumer said that Democrats would also use its session this month to confirm more judges nominated by Mr. Biden, including a potential nominee to the Supreme Court should a vacancy open up. The comment was a reference to Justice Stephen G. Breyer, 82, the leader of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing, whom many Democrats are hoping will retire while their party still has the votes to confirm a replacement.

“As always, Senate Democrats stand ready to expeditiously fill any potential vacancies on the Supreme Court should they arise,” Mr. Schumer wrote.

Here’s what we know about the new schools guidance the C.D.C. issued on Friday.

Credit...Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance for schools on Friday, urging them to fully reopen and calling on local districts to tailor their public health measures to local coronavirus data.

The recommendations signal a change from the C.D.C.’s past guidelines for schools and arrive less than a month before the first day of school for some districts.

Here’s what we know.

“Layered” prevention strategies

The new guidance continues to recommend that students be spaced at least three feet apart, but schools can rely on combining other strategies, like indoor masking, testing and enhanced ventilation, if such spacing would prevent them from fully reopening.

The guidance suggests masks for all unvaccinated students, teachers or staff members.

The guidance relies greatly on the concept of “layered” prevention, or using multiple strategies at once, like regular screening testing, improving ventilation, promoting hand washing and contact tracing combined with isolation or quarantine, in addition to social distancing and masking.

It also strongly urges schools to promote vaccination, which it called “one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely resume full operations.” But a vaccine has not been authorized for children younger than 12, so a large percentage of students would not be protected from the virus in that manner. As of Friday, 55.9 percent of those 12 and older across the country were fully vaccinated, according to federal data.

A more local approach

The issue of school closures has been contentious and divisive since the pandemic began, and advising school districts has been fraught for the C.D.C. The updated guidance acknowledges that a uniform approach to regulating schools is not useful when virus caseloads and vaccination rates vary so greatly, and suggests that local officials decide on the best precautions for their schools.

In order to do so effectively those officials should closely monitor the virus in their areas, and if districts choose to remove prevention strategies they should remove one at a time, monitoring for any increases in Covid-19, the recommendations say.

The virus and children

Though there are far fewer cases overall than during the winter peak, children have increasingly made up a greater proportion of cases as the pandemic has gone on and, recently, as more adults have been vaccinated.

Serious illnesses and death among children have been rare, and young children are also less likely to transmit the virus to others than are teens and adults. But scientists are concerned about an inflammatory syndrome that can emerge in children weeks after they contract the virus, even those who were not symptomatic when they were infected, and some children experience lingering symptoms often known as long Covid.

And the highly transmissible Delta variant is spreading rapidly in parts of the country with low rates of vaccination — the C.D.C. estimates it is now the dominant variant in the country. Studies suggest that vaccines remain effective against the Delta variant.

Most pregnant and postpartum undocumented immigrants will no longer be detained under a new federal policy.

Credit...Go Nakamura/Reuters

The Biden administration will ease restrictions placed on undocumented people who are pregnant, postpartum or nursing, the latest change in its broader efforts to soften immigration detention policies put in place by former President Donald J. Trump.

Under the new policy, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers generally will not detain or arrest people who are pregnant or nursing, or who had a baby within the previous year, according to a draft of the plan shared with The New York Times and a person familiar with the policy. The language in the policy will be gender neutral, acknowledging that transgender men can give birth — another departure from past directives.

The number of pregnant immigrants in detention increased sharply under Mr. Trump, who reversed a policy put in place in 2016 by President Barack Obama that called for detaining them only under extraordinary circumstances.

Since 2016, ICE has arrested undocumented pregnant immigrants more than 4,000 times, according to internal government data shared with The Times. The number in custody has fallen more recently, partly because of measures to reduce the number of people in congregate settings who are at greater risk of contracting Covid-19. There are currently fewer than 20 such immigrants in custody, staying for an average of three days.

Immigration advocates welcomed President Biden’s new policy, which they said went even further than the 2016 version that was issued when he was vice president. But like Mr. Biden’s other immigration policies to date — all of which have been made through executive orders or directives and not codified in law — protections for undocumented pregnant and postpartum immigrants could disappear under a future administration, just as Mr. Trump rewrote Mr. Obama’s policy.

The new Biden policy will not apply to pregnant, postpartum or nursing migrants in the custody of Customs and Border Protection. Border Patrol agents are typically the first American law enforcement officials to encounter migrants who cross the border, and they typically hold them for only a few days before transferring them to ICE custody.

Though the new policy will affect only a small number of immigrants, it could rankle some conservatives who previously supported an effort by Mr. Trump to nullify the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship, in part to deter migrants from trying to get into the country to deliver babies.

The chief prosecutor at Guantánamo is retiring earlier than expected.

Credit...Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

The Army general who has led war crimes prosecutions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for a decade is retiring and handing off the trial of the five men accused of conspiring in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His successor has not been named.

Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins of the Army served as chief prosecutor for military commissions throughout the Obama and Trump administrations.

His decision to retire came as a surprise because he had obtained an extension to serve in the post until Jan. 1, 2023. Instead, he will retire on Sept. 30, according to a notice sent by Karen V. Loftus, a prosecution staff member, to families of the 3,000 people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

General Martins, a Harvard Law School-educated West Point graduate, had for many years been the public face of military commissions. In his first years in the position, he undertook a speaking campaign to promote the hybrid form of justice that the Bush administration established after the invasion of Afghanistan.

Ms. Loftus said General Martins chose to retire “in the best interests of the ongoing cases.” Military Commissions hearings are scheduled to resume next week for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

Finance ministers are meeting to finalize details of a global minimum tax on big companies.

Credit...Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

The world’s top economic leaders are convening on Friday to hash out crucial details of a deal to put an end to global tax havens and force multinational corporations to pay an appropriate share of tax wherever they operate.

Negotiations are entering what officials hope to be the final stretch as finance ministers from the Group of 20 nations meet. Officials hope to complete a deal by October, when the leaders of the G20 countries return to Italy for the last summit of the year, Alan Rappeport reports for The New York Times.

Last week, 130 countries backed a conceptual framework for the new tax plan.

The blueprint includes a global minimum tax of at least 15 percent. The agreement also is intended to put an end to a cascade of digital services taxes that many countries around the world, including Britain, France and Italy, are adopting to capture more tax revenue from American technology companies.

The United States wants European countries to drop their digital services taxes immediately, but policymakers have suggested that they could remain in place until a new agreement is fully enacted, which could take years. The European Union is also pressing ahead with a new digital levy even as the tax talks proceed.

Other outstanding issues remain to be worked out this weekend and in the coming months, including the exact rate that global companies would face.

The leader of the Oath Keepers spoke voluntarily with F.B.I. agents about the Capitol riot.

Credit...Susan Walsh/Associated Press

It was shortly after federal agents confronted him in May outside a boutique hotel in Lubbock, Texas, seizing his cellphone with a warrant, that Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, made a bold decision: Even though he had just gotten undeniable proof that he was under investigation, he agreed to be questioned about his — and his militia’s — role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Against the advice of a lawyer, Mr. Rhodes spoke freely with the agents about the Capitol assault for nearly three hours, he said in an interview on Friday. Mr. Rhodes said that he denied that he or any other Oath Keepers had intended to disrupt Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote — the chief accusation the government has lodged against 16 members of the group who are charged with conspiracy.

He also said he told the agents that members of his militia went into the building only after they had heard that someone had been shot inside and wanted to render aid. (A New York Times visual investigation of the events of Jan. 6 did not find evidence of Mr. Rhodes’s claims.)

For months, the government has quietly acknowledged that investigators have been scrutinizing the role that Mr. Rhodes played in the Jan. 6 assault, but the fact that he voluntarily submitted to an F.B.I. interview was a new step in the inquiry. In court papers connected to the case of his associates, Mr. Rhodes has been identified as Person 1 and prosecutors have described how he was in direct communication with some suspects before, during and after the assault.

Speaking with investigators in the middle of a criminal inquiry is a risk even though Mr. Rhodes had a lawyer, Kellye SoRelle, present with him. Mr. Rhodes said that he was not the only Oath Keeper leader to have talked with federal agents in recent weeks. After he was questioned, one of his top lieutenants, a man he identified as Whip (and who is known as Person 10 in court papers), also spoke voluntarily with the F.B.I.

“We’ve got nothing to hide,” Mr. Rhodes said.