Members of the extremist group Oath Keepers led by Stewart Rhodes planned for an armed rebellion “to shatter a bedrock of American democracy” — the peaceful transfer of presidential power — culminating in their role in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, a prosecutor told a jury Monday in the first seditious conspiracy trial of the sprawling Jan. 6 investigation.
Rhodes and four co-defendants that day staged an “arsenal” of firearms in nearby Virginia and several forcibly breached the Capitol with a mob to prevent Congress from confirming President Biden’s 2020 election victory, thwarting the will of U.S. voters and elected representatives, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said during opening statements in federal court.
“That was their goal — to stop by whatever means necessary the lawful transfer of presidential power, including by taking up arms against the United States government,” Nestler said. Descending on Washington “to attack not just the Capitol, not just Congress, not just our government — but our country itself.”
Rhodes’s defense decried the prosecution as “government mischaracterization and government overreach.” Oath Keepers came to Washington as “peacekeeping” security guards who “had no part in the bulk of the violence that occurred on January 6th,” attorney Phillip Linder said, believing that President Donald Trump could invoke the Insurrection Act to mobilize private militias, put down riots and remain in power.
“That is why he did what he did,” Linder said, adding that Rhodes would testify in his own defense. “You’re going to hear from Stewart Rhodes himself about who he is, about the Oath Keepers, what their role is and what their role was on January 6th.”
What to know about the Oath Keepers sedition trial
- Stewart Rhodes, founder and leader of Oath Keepers, is charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 riot.
- He is accused of guiding a months-long effort to unleash politically motivated violence to prevent the swearing-in of President Biden.
- Rhodes is the most high-profile person charged in the investigation so far.
- Five members of the extremist group Oath Keepers, including leader Stewart Rhodes, face trial.
- Prosecutors will try to convince jurors that Rhodes and his group intentionally conspired to use force to prevent President Biden’s swearing-in.
- The trial is an important step in the wider probe, analysts say.
The clashing views of democracy, patriotism and violence at the seat of the U.S. government during the handoff from Trump to Biden played out in the most-anticipated trial to arise from the Jan. 6. 2021, Capitol siege. Held at a federal courthouse blocks from the Capitol where events unfolded 21 months ago, the trial of Rhodes — a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law graduate who has become one of the most visible figures of the far-right anti-government movement — poses a major legal and political test of the Biden administration’s pledge to combat domestic terrorism, as well as the law and the courts.
Prosecutors in court and lawmakers in a parallel House investigation describe the Oath Keepers as an anti-government group that played an outsize role in organizing individuals to come to the Capitol prepared for violence. The group’s leaders worked with Trump post-election “Stop the Steal” advisers who spent weeks making unfounded allegations of election fraud, including former national security aide Michael Flynn and longtime political confidant Roger Stone.
On the day networks declared the election for Biden, Nov. 7, Rhodes shared a text with Stone and others asking, “What’s the plan?” the prosecution’s first witness, an FBI agent, testified. Rhodes then shared an action plan from an anti-government uprising in Serbia that included storming its parliament.
Four days after Jan. 6, Nestler told jurors, Rhodes urged an intermediary to tell Trump, “It’s still not too late too take action.” But the person secretly recorded Rhodes. “My only regret is that they should have brought rifles” into the city, Rhodes said in audio Nestler played to jurors.
Nine of at least 33 alleged Oath Keepers members or associates arrested on charges related to the Jan. 6 riot have pleaded guilty, including seven to conspiracy charges, and several of them are expected to testify for the government against Rhodes.
Rhodes and 10 others were indicted in January on three related conspiracy charges, plotting to oppose by force federal authority and laws related to Biden’s swearing-in; to obstruct an official proceeding of Congress; and to impede lawmakers from discharging their duties. The first two charges are punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Nine remaining defendants face trial this week and in early November on those charges and others alleging destruction of federal property, destruction of evidence, and impeding police in a riot.
Four others are on trial with Rhodes, including three who have served in the military. Kelly Meggs, 53, is an auto dealer from Dunnellon, Fla. Kenneth Harrelson, 42, of Titusville, Fla., and Ohio militia leader and bar owner Jessica Watkins, 39, of Woodstock are Army veterans. Thomas Caldwell, 68, of, Berryville, Va., is a retired Navy intelligence officer.
In a 75-minute opening statement, prosecutors recapped a 48-page, 17-count indictment and alleged dramatic new details.
Nestler told jurors that on Jan. 6 just as 14 Oath Keepers co-conspirators allegedly pushed past police and through the Capitol’s East Rotunda doors after marching up the steps in military-style formation and gear, Rhodes stood back “like a general overseeing the battlefield” and did not enter the building. The prosecutor said Rhodes was recorded on video saying of lawmakers inside: “They need to be sh-----g their pants. Sic semper tyrannis!”
“Thus always to tyrants,” Nestler translated from the Latin after playing the video for jurors.
“It’s what John Wilkes Booth yelled when he assassinated President Lincoln,” Nestler said.
Nestler gave the jury of nine men and seven women a panoramic view of actions spanning from the Nov. 3, 2020, election, through the Capitol attack and up to the first co-defendants’ arrests on Jan. 17, 2021.
While Rhodes named his group for the oath sworn by members of the U.S. military “to defend the Constitution against all enemies,” Nestler argued that the philosophy “perverts the constitutional order.”
“He preaches to his followers that they should disobey orders that he says are unconstitutional,” Nestler said.
The prosecutor said Rhodes’s orders unfolded beginning Nov. 4 and that he told an invitation-only message group of Oath Keepers leaders to ignore the election results: “We aren’t getting through this without a civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit,” On Nov. 10, after contacting Stone and Oath Keepers leaders, he published openly to Oath Keepers a “step-by-step” call to action modeled after the Serbian plot that included storming parliament after filling the streets and seeking support from the police and military.
On Nov. 9, Rhodes laid out that they should use “code or shorthand” when describing their plan to stop the transfer of power through violence if necessary, by linking it to Trump’s use of the Insurrection Act, “magic words” that gave them “plausible deniability” for any actions to follow, Nestler alleged. Another “alarmed follower” recorded Rhodes saying on a Nov. 9 conference call that mentioning the law would give the group “legal cover” for bringing firearms as part of “quick reaction force” teams to Washington for use as needed.
In open letters in December 2020, Rhodes elaborated by calling on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, saying that “millions” of American gun owners stood ready to answer his “call to arms.” Rhodes said that on Jan. 6, if Congress defied his false claims of a stolen election, “tens of thousands of patriotic Americans … will already be in Washington D.C., and many of us will have our mission-critical gear stowed nearby just outside D.C., and we will answer the call right then and there.”
As officials including Trump’s own attorney general, William P. Barr, and White House attorneys said there was no evidence of anything that would cast doubt on Biden’s win, Rhodes wrote on Christmas Day, “The only chance we/he has is if we scare the s--- out of them [Congress] and convince them it will be torches and pitchforks time,” Nestler said.
Rhodes purchased tens of thousands of dollars worth of firearms and related gear in the days before and after Jan. 6, and seven co-conspirators including co-defendants Meggs, Harrelson and Caldwell were seen stashing firearms cases and bags at a Comfort Inn in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, across the Potomac, where “heavy” QRF teams from Florida, Arizona and North Carolina had rooms, Nestler said.
Meggs and Caldwell allegedly laid plans to transport firearms by boat if bridges to Washington were closed, Nestler said. Meggs and Harrelson and others engaged in firearms and “unconventional warfare” training in Florida, including from a man who Meggs allegedly told a cooperating witness drove to Washington with hand grenades inside his recreational vehicle that the FBI later recovered.
On Jan. 6, Meggs searched for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.,) inside the Capitol, while Watkins allegedly impeded police guarding an entrance to the Senate chamber, Nestler said.
“We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They are throwing grenades, they are fricking shooting people with paint balls. But we are in here,” Watkins shouted over a push-to-talk radio-phone app, according to a recording played by Nestler.
“Get it, Jess,” an Illinois Oath Keepers leader not at the Capitol responded, “This is … everything we f---ing trained for!” Nestler said.
In defense, Linder said government and media accounts were wrong, that the prosecution revealed little new that wasn’t laid out in charging papers, and promised “surprises” when the defense’s turn to present evidence came.
Linder said the defendants face “substantial prison sentences” and have been portrayed as “a paramilitary group, a racist group, a violent group.” His statements drew a warning from U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta, who said the latter assertions are not alleged by the government and that sentencing penalties are withheld from jurors so they do not form judgments about defendants’ guilt.
Linder suggested government cooperators lied in pursuit of leniency. He singled out Oath Keepers member William Todd Wilson, who said in his seditious conspiracy guilty plea that he heard Rhodes “repeatedly implore” someone on the night of Jan. 6 to tell Trump to call on the Oath Keepers.
“That call doesn’t exist,” Linder told jurors in a 22-minute opening statement, “You will get a different picture of this case than what the government has sold you here in openings.”
Linder said the Quick Reaction Forces were “reactive and defensive only,” for use “if Trump called them in.”
Caldwell attorney David W. Fischer Sr., blasted the FBI for what he called incompetence and overreach in its pursuit of his client, saying it initially described him as a “mastermind” of the attack, believed wrongly that he entered the building, misidentified his age and eye color, and did not know he formerly worked for the FBI.
“It’s an absolute outrage,” Fischer said. “I’m begging you to clear his name.”
Watkins’s attorney Jonathan W. Crisp said his client was a former firefighter and “protest junkie” who joined the Oath Keepers in 2019 out of a compulsion to protect people as a medic at demonstrations such as those in Louisville following the police killing of Breonna Taylor. Crisp said Watkins had no role in planning for any attack on the Capitol, did not meet or speak with Rhodes before Jan. 6, and undertook other actions such as recruiting and training members well before Trump announced a Jan. 6 rally.
“You will learn her desire to serve and protect ultimately is what took her to D.C. this day,” Crisp said. “What you will also learn is that Jessica is a transgender woman, and that has impacted who she is and her relationship with the Oath Keepers around her. A lot of things she did that day was because she tried to fit in.”
Attorneys for Meggs and Harrelson deferred making opening statements until the government rests its case, expected in about four weeks.
Nestler urged jurors to weigh what the defendants said to each other about “storming the Capitol,” not what they claimed to outsiders about helping police or “anyone other than themselves.”
That is an “after-the-fact justification” by “people who held themselves up as pro-law and order, pro-military, pro-police, to craft the story that they were on the side of righteousness that day. They were not,” Nestler said.
He repeated for emphasis: “In these conspirators’ narrative, they were patriots. They were not.”
The Oath Keepers trial
The latest: Members of the extremist group Oath Keepers, led by founder Stewart Rhodes, planned for an armed rebellion “to shatter a bedrock of American democracy” on Jan. 6, a prosecutor told a jury. Here’s the latest from the seditious conspiracy trial.
How did we get here: Stewart Rhodes and other members of his group have been charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Who is involved: A 13-count indictment charges Stewart Rhodes and eight others with conspiring to use force to oppose the lawful transfer of power to President Biden. Here are the nine Oath Keepers on trial.