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FBI got tip about Oath Keepers’ plans for armed fight in November 2020

An FBI agent resumed testimony in the trial of Stewart Rhodes and others indicted with him in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol

A demonstrator wears an Oath Keepers emblem on a protective vest during a protest outside the Supreme Court on Jan. 5, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg News)

On Nov. 9, 2020, as Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes told members of his paramilitary group to get ready to fight for President Donald Trump in the streets of Washington, one listener was secretly recording, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.

An “increasingly alarmed follower” recorded the meeting and shared it with law enforcement, prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler said Monday in the federal trial of Rhodes and four others accused of a seditious conspiracy to keep Trump in office. But the tip, sent to the FBI on Nov. 25, 2020, was apparently ignored. Special Agent Michael Palian said in the second day of his testimony that he saw the message only when the tipster re-sent it in March 2021, after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, and he was not aware of anyone reaching out to the person earlier.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday on the testimony. Federal and local law enforcement officials received an avalanche of tips warning of violence in Washington to keep Trump in power, yet the Capitol was only lightly protected when lawmakers convened to certify Joe Biden’s victory on Jan. 6. A Justice Department inspector general’s investigation of the security failures is ongoing.

On the November call, according to court records, Rhodes told more than 100 people that “we’ve got to be in D.C. … You’ve got to make sure that [Trump] knows that you are willing to die, to fight for this country.”

As he did repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 riot, Rhodes said he hoped Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act, which he believed would allow the president to authorize the Oath Keepers to use force against fellow Americans.

“If he does that, then D.C. gun laws won’t matter,” Rhodes said. “I do want some Oath Keepers to stay on the outside and to stay fully armed and prepared to go in armed if they have to.”

Palian testified that Kenneth Harrelson, Kelly Meggs and Jessica Watkins, three Oath Keepers on trial with Rhodes, were also on the call.

After the call, Palian testified, Meggs sent a message to fellow Florida Oath Keepers: “We have been issued a call to action for DC. This is the moment we signed up for.” Because of the city’s strict gun laws, he said, “it will need to be all hand to hand,” suggesting “mace pepper spray and stun guns.”

Days before the recorded meeting, Palian testified, Rhodes sent messages calling for armed resistance to Biden in a group chat that included Trump confidant Roger Stone.

“The final defense is us and our rifles,” Rhodes wrote on Nov. 7, according to the records. “Trump has a duty to stand, but so far [he] hasn’t. As Roger Stone said. Trump has one last chance, right now, to stand. But he will need us and our rifles too. But will he FINALLY act? Only if WE act and call on him to lead us.”

Rhodes repeatedly referenced the 2000 overthrow of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, saying Trump supporters needed to follow the same playbook — which included storming the country’s parliament building and setting it on fire.

Stone, who helped organize “Stop the Steal” protests for Trump, was in Washington on Jan. 6 with Oath Keepers who later stormed the Capitol, according to prosecutors. The Justice Department has been investigating ties between the rioters and Stone, who is not charged and has denied any involvement in the riot.

Trump did not name Jan. 6, 2021, as the day for a “wild” D.C. rally until December, three weeks after the FBI was sent the tip about the Oath Keepers call. Earlier messages among the Oath Keepers suggest they were planning for action on Inauguration Day. Members of the group also participated in three pro-Trump rallies in Washington between Election Day and Jan. 6, and defense attorneys told jurors there were “quick reaction forces” every time. Palian said that while no charges were filed until after Jan. 6, those events are now “considered part of the conspiracy” and a “learning experience.”

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What to know about the Oath Keepers sedition trial

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That conspiracy was to use the Insurrection Act as “legal cover” for what the Oath Keepers knew was an illegal plan to thwart Biden’s victory, prosecutors argued. In the November meeting, played in court, Rhodes is heard warning others, “Don’t make it easy for them to pop you with a conspiracy charge and do you like they did those guys in Michigan” — a reference to a kidnapping plot against the state’s Democratic governor over coronavirus precautions.

“They said out loud and in writing what they intended to do,” Nestler said in his opening statement in U.S. District Court in Washington. “In some ways, they planned their conspiracy in plain sight.”

But the defense argued that the reliance on the Insurrection Act was sincere, pointing to a 2020 New York Times article circulated among the Oath Keepers with the line, “If the president decides unrest rises to the level of insurrection, there is little Congress or the courts can do to stop him, legal experts say.”

What you need to know about the Oath Keepers trial

Thomas Caldwell, a retired Navy intelligence officer from Virginia, is the only person on trial who was not on the Nov. 9 call and was not a dues-paying Oath Keeper. His attorney David Fischer argued in opening statements that Caldwell “couldn’t storm his way out of a paper bag.”

Who are the Oath Keepers going to trial on seditious conspiracy charges?

Palian testified that to the contrary, Caldwell “was at a minimum coordinating and in my opinion leading” one of the “quick reaction forces.” The agent added: “I don’t think $50 determines whether somebody’s a member of an organization. … It costs zero dollars to join a gang, and you can be a member of a gang without paying any money.”

U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta had barred prosecutors from mentioning that Caldwell had a “death list” of two Georgia poll workers who had been targeted by the Trump campaign. But when Fischer asked why the FBI moved so quickly to arrest Caldwell, insinuating that it was because of political pressure, Palian responded that it was because the defendant made “violent statements about killing politicians and storming state capitols.”

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

The Oath Keepers trial

The latest: Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes has been found guilty of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. Closing arguments at the Oath Keepers trial capped the highest-profile prosecution to arise from the 2021 Capitol chaos.

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.

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