At the first U.S. seditious conspiracy trial in a decade, federal prosecutors have drawn a direct link over and over again between lead defendant Stewart Rhodes — accused of conspiring by force to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election culminating in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack — and longtime Donald Trump political confidant Roger Stone.
Minutes after news networks declared Joe Biden the election’s winner on Nov. 7, 2020, an FBI agent testified this week, Rhodes wrote Stone and others on a “Friends of Stone” encrypted chat group set up to plot Trump’s defiant post-election strategy: “What’s the plan? We need to roll ASAP.”
Rhodes included his own proposal — inspired by a Serbian academic’s call for Americans to fill the streets and storm Congress — whose “parallels to what these defendants actually tried to accomplish is stunning,” U.S. prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler told jurors.
Stone has consistently denied any knowledge of or involvement in illegal acts at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and his ties to the right-wing extremist group Rhodes founded — the Oath Keepers — were no secret, as several members of the group guarded him in Washington that morning before joining the riot.
However, by raising his name repeatedly in the trial of Rhodes and four others, U.S. prosecutors in court have made clear Stone and others remain objects of inquiry. The Justice Department and the FBI have long been interested in any role high-profile right-wing figures such as Stone may have played in events, whether or not anyone who may have influenced rioters bears enough responsibility to justify potential criminal charges, analysts said.
“It seems like the prosecution is treating Stone as an unindicted co-conspirator,” said Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at George Washington University.
A “one-way transmission” from Rhodes does not establish that Stone or any other Trump advisers were part of any conspiracy, said former federal prosecutor and University of Michigan law professor Barbara McQuade. But if Rhodes testifies as his defense attorney has promised later in the projected six-week trial, McQuade said she expects prosecutors will ask him questions that could provide those links, such as why he sent the plan to Stone, whether they had prior conversations about attacking the Capitol, and who told Rhodes that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act to mobilize private militias, which Rhodes has asserted as a defense.
More details may emerge in coming days from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, which has subpoenaed footage of Stone for a hearing Thursday. An earlier witness, Trump administration aide Cassidy Hutchinson, recalled discussions of both the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys in the White House during the Jan. 6 planning and testified that Trump wanted to contact Stone on Jan. 5.
U.S. prosecutors on Monday said Rhodes relayed to Oath Keepers followers and the Friends of Stone group a “step-by-step” action plan that he had discussed with Aleksandar Savic. The Serbian academic on Nov. 6 posted a viral online video of himself in an office addressing a camera, urging Americans to follow the lead of a U.S.-backed uprising that began in 1999 against Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic: swarm the streets, fight the police until they switch sides and storm parliament.
Savic could not be reached, but in January told Talking Points Memo that shortly afterward he contacted Rhodes to thank the Oath Keepers for sharing his video and “recapitulated” his views therein, but declined to share with TPM his emails with Rhodes, citing privacy. But Savic “denied his video played any role in the actions that the Oath Keepers later took,” according to TPM’s story.
Rhodes’s eagerness to share the Serbian link provides a window into his thinking at a moment during the 2020 post-election struggle when, after years of bombastic and apocalyptic rhetoric, he seemingly took a fateful step toward militant action, in prosecutors’ telling.
“So will you step up and push Trump to FINALLY take decisive action?” Rhodes asked the Stone group the day networks called the election for Biden, according to a text read in court. “That’s what we must do now. And then if he still refuses to do his duty, we will still have to do ours and we will.”
Whether Stone read those messages and if so, what he made of them remains unknown.
“I think we’ll have to wait and see if other evidence comes out that ties them all together,” Eliason said. “But it may be less about Stone himself and just about the fact that they were all sharing a plan that involved a similar uprising and storming the parliament in Serbia. I think that would be important evidence for a seditious conspiracy charge regardless of who was involved in sharing the plan — Stone or someone else.”
The Washington Post has reported that Stone told aides to keep tabs on his chat conversation, which included the longtime leader of another far-right group, the Proud Boys’ Henry “Enrique” Tarrio. Stone remained in contact with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida and in Washington in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 attack, coordinating post-election protests and privately strategizing with figures such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn and “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander.
Prosecutors have laid out evidence that Rhodes had a pattern of issuing similar communications simultaneously to both the Friends of Stone chat group and to a chat group including charged Oath Keepers members and co-defendants. Days before the riot, Rhodes told leaders in the Oath Keepers that he was “busy on back channel working groups trying to advise the president,” according to the messages read in court.
What to know about the Oath Keepers sedition trial
- Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
- He is accused of guiding a months-long effort to unleash politically motivated violence to prevent the swearing-in of President Biden.
- Where do things stand now? Some Oath Keepers have been convicted and others still face trial.
- Rhodes is the most high-profile person charged in the investigation so far.
- The Oath Keepers trial is the highest-profile prosecution to arise from the 2021 Capitol chaos.
- The trial is an important step in the wider probe, analysts say.
Asked for comment, a representative for Stone pointed to a statement he has previously provided The Post: “Any claim, assertion or implication that I knew about, was involved in or condoned the illegal acts at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is categorically false and there is no witness or document that proves otherwise.”
Extremism analysts said there were too many forces feeding into Jan. 6 to say that Savic’s video played a driving role, although it did go viral among Trump “Stop the Steal” organizers, QAnon conspiracy theorists and right-wing figures such as Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward.
Still, Rhodes’s adoption and re-circulation of it had an important practical and legal impact, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.
“Savic’s violent narrative shared with the Oath Keepers helped refine a widely shared vision among hardened election deniers into something more detailed and tactical,” said Levin. “Savic provided the coaching details on a play that Rhodes had already assigned himself to quarterback.”
Vuk Vuksanovic, senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, a Serbian think tank, said that it was “paradoxical” that Savic’s model for Trump was an uprising backed by a Democratic administration when Biden led Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vuksanovic, who formerly worked at Serbia’s Foreign Ministry, said he had never heard of Savic, whose views seemed “chaotic” and driven by grievance over personal setbacks, adding, “I can’t say the Oath Keepers are particularly sophisticated ideologically if they found inspiration in something like this.”
Stone’s connection to the Oath Keepers dates back at least as far as the 2016 election, when the group answered his call to monitor polling places for signs of Democratic fraud. The election fraud campaign led to accusations of voter intimidation but was rendered moot by Trump’s victory. In 2020, Stone revived the organization he had used to claim fraud four years earlier: “Stop the Steal.”
Again, Stone and Rhodes were in sync. Stone said on Alex Jones’s show in September 2020 that if Biden won, Trump should consider invoking the Insurrection Act, a call taken up by Rhodes after the election.
“People keep saying invoking the Insurrection Act is a ‘last resort.’ Trump cannot wait til after Jan 6 to expose all the traitors,” Rhodes texted the Stone group on Dec. 15. “He must do it NOW.”
That proposed course of action disturbed some members of the group, including one leader from West Virginia who testified this week that he was concerned enough to secretly record an internal meeting and share it with the FBI.
“The more I listened to the call, it sounded like we were going to war against the United States government, so I just recorded it,” said Abdullah Rasheed. He said he tried to warn other law enforcement agencies, writing U.S. Capitol Police that Rhodes was “a friggin’ wacko,” but that the FBI ignored his tip until after the Capitol attack, according to the testimony.
Michael Adams, who helped organize Oath Keepers in Florida in 2020, testified that he was also alienated by Rhodes’s insistence that the election was stolen and claim that if Trump “didn’t declare the Insurrection Act and call up the militias, then we would have to do that.”
Adams called Rhodes’s rhetoric “unchained,” telling jurors, “I didn’t feel like I was part of ‘we.’ That’s not my ideology. I didn’t want to be associated with that.”
Jacqueline Alemany and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.