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Calls, texts by Oath Keepers founder contain ‘substantial evidence’ of Capitol conspiracy, prosecutors allege

Oath Keepers member Jessica Watkins, left, at the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes exchanged a 97-second call with someone helping to lead a helmeted formation of Oath Keepers members and associates nine minutes before the group pushed past police and broken doors to force its way into the Capitol on Jan. 6, U.S. prosecutors alleged for the first time.

In an overnight court filing, prosecutors said the call and other direct communications by Rhodes that day indicate “substantial evidence” of a conspiracy to stop Congress’s confirmation of the 2020 presidential election by Oath Keepers members and others.

A timeline submitted by the government in a court filing just before midnight Thursday opposing the release of Ohio Oath Keepers member Jessica Watkins disputes her assertions that the actions of a charged 10-member group at the Capitol were nonviolent. The filing also appears to dispute some of Rhodes’s previous explanations of his communications.

Rhodes, referred to not by name but as “Person One” in court documents, has not been charged and is not accused of wrongdoing.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was in direct contact with rioters before and during Capitol breach, U.S. alleges

U.S. prosecutors have charged at least 14 members or associates of the Oath Keepers, a loosely organized network of right-wing groups including self-styled militias that recruits military, law enforcement and first-responder personnel with a disinformation-fueled ideology that predicts the collapse of an increasingly tyrannical federal government.

Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate and onetime aide to libertarian congressman Ron Paul, has maintained he was not at the Capitol when the siege began.

In interviews with The Washington Post, he has described previous government disclosures of his posts to an encrypted Signal group titled “DC Ops 1” of regional Oath Keepers leaders from several states at the scene as an effort to call them together outside the building to “keep them out of trouble.” He said he later learned in a phone conversation with charged Florida Oath Keepers member Kelly Meggs that some “went totally off mission” and had gone inside.

The new government filing appears to reverse that chronology, beginning around 2:15 p.m., when prosecutors said Rhodes forwarded a message from a person who allegedly led a group of Oath Keepers members providing “security” that day.

They “have taken ground at the capital[.] We need to regroup any members who are not on mission,” the message said, as the mob was storming the Capitol.

“Critically after these messages, at around 2:32 p.m., [Rhodes] exchanged a 97 second call with ‘stack’ member and FL Oath Keepers leader, Kelly Meggs,” prosecutors alleged, “as, Meggs, Watkins, and the rest of the stack embedded themselves at east side Capitol building double doors.”

Prosecutors allege ‘alliance’ between Proud Boys and Oath Keepers on Jan. 6

Scores of rioters were recorded on video at that time surrounding and assaulting police, blocking the doors, firing pepper spray and chanting, “Take their shields,” “Our house,” and “We want Trump!” prosecutors allege.

Minutes later, at 2:41 p.m., Rhodes posted a photograph captioned, “South side of US Capitol. Patriots pounding on doors,” while Watkins and Meggs, positioned at the front of the “stack,” forcibly entered the Capitol by pushing past police and severely damaged Capitol building doors, prosecutors said.

About that same time that the Meggs-Watkins group allegedly entered, according to court filings, Rhodes posted another photo to the Signal chat, captioned, “Trump better do his damn duty.”

Other participants in the group, prosecutors said, discussed the movements of riot control officers. Prosecutors allege one of those participants included Joshua A. James, a separately charged Oath Keepers associate from Alabama who was a driver for Trump political confidant Roger Stone at a rally on Jan. 5 as part of his security detail.

“SWAAT should stand down and abide by their oath,” one said, and another commented, “Hopefully anyone inside the capitol is barricading themselves in and continually reinforce their positions for the long haul,” prosecutors said.

Finally, after members of the charged co-defendants gathered around Rhodes outside the Capitol about 4 p.m., a participant in the Signal chat stated, “Fight the good fight. Stand your ground,” the court filing states.

DOJ seeks to build large conspiracy case against Oath Keepers for Jan. 6 riot

That night, at 7:41 p.m., Rhodes allegedly likened the Capitol breach to the Boston Tea Party, writing: “The founding generation Sons of Liberty stormed the mansion of the corrupt Royal Governor of Massachusetts, and trashed the place. . . . We are actually in a far more deadly situation given the FACT that enemies foreign and domestic have subverted, infiltrated, and taken over near every single office and level of power in this nation,” prosecutors said.

He continued, according to the court filing: “We have one FINAL chance to get Trump to do his job and his duty. Patriots entering their own Capitol to send a message to the traitors is NOTHING compared to what’s coming if Trump doesn’t take decisive action right now. It helped to send that message to HIM. He was the most important audience today. I hope he got the message.”

At 7:34 a.m., the next day, prosecutors said, James, 33, wrote on the Signal group, “Trump conceded . . . its over. We lose.”

Seeking release from jail pending trial, Watkins has called the riot a peaceful protest that turned violent. She was photographed helping individuals out of the Capitol, and said that Oath Keepers protected police and were wearing helmets, tactical vests and other gear only to defend themselves.

But prosecutors said videos showed her and others “acting aggressively toward riot police officers” inside the building, trying to push past police who were guarding a hallway and protecting the building’s “hidden occupants.”

Rioters try to break past police in U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6. (Video: Newsflare)

“Push, push, push,” someone with a voice resembling Watkins’s shouted, adding, “Get in there, get in there,” and, “They [police] can’t hold us,” before police sprayed her with a chemical irritant, prosecutors asserted.

The filing by prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in the District and the Justice Department’s national security division comes days after former investigation supervisor Michael R. Sherwin left the probe, telling CBS News’s “60 Minutes” that he believed evidence was “trending toward” seditious conspiracy charges.

The federal judge overseeing the Meggs-Watkins case admonished prosecutors, and the Justice Department launched an internal investigation into whether Sherwin’s comments violated rules against attorneys making potentially prejudicial pretrial public statements out of court.

The Oath Keepers co-defendants face charges of conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding of Congress, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Seditious conspiracy, defined as conspiring to overthrow or oppose by force federal authority, including the use of violence to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of law, also carries up to a 20-year penalty.

Since Jan. 6, Rhodes has blasted the government’s tightening circle around his organization in phone interviews, text messages and an hour-long in-person interview with The Post.

“Just so we’re clear on this: We had no plan to enter the Capitol, zero plan to do that, zero instructions to do that,” Rhodes said on Feb. 28.

Asked whether he expected to be charged with a crime, Rhodes said, “I don’t know.” He said that prosecutors “are trying to manufacture a nonexistent conspiracy. I didn’t say, ‘Don’t enter the Capitol.’ I never figured they would do that.”

Rhodes did not respond to the government’s allegation about the timing of the call with Meggs from Thursday’s filing.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said prosecutors alleged Stewart Rhodes was on a call with someone among a group of Oath Keepers and associates six minutes before they forced their way into the Capitol. The call allegedly occurred nine minutes before the breach. The story also incorrectly listed the man prosecutors said was a driver for Roger Stone on Jan. 5. This story has been updated.

Tom Jackman, Rachel Weiner and Elyse Samuels contributed to this report.

The Jan. 6 insurrection

The report: The Jan. 6 committee released its final report, marking the culmination of an 18-month investigation into the violent insurrection. Read The Post’s analysis about the committee’s new findings and conclusions.

The final hearing: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held its final public meeting where members referred four criminal charges against former president Donald Trump and others to the Justice Department. Here’s what the criminal referrals mean.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6. Here’s what we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6.