By ALANNA DURKIN RICHER, MICHAEL KUNZELMAN and LINDSAY WHITEHURST
WASHINGTON (AP) — The founder of the Oath Keepers extremist group and four associates planned an “armed rebellion” to keep President Donald Trump in power, a federal prosecutor contended Monday as the most serious case yet went to trial in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Stewart Rhodes and his band of extremists were prepared to go to war to stop Joe Biden from becoming president, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler told jurors. The group celebrated the Capitol attack as a victory in that fight and continued their plot even after Biden’s electoral victory was certified, Nestler alleged.
“Their goal was to stop, by whatever means necessary, the lawful transfer of presidential power, including by taking up arms against the United States government,” the prosecutor said during his opening statement. “They concocted a plan for armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy.”
The five defendants are the first Jan. 6 defendants to stand trial on the charge of seditious conspiracy, a rare Civil War-era charge that calls for up to 20 years behind bars. The stakes are high for the Justice Department, which last secured a seditious conspiracy conviction at trial nearly 30 years ago, and intends to try two more groups on the charge later this year.
Defense attorneys accused prosecutors of cherry-picking evidence from messages and videos and said the government has no evidence there ever was any plan to attack the Capitol. Rhodes’ attorney said his client will take the stand and show that the Oath Keepers had merely been preparing for orders they expected from Trump but never came.
“Stewart Rhodes meant no harm to the Capitol that day. Stewart Rhodes did not have any violent intent that day,” Rhodes’ attorney, Phillip Linder, said. “The story the government is trying to tell you today is completely wrong.”
On trial with Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, are Kelly Meggs, leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers; Kenneth Harrelson, another Florida Oath Keeper; Thomas Caldwell, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer from Virginia, and Jessica Watkins, who led an Ohio militia group. They face several other charges as well.
They are among roughly 900 people who have been charged in the attack, which temporarily halted the certification of Biden’s electoral victory, sent lawmakers running for cover and left dozens of police officers injured.
In the Oath Keepers case, prosecutors will try to prove that their actions were not a spontaneous outpouring of election-fueled rage but part of a detailed, drawn-out plot to stop Biden from entering the White House.
The Oath Keepers “were prepared in November, they were prepared in December and when the opportunity finally presented itself on Jan 6, 2021, they sprang into action,” Nestler said.
Rhodes began plotting to overturn Biden’s victory right after the election, Nestler said. In November 2020, Rhodes sent his followers a step-by-step plan for stopping the transfer of power based on a popular uprising that brought down Yugoslavia’s president two decades earlier. As December approached, Rhodes’ rhetoric became increasingly violent and desperate, Nestler said.
In messages and comments read to the jury, the Oath Keepers repeatedly warned of violence if Biden were to become president. During a December interview, Rhodes called senators “traitors” and warned that the Oath Keepers would have to “overthrow, abort or abolish Congress.” He described Jan. 6 as a “hard constitutional deadline” for stopping the transfer of power.
The Oath Keepers organized training, including one session on “unconventional warfare.” Before coming to Washington, they set up “quick reaction force” teams with “weapons of war” stashed at a Virginia hotel so they could get them into the capital quickly if necessary, the prosecutor said.
As Oath Keepers stormed the Capitol in helmets and other battle gear, Rhodes remained on the outside, like “a general surveying his troops on a battlefield,” Nestler said. After the attack, the elated Oath Keepers went to a Virginia restaurant to celebrate their victory, the prosecutor said.
They planned to continue “that war,” but “thankfully their plans were foiled,” Nestler said.
In the days between the riot and Biden’s inauguration, Rhodes spent more than $17,000 on firearm parts, ammunition and other items, prosecutors say. About a week after the insurrection, Rhodes was secretly recorded saying that his “only regret is that they should have brought rifles,” Nestler said.
Prosecutors showed jurors a slew of videos, including showing Meggs, Harrelson and others firing AR-15 style rifles at targets at a range. Meggs sent the video, set to rock music, to a group on Jan. 5 and declared: “We are ready!” the prosecutor said.
Among those expected to testify during the trial, which will last several weeks, are three Oath Keepers who have pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and are cooperating with prosecutors in hopes of getting lighter sentences. They include a man who says that after arriving in Washington, Meggs told him that another Florida Oath Keeper had brought explosives in his RV.
The government’s first witness was a FBI agent, who responded on Jan. 6 to help rescue senators. He described lawmakers crying, broken doors and windows and a scene that “looked like a bomb had gone off.”
Defense lawyers say prosecutors have ripped the Oath Keepers’ messages out of context to paint them unfairly. The Oath Keepers came to Washington to provide security at events for figures such as Trump ally Roger Stone before the president’s big outdoor rally behind the White House, defense lawyers said. Rhodes’ attorney described the group as a “peacekeeping” force and called his client an “extremely patriotic” man who “loves this country.”
Rhodes’ attorneys plan to argue that Rhodes believed Trump was going to going to invoke the Insurrection Act and call up a militia, which Rhodes had been calling on him to do to stop Biden from becoming president. Rhodes’ lawyers have said he was merely lobbying the president to invoke a U.S. law.
Prosecutors say it’s clear the Oath Keepers were going to act regardless of what Trump did. Nestler told jurors that Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate, was only using the Insurrection Act as “legal cover.” In one message, Rhodes wrote in December 2020 that Trump “needs to know that if he fails to act, then we will.”
An attorney for Caldwell said his client is a disabled veteran who didn’t even know of the Oath Keepers until November 2020. The defense lawyer, David Fischer, called Jan. 6 a “black eye” for the country, but said Caldwell merely came to Washington “on a date with his wife” and wasn’t planning to go to the Capitol until Trump’s speech on the Ellipse before the riot.
“Mr. Caldwell couldn’t storm his way out of a paper bag,” Fischer said. “I came here to clear his name.”