Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes took the risky step of testifying in his own defense.
Rhodes said he founded the Oath Keepers as a community service-minded group.
His testimony aimed to soften the image of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group.
Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes took the stand to testify in his own defense Friday, a risky move he insisted on taking in the face of charges his far-right group plotted to violently prevent the peaceful transfer of power on January 6, 2021.
Growing emotional at times, Rhodes projected a softer image as he discussed his sense of patriotic duty and recalled the pain he and Yale Law School classmates felt on 9/11. Rhodes said the Oath Keepers provided some military veterans with a continued sense of purpose, and he appeared to tear up as he raised the high suicide rate within the community of former servicemembers.
But he quickly made the kind of verbal miscue that defense lawyers dread when a client takes the stand.
"I support the right to riot," Rhodes testified, before correcting himself to say, "I support the right to protest."
The verbal slip came as Rhodes recounted the 13-year history of the Oath Keepers, a far-right group he founded in 2009, he said, out of the belief in community service. Rhodes said the Oath Keepers' volunteer members have responded to natural disasters, including the devastating Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and have also provided security services amid social unrest.
As his defense lawyer Phillip Linder posed questions, Rhodes appeared comfortable, turning his head to direct his answers toward the jury. Rhodes said the group's "first big security operation" was in Ferguson, Missouri, during the riots and protests that followed the killing of Michael Brown by police. Rhodes said a store owner asked his group members to protect her business.
At one point, Rhodes criticized what he called the "heavy-handed" tactics of police, who he said should have focused on the "troublemakers" while respecting the rights of protestors.
"Like I said," Rhodes testified, "we supported the right to protest."
Rhodes is standing trial alongside four other Oath Keepers members — Kenneth Harrelson; Jessica Watkins; Kelly Meggs; and Thomas Caldwell — on seditious conspiracy charges stemming from the January 6 attack on the Capitol. In the first weeks of the trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Rhodes and his group planned to forcibly prevent the handoff of power from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.
Related video: Biggest reveals from January 6 Capitol riot hearing
At the end of their case, prosecutors showed jurors a message Rhodes drafted in the days after January 6 in which he sought to urge Trump to take more drastic action to remain in the White House.
"If you don't then Biden/Kamala will turn all that power on you, your family, and all of us," Rhodes wrote, although the message was never passed along to Trump.
Prosecutors also displayed evidence that the Oath Keepers stockpiled firearms in a hotel room outside Washington, DC, for so-called "quick reaction forces" that could be deployed into the nation's capital. Rhodes, in his testimony Friday, sought to downplay the group's references to quick reaction forces, or QRFs.
"In our context," he said, the meaning of QRF is broader than it is in the military.
"It gets used too often, frankly, and becomes confusing," Rhodes said.
Rhodes also bristled at the characterization of the Oath Keepers as a racist group. On the stand, he emphasized that he is a quarter Mexican and said members of Congress had "committed gross defamation against us" in referring to the group as racist.
"If we found someone that was a racist," he testified, "we'd kick 'em right out."
Rhodes' testimony is set to resume Monday, and prosecutors will have a chance to cross-examine him.
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