Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes denies plans to enter Capitol

Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Federal prosecutors on Monday got their first chance to cross-examine Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes in court after he claimed never to have ordered members of his far-right militia to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Rhodes testified in his own defense for a second day after federal prosecutors spent nearly five weeks arguing that he and four codefendants are guilty of seditious conspiracy for their alleged efforts to stop the peaceful transfer of power from then-President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden. Defense counsel maintains the Oath Keepers were in Washington, D.C. that day volunteering as security personnel, and all have pleaded not guilty.

Rhodes testified that he only learned after the riot that some Oath Keepers, including a contingent led by codefendant Kelly Meggs, had entered the Capitol building alongside a crowd of rioting Trump supporters. Rhodes told jurors that Meggs' actions were "stupid" and went against their purported mission, which he claimed did not involve any operations inside restricted grounds. "Quite the opposite," Rhodes said. "Our goal was to make sure nobody got wrapped up in the Charlie Foxtrot around the Capitol." "Charlie Foxtrot" is military slang for "clusterf***."

Prosecutors challenged Rhodes' portrayal of the Oath Keepers' mission by pointing to multiple texts and open letters authored by Rhodes that advocated revolt ahead of Jan. 6.

"We must now do what the people of Serbia did when Milosevic stole their election — refuse to accept it and march en-mass [sic] on the nation's Capitol," Rhodes wrote on Nov. 7, 2020, citing advice he said he received from an unnamed Serbian videomaker. "Listen to the video I posted above. That is the way. And it has to happen NOW."

On multiple occasions between the 2020 presidential election and the Capitol attack, Rhodes published open letters calling on Trump to throw out the previous election and order a new contest under U.S. military supervision. On the witness stand, Rhodes maintained his unfounded belief that the 2020 election was "unconstitutional" and claimed Trump could have deputized the Oath Keepers to expose the country's leaders as pedophiles and Chinese Communist Party agents, echoing themes of the false QAnon conspiracy.

"Either Trump gets off his [a**] and uses the Insurrection Act to defeat the ChiCom puppet coup or we will have to rise up in insurrection (rebellion) against the ChiCom puppet Biden. Take your pick," Rhodes wrote to other Oath Keepers in one of the organization's group chats in December 2020, falsely claiming President Biden is a Chinese Communist Party operative.

During the trial, Rhodes also accused Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnelll of being untrustworthy "in part" because of his marriage to former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, a naturalized Taiwanese-American citizen.

Later, prosecutors questioned Rhodes over messages sent by his girlfriend and Oath Keepers attorney Kellye SoRelle that allegedly show her relaying his instructions to other Oath Keepers, telling them to delete their text message history after Jan. 6. Rhodes denied having told members to delete their phone history, claiming SoRelle acted on her own.

"She can be a real pain in the neck sometimes," Rhodes said of SoRelle after making sexually explicit jokes on the witness stand. Judge Amit Mehta, presiding over the trial, had to refocus the room after Rhodes' comments. SoRelle is not on trial in this case, but has pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice charges.

Prosecutors also reviewed Rhodes' instructions to Oath Keepers during prior engagements in Ferguson, Mo., and Louisville, Ky., where out-of-state militia members had driven in and stationed themselves in the cities amid civil unrest protesting police killings of Black Americans.

"Being open about wanting to crack heads is what got the Proud Boys prosecuted," Rhodes wrote about the groups' engagements.

Rhodes and the prosecution argued over the interpretation of his texts. He claimed the Oath Keepers were sincerely interested in protecting property from anti-fascists and contrasted his group with the neo-fascist Proud Boys. The government argued the group followed a pattern, inserting themselves into unstable environments against the wishes of local law enforcement in order to inflame violence and claim self-defense.

The government closed its cross examination by reviewing Rhodes' alleged lack of remorse over the Capitol attack. When pressed, Rhodes stopped short of saying he regretted the event, only conceding he was unhappy about any harm that had come to law enforcement officers. One officer died after the rioting, and four who responded to the attack on the Capitol died of suicide in the months afterward.

"I think that anybody who actually did assault a police officer should be prosecuted," Rhodes said. "We [in the Oath Keepers] have an absolute zero tolerance for anybody putting their hands on a police officer, unless you're saving someone's life like in George Floyd's killing."

The Department of Justice argued the evidence shows otherwise, presenting a message penned by Rhodes after law enforcement regained control of the building. "I hope [Trump] got the message," he wrote. "Patriots, it was a long day but a day when patriots began to stand. Stand now or kneel forever. Honor your oaths. Remember your legacy."

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