As the January 2021 dates for Joe Biden's confirmation and swearing-in grew closer, public and private declarations by Oath Keepers militia group leader Stewart Rhodes became increasingly aggressive and threatening, according to evidence presented Friday at the trial of Rhodes and four other alleged members.
In a message posted in an Oath Keepers chatroom on Nov. 25, 2020, weeks after the presidential election, Rhodes allegedly stated: “Time to get serious about training. and force on force is the way to go.”
Two days later, he advised that the “patriot right” would proclaim Biden an “illegitimate usurper and impostor” and would refuse to recognize anything done by an administration of Biden and Kamala Harris, according to the prosecution. “Now is the time to stand up and organize our communities so all patriots stand together,” he said.
Later that day, Rhodes rallied his followers again: “I told you all the Dems would steal it. I also told you the judges can’t be trusted and they will go along with it because they are in the club. ... I hate being right about these things and I derive no pleasure in it. But I told you so.”
Rhodes and four co-defendants are facing multiple charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, including a rarely used charge of seditious conspiracy that carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Under questioning from a Rhodes defense lawyer, Ryan McCanley, a witness for the prosecution and a special agent with the Capitol Police who has been deeply involved in Jan. 6-related investigations, acknowledged that on Dec. 6, 2020, he observed Oath Keepers engaging in peaceful and legal activity in Washington, D.C.
But according to evidence presented by prosecutors, as Jan. 6, 2021 — the date on which Congress was scheduled to confirm Biden’s presidential election victory — approached, Rhodes’s pleas and rhetoric became harsher, if not openly threatening.
According to the prosecution, on Dec. 12, 2020, Rhodes warned an Oath Keepers “Old Leadership Chat” group online that “We are going to have a fight. That can’t be avoided. But it’s better to have a fight now, while Trump is commander in chief than to wait til he is going.”
“Show the world who the traitors are and then use the ... Insurrection Act to drop the hammer on them,” Rhodes declared at an Oath Keepers rally that day in Washington, according to messages presented by prosecutors to the federal court jury. The Insurrection Act is an old and obscure U.S. law that allows the president to deploy military forces to quell a rebellion, and that federal authorities have rarely invoked in modern times.
In a Dec. 14, 2020, open letter posted on the Oath Keepers website and signed by Rhodes and Kelly SoRelle, an Oath Keepers lawyer and close Rhodes associate, the writers declared, “You must act now as a wartime president” to block the accession of “illegitimate usurpers and Chinese puppets. ... If you fail to act while you are still in office we the people are going to have to fight a bloody civil war. ... We are already in a fight.”
By Dec. 29, Rhodes had begun to realize that maybe Trump, who at some point he unsuccessfully tried to contact via an intermediary who so far has remained unidentified, might not be coming to their rescue.
“I can only guess about what is going on in his head,” he wrote in the Oath Keepers group chat, according to evidence introduced by prosecutors. “I think that part of him now understands that the Insurrection Act and warfare — with him as commander in chief, is the only way we can save our republic. But he needs to know that if he doesn’t do it, we will.”
Also on Dec. 29, Rhodes, referring to forthcoming events in Washington, allegedly advised SoRelle: “This will be DC rally number three. Getting kinda old. ... They don't give a shit how many show up and wave a sign, pray or yell. They won’t fear us till we come with rifles in hand.”
After a break on Monday, the trial of Rhodes and his co-defendants will resume with more government witnesses on Tuesday, and is expected to last several weeks.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Justice Department announced that Jeremy Bertino, a leader of the Proud Boys, one of two right-wing militia-style groups that along with the Oath Keepers strongly backed Trump, had pleaded guilty to a felony charge of seditious conspiracy, the most serious of multiple charges that Rhodes and his co-defendants also face.
Prosecutors said Bertino, who joined the Proud Boys around 2018 and at one point served as vice president of a local group branch in South Carolina, was invited by Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio in December 2020 to join a new chapter of the group known as the Ministry of Self Defense.
In the weeks before Jan. 6, 2021, investigators say Bertino participated in encrypted chats with other “self-defense” leaders, agreeing with them that Biden had stolen the election and that members should travel to D.C. on Jan. 6 to try to block the Electoral College vote, even if, investigators say, it involved the use of force.
But during a Dec. 12 trip to Washington, Bertino was stabbed during an “altercation.” He was hospitalized and released, but was still recovering from injuries on Jan. 6, so he did not go to Washington.
Despite his injuries, however, prosecutors said that as early as Jan. 4, 2021, Bertino received encrypted chat messages suggesting that the Oath Keepers were talking about storming the Capitol and that, on Jan. 6, Bertino monitored events via both social media and mainstream media.
Prosecutors say he posted messages to fellow Proud Boys urging them to participate in a Capitol siege and at one point posted a message on a public social media account declaring “DO NOT GO HOME. WE ARE ON THE CUSP OF SAVING THE CONSTITUTION.”
Tarrio and five other Proud Boys still face seditious conspiracy and other federal charges; they have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Another member of the group pleaded guilty in April to a charge of obstructing an official proceeding.
Earlier this year, three Oath Keepers members pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6 riot.