Oath Keepers trial: Prosecutors argue militia members were 'leaders' on Jan. 6
WASHINGTON – Prosecutors described members of the right-wing extremist militia group the Oath Keepers as leaders of a long-planned and carefully coordinated scheme to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power on Jan. 6, 2021 – by any means necessary.
“Notice the role these five defendants played: leaders,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said in the government’s opening remarks in federal court Monday.
But one defense attorney said the prosecution wasn't giving the "the full story," and that the government had it "completely wrong."
There was no doubt in the defendants’ minds leading up to or on the day of the Capitol attack that Jan. 6 would become violent, the prosecution argued. One defendant, Kelly Meggs, even wore a jacket with a patch on the back that read, “I don’t believe in anything; I’m just here for the violence.”
Learn more: What we know about the Oath Keepers trial as opening remarks begin
The leader of the group was Stewart Rhodes, the Yale-educated, eye-patch wearing founder of the Oath Keepers, who remained outside the Capitol “like a general overlooking a battlefield while his troops stormed inside,” Nestler said.
“Stewart Rhodes kicked into gear,” he said of Rhodes on Jan. 6. “He would do whatever was necessary to make sure power would not transfer.”
Using their combined military training, knowledge and experience, the defendants conspired to “shatter the bedrock of American democracy” and ensure that Congress could not complete its constitutional mandate to count the electoral votes that would certify Joe Biden’s presidency, the prosecution argued.
But Rhodes' attorney, Phillip Linder, claimed that the prosecution's portrayal of the defendants did not tell the full story, leaving out details that paint an inaccurate picture of Rhodes, the Oath Keepers and their intentions on Jan. 6. He claimed that by the end of the trial, the jury would see that the story of the Oath Keepers as told by the government and media since that day is "completely wrong."
“You have to wait 'til you’ve heard the full story," Linder said.
Linder also alluded to the defense's intention to argue a novel legal defense that relies on an arcane and controversial interpretation of the Insurrection Act, a statute from the 19th century.
Oath Keepers' defense: Oath Keepers trial: A 1800s-inspired defense meets most significant Jan. 6 prosecution yet
Following a full week of jury selection, the prosecution in the federal trial Rhodes and four other members of the group started Monday morning with their opening remarks. Two defense attorneys followed.
The five Oath Keepers on trial this week, plus the four other members who will face trial in November, face a combined 13 criminal charges. That includes the rare and flashy charge of seditious conspiracy, which is to conspire against the U.S. government through the use or threat of force in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power or the functioning of the government, Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told USA TODAY. It alone holds a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
Other charges in the indictment include conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding and obstructing one, conspiring to prevent an officer from discharging duties, destruction of government property, civil disorder and tampering with documents or proceedings.
The government must prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt to yield a guilty verdict.
Prosecution opens with videos
The prosecution argued that videos and messages between the defendants and other “co-conspirators” before, during and after the Capitol attack showed the increasing desperation of the Oath Keepers to ensure Biden was not certified as the winner of the 2020 election.
“That was their goal: to stop, by whatever means necessary, the lawful transfer of presidential power – including taking up arms against the U.S. government,” Nestler said.
In its opening argument, the government showed clips of several videos that they said will be seen in full throughout the trial.
In a Jan. 5 message sent by Meggs, he and defendant Kenneth Harrelson are seen in a video set to rock music training with rifles, shooting at human-shaped targets, the prosecution said. A longer video shows defendant Jessica Watkins training, too, Nestler said. Another video shown, taken on Jan. 6, 2021, depicted several of the defendants and other Oath Keepers dressed in combat gear and moving toward the Capitol in a military stack formation.
Messages presented as evidence by the prosecution showed that both Rhodes and defendant Thomas Caldwell at different points referred to an imminent civil war, with Rhodes telling his followers in a Nov. 5 encrypted message to prepare their “mind, body and spirit” for a civil war.
The prosecution also referred to the “arsenal of firearms” that the Oath Keepers had in a Virginia hotel room, allegedly ready to be transported into D.C. by land or across the Potomac River on command. The defendants are not charged with illegally possessing firearms.
“You will hear evidence that these defendants staged their weapons in Virginia,” Nestler said, noting the difference between Virginia and D.C.’s gun laws. “Rather than showing these defendants were law-abiding, it shows that they were calculating.”
Nestler described the defendants as “elated, boastful and proud” in the days after the Capitol attack. Rhodes, he said, instructed participants in the Capitol attack to delete incriminating messages about that day.
“YOU ALL NEED TO DELETE ANY OF YOUR COMMENTS REGARDING WHO DID WHAT,” Rhodes wrote in a message, shown by the prosecution. “DELETE YOUR INCRIMINATING COMMENTS OR THOSE THAT CAN INCRIMINATE OTHERS…DO NOT chat about Oath Keepers members allegedly doing anything at the Capitol. Go dark on that. Do not discuss.”
Novel defense: A 1800s-inspired defense meets most significant Jan. 6 prosecution yet
‘Full picture’ not shown by government, defense says
Like Linder, attorneys for Caldwell and Jessica Watkins urged the jury to consider context about the defendants and the Capitol attack that they say the prosecution will not provide.
“Improper context can mislead and lead to improper conclusions,” Jonathan Crisp, Watkins’ attorney, said in his opening remarks. “The only thing that matters is what you hear in this courtroom.”
Calling the case laid out by prosecutors a “conspiracy theory,” Caldwell’s attorney David Fischer sought to minimize the government’s description of the Oath Keepers’ quick reaction forces, of which Caldwell is accused of coordinating in part.
“The verb is to ‘react,’ not act,” Fischer said. “Anybody who has served five seconds in the U.S. military or in law enforcement knows that a quick reaction force or quick response team reacts to emergencies. … It would not be used to attack anything, including the U.S. Capitol.”
He also sought to discredit the FBI’s investigation, citing a number of perceived shortcomings in the agency’s investigation of Caldwell.
Crisp, Watkins’ attorney, described her as a “protest junkie” and medic by trade whose desire to serve and protect took her to D.C. that day.
Both Fischer and Crisp sought to paint their defendants as less dangerous than the government suggests. Fischer described Caldwell as a frail old man, significantly injured from military service, whose Jan. 6 trip to D.C. was nothing more than a date with his wife to see Trump speak. Crisp described Watkins, a transgender woman, as never feeling like she really fit in with the Oath Keepers – and as a result, engaged in actions, “good and bad,” that day she thought might remedy that.
Attorneys for Meggs and Harrelson did not give opening remarks.
Prosecution calls first witness
The government called FBI agent Michael Palian as its first witness. He was sent to the Capitol on Jan. 6, after violence broke out that day.
Palian described the scene as looking like a “bomb had gone off in there,” with broken windows and doors, debris scattered in the halls and pepper spray lingering in the air.
“If you took your mask off, you started to inhale the pepper spray that had been sprayed during that day,” he testified. “So we all had to keep our COVID masks on.”
The special agent said “almost all available agents” were tapped to help investigate the Capitol attack, himself included.
Palian identified the defendants in the courtroom, established that several defendants could be seen on video traveling toward the Capitol in a military stack formation on Jan. 6 and began to review text messages and Facebook comments made by the defendants in November 2020 before the court adjourned for the day. Palian will resume his testimony Tuesday morning.
Motions denied ahead of opening arguments
Before both sides began their opening arguments, Judge Amit Mehta denied a number of motions from the defense, including 11th hour bids to change the trial’s venue and a motion by Meggs for a bench trial.
In denying the venue change – the defense’s third effort to move the trial outside District of Columbia limits – Mehta defended the jury’s ability to be fair and impartial. Of the 16 seated jurors, four of whom are alternates, nine had heard of the Oath Keepers and zero had heard of the defendants, Mehta said. Zero jurors said they could not be fair or impartial because of their knowledge of the group.
The trial, which is expected to run for more than a month, could act as a referendum on the Capitol attack, raising the stakes for both sides.
If the government fails to convict members of the Oath Keepers, it could undermine the Justice Department’s efforts to paint the events of Jan. 6 as a stain on American history and a threat to democracy itself.
But if the jury hands down guilty verdicts to the Oath Keepers, the trial could serve as a warning to dissenters that those who perpetrate violent acts against the government will be held to account.
"A message is sent that you can't just rise up against the government because you don't like the results of a legitimate election," said Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oath Keepers trial: Prosecutors say Stewart Rhodes acted as 'general'