The leader and members of the Oath Keepers militia group were prepared to engage in serious violence after the November 2020 election to try to block Joe Biden from taking office as U.S. president, a prosecutor told a federal court jury in Washington, D.C., on Monday, the first day of the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and four other Jan. 6, 2021, rioters linked to the far-right group.
Rhodes, three other Oath Keepers who held leadership positions in the movement and a fifth person described as an Oath Keepers associate face multiple federal criminal charges stemming from their participation in the riot that besieged the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, just as Congress was meeting to validate the Electoral College results from the Nov. 3, 2020, election and thereby certify Biden as the successor to President Donald Trump.
The charges Rhodes and his co-defendants face include seditious conspiracy, a rare and politically controversial charge carrying a penalty of up to 20 years in prison upon conviction.
In his opening statement, federal prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler alleged that Rhodes and his co-defendants "concocted a plan ... up to and including" using force to block the transfer of power from Trump to Biden. He suggested that the defendants believed that if Congress could be blocked from meeting to ratify the Electoral College's formal affirmation of Biden's election victory, Biden could not be confirmed as president and Trump could remain in office.
Nestler stressed that the Oath Keepers group itself was not on trial but that most of the defendants "refer to themselves as Oath Keepers" and that defendants who had training in the U.S. armed forces used such training during the riot to oppose the government.
"They went [to the Capitol] to attack," Nestler told the court, later quoting from a patch on the military-style clothing defendant Kelly Meggs wore during the riot, which said: 'I don't believe in anything. I'm just here for the violence.'"
Nestler quoted both public internet postings and private and encrypted messages allegedly made from Rhodes beginning days after the Nov. 3 election. He said Rhodes explicitly warned that he and his fellow Oath Keepers were not going to accept Biden's confirmation as president "without a civil war."
In the run-up to Jan. 6, Nestler said, Rhodes tried to contact then-President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act — an obscure and old U.S. law that allows the president to deploy military forces to quell a rebellion — which the Oath Keepers believed would somehow legalize their effort to block Biden's confirmation and help Trump to remain in office. But Trump never acted on Rhodes's demand, Nestler said, and no information was presented to the jury to indicate Trump was even aware of Rhodes's request.
Nestler told the jury that during December 2020, Rhodes and some of his followers "grew more desperate" as Trump's exit from the White House became imminent. Nestler said that in a Dec. 12 speech, Rhodes said: "Let's get it on now while he (Trump) is still commander in chief."
In the days that followed, prosecutors said Meggs and other defendants arranged to move to a hotel in a Washington suburb in Virginia — where gun laws are less stringent than those in the District of Columbia — with stockpiles of arms that the Oath Keepers believed they might need to equip a special team known as a "Quick Reaction Force." However, prosecutors did not clearly describe the circumstances in which such a force would be activated. Nestler said Rhodes spent "tens of thousands of dollars" on weapons and tactical gear in preparation for a possible confrontation.
Nestler quoted text messages, some originally encrypted, allegedly from Rhodes, timed on the afternoon of Jan. 6. At 1:25 p.m., according to Nestler, Rhodes texted, "Pence is doing nothing. As I predicted."
According to Nestler, Rhodes then messaged: "I see no intent by [Trump] to do anything. So the patriots are taking it into their own hands." Subsequently, Oath Keepers were among the leaders of two well-armed "stacks" of protesters who surged up the stairs on the Capitol's east side and entered the building, with a group attempting to enter the Senate chamber, Nestler said.
Meanwhile, Meggs and others screamed "treason, treason, treason" as they stormed their way into the Capitol rotunda, according to Nestler. Meggs allegedly told his wife that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "would be the first" target of serious violence if he got close to her. The attackers' hunt for Pelosi was unsuccessful.
Rioters were largely pushed out of the Capitol and away from the building later in the afternoon, which permitted Congress to move ahead and formally certify Biden as president. Rhodes subsequently drove through the night to Texas, and over the next several days, he bombarded his followers with messages instructing them to delete all message traffic related to the run-up to Jan. 6 and their activities on the day itself.
In their own opening statements to the jury, lawyers for defendants insisted that the prosecution was distorting or mischaracterizing evidence to incriminate their clients. Phillip Linder, Rhodes's defense lawyer, told the jury that while they might not like "some of the things you see defendants did," by the same token, "defendants did nothing illegal that day. ... what the government is trying to tell us is completely wrong."
He said that Rhodes would testify in his own defense and had offered to testify to the House committee investigating Jan. 6 events but was not invited to do so.
Linder said Rhodes, who attended Yale Law School and once won a prize there for a legal essay, was extremely patriotic and a constitutional expert. He insisted that the Oath Keepers were a "peacekeeping force," that all members took an oath to protect people and that the group's Quick Reaction Force was "defensive in nature."
He said that evidence would show that the government had interviewed "hundreds" of witnesses who will say that the Oath Keepers had no plan to try to take over the government.
David Fischer, a lawyer for defendant Thomas Caldwell, insisted that the government's assertion that the Quick Reaction Force was designed to attack was "an outright lie." Caldwell is a disabled veteran and has denied he had formally become an Oath Keepers member; prosecutors, however, say he hosted Oath Keepers at his home.
Fischer suggested that inflammatory social media messages posted by defendants were "selectively edited" to appear incriminating. He said that that Oath Keepers had organized Quick Reaction Forces on multiple occasions before Jan. 6, including during civil disorders in Ferguson, Mo., and Louisville, Ky. He insisted that those forces, which defendants were involved in organizing for Jan. 6, was not in any way designed to attack the U.S. Capitol building.
Jonathan Crisp, a lawyer for defendant Jessica Watkins, said that while his client had pepper spray when she went to the Capitol, she never used it; he did concede that she should not have entered the Capitol building.