‘They went to attack’: Prosecutors say Oath Keepers planned ‘armed rebellion’ on Jan 6 as seditious conspiracy trial begins

Opening arguments begin in the trial of Stewart Rhodes and members of the far-right militia group

Alex Woodward
Monday 03 October 2022 18:51 BST
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The leader of a far-right anti-government militia group and four of its members planned to attack the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021 to violently obstruct Joe Biden’s presidency, according to opening arguments from federal prosecutors in the seditious conspiracy trial against members of the Oath Keepers.

“They did not go to the Capitol to defend or help,” according to assistant US Attorney Jeff Nestler. “They went to attack.”

Stewart Rhodes and the group “concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy,” Mr Nestler said from Washington DC on Monday.

Federal prosecutors have alleged that Mr Rhodes and other militia members spent weeks plotting an attempt to disrupt the joint session of Congress, including plans for a cache of weapons and supplies, as a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the halls of the Capitol.

The trial involves the most significant charges and highest-profile case yet in the aftermath of the Capitol attack.

Jury selection began in US District Court on 27 September. Opening arguments began on 3 October.

Mr Rhodes has pleaded not guilty. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Other defendants in the case include Kelly Meggs, who led the Oath Keepers chapter in Florida, and Florida member Kenneth Harrelson, as well as Thomas Caldwell, a retired US Navy lieutenant commander, and Jessica Watkins of Ohio.

US District Judge Amit Mehta is presiding over a trial he anticipates will last four to five weeks.

Mr Nestler displayed text messages to the court that were allegedly sent by Mr Rhodes to members of the group, telling them to “refuse to accept Biden as a legitimate leader” and suggesting that a “civil war” was necessary.

Videos shown in the courtroom showed members pushing through the Capitol, while Mr Nestler noted that the mob cheered them on with chants of “Oath Keepers”.

Mr Nestler said forthcoming evidence presented at the trial will also show how Oath Keeopers and co-conspirators collected bags of semiautomatic rifles and ammunition at a nearby site in Virginia leading up to the attack.

In his opening remarks, Mr Nestler said the group sought “to stop by whatever means necessary the lawful transfer of presidential power, including by taking up arms against the US government”.

“Ever since our government transferred power from George Washington to John Adams,” each president has successfully and peacefully passed the office to their successor, Mr Nestler said.

“These defendants tried to change that history,” he said.

Prosecutors showed messages from Mr Meggs, including one in which he asked prospective recruits “who is willing to die?”

The group brought “weapons of war” into Washington DC as part of a “quick reaction force” on 6 January, after growing more “desperate” in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, according to Mr Nestler.

Mr Rhodes allegedly told defedendants that “patriots are taking matters into their own hands” after determining that then-Vice President Mike Pence is “doing nothing,” according to messages shown to the court. Mr Pence ultimately certified the results in the ceremonial proceedings after lawmakers re-convened at the Capitol hours after the attack.

The Oath Keepers leader did not enter the Capitol that day, but he coordinated with defendants on the phone, in text messages and encryped messaging apps, according to prosecutors.

Minutes after a call between Mr Rhodes and Mr Meggs, a “stacked” group of 14 people pushed past law enforcement and breached the building, according to prosecutors.

Mr Meggs led one group into the House of Representatives while defendant Jessica Watkins led another group towards the Senate, Mr Nestler said.

“I’m gonna go on a killing spree. Pelosi first,” Mr Meggs allegedly wrote in one message, referring to Democratic speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

“Patriots had sent a message,” Mr Rhodes allegedly told the group in a text message, show to jurors. “You ain’t see nothing yet.”

“We are reloading!” Mr Meggs allegedly told the group.

In audio of Mr Rhodes shared with jurors, Mr Rhodes said his only regret is that the group “should have brought rifles” to the Capito. “We could have fixed it right then and there,” he allegedly said.

“The defendants actually made it easy for you,” Mr Nestler told members of the jury. “They said it out loud and in writing.”

Judge Mehta repeatedly paused the proceedings during the defense’s opening arguments, warning attorneys to “not refer to clients in jail, and you cannot suggest to the jury any amount of time they’re facing if convicted. That is a no-no.”

“Avoid discussions or commentary about what’s happening with the media and Congress,” he added. “You’re potentially opening the door to evidence you do not want to have.”

Phillip Linder, an attorney for Mr Rhodes, refuted the prosecution’s arguments about the weapons cache, saying that the were “not offensive” but merely “reactive and defensive only,” and only “if Trump called them in.”

He told the jury that the group was “ready to react at President Trump’s request”.

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