‘Fighting fit’: Trial to show Oath Keepers’ road to Jan. 6
The voting was over and almost all ballots were counted. News outlets on Nov. 7, 2020, had called the presidential race for Democrat Joe Biden. But the leader of the Oath Keepers extremist group was just beginning to fight.
Convinced the White House had been stolen from Republican Donald Trump, Stewart Rhodes exhorted his followers to action, suggesting they emulate a popular uprising that brought down Yugoslavia’s president two decades earlier. He published a version of his appeal online, headlined, “What We The People Must Do.”
“We must now … refuse to accept it and march en-mass on the nation’s Capitol,” Rhodes declared to fellow Oath Keepers.
Authorities allege that Rhodes and his band of extremists would spend the next several weeks amassing weapons, organizing paramilitary training and readying armed teams outside Washington with a singular goal: stopping Joe Biden from becoming president.
Their plot would come to a head on Jan. 6, 2021, prosecutors say, when Oath Keepers wearing helmets and other battle gear were captured on camera shouldering their way through the crowd of angry Trump supporters and storming the Capitol in military-style stack formation.
Hundreds of pages of court documents in the case against Rhodes and four co-defendants — whose trial opens with jury selection Tuesday in Washington’s federal court — paint a picture of a group so determined to overturn Biden’s election that some members were prepared to lose their lives to do so.
The trial is the biggest test so far for the Justice Department’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the attack on the Capitol, a violent assault that challenged the foundations of American democracy. Rioters temporarily halted the certification of Biden’s victory by sheer force, pummeling police officers in hand-to-hand fighting as they rammed their way into the building, forcing Congress to adjourn as lawmakers and staff hid from the mob.
Despite nearly 900 arrests and hundreds of convictions in the riot, Rhodes and four Oath Keeper associates — Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell — are the first to stand trial on the rare and difficult-to-prove charge of seditious conspiracy. Prosecutors will try to show that the insurrection for the Oath Keepers was not a spur-of-the-moment protest but part of a serious, weekslong plot to stop the transfer of power.
The trial could shed new light on Trump’s attempts to cling to power. It comes amid growing legal peril for the former president, who faces multiple investigations, including one by the Justice Department into his handling of sensitive government documents.
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Defense lawyers for the Oath Keepers will tell jurors the government case is all a lie.
The Oath Keepers accuse prosecutors of twisting their words and insist there was never any plan to attack the Capitol. They say they were in Washington to provide security at events for figures such as Trump ally Roger Stone before the president’s big outdoor rally behind the White House. Their preparations, training, gear and weapons were to protect themselves against potential violence from left-wing antifa activists or to be ready if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act to call up a militia.
Rhodes’ lawyers have signaled that their defense will focus on his belief that Trump would take that action.
“When he believed that the President would issue an order invoking the Insurrection Act, he was prepared to follow it. When that invocation did not come, he did precisely nothing,” Rhodes lawyers wrote in court documents.
“The Government would like this Court to believe that is sedition, when in fact, it is the opposite. It is loyalty to an oath taken in defense of the Country.”
Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 and it has grown into one of the largest anti-government groups in U.S. history. It recruits past and present members of the military, first responders and police officers, and promotes the belief that the federal government is out to strip citizens of their civil liberties. It portrays its followers as defenders against tyranny.
On Nov. 9, 2020, less than a week after Election Day, Rhodes held a conference call and rallied the Oath Keepers to go to Washington and fight. He expressed hope that antifa (anti-fascist) activists would start clashes because that would give Trump the “reason and rationale for dropping the Insurrection Act.”
“You’ve got to go there and you’ve got to make sure that he knows that you are willing to die to fight for this country,” Rhodes told his people, according to a transcript filed in court. He urged those on their way to Washington to stop at Arlington National Cemetery to see the graves of thousands of people who died fighting for the United States.
“They were willing to give up their entire life,” Rhodes told them. “Most of us are in our 50s or 60s or older. You’ve lived a good life. You’ve lived way past the age of these young men. … And if you don’t stand up now, everything they fought for and died for will be fought for nothing.”
Some Oath Keepers would stay outside Washington but be “prepared to go in armed if they have to,” Rhodes said on the call. If they failed to “save” the country, Rhodes predicted there would be “a bloody, bloody civil war.”
After the call, another Oath Keeper, Watkins, told people who expressed interest in joining her Ohio militia group about “military-style basic” training planned for early January, prosecutors say. The Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers held training in “unconventional warfare.”
Watkins told one recruit, “I need you fighting fit” by the inauguration, which was Jan. 20, 2021. Watkins later predicted their “way of life” would be over if Biden became president.
“Our Republic would be over. Then it is our duty as Americans to fight, kill and die for our rights,” she wrote in another message.
By December, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers had set their sights on Congress’ certification of the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, prosecutors say.
Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet about a “big protest in D.C. on January 6th” that he predicted would “be wild” seemed to energize the Oath Keepers.
Days later, Meggs — the leader of the Florida chapter— wrote in a Facebook message: “Trump said It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! He wants us to make it WILD that’s what he’s saying. He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!!”
During an interview Dec. 22 with a regional Oath Keepers leader, Rhodes described Jan. 6 as “hard constitutional deadline” for stopping Biden from becoming president.
On Dec. 23, Rhodes published an open letter on the Oath Keepers website declaring that “tens of thousands of patriot Americans, both veterans and nonveterans” would be in Washington. Many would have their “mission-critical gear stowed nearby just outside D.C,” he wrote, warning that they might have to “take to arms in defense of our God given liberty.”
In late December, the Oath Keepers were making plans for “quick reaction force” teams to be stationed at a Virginia hotel in order to shepherd weapons into the city quickly if needed, prosecutors say. In one message days before the Capitol attack, Caldwell suggested getting a boat to ferry “heavy weapons” across the Potomac River into the Oath Keepers’ “waiting arms.”
As 2021 approached, Rhodes spent $7,000 on two night-vision devices and a weapon sight and sent them to someone outside Washington, authorities say. Over several days in early January, he would spend an additional $15,500 on guns, including an AR-platform rifle, magazines, mounts, sights and other equipment, according to court documents.
“There is no standard political or legal way out of this,” Rhodes wrote in a message on New Year’s Eve.
Oath Keepers from across the country began traveling to the Washington area.
Rhodes had instructed them to be ready, if asked, to secure the White House perimeter and “use lethal force if necessary” against anyone, including the National Guard, who might try to remove Trump from the White House, according to court documents in the case of one member who has pleaded guilty.
On Jan. 5, Meggs and the Florida Oath Keepers brought gun boxes, rifle cases and suitcases filled with ammunition to the Virginia hotel where the “quick reaction force” teams would be on standby, according to prosecutors. A team from Arizona brought weapons, ammunition, and supplies to last 30 days, according to court papers. A team from North Carolina had rifles in a vehicle parked in the hotel lot, prosecutors have said. Surveillance footage shows Oath Keepers rolling bags, large bins and what appears to be at least one rifle case into the hotel.
On the morning of the riot, one of the quick reaction force team members warned on a podcast about the prospect of violence: “We are applying as much pressure as we can. The only and obvious next step is to go into armed conflict but hoping very much that that doesn’t happen.”
Trump delivered his speech at the Ellipse behind the White House, repeating his false claims about a rigged election and urging his supporters to “fight like hell.” The crowd started marching to the Capitol, eventually fighting past police barricades.
As word began spreading that people were storming the Capitol, Rhodes wrote: “All I see Trump doing is complaining. I see no attempt by him to do anything. So the patriots are taking it in their own hands. They’ve had enough.”
At the Capitol, the Oath Keepers formed two teams, military “stacks,” prosecutors say.
The first stack, with members wearing protective vests, helmets and communication devices, pushed through the crowd and up the Capitol steps. Over a channel called “Stop the Steal J6” on the walkie-talkie app Zello, Watkins said they were inside.
“Get it, Jess. … Everything we (expletive) trained for,” someone responded.
Some members of the first stack headed toward the House of Representatives searching for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., but couldn’t find her, according to court documents. Members of the second stack confronted officers inside the Capitol Rotunda, prosecutors allege.
Rhodes isn’t accused of going inside the Capitol but was seen huddled with members outside after the riot. Rhodes and others then walked to the nearby Phoenix Park Hotel, prosecutors say.
Inside a private suite there, Rhodes called someone on the phone with an urgent message for Trump, according to an Oath Keeper who says he was there. Rhodes repeatedly urged the person on the phone to tell Trump to call upon militia groups to fight to keep the president in power, court papers say. The person denied Rhodes’ request to speak directly to Trump.
“I just want to fight,” Rhodes said after hanging up, according to court papers. Authorities have not disclosed the name of the person they believe Rhodes was speaking to on the call. Rhodes’ lawyer has said the call never happened.
That night, Rhodes and other Oath Keepers went to dinner at an Olive Garden restaurant in Virginia. In messages over the course of the evening, they indicated their fight was far from over.
“We aren’t quitting!! We are reloading!!” Meggs wrote in one message.
“Patriots entering their own Capitol to send a message to the traitors is NOTHING compared to what’s coming,” Rhodes wrote in another.
In the days between the riot and Biden’s inauguration, Rhodes spent more than $17,000 on firearm parts, magazines, ammunition and other items, prosecutors say.
Rhodes returned to his home state of Texas after the Jan. 6 attack and remained free for a year before his arrest in January 2022.
In interviews before he was jailed, he sought to distance himself from those Oath Keepers who went inside the Capitol, saying it was a mistake to do so. But he also continued to push the lie that the election was stolen from Trump and painted the investigation of the Jan. 6 events as politically motivated.
The Oath Keepers’ “team leader on the ground that day was an experienced combat vet. … If he had actually intended for anyone to go into the Capitol and commit an insurrection, it would have looked very, very different from what we saw,” Rhodes said in a March 2021 interview with the website Gateway Pundit.
“The idea that that was somehow an insurrection, with no guns no actual, obvious intent to do anything is just ridiculous, a complete joke,” he said.
A lawyer for Caldwell wrote in a recent filing: “Defense counsel have reviewed thousands of text messages, Signal messages, emails, Facebook Messenger messages, social media posts, etc. and have found no evidence that the Rhodes defendants planned any specific acts of civil disobedience or violence on J6.”
The lawyer added: “If Caldwell or the Oath Keepers or both had a plan to forcibly, corruptly, illegally, or violently stop the Electoral College certification on J6, it was the best kept secret in the annals of American history.”