Oath Keepers founder accused of ‘armed rebellion’ on January 6 at trial

<span>Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP</span>
Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The founder of the Oath Keepers extremist group and four associates planned an “armed rebellion” to keep Donald Trump in power after he lost the election, a federal prosecutor contended on Monday as the most serious case yet went to trial involving the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.

Stewart Rhodes and his band of far-right militants were prepared to go to war to stop Joe Biden from becoming president, assistant US attorney Jeffrey Nestler told jurors.

The group celebrated the Capitol attack as a battle they had won and continued their plot even after Biden’s November 2020 electoral victory was certified by Congress in the early hours of 7 January, Nestler alleged.

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“Their goal was to stop, by whatever means necessary, the lawful transfer of presidential power, including by taking up arms against the United States government,” the prosecutor said during his opening statement. “They concocted a plan for armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy.”

Rhodes and the four others are the first January 6 defendants to stand trial on the charge of seditious conspiracy, a rare civil war-era charge that calls for up to 20 years behind bars, which they deny. The stakes are high for the US Department of Justice (DoJ), which last secured a seditious conspiracy conviction at trial nearly 30 years ago.

Rhodes’ attorney painted a far different picture, describing the Oath Keepers as a “peacekeeping” force. He accused prosecutors of building their case on cherry-picked evidence from messages and videos and told jurors that the “true picture” would show that the Oath Keepers had merely been preparing for presidential orders they expected from Trump but never came.

“Stewart Rhodes meant no harm to the Capitol that day. Stewart Rhodes did not have any violent intent that day,” Rhodes’ attorney, Phillip Linder, said. “The story the government is trying to tell you today is completely wrong.”

On trial with Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, are Kelly Meggs, leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, Kenneth Harrelson, another Florida member of the group, Thomas Caldwell, a retired US navy intelligence officer from Virginia, and Jessica Watkins, who led an Ohio militia group. They face several other charges as well.

About 900 people have been charged and hundreds convicted in the Capitol attack. Rioters stormed police barriers, fought with officers, smashed windows and temporarily halted the certification of Biden’s electoral victory.

Prosecutors told jurors the insurrection was no spontaneous outpouring of election-fueled rage but part of a detailed, drawn-out plot to stop Biden from entering the White House.

Rhodes began plotting to overturn Biden’s victory right after the election, Nestler said.

He told his followers during the planning stage that “it will be torches and pitchforks time if they (Congress) don’t do the right thing”, according to an encrypted Signal message he sent to his followers that was shown to the jury by prosecutors.

During a December media interview, Rhodes called senators “traitors” and warned that the Oath Keepers would have to “overthrow, abort or abolish Congress”.

Before coming to Washington, they set up “quick reaction force” teams with “weapons of war” stashed at a Virginia hotel, the prosecutor said.

As Oath Keepers stormed the Capitol, Rhodes stayed outside, like “a general surveying his troops on a battlefield”, Nestler said. After the attack, the Oath Keepers were “elated”, Nestler said.

“These defendants were fighting a war and they won a battle on January 6 … but they planned to continue waging that war to stop the transfer of power prior to Inauguration Day. Thankfully their plans were foiled,” Nestler said.

Defense attorneys say the Oath Keepers came to Washington only to provide security at events for figures such as Trump ally Roger Stone before the president’s big outdoor rally behind the White House. Rhodes has said there was no plan to attack the Capitol and that the members who did acted on their own.

Rhodes’ lawyer told jurors that his client will take the stand to argue that he believed Trump was going to invoke the Insurrection Act and call up a militia.