Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, testified in his seditious conspiracy case on Friday. He told the jury that he is a patriotic American and denied claims that his far-right extremist group plotted an armed uprising to prevent the transfer of presidential power.
After prosecutors spent weeks presenting evidence they claim demonstrates Rhodes was behind a violent plot to keep Republican Donald Trump in the White House and Democrat Joe Biden out, Rhodes mainly appeared at ease but at moments appeared to choke up as he began his testimony.
Rhodes’ decision to testify entails risks for him because it allows prosecutors to interrogate him extensively after the trial begins the following week. Rhodes has not yet discussed the specifics of Jan. 6, when his supporters stormed the Capitol in military-style stack formation after pushing past a crowd of Trump backers.
Rhodes addressed the jury while dressed in a dark suit and tie. He spoke about his military background and his decision to form the Oath Keepers in 2009. Rhodes stated he considers himself to be a patriotic guy. His time as an Army paratrooper was cut short by an accident during training.
“You love your country?” Rhodes’ attorney asked him.
“Absolutely,“ Rhodes responded.
Rhodes portrayed the Oath Keepers as peaceful and disciplined despite a mountain of evidence showing him rallying his band of extremists to prepare for violence and discussing the prospect of a “bloody” civil war ahead of Jan. 6. Asked whether he believed the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, Rhodes falsely described Biden’s victory as “unconstitutional” and “invalid.”
“You really can’t have a winner of an unconstitutional election,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes’ 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.
The first individuals detained in connection with the attack on January 6 to go on trial for seditious conspiracy are Rhodes of Granbury, Texas, and his co-defendants. It can be challenging to prove the Civil War-era accusation, which if proven can result in a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
The other defendants are Jessica Watkins, the leader of an Ohio militia group, and Thomas Caldwell, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer from Virginia. Kelly Meggs, the leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, Kenneth Harrelson, and Kelly Meggs are also on trial.
Prosecutors tried to prove, over a month of testimony, that the Oath Keepers disturbance was not a last-minute protest but rather a significant component of a serious, weeks-long scheme to thwart the transition of power.
The defence team for Rhodes has hinted that they will use Trump as the centrepiece of their creative strategy. Rhodes is anticipated to contend that his preparations for January 6, 2021, were made in anticipation of the directives he anticipated from Trump. Those orders never materialised.
Jurors have heard that Rhodes spent thousands of dollars on guns, ammunition and other equipment before Jan. 6 and that Oath Keepers stashed a massive cache of weapons referred to as a “quick reaction force” at a Virginia hotel.
The weapons were never deployed. In a meeting with another man days after the riot, Rhodes was secretly recorded saying the Oath Keepers “ should have brought rifles ” on Jan. 6.
“We should have fixed it right then and there. I’d hang (expletive) Pelosi from the lamppost,” Rhodes said, referring to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Rhodes highlighted the activities of Oath Keepers in the fall of 2020, just before the election, when testifying on Friday. He published a “call to action” for the “Million MAGA March” in Washington on November 14 following the election. According to Rhodes, Oath Keepers offered protection for event speakers and Trump fans who requested it.
According to Rhodes, the Oath Keepers supplied security at Trump rallies, with unarmed members inside the perimeter and armed members waiting outside to accompany and defend Trump supporters from any antifa attacks.
When talking about the protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, some of which got violent, he stumbled at one point. Rhodes initially stated that he supports “their right to riot,” but immediately clarified that he supports their right to protest rather than a riot.
Rhodes got emotional at times during his testimony. He appeared to choke up as he recalled watching the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack unfold on TV while he was a student at Yale Law School, and as he talked about how military veterans often come home and struggle to find a new purpose for their lives.
The portrayal of the Oath Keepers as disciplined contrasts with testimony on Thursday about Rhodes’ leadership during the Million MAGA March in November of 2020. Watkins’ fiancé, Montana Siniff, described it as “very disorganized” and told jurors he did not return to Washington on January 6 because he did not want to “repeat that experience.”
According to the prosecution, Rhodes started preparing a plan to revoke Biden’s victory as early as November 2020. He urged his supporters to battle to defend Trump and prevent Biden from assuming the presidency at any costs, according to messages played for the jury.
Defense counsel, however, asserts that no attack on the Capitol was planned. According to the Oath Keepers, they were in Washington on January 6 to give security to right-wing personalities like Roger Stone rather than to prevent the certification of Biden’s victory. Their lawyers contend that while the Oath Keepers frequently deployed a “quick reaction force” to rallies, the guns were only intended to be used in the event that Trump invoked the Insurrection Act or if there was an attack.
According to Rhodes’ counsel, his case will centre on his conviction that Trump would use the Insurrection Act to mobilise a militia and thwart what the extremist group leader perceived to be a takeover by Democrats.
Rhodes repeatedly called on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, but Trump never did. Rhodes’ lawyers say he cannot be found guilty of seditious conspiracy because he was merely lobbying Trump to invoke the law, which gives the president wide discretion to decide when military force is necessary and what qualifies as a military force.
Prosecutors are expected to highlight messages they say show that Rhodes was using the Insurrection Act as legal cover and was prepared to act regardless of what Trump did. In one message in December 2020, Rhodes wrote that Trump “needs to know that if he fails to act, then we will.”