Oath Keepers trial: Closing arguments scheduled for Friday

Oath Keepers trial: Closing arguments scheduled for Friday

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“We aren’t getting through this without a civil war.”

That’s a message Stewart Rhodes sent to leaders in the Oath Keepers two days after the 2020 presidential election, and it was the first words Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy spoke to jurors after Rhodes’s seven-week trial in federal court.

Closing arguments began Friday morning in the seditious conspiracy case against Rhodes and four associates of the extremist group he founded, capping the highest-profile prosecution to arise from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Rhodes and others have testified that rhetoric of revolution and rebellion around Jan. 6, 2021 was just fantasy. Rakoczy asked jurors not to accept that.

“Please do not become numb to these statements,” she said. “This wasn’t ranting and raving; this was deadly serious.”

The trial of Rhodes — a former Army paratrooper and a Yale Law graduate who has become one of the most visible figures of the far-right anti-government movement — poses a major test of the Biden Justice Department’s strategy of countering domestic terrorism and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s vow to hold “all January 6th perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law.”

Rhodes did not enter the Capitol that day. But at a federal courthouse blocks from the riot scene, prosecutors accused him of plotting an “armed rebellion” to prevent the lawful transition of presidential power after the 2020 election, organizing followers to come to the Washington area prepared for violence and ready to die if President Donald Trump called on private military groups to help him hold power.

“There were lawful ways to deal with election. There were protests. There were lawsuits,” Rakoczy said. “But for these defendants, they felt that they were above the law.”

Rhodes and four co-defendants that day staged an “arsenal” of firearms in nearby Virginia, and several seized the opportunity to forcibly breach the Capitol, Rakoczy said.

Defense attorneys have asserted that there was no explicit order or plan by defendants to attack or enter the Capitol and therefore no conspiracy or agreement to engage in illegal conduct.

The defense accused prosecutors of treating “rhetorical” and “bombastic” statements as criminal. Rhodes himself testified that his only goal was to lawfully lobby Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. He argued the president could legally call on the military and private military groups, overturn the election and keep power.

“All my effort was [aimed] at what Trump was going to do,” Rhodes testified, adding that the group brought firearms as part of Oath Keepers’ “standard operating procedure” for defensive purposes, or to be prepared for Trump to take lawful action.

Rhodes called it “stupid” and “off-mission” for co-defendants to enter the building. He said that his calls to resist federal authority by force, with or without Trump, were intended to apply only after Biden took office.

Rakoczy said that even if that were true, it would not absolve Rhodes of criminal liability, as the indictment covers all of January 2021.

“Mr. Rhodes told you in his own words that he was prepared to start a rebellion the day President Biden took office,” she said.

Prosecutors urged jurors to view defendants’ participation in the Capitol breach not as a spontaneous, stand-alone event, but as illegal action to further a wider plot proposed by Rhodes.

Rakoczy said testimony about whether Rhodes spoke with those who entered the building just before that breach was inconsistent, suggesting “the truth is damning.” Noting that the group was filled with veterans and modeled on the military, she added, “Does it make sense that any of these people would go into the Capitol, breach the building, without first checking with the commander?”

Evidence at trial left unanswered whether Rhodes and accused co-conspirators acted independently of political actors. Rhodes and several charged followers were in contact with Trump post-election advisers who spent weeks making unfounded allegations of election fraud. Some served as security guards for longtime Trump political confidant Roger Stone, “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander and former national security aide Michael Flynn, witnesses testified, while Trump attorney Sidney Powell raised funds for their defense.

On the day networks declared the election for Biden, Nov. 7, 2020, Rhodes allegedly shared a text with Stone and others asking, “What’s the plan?” He then shared an action plan with the same “Friends of Stone” group as well as with an Oath Keepers leadership group chat that suggested storming government buildings.

Rhodes sent the “civil war” text to Oath Keepers the same day. He repeated the message with mounting urgency in both encrypted chats and open letters to Trump. Even four days after Jan. 6, 2021, he told an alarmed intermediary — who recorded Rhodes and later assisted the FBI — that it was not too late to use paramilitary groups to stay in power by force.

“If he’s not going to do the right thing, and he’s just gonna let himself be removed illegally, then we should have brought rifles,” Rhodes said on the recording. “We could have fixed it right then and there. I’d hang f—-ing Pelosi from the lamppost,” referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif).

On trial with Rhodes are Kelly Meggs, 53, an auto dealership manager from Dunnellon, Fla., who prosecutors described as the “Florida state lead” on Jan. 6; Kenneth Harrelson, 42, a former Army sergeant from Titusville, Fla., whom prosecutors called the “ground team lead”; Jessica Watkins, 39, another Army veteran and a bartender from Woodstock, Ohio; and Thomas Caldwell, 68, a retired Navy intelligence officer from Berryville, Va.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes charged with seditious conspiracy in Jan. 6 Capitol riot

All are accused of conspiring to engage in sedition against the government and to obstruct Congress’s affirmation of Biden’s victory on Jan. 6. Those two charges are both punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins, who went into the Capitol, are also accused of damaging property, and all but Watkins are charged with destroying evidence. Four additional defendants indicted with the same group in January face a second trial next month.

All were among the first defendants hit with the historically rare charge of seditious conspiracy in connection with the Capitol riot in January. Two co-defendants have pleaded guilty but did not testify in Rhodes’s case. Five leaders of the right-wing group Proud Boys, including Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, are also charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the Capitol breach and scheduled for trial in December.

Meggs and Harrelson did not testify, but their attorneys argued that they helped police inside. Watkins on the stand apologized for interfering with police by yelling “Push!” with a mob trying to break through a line of officers blocking a hallway to the Senate, but said there was no plot to block a vote certification she thought was already completed. She said she joined the Oath Keepers in late 2020 not to keep Trump in power by force but to protect Americans from “enforced vaccination” or a Chinese invasion through Canada.

What you need to know about the Oath Keepers trial

“There was talk of the Insurrection Act, but no one was taking it seriously,” she testified. “I would put it below the Chinese invading.”

Caldwell testified that charges against him were a “great exaggeration” and asserted that messages he sent about transporting and using firearms at the Capitol were “creative writing.”

In her closing Rakoczy called that testimony “patently absurd.”

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