Oath Keepers Leader Points Finger at Colleagues in Sedition Trial

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Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right militia, testified that he did not order anyone to go into the Capitol on Jan. 6 and that he had nothing to do with an armed force waiting nearby.

An Oath Keeper with a beard, glasses, a camouflage vest with a two-way radio holds the leash of a dog wearing an Oath Keepers vest while several people with masks, helmets and other tactical gear stand nearby.
Members of the Oath Keepers on Jan. 6, 2021. Stewart Rhodes, the group’s leader, testified that he did not direct the members to enter the Capitol that day.Credit...Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Nov. 7, 2022

WASHINGTON — At the height of the chaos at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, two dozen members of the Oath Keepers militia met outside the building with their leader, Stewart Rhodes.

When some of them reported that they had just come back from inside the Capitol, Mr. Rhodes was outraged, he testified in court on Monday. Taking the stand at his own sedition trial, he said that those who had gone inside the building that day had done so of their own accord — and that he had never had a plan or had given any orders to go in.

“When I heard that they went in,” he told jury, “I said, ‘That was stupid.’”

Testifying for a second day at the trial in Federal District Court in Washington, Mr. Rhodes sought to wash his hands of much of what the Oath Keepers did on Jan. 6, laying the blame on several of his colleagues.

He told the jury that one of his co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, who went inside the Capitol with others in the group, had gone “off mission.”

He also claimed — for the first time — that he had “nothing to do with” an armed “quick reaction force” made of up Oath Keepers that was staged in hotel rooms in Virginia, ostensibly to rush to the aid of compatriots if things at the Capitol went wrong.

Mr. Rhodes has firmly denied there was a plan to break into the Capitol on Jan. 6 and disrupt the certification of the 2020 election, as the government has claimed. He has also argued that the Oath Keepers went to Washington that day on what he claims was a peaceful mission: to serve as bodyguards for pro-Trump celebrities like Ali Alexander, a Stop the Steal organizer, and Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser to Mr. Trump.

It is rare for a defendant, especially one of his prominence, to take the witness stand, but Mr. Rhodes, who holds a law degree from Yale, has been visibly confident in putting forward several intersecting arguments.

He spent much of the afternoon sparring with a prosecutor, Kathryn Rakoczy. Ms. Rakoczy’s questions seemed designed to both poke holes in the details of his account and to chip away at his broader credibility.

Ms. Rakoczy started, for example, by suggesting that Mr. Rhodes had soft-pedaled the nature of the Oath Keepers during his first turn on the witness stand on Friday. She pointed out that while telling the jury about some of the missions the group had been involved in over the years, he had failed to mention several in which his members used weapons to confront government forces and challenge their authority.

Ms. Rakoczy also noted that even when the Oath Keepers have undertaken nominally defensive operations — serving, say, as self-appointed protectors of residents and businesses during periods of unrest — local law enforcement leaders have expressed exasperation at their involvement.

From well before the trial began, lawyers for Mr. Rhodes have claimed that the armed “quick reaction force” in Virginia would have been mobilized only if Mr. Trump had invoked the Insurrection Act, a move that Mr. Rhodes believed would have given the Oath Keepers standing as a militia to take up arms in support of Mr. Trump.

Last week, Mr. Rhodes testified that he had established a similar force for a pro-Trump rally in Washington in November 2020, fearing that leftist activists were going to break into the White House and drag Mr. Trump into the streets. On Monday, he told the jury that as Jan. 6 approached, he no longer feared that the White House might be overrun and that an armed force was not needed.

He then suggested that his compatriots could have set up the reaction force without his knowledge.

But Ms. Rakoczy showed Mr. Rhodes a series of messages he exchanged with Mr. Meggs and others in the days leading up to Jan. 6 in which he seemed to be aware of the quick reaction force — or Q.R.F.

“Ok We WILL have a QRF,” he wrote in one of the messages. “This situation calls for it.”

Mr. Rhodes suggested that despite this apparent confirmation, his colleagues could have hashed out the details for the force without him — noting, as he often did during his day on the stand, that he did not like to micromanage as a leader.

“Sir, the buck stops with you in this operation, right?” Ms. Rakoczy asked.

“I’m responsible for everything that everyone did?” Mr. Rhodes responded.

During more than three hours of questions, Ms. Rakoczy also sought to make another point: that Mr. Rhodes had planned to act on Jan. 6 even without the legal cover that would have been offered by Mr. Trump invoking the Insurrection Act.

She showed Mr. Rhodes a message he had written saying that the Oath Keepers were going to “rise up in insurrection” against Joseph R. Biden Jr. even if Mr. Trump never summoned them. What Mr. Rhodes had really wanted, Ms. Rakoczy said, was for Mr. Trump to call up the Oath Keepers to “serve as his private bodyguards to stay in power.”

Mr. Rhodes denied it.

To prove the seditious conspiracy charges against Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Meggs and their co-defendants — Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell — prosecutors must persuade the jury that the Oath Keepers plotted to use force to oppose the lawful transfer of power from Mr. Trump to Mr. Biden. Several government witnesses have already admitted under questioning from the defense that there was no explicit plan to storm the Capitol and disrupt the election certification.

That left Ms. Rakoczy with the task of using circumstantial evidence to argue that Mr. Rhodes had encouraged his compatriots to go into the building.

She pointed out that as rioters were storming toward the Capitol, Mr. Rhodes compared the attack to the country’s founders destroying the house of the governor of Massachusetts during the Revolutionary era. Mr. Rhodes acknowledged he had made that comparison, but claimed at the time that he did not know the extent of the violence at the Capitol.

Ms. Rakoczy also noted that, according to phone records, Mr. Rhodes had a call with one of his top lieutenants, Michael Greene, and Mr. Meggs just minutes before Mr. Meggs went into the Capitol with other Oath Keepers in what prosecutors have described as a military “stack.”

Mr. Rhodes admitted he was on the 90-second call but could not hear a thing that Mr. Meggs had said.

“For 90 seconds you sat on that dead air?” Ms. Rakoczy asked, sounding incredulous.

Mr. Rhodes said yes.

Bringing her questions to a close, Ms. Rakoczy reminded Mr. Rhodes that even after Jan. 6, he continued his attempts to reach Mr. Trump and persuade him to invoke the Insurrection Act. She suggested that the storming of the Capitol was for him “just a battle in an ongoing war.”

“You and the Oath Keepers were prepared to take steps to abolish this government?” she asked.

“We were prepared to walk the founders’ path, yes,” Mr. Rhodes said. “If the government steps outside of the Constitution, it puts you in a bad place.”

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