Trial begins for Oath Keepers charged in Jan 6 US Capitol riot

The founder of the Oath Keepers extremist group and four associates planned for an “armed rebellion” to stop the transfer of presidential power on January 6, 2021, prosecutors have told jurors, in a plot to stop the transfer of US presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

At the start of the most serious case to reach trial yet in the attack on the United States Capitol, assistant US Attorney Jeffrey Nestler delivered his opening statement on Monday in Washington, DC’s federal court in the trial of Stewart Rhodes and four others charged with seditious conspiracy and other felonies.

“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,” he said. “They concocted a plan for armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy.”

Rhodes and his co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson are accused of plotting to forcefully prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s 2020 election victory in a failed bid to keep then-President Trump, a Republican, in power.

Members of the Oath Keepers standing on the East Front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC [File: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP]

Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol after Trump falsely claimed the election had been stolen from him through widespread fraud. Five people died during and shortly after the riot, and about 140 police were injured.

The five on trial face numerous felony charges, including seditious conspiracy – a Civil War-era statute that is rarely prosecuted and carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The Oath Keepers planned their conspiracy “in plain sight”, Nestler said, noting open letters Rhodes published on the group’s website. They also used encrypted apps, like Signal, to message in secret and sometimes met in person, he said.

“They did not go to the Capitol to defend or help; they went to attack,” he said.

An attorney for Rhodes, though, argued that prosecutors built their case on cherry-picked evidence like messages and videos and that the Oath Keepers were not involved with violence during the riot.

“The story the government is trying to tell you today is completely wrong,” said Rhodes’s lawyer, Phillip Linder. “Even though it may look inflammatory, they did nothing illegal.”

The stakes are high for the US Department of Justice, which last secured a seditious conspiracy conviction at trial nearly 30 years ago.

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

But the Oath Keepers are the first to stand trial on seditious conspiracy, a charge that can carry a sentence of up to 20 years behind bars. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

Prosecutors told jurors that the insurrection for the antigovernment group was not a spontaneous outpouring of election-fueled rage, but part of a drawn-out plot to stop Biden from entering the White House.

Prosecutors say Rhodes began plotting to overturn Biden’s victory just days after the election.

He provided the group in November with a step-by-step plan based on a popular uprising that brought down Yugoslavia’s president two decades earlier, Nestler said.

Oath keeper
Stewart Rhodes and four others are charged in the most serious case to reach trial yet in the January 6, 2021 US Capitol attack [File: Susan Walsh/AP]

By December, authorities say, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers had set their sights on Congressional certification of the Electoral College vote on January 6.

Nestler read a host of messages, saying they showed the group becoming became increasingly desperate for action as the date approached. On Christmas Day, Meggs wrote they would have to make senators very “uncomfortable”. Rhodes said in one message that Trump “needs to know that if he fails to act, then we will”. When asked about a possible civil war, Caldwell responded: “I’m starting it the night of the 6th, if necessary.”

The Oath Keepers organised training, including one session that was recorded on video and set to rock music, and stashed “weapons of war” at a Virginia hotel so they could get them into the capital quickly if necessary, prosecutors said.

January 6 videos and photos were shown in court of Oath Keepers dressed in helmets, protective vests and other military gear marching toward the Capitol and pushing into the building.

As Oath Keepers stormed the Capitol in helmets and other battle gear, Rhodes remained on the outside, like “a general surveying his troops on a battlefield”, Nestler said. After the attack, the Oath Keepers were “elated”, the prosecutor said.

Rhodes, a former US Army paratrooper who has a law degree from Yale University, has said the Oath Keepers is a non-partisan group whose members have pledged to defend the US Constitution.

Linder promised the jury his client, who he described as “extremely patriotic”, would take the stand to explain his side of the story.

He said the “real evidence” in the trial will show that the defendants were in Washington on January 5 and 6 to provide security to a variety of speakers at political rallies.

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