Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes told the jury there was no plan for members of his far-right group to attack the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, as he attempts to clear his name at his trial for seditious conspiracy.
Taking the stand in his own defense for a second day, Rhodes testified Monday that he had no idea his supporters would join the pro-Trump mob to storm Capitol Hill and was upset after discovering some did.
Rhodes said that he thought it was stupid for the Oathkeepers to enter the Capitol. He insisted that this was not his “mission”.
“There was no plan to enter the building for any purpose,” Rhodes testified.
Rhodes is on trial along with four other defendants for what prosecutors alleged was a plot to stage an armed rebellion to stop the transfer of presidential power from Republican Donald Trump to Democrat Joe Biden.
Prosecutors have tried to show that for the Oath Keepers, the riot was not an impromptu protest but part of a serious week-long plot.
Rhodes’ defense centers largely on the idea that his rhetoric was aimed at persuading Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, which gives the president broad discretion in deciding when military force is necessary and what counts as force. military.
Rhodes told the jury that he believed it would have been legal for Trump to invoke that act and call in a militia in response to what he believed was an “unconstitutional” and “invalid” election.
“All my effort was into what Trump could do,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes did not make clear what he would have wanted a militia to do after Trump called him out.
He said that disrupting the certification of the vote was not one of his goals and he hoped that the election would be certified.
Prosecutors said Rhodes’ own words show he was using the Insurrection Act as a legal cover and was going to act no matter what Trump did.
When they get a chance to question Rhodes this week, they’re likely to highlight messages like one Rhodes sent in December 2020 in which he said Trump “needs to know that if he doesn’t act, then we will.”
‘Inspecting his troops’
Rhodes also touched on another key part of the prosecution’s case: a huge arsenal of weapons that the Oathkeepers kept in a hotel in nearby Virginia. Prosecutors said the weapons were part of a so-called rapid reaction force that the group could quickly deploy to Washington.
Rhodes testified that the weapons were not there for that purpose and said it would have taken a long time to load them into a vehicle and drive them into town.
Rhodes did not go to Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 of last year, and prosecutors described him as “a general inspecting his troops on a battlefield.”
Rhodes said he simply went to Capitol Hill to find his Oath Keepers supporters who had not been sent on a security “mission” to protect figures like Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant. Rhodes said he didn’t even realize one of his men entered the Capitol until he saw him in an FBI photo.
Prosecutors have spent weeks methodically presenting evidence showing Rhodes and the Oath Keepers discussing the possibility of violence before Jan. 6 and the need to keep Biden out of the White House at all costs.
Among his key witnesses were two former Rhodes supporters who pleaded guilty in the attack on the Capitol and agreed to cooperate with investigators in hopes of getting lighter sentences.
One told jurors that Oath Keepers members were prepared to stop the certification of Biden’s election victory by “any means necessary,” including taking up arms.
Three Oathkeepers who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and entered into cooperative agreements with prosecutors were notably not put on the stand by the government. It is not clear why.
During cross-examination Monday, prosecutor Kathryn Rakoczy showed jurors text messages between Rhodes and other Oath Keepers prior to January 6.
In a text message to Rhodes, another Oath Keeper on trial, Kelly Meggs, says he’s busy setting up the quick reaction force, also known as the “QRF.” “Ok, we’ll have a QRF. This situation calls for it,” Rhodes responded on Jan. 2.
Rhodes said some of the messages about QRF were exchanged in a group chat where he didn’t always read everything, although he acknowledged being the administrator of the chat. “Sir, the buck stopped with you on this operation, correct?” Rakoczyn asked.
“Am I responsible for everything everyone did?” Rhodes asked.
“You’re in charge, right?” Rakoczyn said.
“Not when they do something outside of the mission, I’m not in charge,” he replied.
The defendants are the first of hundreds of people arrested in the Capitol riots to stand trial on the Civil War-era charge that calls for up to 20 years behind bars. The Justice Department last secured such a conviction in a trial nearly 30 years ago and intends to try two more groups on the charge this year.
On trial with Rhodes, who is from Granbury, Texas, are Meggs, leader of the Florida chapter of Oath Keepers; Kenneth Harrelson, another Florida Oath Keeper; Thomas Caldwell, a retired US Navy intelligence officer from Virginia; and Jessica Watkins, who led a militia group from Ohio.
They face several other charges in addition to seditious conspiracy.
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