By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The founder of the Oath Keepers extremist group and four associates planned an “armed rebellion” to keep President Donald Trump in power, a federal prosecutor contended Monday as the most serious case yet went to trial in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Stewart Rhodes and his band of extremists were prepared to go to war to stop Joe Biden from becoming president, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler told jurors. The group celebrated the Capitol attack as a battle they had won and continued their plot even after Biden’s electoral victory was certified, Nestler alleged.
“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,” the prosecutor said during his opening statement. “They concocted a plan for armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy.”
Rhodes and the four others are the first Jan. 6 defendants to stand trial on the charge of seditious conspiracy, a rare Civil War-era charge that calls for up to 20 years behind bars. The stakes are high for the Justice Department, which last secured a seditious conspiracy conviction at trial nearly 30 years ago.
Rhodes’ attorney painted a far different picture, describing the Oath Keepers as a “peacekeeping” force. He accused prosecutors of building their case on cherry-picked evidence from messages and videos and told jurors that the “true picture” would show that the Oath Keepers had merely been preparing for orders they expected from Trump but never came.
“Stewart Rhodes meant no harm to the Capitol that day. Stewart Rhodes did not have any violent intent that day,” Rhodes’ attorney, Phillip Linder, said. “The story the government is trying to tell you today is completely wrong.”
On trial with Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, are Kelly Meggs, leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers; Kenneth Harrelson, another Florida Oath Keeper; Thomas Caldwell, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer from Virginia, and Jessica Watkins, who led an Ohio militia group. They face several other charges as well.
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.
Prosecutors told jurors the insurrection was no spontaneous outpouring of election-fueled rage but part of a detailed, drawn-out plot to stop Biden from entering the White House.
Rhodes began plotting to overturn Biden’s victory right after the election, Nestler said. In November 2020, Rhodes sent his followers a step-by-step plan for stopping the transfer of power based on a popular uprising that brought down Yugoslavia’s president two decades earlier. As December approached, Rhodes’ rhetoric became increasingly violent and desperate, Nestler said.
In messages and comments read to the jury, the Oath Keepers repeatedly warned of the prospect of violence if Biden were to become president. During a December interview, Rhodes called senators “traitors” and warned that the Oath Keepers would have to “overthrow, abort or abolish Congress.”
Rhodes knew that if the Oath Keepers didn’t stop Congress from certifying the vote on Jan. 6, it would be much harder to stop Biden from taking office, Nestler said.
The Oath Keepers organized training, including one session that was recorded on video and set to rock music. Before coming to Washington, they set up “quick reaction force” teams with “weapons of war” stashed at a Virginia hotel so they could get them into the capital quickly if necessary, the prosecutor said.
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.
“These defendants were fighting a war and they won a battle on Jan. 6 … but they planned to continue waging that war to stop the transfer of power prior to Inauguration Day. Thankfully their plans were foiled,” Nestler said.
In the days between the riot and Biden’s inauguration, Rhodes spent more than $17,000 on firearm parts, ammunition and other items, prosecutors say. Around the time of the inauguration, Rhodes told others to organize local militias to oppose the Democratic administration, authorities say.
“Patriots entering their own Capitol to send a message to the traitors is NOTHING compared to what’s coming,” Rhodes wrote in a message the evening of Jan. 6.
Defense attorneys say the Oath Keepers came to Washington only to provide security at events for figures such as Trump ally Roger Stone before the president’s big outdoor rally behind the White House. Rhodes has said there was no plan to attack the Capitol and that the members who did acted on their own.
Rhodes’ lawyer told jurors that his client will take the stand to argue that he believed Trump was going to invoke the Insurrection Act and call up a militia, which Rhodes had been calling on him to do to stop Biden from becoming president. Rhodes’ lawyers have said he was merely lobbying the president to invoke a U.S. law.
Nestler took aim at the Insurrection Act claim, saying it was only an attempt to cover up Rhodes’ illegal scheme. “Rhodes, with a law degree was careful with his own words. Rather than say out loud their plan, they used a code – or shorthand – the Insurrection Act,” he said.
In one message from December 2020, Rhodes wrote that Trump “needs to know that if he fails to act, then we will.”
For full coverage of the Capitol riot, go to https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege
More on Donald Trump-related investigations: https://apnews.com/hub/donald-trump