Leaders of the far-right Oath Keepers sought to end the country’s history of peaceful transitions of presidential power in order to keep Donald Trump in office, prosecutors contended on Monday, opening the most significant trial yet to emerge from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“They concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said during opening arguments.
The remarks to a jury were the first in the seditious conspiracy case being brought against five Oath Keeper leaders, part of what prosecutors described as a detailed — and increasingly desperate — bid to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory. Prosecutors say the group intended to back Trump’s bid to stay in power, but decided to “take matters into their own hands” after Trump and Vice President Mike Pence declined to invoke their most extreme options.
Prosecutors say the group’s founder, Yale Law-educated Stewart Rhodes, developed a detailed plan to keep Trump in power, including by violent force if necessary. Prosecutors described Rhodes as “like a general,” who surveyed his “troops” on Capitol grounds as they breached the building. And he said the group set up stockpiles of weapons just outside of Washington D.C. to prepare for the possibility of a more violent uprising, Nestler said.
Rhodes and four alleged co-conspirators are fighting a charge of seditious conspiracy, the most severe allegation leveled against any of the hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants charged in the nearly two years since the riot. Prosecutors said Rhodes’ plan involved a large network of co-conspirators — “too many to name,” as he put it — but that Rhodes and his four co-defendants were the leaders of the effort.
One of those leaders, Florida Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs, told allies he specifically sought out Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he combed the halls around the House chamber.
“[O]n the evening of Jan. 6, after Meggs told an associate that ‘we’ busted in,’ the associate said he was hoping to see ‘Nancy’s head rolling down the front steps,’” Nestler recounted. “And what did Kelly Meggs confirm in response? ‘We looked for her.’”
Rhodes and Meggs, as well as group members Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell, assembled teams of dozens of Oath Keepers from around the country who descended on Washington just ahead of Jan. 6. Prosecutors say they carefully honed a plan to disrupt the transfer of power and used the weeks between Election Day and Jan. 6, 2021 to surreptitiously advance their plans — using encrypted communications and face-to-face meetings to hash out details.
Some of those meetings were recorded by still anonymous Rhodes associates who Nestler said had become alarmed by the developing plans. On Jan. 10, four days after the attack, a cooperator recorded Rhodes saying it wasn’t too late for Trump to act to stay in power and that he had attempted to pass the outgoing president a message. Rhodes, per the recording, lamented that the group “should’ve brought rifles.”
Prosecutors say dozens of Oath Keepers, led by Rhodes, stockpiled some of their firearms at a Virginia hotel and prepared to lay siege to the Capitol to prevent the transfer of power to Joe Biden. They picked a Comfort Inn in Arlington, Va., Nestler said, because of its proximity to the highway that would take them straight to Washington D.C. They also discussed plans to ferry the weapons across the Potomac by boat.
They ultimately never deployed those weapons, but large factions of the group were among those who entered the Capitol — clad in military-style gear and using radio equipment — claiming to seek out lawmakers to prevent Congress and Pence from certifying the election results that day.
In his own opener, Rhodes attorney Phillip Linder argued that everything the group did was legal and that they were primarily in Washington to perform security details for pro-Trump VIPs like Roger Stone, who were speaking at rallies on Jan. 5 and 6 to protest Trump’s defeat. Their decision to descend on the Capitol, amid a pro-Trump mob that had already breached the building, was not a carefully-crafted plan, the defense contends. The firearms they brought were lawfully possessed, and never brought into D.C., where strict gun laws would have prohibited them. Rather, they were “defensive” in the event that Trump “called them in.”
Notably, Rhodes and his allies say they had been girding for the possibility that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act as part of a bid to remain in power, a decision they contend could have permitted them to act as a government-sanctioned militia.
“They were ready to react at President Trump’s request,” Linder said, adding that Rhodes believed he was potentially needed to legally “put down a riot.”
“You’re going to find out that it’s different than what the government has told you,” Linder added.
Linder said Rhodes plans to testify in his own defense, noting that he had offered to do so before Congress but was turned down. Linder emphasized that the defense would add significant context to all of the messages highlighted by prosecutors that would show the government’s case to be exaggerated or misleading.
Nestler, meanwhile, also referenced Rhodes’ belief about Trump’s potential invocation of the Insurrection Act, and said that the five defendants grew increasingly “desperate” as Jan. 6 approached and Trump had not taken the actions they wanted.
“Vice President Pence announced that he would not stop the certification,” Nestler said. “President Trump did not invoke the Insurrection Act. These defendants needed to take matters into their own hands. They needed to activate the plan they agreed on … Do whatever was necessary, including using orce, to stop the transfer of power.”
In many ways, Trump will be at the center of the trial, which is expected to last six to eight weeks. Oath Keepers, including Rhodes — who didn’t enter the Capitol but was seen outside rallying his allies amid the chaos — have indicated they took their cues from the former president. His Dec. 18, 2020 tweet urging supporters to come to Washington for a “wild” protest was shared?? among extremists, including some of the Oath Keeper leaders.
“Trump said It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!!,” Kelly Meggs, a Florida leader of the Oath Keepers charged alongside Rhodes, posted on social media that day. “He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!! Gentlemen we are heading to DC.”
Prosecutors cast Trump’s decision not to ultimately invoke the Insurrection Act as a pivotal moment in the alleged conspiracy. The group agreed, then, that they would escalate their effort to stop the certification of Biden’s victory by themselves, using the cover of the assembled mob, Nestler said.
The lengthy trial is likely to feature firsthand testimony from members of the Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police Department who confronted the Oath Keeper leaders, as well as those who fled from the mob as it breached the building. Members of the group who have cooperated with the government are also likely to be called as witnesses.
Prosecutors — who have already secured seditious conspiracy guilty pleas from Oath Keepers Joshua James, Brian Ulrich and William Todd Wilson — indicated that Rhodes attempted to contact Trump via an as-yet-unidentified intermediary amid the chaos. There’s no evidence he was successful in making contact with the White House.
Linder said the defense would pick apart statements provided by those who pleaded guilty, including Wilson. The phone call Wilson swore to in his plea deal “doesn’t exist,” Linder said.
Other defendants made more individualized arguments. Some contended that the FBI and Justice Department have overstated the evidence against them.
Watkins’ attorney, Jonathan Crisp, described her as an “enigma” — a transgender woman who was “haunted” by the early end of her enlistment contract with the military.
“The things she said were at times offensive and just plain wrong,” Crisp said. “The context matters.”
Caldwell’s attorney, David Fischer, noted that the government’s early case against his client had evolved, from painting him as the orchestrator of the Oath Keeper’s attack to a smaller part of the alleged conspiracy. He argued that they’d small mistakes too, like misstating Caldwell’s eye color and misunderstanding photographs recovered from Caldwell’s phone. He described Caldwell and his wife, who accompanied him on Jan. 6, as a “retired couple in the Shenandoah Valley” and noted that the injury-riddled Caldwell couldn’t “storm his way out of a paper bag.”
“What happened to these two people … It’s an absolute outrage,” Fischer said of Caldwell and his wife.
The five defendants have spent recent months raising procedural complaints, primarily contending that they couldn’t get a fair trial in overwhelmingly liberal Washington, D.C.
Mehta has repeatedly sidelined their efforts, urging them to await the selection of a jury. That process ultimately resulted in the selection of 12 jurors and four alternates last week. Mehta said Monday morning that the selection of the jury had successfully resulted in a panel that exhibited no signs of bias against the defendants, and indeed little awareness of the Oath Keepers or details of the Jan. 6 attack at all.
“My sense is this is a very diligent group of citizens who will abide by the court’s instructions,” Mehta said, rejecting a last-ditch effort to transfer the Oath Keepers’ case to Virginia.