Fifteen minutes after rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol building’s west side on Jan. 6, 2021, according to court testimony, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes sent a brief message to an encrypted chat group that included Proud Boys leader Henry ‘Enrique’ Tarrio.
“Back door of the Capitol,” Rhodes wrote.
He then called Florida Oath Keepers leader Kelly Meggs, who immediately began leading a group toward the doors on the Capitol’s east side.
The third week of the government’s case in the seditious conspiracy trial of Rhodes, Meggs and three other associates culminated in a minute-by-minute account of the Oath Keepers’ actions on Jan. 6 that prosecutors say shows how the group’s leaders plotted “rebellion” beforehand, greenlit violence while at the Capitol and appeared to coordinate their actions with other figures pushing to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Whitney Drew, a former FBI counterterrorism special agent with experience in Army intelligence, testified as prosecutors deployed audio, video and computers animations to give jurors an immersive path through the defendants’ actions that day.
Prosecutors mined material from Kellye SoRelle, described in court as both an Oath Keepers attorney and Rhodes’s girlfriend. SoRelle, who was recently charged with obstructing the vote count, started a four-minute long Facebook livestream at the east side of the Capitol at 2:12 p.m. just as a crowd began moving up the steps. Proud Boys simultaneously broke into the building on the west side, according to court records, and some moved to the east.
“This is what happens when the people are pissed and when they rise up,” SoRelle told followers in a video played for jurors. “That’s how you take your government back. You literally take it back.”
One minute after SoRelle’s video ended, a group of Oath Keepers led by Meggs arrived near where SoRelle was standing, Drew testified. Rhodes was also approaching, after telling an encrypted Oath Keepers leadership chat that it was Trump supporters, not leftist agitators, responsible for the action. He likened the crowd of “pissed off patriots” to “the Sons of Liberty,” American colonists who carried out the Boston Tea Party.
SoRelle had earlier pushed back on an Oath Keepers member who expressed concern about the mob breaking down barriers, saying she had a message from Rhodes: “We are acting like founding fathers, can’t stand down.”
At 2:28 p.m., Rhodes wrote, “Back door of the Capitol,” and sent it to an encrypted chat group that included Tarrio, Trump confidant Roger Stone, Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander and right-wing talk show host Alex Jones, according to prosecutors. Drew did not elaborate on that connection, but prosecutors have repeatedly highlighted Rhodes’s messages to the “Friends of Stone” chat group, which was also an interest of the House committee investigating Jan. 6. By the time Rhodes had sent that message, Proud Boys had already made their way from the west front of the Capitol to the east, both inside and outside the building, according to court records.
Minutes later, Rhodes messaged a group of Oath Keepers that people were “pounding on the doors,” according to texts shown in court. Then he called Meggs and Michael Greene, charged separately and described in court as the Oath Keepers’ Jan. 6 operations leader. The three spoke by conference call for just over a minute.
The contents of the 2:32 p.m. call were not available to investigators, but Drew testified that at that moment during the conversation Meggs began leading his Oath Keepers group in single-file “stack” formation up the stairs. The doors were forced open from the inside five minutes later, and the first member of the Oath Keepers entered with a massive crowd.
Inside the building, defendant Jessica Watkins of Ohio narrated their progress on a walkie-talkie style phone application.
“We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it,” she said, while others with her chimed in that they had taken over, according to the messages played in court.
“Were storming the Capitol,” Greene wrote to an unknown person at 3:06 p.m.
Drew also showed jurors new messages predating Jan. 6 involving Rhodes, SoRelle and other Oath Keepers in which Rhodes explicitly called for violence to prevent Joe Biden from taking office. Rhodes has argued those plans were only in preparation for the possibility that President Trump would deputize his group as a legal militia under the Insurrection Act. But in a Dec. 10 text message, Rhodes said that if Trump did not act, “we will have to rise up in insurrection (rebellion).”
Green and SoRelle have pleaded not guilty; Alexander, Jones and Stone are not charged with any crimes.
Rhodes’s defense attorney James Lee Bright argued that the defendants’ words were mere “rhetoric and bombast,” and that the government’s allegations of criminal intent were undercut by indications that the Oath Keepers were blundering around the Capitol grounds, confused and unable to connect by phone or in person. Some text messages were not received until hours later because of poor cell reception. Rhodes at one point inaccurately described himself as on the south side of the Capitol; one Oath Keeper lost track of his car.
“All these people from out of town had no clue where they are,” Bright said. “Kind of hard to give guidance to your troops when you don’t know where they are.”
Inside the Capitol, video played in court showed that the group of Oath Keepers on trial did not destroy property or assault officers, although jurors saw them pushing against riot police guarding the Senate chamber.
While “Quick Reaction Force” teams were waiting outside D.C. with firearms, Bright emphasized that they were “never called in” by Rhodes and established during cross-examination that the Oath Keepers were not charged with violating any firearms laws.
“So the armed rebellion was unarmed?” Bright asked FBI Special Agent Sylvia Hilgeman.
Hilgeman replied, “The armed rebellion wasn’t over.”