The seditious conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four others tied to the extremist group neared an end Friday, with prosecutors casting defendants’ plotting surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack as a mortal threat to democracy and the defense accusing the government of concocting a conspiracy from the disconnected acts of people who thought they were saving it.
“Our democracy is fragile,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy said. “It cannot exist without the rule of law, and it cannot survive if people who are dissatisfied with the result of an election can use force and violence to change the outcome. That is what these defendants attempted to do.”
The closing arguments capped the highest-profile prosecution to arise from the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Rhodes and others have testified that rhetoric of revolution and rebellion around Jan. 6 was just fantasy. Rakoczy asked jurors not to accept that.
“Please do not become numb to these statements,” she said. “This wasn’t ranting and raving; this was deadly serious.”
The trial of Rhodes — a former Army paratrooper and a Yale Law graduate who has become one of the most visible figures of the far-right anti-government movement — poses a major test of the Biden Justice Department’s strategy of countering domestic terrorism and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s vow to hold “all January 6th perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law.”
Rhodes did not enter the Capitol that day. But Rakoczy cited a “mountain of evidence” that Rhodes plotted an “armed rebellion” to prevent the lawful transition of presidential power after the 2020 election, bringing followers to Washington ready to die if President Donald Trump called on private militant groups to hold onto power.
“There were lawful ways to deal with the election. There were protests. There were lawsuits,” Rakoczy said. “But for these defendants, they felt that they were above the law.”
The conspiracy was born of a “sense of entitlement, that led to frustration, followed by rage and then violence,” she said.
Rhodes and four co-defendants that day staged an “arsenal” of firearms in nearby Virginia, and several seized the opportunity to forcibly breach the Capitol, Rakoczy said.
Attorney James Lee Bright argued intensely that his client, Rhodes, was the one trying to save America from chaos.
“There were riots, looting, arson, all over our country, the entirety of 2020,” he said. The Oath Keepers “saw their country burning.”
There were thousands of racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, and most were peaceful, but Bright focused on destructive incidents in Portland, Ore., Seattle and Washington, D.C. He said Rhodes “saw the White House being attacked” when Trump was taken to a basement bunker after a group of protesters hopped over barricades near the grounds.
Meanwhile, Rhodes and others were disturbed by “unlawful” pandemic-driven changes to state voting procedures, Bright said. (The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected challenges to those state measures.)
Bright attributed the “inappropriate … bombast” of the defendants to the stress of that year, frustrations that drove them into the “wormhole” of right-wing media.
But, he said, “not one piece of evidence that they reviewed showed an actual plan” to disrupt Congress on Jan. 6. One cooperating witness described their actions as “spontaneous,” Bright emphasized; another confirmed no one ordered them in.
Rhodes himself testified that his only goal was to lawfully lobby Trump and call on private military groups to help him keep power under the Insurrection Act.
What to know about the Oath Keepers sedition trial
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“All my effort was [aimed] at what Trump was going to do,” Rhodes testified, adding that the group brought firearms as part of Oath Keepers’ “standard operating procedure” for defensive purposes, or to be prepared for Trump to take what they believed would be lawful action.
Rhodes called it “stupid” and “off-mission” for co-defendants to enter the building. He said that his calls to resist federal authority by force were intended to apply only if Trump left the White House without a fight.
Rakoczy said that, even if that were true, it would not absolve Rhodes of criminal liability, as the indictment covers all of January 2021.
“Mr. Rhodes told you in his own words that he was prepared to start a rebellion the day President Biden took office,” she said.
Prosecutors urged jurors to view defendants’ participation in the Capitol breach not as an isolated event, but as part of an illegal plot proposed by Rhodes repeatedly in public letters and private statements warning that “bloody civil war” was necessary.
Rakoczy said defense claims that Rhodes didn’t speak with those who entered the building before they moved up the Capitol steps contradicted each other and made no sense in a “hierarchical” group of military veterans: “Does it make sense that any of these people would go into the Capitol, breach the building, without first checking with the commander?”
Evidence at trial left unanswered whether Rhodes and accused co-conspirators coordinated with political actors. Rhodes and several charged followers were in contact with Trump post-election advisers who spent weeks making unfounded allegations of election fraud. Some served as security guards for those advisers, including longtime Trump political confidant Roger Stone, “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander and former national security aide Michael Flynn, witnesses testified, while Trump attorney Sidney Powell’s nonprofit raised funds for their defense.
On the day networks declared the election for Joe Biden, Nov. 7, 2020, Rhodes allegedly shared a text with Stone and others asking, “What’s the plan?” He then shared an action plan with the same “Friends of Stone” group as well as with an Oath Keepers leadership group chat that suggested storming Congress.
Rhodes sent the “civil war” text to Oath Keepers the same day. He repeated the message with mounting urgency in both encrypted chats and open letters to Trump. Even four days after Jan. 6, 2021, he told an alarmed intermediary — who recorded Rhodes and later assisted the FBI — that it was not too late to use paramilitary groups to stay in power by force.
“If he’s not going to do the right thing, and he’s just gonna let himself be removed illegally, then we should have brought rifles,” Rhodes said on the recording. “We could have fixed it right then and there. I’d hang f—ing Pelosi from the lamppost,” referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
On trial with Rhodes are Kelly Meggs, 53, an auto dealership manager from Dunnellon, Fla., whom prosecutors described as the “Florida state lead” on Jan. 6; Kenneth Harrelson, 42, a former Army sergeant from Titusville, Fla., whom prosecutors called the “ground team lead”; Jessica Watkins, 39, another Army veteran and a bartender from Woodstock, Ohio; and Thomas Caldwell, 68, a retired Navy intelligence officer from Berryville, Va.
All are accused of conspiring to engage in sedition against the government and to obstruct Congress’s affirmation of Biden’s victory on Jan. 6. Those two charges are both punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins, who went into the Capitol, are also accused of damaging property, and all but Watkins are charged with destroying evidence. Four additional defendants indicted with the same group in January face a second trial next month.
All were among the first defendants hit with the historically rare charge of seditious conspiracy in connection with the Capitol riot. Two co-defendants have pleaded guilty but did not testify in Rhodes’s case. Five leaders of the right-wing group Proud Boys are scheduled for trial on similar charges in December.
Meggs and Harrelson did not testify but argued through attorneys that they were at the Capitol to provide security and tried to help police.
“Were the Oath Keepers in the Rotunda that day to stop the certification?” Meggs’ attorney, Stanley Woodward, said in closing. “Or were they trying to move people out of the Capitol building … to facilitate the Capitol Police securing the building?”
Other Oath Keepers confronted police in the building — including Watkins, who apologized on the stand for getting “swept up” in the mob.
She said she joined the Oath Keepers in late 2020 not to keep Trump in power by force but to protect Americans from “enforced vaccination” or a Chinese invasion through Canada.
“There was talk of the Insurrection Act, but no one was taking it seriously,” she testified. “I would put it below the Chinese invading.”
Caldwell testified that charges against him were a “great exaggeration” and asserted that messages he sent about transporting and using firearms at the Capitol were “creative writing.”
Rakoczy noted testimony by two former Florida Oath Keepers who admitted coming to Washington ready for armed combat and seizing the opportunity presented by the Capitol breach.
“I felt like it was a ‘Bastille-type’ moment in history, like in the French Revolution,” Oath Keepers member Graydon Young testified. “I was acting like a traitor, someone acting against my own government.”