(WASHINGTON) — Five members of the Oath Keepers facing charges of seditious conspiracy “concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy,” a federal prosecutor said Monday in opening statements at the D.C. district court, kicking off the high-stakes first trial for members of the far-right militia group.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler told jurors the defendants, including Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, along with members Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell, “banded together to do whatever was necessary” to stop the transfer of power between Donald Trump and then-President-elect Joe Biden — and that they saw U.S. Congress certification of the electoral college as their perfect opportunity.
In addition to their alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, the Oath Keepers members conspired to stage “an arsenal of firearms,” including multiple semi-automatic rifles at a hotel just outside of Washington D.C. and multiple teams of so-called “Quick Reaction Forces,” with Caldwell even plotting for ways to potentially ferry weapons into the city by boat across the Potomac River in case they were called on, the prosecution alleged.
Nestler showed jurors multiple photo and video exhibits during his more than hour-long opening statement, including the now-infamous picture of members of the group climbing the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot in a military-style “stack” formation. He also showed video snippets of members of the Oath Keepers militia participating in training sessions with semi-automatic rifles.
All of the defendants, except Meggs, formerly served in the military before joining the Oath Keepers.
“These defendants use their training, knowledge and experience they gained in the United States Armed Forces to further their ability to succeed and plot to oppose by force the government of the United States,” Nestler said on Monday.
While Rhodes is not alleged to have participated in the breach of the Capitol, Nestler described him as the group’s ringleader in calling members to Washington and urging them to resist the transfer of power by force if necessary.
Nestler played audio of various public appeals Rhodes made to Trump directly, asking him to invoke the Insurrection Act, which he believed would help mobilize members of the group to take up arms and resist any efforts to remove Trump from office. He said Rhodes, a Yale-educated former lawyer, told the group “they needed to be careful with their words” and used coded language to shield their true aims of opposing by force the lawful transfer of presidential power, the prosecution alleged.
Even after the riot, as they learned law enforcement was seeking to arrest those involved in the attack on the Capitol, Rhodes attempted to pass a message directly to Trump assuring him it was not too late to take action, Nestler said.
“My only regret is that they should have brought rifles,” Rhodes said in recorded audio on Jan. 10. “We could have fixed it right then and there.”
Rhetoric used by the group’s members grew increasingly violent in the days leading up to Jan. 6, Nestler said, with Rhodes and others raising the prospect of civil war or “bloody war” erupting as the end of Trump’s time in power grew closer.
All of the defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Defense attorneys for the five charged Oath Keepers are expected to argue their clients did nothing illegal in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, while claiming the government’s decision to charge them with the rarely-used seditious conspiracy statute is an effort to target members of the militia group over their political beliefs.
“The real evidence is going to show our clients were there to do security on [January] 5th and 6th,” Stewart Rhodes’ attorney Phillip Linder said during his opening statement Monday. “The type of security they’ve done for 13 years throughout their history.”
Linder said Rhodes would testify during the trial. He described Rhodes as “extremely patriotic” and claimed the Justice Department’s presenting of his recorded statements about opposing the transfer of power were merely an attempt to “alarm and anger” the jury.
“You take a handful of texts and you take a handful of things you don’t understand, take some things that look bad and put them together then you come to a conclusion or an incorrect mischaracterization,” Linder said on Monday. “We want to bring you the full picture.”
The trial is expected to last upward of a month, lawyers have estimated, with a second set of defendants from the Oath Keepers militia charged in the conspiracy slated to stand trial in late November.
Nestler said the five Oath Keepers did have other reasons for being in Washington on Jan. 6 other than the storming of the Capitol, such as providing security for VIPs and attending Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally at the Ellipse that preceded the riot.
But, Nestler said, all of them “also agreed to do whatever was necessary, including using force to make sure that presidential power was not transferred,” and that included driving to D.C. so they were able to bring their “weapons of war” close to the nation’s Capital.
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