Ex-Oath Keeper: Group leader claimed contact with Secret Service

WASHINGTON (AP) — Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes said a member of the extremist group before the 2020 election that he had a Secret Service contact, a witness testified Thursday in Rhodes’ Capitol riots attempt.

John Zimmerman, who was part of the North Carolina branch, told jurors that Rhodes claimed to have a Secret Service agent’s number and to have spoken with the agent about the logistics of a September 2020 meeting held by then-President Donald Trump in Fayetteville , North Carolina.

The claim came on the third day of testimony in the case against Rhodes and four others charged with seditious conspiracy for what authorities have described as a detailed, long-drawn-out plot to stop the transfer of power from Trump to Democrat Joe Biden, who won the election.

Zimmerman could not say for sure that Rhodes was talking to anyone with the Secret Service — only that Rhodes told him he was — and it was not clear what they discussed. Zimmerman said Rhodes wanted to find out the “parameters” under which Oath Keepers could operate during the election year meeting.

The significance of the detail in the government’s case is unclear. Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, and the others are accused of spending weeks planning to use violence in a desperate campaign to keep Trump in the White House.

Trump’s potential ties to extremist groups has been the focus of the House committee investigating the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Another Oath Keeper expected to testify against Rhodes has claimed that after the riot, Rhodes called someone apparently close to Trump and made a request: ask Trump to call on militia groups to fight to keep him in power. Authorities have not identified that person; Rhodes’ attorney says the call never happened.

A Secret Service spokesman said the agency is aware that “individuals from Oath Keepers have contacted us in the past to make inquiries.” The agency said that when creating a security plan for events, it is “not uncommon for various organizations to contact us regarding security restrictions and activities permitted near our protected sites.”

The others on trial are Thomas Caldwell of Berryville, Virginia; Kenneth Harrelson of Titusville, Florida; Jessica Watkins of Woodstock, Ohio; and Kelly Meggs of Dunnellon, Florida. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

Authorities say the Oath Keepers organized paramilitary training and stashed weapons with “quick reaction force” teams at a Virginia hotel in case they were needed before members stormed the Capitol with hundreds of other Trump supporters.

Jurors also heard testimony from a man who secretly recorded a Nov. 9, 2020, conference call held by Rhodes in which the leader rallied his followers to prepare for violence and go to Washington.

The man, Abdullah Rasheed, said he began recording the call with hundreds of Oath Keepers members because Rhodes’ rhetoric made it sound like “we were going to war with the United States government.”

Rasheed said he tried to get in touch with authorities, including the US Capitol Police and the FBI, about the call, but that no one called him back until “after it all happened.” An FBI agent has testified that the agency received a tip about the call in November 2020, and when asked if the FBI ever conducted an interview, he said “not that I’m aware of.” The man contacted the FBI again in March 2021, was interviewed and gave authorities the recording of the call.

Rhodes’ lawyers have said the Oath Keepers leader will testify that his actions leading up to Jan. 6 were in preparation for orders he believed came from Trump but never did.. Rhodes has said he believed Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act and call in a militia to support his bid to hold on to power.

The defense says the Oath Keepers often set up rapid response forces for events, but they were only to be used to protect against violence by antifa activists or in the event that Trump invoked the Insurrection Act.

Zimmerman, the former Oath Keeper from North Carolina, described readying a rapid response force for the “Million MAGA March” on Washington on November 14, 2020, in case Trump invoked the Sedition Act. Thousands of Trump supporters gathered that day at Freedom Plaza along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to rally behind Trump’s false election claims.

Zimmerman told jurors that the Oath Keepers stashed at least a dozen rifles and several handguns in his van parked at Arlington National Cemetery to serve as a rapid response force. He said they never took the guns into Washington.

Zimmerman was not in town on Jan. 6 because he was recovering from the coronavirus, and he said that after the Nov. 14 event, the North Carolina Oath Keepers split from Rhodes. Zimmerman said the split came over Rhodes’ suggestion that the Oath Keepers wear disguises to lure antifa activists into attacking them so the Oath Keepers could give them a “beat down.”

Zimmerman said Rhodes suggested dressing up as older people or mothers pushing strollers and putting guns in the stroller.

“I told him ‘No, that’s not what we do,'” Zimmerman said. “It’s confinement. It’s illegal.”

In a separate case Thursday, Jeremy Joseph Bertino of North Carolina became the first member of the extremist group Proud Boys to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 attack. Three Oath Keeper members have also pleaded guilty to the charge.

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For full coverage of the Capitol riot, go to https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege

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