Washington – Leaders of the far-right militia group Oath Keepers worked to “smash a foundation of American democracy” when they planned and executed a coordinated attack on the US capital on January 6, 2021, the Justice Department alleged in a federal court on Monday, the first day of their trial.
“They joined together to do whatever was necessary, up to and including the use of force,” prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler told a jury in the trial of five members or affiliates of the group charged with seditious conspiracy and other crimes , stemming from their alleged involvement in the Capitol. breakup.
Oath Keeper’s leaderand co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell were part of the group whose goal was to “stop by any means necessary the lawful transfer of power, including the taking up of arms against the United States government,” Nestler said. during the government’s opening argument.
The defendants are accused of planning their attack on the Capitol as far back as November 2020, later gathering weapons and talking about violence with other co-conspirators — both charged and uncharged — and coordinating their movements on the day of the attack.
Nestler led the jury through a summary of the government’s case, including the structure of the Oath Keeper’s operation with Rhodes at the helm. Meggs and Harrelson, prosecutors explained, teamed up with the group’s Florida contingent, while Watkins headed operations in Ohio, and Caldwell — not a bona fide member of the group — allegedly launched their “Quick Reaction Forces” (QRF) , who stored weapons in a hotel in Virginia.
Caldwell is accused of planning to use a boat to transport these weapons to Washington, DC. That call to action never came, according to the government, and during his own opening argument, Caldwell’s attorney David Fischer denounced the characterization as “hogwash.”
“This is the biggest bait and switch in the history of the US justice system,” Fischer argued, “The QRF was not in the remotest way” designed to attack the Capitol, but to provide health and safety support if needed.
On January 6, prosecutors alleged, Rhodes and his conspirators traveled to the Capitol, ready to use “the training, knowledge and experience” many of them gained in the military to plot to overthrow the government. Many members of the Oath Keepers organization are military veterans.
Nestler said the group’s calls for “civil war” and refusals to accept Biden as the “legitimate winner” of the 2020 presidential election came to a head when the Capitol was under attack. He argued that the evidence at trial will show they were waiting for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, a Civil War-era law that would have called for a militia of armed citizens to oppose the work of Congress.
“He needs to know that if he fails to act, we will,” Rhodes is accused of writing about the former president.
Rhodes’ attorney Phillip Linder said in his opening argument Monday that Rhodes and his associates were there to provide assistance and security to high-profile participants in rallies in support of the former president, a defense attorney Fischer and Watkins’ attorney, Jonathan Crisp, both repeated.
Text messages released earlier this year reveal Oath Keepers members discussed protecting people including Trump ally Roger Stone and rally organizer Ali Alexander in the weeks leading up to January 6.
Taken out of context, their communications before and during the attack sound “ominous as hell,” Crisp conceded, but the evidence at trial would not support the government’s claims, he said.
“Stewart Rhodes meant no harm to the Capitol that day. Stewart Rhodes did not have any violent intent that day,” Linder argued for his client, telling the jury that Rhodes will testify in his own defense during a trial expected to last more than a month.
But Nestler told the jury that investigators will prove that Watkins, Harrelson and Meggs were part of an “invading army” that allegedly formed a military-like “stack” to enter the Capitol building and push against members of Congress, including Speaker of Parliament. Nancy Pelosi as Rhodes coordinated from the outside.
Prosecutors also showed the jury a photo of a patch they claimed was on Meggs’ clothing during the attack. It read: “I don’t believe in anything. I’m just here for the violence.”
Using excerpts of video evidence, Nestler walked the jury through what the government will argue is evidence that the group coordinated to overthrow the government by force and prevent the peaceful transfer of power, a “core democratic custom.”
Linder told the jury that the government used the videos and inflammatory language in “an attempt to alarm and anger you.”
“While it may look inflammatory, they did nothing illegal,” Linder said of the defendants.
After the Capitol attack, Nestler told the jury that Rhodes allegedly met with an unnamed person on Jan. 10, 2021, where he lamented that the group was not armed on Jan. 6 and tried to convey a message to Trump that it was “still “not too late,” to act. That conversation was secretly recorded, according to the prosecutor.
But Linder argued that his client believed “in good faith” that Trump was set to invoke the Insurrection Act and any call for unnecessary violence was “free speech and bravado.” In all, defense attorneys argued throughout the day Monday that the Oath Keepers felt Trump had “failed” them because they were never called to action on Jan. 6.
Prosecutors said they will argue at trial that talk of the insurrection law was only to give the oath-keepers legal cover.
Attorneys for Kenneth Harrelson and Kelly Meggs, both of Florida, chose not to provide opening arguments for their clients. Fischer, representing Caldwell, and Crisp, Watkins’ attorney, told the jury that at the time of their arrest, their clients both spoke freely with investigators in interviews.
“These are not the actions of someone who was trying to overthrow the government,” Crisp said, arguing that while Meggs entered the Capitol, she was innocent of the more serious charges.
Prosecutors called their first witness Monday, FBI Special Agent Michael Palian, to present evidence about the alleged planning before the Capitol attack, the first aspect of the alleged conspiracy.
Palian said he was one of 70 agents who responded to the call and went to the Capitol on Jan. 6 to help members of the Senate, who he said were “shocked” by the day’s chaos. Some, he said, were crying.
He also answered questions about data extraction from some of the defendants’ mobile phones.
On Rhodes’ phone, Palian said he found encrypted messages dating back to the period just after the 2020 presidential election. According to the messages, Rhodes wrote the day after the election that they were setting up a QRF in Washington, DC and planning to oppose Biden choice.
Later in November 2020, Rhodes texted a group that they should “march en masse on the nation’s capital” with references to the Serbian revolution.