As hundreds of MAGA rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol last January, prosecutors say five members of the far-right militia group Oath Keepers were executing a long-planned mission: “an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy.”
The argument, made Monday in D.C. federal court, launched the most significant trial yet over the insurrection intended to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Prosecutors say that unlike some rank-and-file conspiracy theorists—many of whom have already been convicted—Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, and four of his acolytes plotted for weeks to subvert democracy.
Officially, the five defendants are charged with seditious conspiracy, a rare Civil War-era charge which is by far the most serious lobbed at anyone in connection with the riot and means a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. They have all pleaded not guilty.
“Their goal was to stop by whatever means necessary the lawful transfer of presidential power, including by taking up arms against the United States government,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said during his opening statement on Monday. “They did not go to the Capitol to defend or help; they went to attack.”
Prosecutors allege that “like a general,” Rhodes surveyed his “troops” during the riot as they breached the Capitol, coordinating with groups that had stockpiles of weapons outside of D.C. Just days after the insurrection, Nestler said, Rhodes told an associate they “should’ve brought rifles” and indicated he thought Trump was going to continue to dispute the election. (While Trump did say he would yield power in the aftermath of the bloody riot, the election lies that fueled it remain the lifeblood of the GOP and his own political identity.)
In a recording of the same conversation played for jurors on Monday, Rhodes says that his group could have “fixed it right then and there” if they had weapons with them at the Capitol.
On Monday, Rhodes’ lawyer revealed that the founder—himself a graduate of Yale Law School—intended to testify on his own behalf. Broadly, defense attorneys say their clients’ anger at the election was taken out of context and that their actions on Jan. 6 were not violent. Philip Linder, Rhodes’ lawyer, said the Oath Keepers were waiting for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would have allowed them to use force to support him.
“Even though it may look inflammatory, they did nothing illegal,” Linder said during his opening statement on Monday, before arguing to the jury that the Oath Keepers were a “peacekeeping force” that merely went to the Capitol to provide security for speakers throughout that bloody week.
Standing trial with Rhodes are Kelly Meggs, leader of the Florida Oath Keepers chapter; member Kenneth Harrelson; Thomas Caldwell, a retired Navy intelligence officer; and Jessica Watkins, who was the leader of an Ohio militia group.
Nestler on Monday alleged that Meggs told a friend that he was looking for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he went through the House chamber during the riots. “[On] the evening of Jan. 6, after Meggs told an associate that ‘we’ busted in,’ the associate said he was hoping to see ‘Nancy’s head rolling down the front steps,’” the prosecutors told jurors. “And what did Kelly Meggs confirm in response? ‘We looked for her.’”
Jonathan Crip, an attorney for Watkins, told jurors on Monday that his client is a transgender woman who was “haunted” after her enlistment with the military abruptly ended. “The things she said were at times offensive and just plain wrong,” Crisp added, according to Politico. “The context matters.”
Federal authorities have described the Oath Keepers as “a large but loosely organized collection of [the] militia who believe that the federal government has been co-opted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights” and who heavily recruit former military, law enforcement, and first responders.
Among the group’s earlier forays onto the national scene was their vigilante-style presence in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014. In 2020, they inserted themselves into the fray in Louisville, Kentucky, where protests had erupted over the police killing of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman shot during a dubious raid.