'We must defeat them': Oath Keepers messages urged members to fight to keep Trump in power

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As early as the day after the Nov. 3, 2020, election won by Joe Biden, members of the Oath Keepers militia group began discussing possible efforts to block Biden’s accession to the White House, using violence if necessary, according to evidence presented at the federal trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and four of his alleged associates.

“What’s the game plan? How are we drawing up battle plans? Are we now going to be public enemy number one by the tyrants,” said a Nov. 4 message from an online Oath Keeper message channel labeled Old Leadership Chat, quoted by FBI agent Michael Palian.

Palian was the prosecution’s first witness on Tuesday at the trial of Rhodes and his associates, which began at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on Monday and is expected to continue for several weeks.

Rhodes and his co-defendants face multiple charges, including seditious conspiracy, a politically controversial and rarely used federal law carrying a sentence of up to 20 years. The charges stem from the Jan. 6, 2021, riot during which a mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to prevent the certification of Biden’s victory.

Oath Keepers militia founder Stewart Rhodes
Oath Keepers militia founder Stewart Rhodes. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Rhodes himself offered a strong but somewhat rambling response to the query. “Remain Calm,” he allegedly wrote. “It ain’t over til it’s over. ... Don’t give legitimacy to an illegitimate, fraudulent (fraud infested) system.” According to the message, Rhodes said the political left would pursue its “hateful agenda” but declared, “We must defeat them. Even if one of them occupies the White House.”

To prepare for forthcoming events — including Biden’s inauguration, if they failed to block it — Rhodes allegedly advised message channel followers that the Oath Keepers were establishing a “Quick Reaction Force” — the Oath Keepers equivalent to a SWAT team — for Washington, D.C., and were also creating such teams for unspecified major regions of the country. Members of these teams would either have experience of "combat arms" or be law enforcement veterans, Rhodes said, according to prosecutors.

The next day, on Nov. 5, Rhodes messaged followers that they “must refuse to accept Biden as the legitimate winner” and must “call out fraud and theft,” the jury was told.

Riot police push back a crowd of supporters of Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021
The Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

Prosecutors introduced a message exchange between Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs and his wife, Connie. During the exchange, Kelly Meggs says, “I’m going on a killing spree. Pelosi first.”

“Shut the f*** up. You’re getting me stressed,” Connie Meggs replies.

Inflammatory message traffic continued to intensify on Nov. 7. Citing a message he got from a Serbian activist describing how Serbs resisted authoritarianism, Rhodes declared that his followers “must now do what the people of Serbia did when Milosevic stole their elections ... refuse to accept it,” according to prosecutors.

“We need to march on DC right now so President Trump knows he has our support,” Rhodes added.

In another private online chat group called Friends of Stone — which investigators believe is a reference to Republican operative and Trump ally Roger Stone — group members were advised on Nov. 7 to “Get your gear squared away and ready to fight....Trump has one last chance right now.... but he will need us and our rifles too...But will he act?”

On Nov. 8, the Stone friends chat continued to intensify. “We are now where the founders were in March 1775,” group participants were reminded. “So we will step up and push Trump to take decisive action.”

Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Stone has acknowledged that when he was in Washington on Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, members of the Oath Keepers served as his bodyguards. But he has denied any knowledge of or participation in anything to do with the Jan. 6 riot. Stone declined to comment to Yahoo News in response to a question about the Friends of Stone message group.

The FBI also acquired a recording of a 126-minute online chat held on Nov. 9 via the GoToMeeting website in which 103 people participated. During the chat, there was talk of the need for Trump to try to block Biden’s accession by invoking the Insurrection Act — an old and obscure U.S. law that allows the president to deploy military forces to quell a rebellion — in a move allegedly advocated by Rhodes.

Investigators have said that during the chat, Rhodes declared: “I’m willing to sacrifice myself for that. Let the fight start there. That will give President Trump what he needs, frankly. ... If things go kinetic, good. If they throw bombs at us and shoot us, great, because that brings the president his reason and rationale for dropping the Insurrection Act. ... We want him to declare an insurrection, and to call us up as the militia.”

On Nov. 10, according to the prosecution’s evidence, defendant Jessica Watkins sent a message declaring “Gotta keep our president. Stop this coup.”

Members of the Oath Keepers march down the steps of the Capitol
Members of the Oath Keepers, left, march down the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

In the days following, Rhodes and other Oath Keepers leaders encouraged followers to prepare for a “Million MAGA March” planned for Washington on Nov. 14. Only “thousands” turned up for the march, but violence did break out between pro-Trump protesters and counterprotesters affiliated with the leftist antifa movement.

Under cross-examination by Phillip Linder, a defense lawyer for Rhodes, Palian acknowledged that the FBI was not conducting surveillance on the Oath Keepers on Nov. 14. But he confirmed that the FBI was aware of communications from Rhodes telling his followers what they could and could not bring to Washington.

Palian confirmed under questioning by Linder that Rhodes met with the FBI in May 2021 and handed over his cellphone, which was later returned. Rhodes was arrested in January of this year, and the government seized his phone again. Linder said Rhodes’s phone contained 850 encrypted Signal chats (Signal is an encrypted messaging service); Palian said the phone contained hundreds of such chats.

Thumbnail credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images