Oath Keepers members discussed bringing firearms to D.C. ahead of Jan. 6 riot, trial messages show

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Members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group who were plotting moves to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election discussed bringing firearms to Washington, D.C., as part of their attempt to keep Donald Trump in office, according to evidence presented Thursday at the federal court trial of group leader Stewart Rhodes and four alleged Oath Keepers associates.

Prosecutors presented evidence and arguments to jurors during the third day of witness testimony, detailing how the defendants allegedly planned ways to prevent the transfer of power from taking place, using violence if necessary.

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 Trump stormed the Capitol to prevent the certification of Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3, 2020, election.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes in 2017. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Oath Keepers members, including Thomas Caldwell, one of Rhodes’s co-defendants, began discussing security and operational plans for possible actions to keep Trump in office as early as Dec. 2, 2020, when Caldwell told another group supporter not on trial that he had a “plan for logistics,” according to the prosecution’s evidence.

Subsequent discussions, said Michael Palian, an FBI agent who served as one of the lead investigators in the case, included references to “red, white and blue strike teams” and a Quick Response Team — the Oath Keepers equivalent to a SWAT team — that would act as a “force multiplier,” which Palian said Caldwell discussed in December.

According to Palian, Oath Keepers supporters talked about how security forces could trace cellphone calls and the location from which a cellphone is connecting to its network. During the discussions, Oath Keepers team leaders were urged to use so-called burner phones, whose ownership could not be traced and that can be quickly thrown away.

Oath Keepers members were also told by leaders, according to evidence presented to the jury, to try to acquire weapons whose ownership was not easily traceable, that people using them should wear gloves and that elaborate procedures should be laid down for stashing and hiding weapons.

According to message traffic attributed to Caldwell by prosecutors, the Oath Keepers’ principal mission would be to confront antifa, the left-wing movement that engaged in sometimes violent social justice demonstrations during the summer of 2020 in cities such as Louisville, Ky.

Supporters of Donald Trump at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021
Protesters outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)

Prosecutors said that in an encrypted telephone chat with more than 100 Oath Keeper members and supporters on Nov. 9, 2020, Rhodes declared: “If the fight comes, let the fight come. Let antifa go. If they go kinetic on us, we'll go kinetic on them.”

He allegedly added that violence by Antifa would give President Trump grounds to invoke the Insurrection Act — an old and obscure U.S. law that allows the president to deploy military forces to quell a rebellion — which Rhodes believed would enable Trump to essentially mobilize well-armed supporters like the Oath Keepers to provide armed support to keep Trump in office.

By Dec. 4, according to evidence cited by the prosecution, Caldwell sent an associate a message saying, “Maybe I should be planning for a much bigger operation, like when we have to roll into town to save the Republic.”

In a Facebook post on Jan. 1, 2021, that was entered into evidence by prosecutors, Caldwell wrote: “It begins for real January 5 and 6 in Washington when we mobilize in the streets. Let them try to certify [election results] on Capitol Hill with a million or more patriots on the street. This kettle is set to boil.”

By Jan. 2, 2021, in message traffic cited by the prosecution, an Oath Keeper activist not charged in the current case said he was “working on preparing boat transport as we speak” — a move that prosecutors suggested was part of a plan to enable Oath Keepers who had brought a stash of firearms to a motel where members were going to stay in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, Va., to move such weapons into Washington D.C., which has much stricter gun laws than Virginia.

Rioters breaking into the Capitol
Rioters breaking into the Capitol. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Oath Keeper message traffic shows group members discussed how a Quick Reaction Force organized by the group could move weapons by boat across the Potomac River if authorities moved to close bridges over the river between Virginia and Washington, D.C., according to evidence from the prosecution.

On Jan. 5, when pro-Trump demonstrators were already beginning to organize in Washington, prosecutors said that Caldwell messaged a colleague that he was “coordinating with three groups” and that more supporters were arriving on buses the next day.

Once rioters moved forward on Jan. 6, including Oath Keepers followers who helped to form two “stack” formations that had pushed their way into the Capitol via steps on its eastern front, Caldwell allegedly sent a fellow member of the group a message describing how one protestor had “made it all the way to the House floor” and another to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office.

As the Capitol siege got underway, Oath Keeper messages began to sound triumphant. “We have planted a flag on Capitol steps,” said a Jan. 6 message from Caldwell cited by prosecutors. In a message received by Caldwell and cited by prosecutors, an Oath Keeper urged fellow rioters to “start tearing out floors go from top to bottom.”

Prosecutors said that at least some Oath Keepers suspects had deleted Facebook messages sent on Jan. 6. But a text message allegedly sent by Caldwell at 7:46 p.m. on Jan. 6 declared, “This is the view from the west balcony after we broke through all the construction and made it upstairs and inside. If we’d had guns I guarantee we would have killed a hundred politicians.”

Trump supporters confront police and security forces as they try to storm the Capitol
Trump supporters confront police and security forces as they try to storm the Capitol. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

All politicians at the Capitol, including Vice President Mike Pence, were safely evacuated as the riot erupted, and returned safely to the Capitol to certify Biden’s election.

Under questioning from a prosecutor, witness John Zimmerman, a retired U.S. military member from North Carolina who joined the Oath Keepers in September 2020, told the court how he decided to go to the Million MAGA March on Nov.14, 2020, with more than two dozen other Oath Keepers from the state, and said he stayed at Caldwell’s home during his visit to the Washington area.

At one point, Rhodes made an appearance at the residence, staying at least one night. He told fellow Oath Keepers who their contacts in D.C. would be and briefed them on the MAGA event, according to Zimmerman. Around the same time, Zimmerman said, Rhodes also talked about how the group needed to “arm up and make sure we defended ourselves” to deal with concerns the group had about possible clashes with antifa or Black Lives Matter protesters.

Zimmerman said that he brought weapons to Caldwell’s house and others did too, and members of the group discussed how to move the weapons in D.C. if needed. “We would need the weapons in the event President Trump enacted the Insurrection Act,” Zimmerman said Rhodes told the group.

Rioters breeched security and enter the Capitol Rotunda
Rioters breech security and enter the Capitol Rotunda. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Ultimately the group drove to Arlington Cemetery right across the bridge from Washington but never entered the capital city. Zimmerman said he did not come back to Washington on Jan. 6 because he was suffering from COVID-19.

Under questioning from defense lawyers, Zimmerman said that what initially attracted him to the Oath Keepers was their interest in responding to emergencies quickly. Having experienced two hurricanes in North Carolina, Zimmerman concluded that FEMA and other government agencies did not have sufficient emergency response resources, and believed the Oath Keepers could serve as an extension of such services.

Witness Michael Hilliard, who was an active member of Oath Keepers in Florida, told the jury under prosecution questioning that he started becoming concerned about the Oath Keepers in November, around the time that Rhodes published an open letter to Trump declaring that the Oath Keepers would not accept Biden’s election, that the election had been stolen and that if Trump did not invoke the Insurrection Act, “we would have to do that.”

Hilliard said he was "not part of that, we — I did not want to be associated with that.” After he told fellow members he was quitting as an Oath Keeper leader in Florida, telling others he was disturbed about some of the group's rhetoric, Rhodes himself responded, saying: “No sweat brother. I understand.”

Hilliard testified that he was “not a protest guy” and did not travel to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

Thumbnail credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images