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Closing arguments to begin in Oath Keepers January 6 seditious conspiracy trial

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Closing arguments begin Friday morning in the incendiary conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four other associates of the extremist group, concluding the most high-profile prosecution stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

The trial of Rhodes — a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law graduate who has become one of the most visible figures of the far-right anti-government movement — represents a major test of the Biden Justice Department’s strategy to fight domestic terrorism and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s vow to “hold all perpetrators of January 6, at every level, legally accountable.”

Rhodes did not enter the Capitol that day. But prosecutors at a seven-week trial at a federal courthouse blocks from the scene of the riot charged him with plotting an “armed uprising” to prevent the lawful transition of presidential power after the 2020 election, and organizing followers to come to the Washington area prepared for violence. and ready to die if President Donald Trump calls on private military groups to help him retain power.

Rhodes and four co-defendants staged an “arsenal” of firearms in nearby Virginia that day and several seized the opportunity to forcibly breach the Capitol with a mob to prevent Congress from taking President Biden’s 2020 election victory “with all possible means”. That’s what attorney Jeffrey S. Nestler said at trial.

Defense attorneys have argued that there was no explicit order or plan by the defendants to attack or enter the Capitol and therefore was not a conspiracy or agreement to engage in unlawful conduct.

The defense accused prosecutors of viewing Rhodes’s “rhetorical” and “bombastic” statements as criminal. Rhodes himself testified that his sole purpose was to lawfully lobby Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. He argued that the president could legally call upon the military and private military groups, overturn the election and retain power.

“All my effort was [aimed] about what Trump was going to do,” Rhodes testified, adding that the group brought firearms as part of Oath Keepers’ “standard operating procedure” for defensive purposes, or to be prepared for Trump to take legal action.

Rhodes called it “stupid” and “off-mission” for co-defendants to enter the building. He said he had “nothing to do” with stockpiling weapons, and claimed his calls to oppose federal authority were meant to apply after Biden took office, not to keep Trump in power.

Evidence at trial went unanswered as to whether Rhodes and accused co-conspirators acted independently of political actors. Rhodes and several accused followers interacted with Trump advisers after the election, who spent weeks raising baseless allegations of election fraud. Some served as guards for Roger Stone, Trump’s political confidant, “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander and former national security aide Michael Flynn, testify.

On the day the networks called the election for Biden, November 7, 2020, Rhodes reportedly shared a text message with Stone and others asking, “What’s the plan?” He then shared an action plan with the same “Friends of Stone” group and with an Oath Keepers leadership group chat listing an anti-government uprising in Serbia that suggested storming parliament.

“We will not get through this without a civil war. It’s too late for that. Prepare your mind, body and spirit,” Rhodes told Oath Keepers at the time. He repeated the message in encrypted chats and open letters to Trump with increasing urgency. Even four days after January 6, 2021, he told an alarmed intermediary, who taped Rhodes and later assisted the FBI, that it was not too late to deploy paramilitary groups to forcefully stay in power.

“If he’s not going to do the right thing, and he’s just getting himself removed illegally, then we should have brought guns,” Rhodes said on the recording. “We could have fixed it then and there. I would hang Pelosi from the lamppost,” referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif).

Kelly Meggs, 53, a car dealership manager from Dunnellon, Florida, is on trial with Rhodes. Kenneth Harrelson, 42, a medically discharged former Army sergeant and father of two from Titusville, Fla., whom prosecutors called the “ground team leader”; Jessica Watkins, 39, another Army veteran and bartender and organizer from Woodstock, Ohio; and Thomas Caldwell, 68, a retired Navy intelligence officer from Berryville, Va.

All are charged with conspiracy to engage in sedition, obstruct Congressional confirmation of President Biden’s victory, and obstruct lawmakers from carrying out their official duties on January 6. The first two charges are punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins, who entered the Capitol, are also charged with damaging property, and everyone except Watkins is charged with destroying evidence. Four additional defendants charged in January along with the same group face a second trial next month.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes is charged with seditious conspiracy during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot

All were among the first 11 defendants to be hit with the historically rare charge of seditious conspiracy related to the January Capitol riot, which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Two co-defendants pleaded guilty but did not testify in Rhodes’ case. Five leaders of the right-wing group Proud Boys, including Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, were also charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the June Capitol breach and are scheduled for trial in December.

Meggs and Harrelson did not testify, but their lawyers claimed they helped police enter. Watkins in the stands apologized for interfering with police by shouting “Push!” with a mob trying to break through a line of agents blocking a passageway to the Senate, but saying there was no plot to block a voting certificate she thought was already completed or to oppose federal authority.

Caldwell testified that the allegations against him were “great exaggeration”. He likened his role to that of a “tour guide” for Oath Keepers, claiming that reports of him organizing and transporting “heavy weapons” across the Potomac River by boat were “creative writing”. He said his statements on Jan. 6 were a “play-by-play” describing actions of others, not himself.

Watkins said she recruited her five-member Ohio State Regular Militia to join the Oath Keepers in late 2020, not to keep Trump in power by force, but to protect Americans from “forced vaccination” under President Biden and U.N. troops, or a Chinese invasion of Canada.

“There was talk of the Insurrere Act, but nobody took it seriously. I would put it under the Chinese invasion,” Watkins said, explaining why immediately after Jan. 6, she texted co-conspirators about having a “bug-out” plan for Oath Keepers to retreat into the hills of Kentucky to fight like the “NVA,” or North Vietnamese Army.

What you need to know about the Oath Keepers process

While nine of the at least 33 Oath Keepers members or associates charged have pleaded guilty to charges related to the January 6 riot, only two of the seven who have pleaded guilty to conspiracy have testified for the government against Rhodes.

Those two — former Florida Oath Keepers members Jason Dolan and Graydon Young — each admitted to conspiring to obstruct Congress. They testified that they understood or realized with “common sense” that Rhodes’s “commander’s intent” was to prevent Congress from confirming Biden’s election victory through armed struggle, if necessary, knowing that this would be betrayal.

“I participated in a conspiracy to thwart Congress,” Young said. “We would disrupt Congress wherever they met.”

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