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From Serbia to Roger Stone, Oath Keepers’ Trial Traces Discussions Over an Alleged Jan. 6 Conspiracy

In the first US incendiary conspiracy trial in a decade, federal prosecutors have made a direct link time and again between lead defendant Stewart Rhodes — charged with conspiracy to use force to undermine the results of the 2020 presidential election, which culminated in the January 6 Capitol attack — and Donald Trump’s longtime political confidant Roger Stone.

Minutes after news networks declared Joe Biden the winner of the election on November 7, 2020, an FBI agent testified this week: Rhodes wrote to Stone and others in a “Friends of Stone” encrypted chat group set up to map out Trump’s challenging post-election strategy: “What’s the plan? We have to roll as fast as possible.”

Rhodes added his own proposal — inspired by a Serbian academic’s call for Americans to fill the streets and storm Congress — whose “parallel to what these defendants were really trying to achieve is astounding,” US prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler told reporters. the jurors.

Stone has consistently denied any knowledge of or involvement in illegal acts at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and his ties to the right-wing extremist group that Rhodes founded — the Oath Keepers — were no secret, as several members of the group guarded him in Washington that morning before joining the riots.

However, by repeatedly raising his name in the trial of Rhodes and four others, US prosecutors have made it clear in court that Stone and others remain under investigation. The Justice Department and the FBI have long been interested in any role high-profile right-wing figures such as Stone have played in events, or anyone who may have influenced rioters bears enough responsibility to justify possible criminal charges, analysts say.

“It appears that the prosecution is treating Stone as an unindicted co-conspirator,” said Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at George Washington University.

A “one-way street” from Rhodes does not prove that Stone or other Trump advisers were part of a conspiracy, said former federal prosecutor and University of Michigan law professor Barbara McQuade. But if Rhodes testifies as his lawyer promised later in the scheduled six-week trial, McQuade said she expects prosecutors to ask him questions that might provide those connections, such as why he sent the plan to Stone, whether they had previous conversations. about who attacked the Capitol, telling Rhodes that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act to mobilize private militias, which Rhodes has claimed in defense.

More details may emerge in the coming days from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, which has subpoenaed footage of Stone for a hearing Thursday. A previous witness, Cassidy Hutchinson, aide to the Trump administration, recalled the discussions of both the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys at the White House during the Jan. 6 schedule and testified that Trump wanted to contact Stone on Jan. 5.

US prosecutors said on Monday that Rhodes has passed on a “step-by-step” plan of action that he discussed with Aleksandar Savic to followers of Oath Keepers and the Friends of Stone group. The Serbian academic posted a viral online video of himself in an office on Nov. 6 in an office addressing a camera, urging Americans to follow the lead of a US-backed uprising that began in 1999 against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic: Swarm the streets, fighting the police until they switch sides and storm the parliament.

Savic could not be reached, but told Talking Points Memo in January that he had contacted Rhodes shortly afterwards to thank the Oath Keepers for sharing his video and “recapitating” his views in it, but declined to send his emails. with Rhodes with TPM, citing privacy. But Savic “denied that his video played any part in the actions the Oath Keepers later took,” according to TPM’s story.

Rhodes’ eagerness to share the Serbian link provides an insight into his thinking at a time during the post-2020 post-election struggles when, after years of bombastic and apocalyptic rhetoric, he seemingly took a fateful step toward militant action. , according to prosecutors.

“So are you going to stand up and push Trump to FINALLY take decisive action?” Rhodes asked the Stone group the daytime networks citing the election for Biden, according to a text read in court. “That’s what we have to do now. And if he still refuses to do his duty, we must still do ours and we will.”

Whether Stone read those messages and if so, what he made of them remains unknown.

“I think we’ll have to wait and see if any other evidence comes forward that links them all together,” Eliason said. “But maybe it’s less about Stone himself and just the fact that they all shared a plan that involved a similar uprising and a storming of parliament in Serbia. I think that would be important evidence of an incendiary conspiracy, regardless of who was involved in sharing the plan – Stone or anyone else.”

The Washington Post has reported that Stone told his aides to keep an eye on his chat conversation, including the longtime leader of another far-right group, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio of the Proud Boys. Stone stayed in touch with Trump in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 attack in Florida’s Mar-a-Lago and Washington, coordinating post-election protests, and strategizing with figures such as former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and “Stop the Steal.” ” organizer Ali Alexander.

Prosecutors have provided evidence that Rhodes had a pattern of simultaneous communication with both the Friends of Stone chat group and a chat group that included accused Oath Keepers members and co-defendants. Days before the riots, Rhodes told Oath Keepers leaders that he was “busy with back-channel working groups trying to advise the president,” according to reports read in court.

Asked for comment, a Stone representative pointed to a statement he previously provided to The Post: “Any claim, allegation or implication of which I am aware was involved in or condoned the illegal acts at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is categorically false and there is no witness or document to prove otherwise.”

Extremism analysts said on Jan. 6 there were too many forces to say Savic’s video was a driving force, though it went viral among Trump “Stop the Steal” organizers, QAnon conspiracy theorists and right-wing figures such as the Republican Party of Arizona Chairman Kelli Ward.

Still, Rhodes’ approval and recirculation had an important practical and legal impact, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.

“Savic’s violent story he shared with the Oath Keepers helped refine a widely held view among hardened election deniers into something more granular and tactical,” Levin said. “Savic gave the coaching details on a play Rhodes had already assigned himself to quarterback.”

Vuk Vuksanovic, senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, a Serbian think tank, said it was “paradoxical” that Savic’s model for Trump was an insurgency backed by a Democratic administration when Biden led Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. . Vuksanovic, who previously worked at the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he had never heard of Savic, whose views seemed “chaotic” and driven by complaints of personal misfortune, adding: “I cannot say that the Oathkeepers ideologically very advanced if they found inspiration in something like this.”

Stone’s connection to the Oath Keepers goes back at least to the 2016 election, when the group answered its call to check polling stations for signs of Democratic fraud. The electoral fraud campaign sparked accusations of voter intimidation, but was contested by Trump’s victory. In 2020, Stone revived the organization he had used four years earlier to claim fraud: “Stop the Steal.”

Never-before-seen documentary footage shows how long Trump adviser Roger Stone tried to undo the 2020 election. Reporter Jon Swaine explains more. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

Again, Stone and Rhodes were in sync. Stone said on Alex Jones’s September 2020 show that if Biden were to win, Trump should consider invoking the Insurrection Act, a call that Rhodes took up after the election.

“People keep saying that invoking the Insurrection Act is a ‘last resort’. Trump cannot wait until after January 6 to expose all traitors,” Rhodes texted the Stone group on December 15. “He has to do it NOW.”

That proposed course of action alarmed some members of the group, including a West Virginia leader who testified this week that he was concerned enough to secretly record an internal meeting and share it with the FBI.

“The more I listened to the call, it sounded like we were going to war against the United States government, so I just recorded it,” said Abdullah Rasheed. He said he tried to warn other law enforcement agencies, writing to the US Capitol Police that Rhodes was “a fucking madman,” but that the FBI ignored his tip until after the Capitol attack, according to the testimony.

Michael Adams, who helped organize Oath Keepers in Florida in 2020, testified that he was also estranged from Rhodes’ insistence that the election had been stolen, claiming that if Trump “hadn’t announced the Insurrection Act and called out the militias, they would us to do that.”

Adams called Rhodes’ rhetoric “unleashed,” telling the judges, “I didn’t feel like I was part of ‘we’. That’s not my ideology. I didn’t want to be associated with that.”

Jacqueline Alemany and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.

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