Testifying in U.S. Capitol attack trial, Oath Keepers leader defends his actions
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes took the witness stand Friday in his seditious conspiracy trial, telling jurors he is a patriotic American as he tried to counter allegations that his far-right extremist group planned an armed rebellion to stop the transfer of presidential power.
Rhodes seemed to choke up as he began his testimony after prosecutors spent weeks laying out evidence they say proves he was behind a violent plot to keep Democrat Joe Biden out of the White House and Republican Donald Trump in.
Rhodes’ decision to testify carries risks, opening the way for cross-examination from prosecutors when the trial resumes next week. He has yet to get into the details of Jan. 6, 2021, when his followers pushed to the front of a mob of Trump supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol in military-style stack formation.
Rhodes faced jurors as he described his military experience and decision in 2009 to start the Oath Keepers. The defendant, whose stint as an Army paratrooper was cut short by a training accident, said he considers himself patriotic.
“You love your country?” Rhodes’ attorney asked.
“Absolutely,” Rhodes responded.
Rhodes portrayed the Oath Keepers as peaceful and disciplined despite extensive evidence that he rallied them to prepare for violence and discussed the prospect of a “bloody” civil war ahead of Jan. 6.
Asked whether he believed the 2020 election was stolen, he echoed Trump’s false claim that Biden’s victory was “invalid.”
“You really can’t have a winner of an unconstitutional election,” he said.
Rhodes’ trial is the biggest test yet of the Justice Department’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the violent assault on the Capitol, which challenged the foundations of American democracy.
Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, and his co-defendants are the first people arrested in the Jan. 6 attack to stand trial on the charge of seditious conspiracy. The Civil War-era charge, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years behind bars, is rarely brought and can be hard to prove.
His co-defendants are Kelly Meggs, leader of the Oath Keepers’ Florida chapter; Kenneth Harrelson, another Florida Oath Keeper; Thomas Caldwell, a retired Navy intelligence officer from Virginia; and Jessica Watkins, who led an Ohio militia group.
Prosecutors have sought to show that for the Oath Keepers, the attack was part of a weeks-long plot to stop the transfer of power.
Rhodes’ attorneys have signaled that they will mount a novel defense with Trump at the center. Rhodes is expected to argue that his actions ahead of Jan. 6 were in anticipation of orders he expected from Trump — orders that never came.
Jurors have heard that Rhodes spent thousands of dollars on guns, ammunition and other equipment before Jan. 6, and that his group stashed a massive cache of weapons and set up a “quick reaction force” at a Virginia hotel.
The weapons were never used. Days after the attack, Rhodes was secretly recorded telling another man that the Oath Keepers “should have brought rifles” to the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“We should have fixed it right then and there. I’d hang ... Pelosi from the lamppost,” Rhodes said, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
On the stand Friday, Rhodes said that after the election, he issued a “call to action” for the “Million MAGA March” in Washington on Nov. 14. The Oath Keepers provided security for event speakers and Trump supporters who asked for their help, he said.
Rhodes said the Oath Keepers also provided security at Trump rallies, with unarmed members inside the security perimeter and armed members on standby outside to escort Trump supporters and protect them from what he called potential attacks from antifa activists.
Discussing protests over the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Rhodes said he supported “their right to riot,” then quickly corrected himself to say he meant their right to protest.
Rhodes became emotional at times during his testimony. He appeared to choke up as he recalled watching the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack unfold on TV while he was a student at Yale Law School, and as he talked about how military veterans often come home and struggle to find a new sense of purpose.
His portrayal of the Oath Keepers as disciplined contrasted with testimony on Thursday about the group under Rhodes’ leadership during the November 2020 MAGA march. Montana Siniff, the fiance of the Ohio militia’s Watkins, described it as “very disorganized,” and told jurors he did not himself return to Washington on Jan. 6, in part because he did not want to “repeat that experience.”
Prosecutors say Rhodes began plotting to overturn Biden’s victory as soon as November 2020. In messages shown to jurors, he called on his followers to fight to defend Trump and keep Biden out of the White House at all costs.
Defense attorneys claim that there was no plan to attack the Capitol. The Oath Keepers say they were in Washington not to stop the certification of Biden’s win but to provide security for right-wing figures such as Roger Stone. Their lawyers say that the group regularly had a quick-reaction force for events, but that the weapons were meant to be used only to defend against attacks or if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act.
Rhodes’ attorneys have said their defense will focus on his belief that Trump was going to invoke the act to call up a militia and put down what the extremist group leader viewed as a coup by Democrats. In the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, Rhodes repeatedly called on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, but Trump never did.
Rhodes’ lawyers say he cannot be found guilty of seditious conspiracy because he was merely lobbying Trump to invoke the law, which gives the president wide discretion to decide when military force is necessary.
Prosecutors are expected to highlight messages that they say show Rhodes was using the Insurrection Act as legal cover and was prepared to act regardless of what Trump did. In one message in December 2020, Rhodes wrote that Trump “needs to know that if he fails to act, then we will.”
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