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5 reasons why the new Oath Keeper convictions matter

The Hill logo The Hill 1/24/2023 Dennis Aftergut, opinion contributor
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The crime of seditious conspiracy is one that no republic can tolerate. Those committed to overturning constitutional order must be held to account.

On Monday, that is exactly what a District of Columbia jury did. They convicted four more militant Oath Keepers for their role in the Jan. 6 Capitol siege. The guilty verdicts rendered against Roberto Minuta, Joseph Hackett, David Moerschel and Edward Vallejo mean they agreed to “overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, … or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States.”

The first three convicted Oath Keepers entered the Capitol in the “stack formation” that was a vanguard for the violent Jan. 6 mob. The fourth defendant, Vallejo, stayed across the Potomac on Jan. 6, awaiting instructions to deploy a well-armed, “quick reaction force” of militants in case open warfare broke out in D.C. 

The government’s cooperating witness, Caleb Berry, testified that he had been part of a Florida Oath Keeper group that drove to D.C. before Jan. 6 to join others. They stashed a small armory of weapons at a Ballston, Va., motel. According to Berry, the defendants had agreed to a specific plan to breach the Capitol to stop Congress certifying President Biden’s electoral victory.

To its credit, the Justice Department did not shy away from charging seditious conspiracy, a crime seldom charged and difficult to prove.

Before November, when a separate D.C. jury convicted Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes and his lieutenant, Kelly Meggs, it had been 26 years since the last conviction for seditious conspiracy. That was in 1996, when a New York jury found a group of Islamic terrorists guilty for planning to bomb New York’s George Washington Bridge, the  Lincoln and Holland tunnels and other city landmarks.

Here are five reasons why the new verdicts matter:

1. Two juries, one message: It’s not ‘legitimate political discourse’

It’s no easy thing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of an agreement among actors to overthrow the government or its laws. Monday’s second set of convictions for seditious conspiracy on Jan. 6 reinforce the first — that militants worked in concert to reverse the 2020 election. The parallel verdicts show that the Justice Department can not only do the difficult, but it can do it to the satisfaction of two separate juries.

So let’s dispense with the Trumpist GOP attempts to paint Jan. 6 with a brush of “legitimate political discourse” or even as some spontaneous “riot.” It was a planned violent attack to end the peaceful transfer of power.

2. Convictions are likely bad news for Proud Boys on trial

Five members of the right-wing group Proud Boys are currently on trial in Washington for seditious conspiracy.

The Oath Keepers’ convictions could not have been welcome news to the Proud Boy defendants.

If the Justice Department’s evidence against them is at least as good as the evidence against the Oath Keepers, Jan. 6 militia groups will have removed “seditious conspiracy” convictions from the rare species list.

3. Acquittals would have sent a very dangerous message

The Justice Department deserves to be commended for both its bold decision to bring a difficult charge and for securing convictions. The risks were high.

Acquittals or hung jury would likely have energized the violent right-wing militia movement, not to mention the MAGA flame throwers just named to Rep. James Comer’s (R-Ky.) House Oversight Committee or those yet to be named to Jim Jordan’s (R-Ohio) House Select “Weaponization” Subcommittee.

4. The convictions could lead to evidence against Roger Stone

Convicted Oath Keeper Roberto Minuto and others reportedly had been guarding Roger Stone earlier in the day on Jan. 6. If one or more of them has information incriminating former President Donald Trump’s one-time ally and adviser, the cooperation door is sure to be open.

The pressure on these convicted defendants is high. Seditious conspiracy carries a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment.

5. The convictions could lead to more evidence against Trump

The Jan. 6 House Select Committee developed powerful evidence supporting the notion that Trump was at the center of a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.

He may or may not have been part of the same cabal in which the Oath keepers participated — but good prosecutors on Jack Smith’s team are sure to be looking for evidentiary ties.

So, add another wind storm to those churning the waves around Mar-a-Lago. Donald Trump’s already foundering dinghy may just have taken on a bit more water.

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

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