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Oath Keepers’ leader Rhodes denies conspiracy to enter Capitol on Jan. 6

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/7/2022 Spencer Hsu, Tom Jackman
This artist's sketch depicts the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, left, as he testifies before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta on charges of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. © Dana Verkouteren/AP This artist's sketch depicts the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, left, as he testifies before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta on charges of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes categorically denied any plan to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and said Monday that his call for co-defendants to come to Washington armed and ready to “take matters into their own hands” if President Donald Trump failed to act was meant to inspire action only after he left office.

The testimony by Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate, marked the climax of his seditious conspiracy trial with four others. All stand accused of participating in overlapping plots to use force to oppose the swearing-in of President Biden, obstruct Congress’s confirmation the 2020 election results and impede lawmakers from performing their official duties.

Taking the extraordinary step of attempting to bolster his own defense by testifying, Rhodes challenged the Justice Department’s decision to charge him even though he did not enter the Capitol that day. Like Trump, Rhodes has sought to avoid criminal liability for egging on his followers, with prosecutors in Rhodes’s case alleging that he told others to be ready to resort to violence if necessary to keep Trump in power on Jan. 6.

“It was not part of our mission that day, our plan, to enter the Capitol,” Rhodes testified under questioning by his attorney Phillip A. Linder. “It never even crossed my mind” that his members would, Rhodes said, adding that in his view anyone who “assaulted a police officer should be prosecuted for it.”

Stewart Rhodes testifies in his own defense at seditious conspiracy trial

Rhodes said that he was unaware Florida co-defendant Kelly Meggs led other Oath Keepers members “off-mission” into the building and that doing so was “stupid” because “it opened the door for our political enemies to persecute us”; he claimed he was not involved in defendants’ stockpiling of firearms nearby; he blamed girlfriend and Oath Keepers attorney Kellye SoRelle for ordering members under his name to delete evidence; and he asserted that he meant for any call to resist federal authority to apply after Biden took office, and not before the inauguration, to keep Trump in power.

But federal prosecutor Kathryn L. Rakoczy led Rhodes through statement after statement, in public and in private, in which he urged Trump to call on the U.S. military and private militia to overturn the 2020 presidential election. His messages told Oath Keepers to be prepared to take up arms to keep Trump in power and emboldened co-conspirators who have pleaded guilty to act by saying they needed to show Trump “that if he fails to act, then we will.”

“That’s what I wrote, but it’s not what I meant,” Rhodes ultimately conceded at one point during a grueling three-hour cross-examination.

The contrast between Rhodes’s testimony on the stand and his past remarks was a recurring theme of government questioning, which threatened to make Rhodes and his defense regret their calculation that he was the witness best situated to explain his true state of mind to jurors. To convict these defendants, the jury must find that they entered into an agreement to “corruptly” obstruct Congress as it met to certify the election or to unleash political violence against the government.

Rhodes on Monday repeated key elements of his defense: that there was no such order, decision or agreement by him or co-defendants; that members were present in Washington as a “peacekeeping” force providing security to Republican VIPs such as Trump confidant Roger Stone and Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander. He also argued that the group brought firearms as part of Oath Keepers’ “standard operating procedure” and his goal was to lawfully lobby Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to overturn the presidential election.

But in his testimony, Rhodes also implicated other Oath Keepers defendants and gave prosecutors wide opening to attack his credibility.

“All my effort was [aimed] at what Trump was going to do,” said Rhodes, who began his testimony Friday.

Prosecutors have alleged that Rhodes and at least 10 co-conspirators brought and staged firearms near Washington, including at a Ballston hotel with rooms assigned to armed “Quick Reaction Force” teams from North Carolina, Arizona and Florida. But on Monday Rhodes said, “I wasn’t involved in that,” except that he had offered Meggs a place to store his guns separately.

What we’ve learned from the Jan. 6 Oath Keepers trial so far

Rhodes testified that he was “not looped in” to communications on Jan. 6 by co-defendant Jessica Watkins, an Ohio militia founder who prosecutors allege narrated her actions inside and out of the Capitol over the recorded walkie-talkie app Zello. He denied that he ordered Meggs to go into the building on a phone call that video showed Meggs was engaged in just as he began leading other Oath Keepers toward the building.

“There were no communications at all” with Meggs, Rhodes added, saying Meggs had called him but “I couldn’t hear him and he just dropped off again.”

It was unclear how jurors were receiving Rhodes’s testimony, which prosecutors contradicted by showing messages in which Rhodes approved plans to store firearms in Ballston and how to transport them into Washington if needed, and played a secret recording of him continuing to press Trump to use paramilitary groups to stay in power, even after the Capitol riot.

On Jan. 10, Rhodes was recorded lamenting that on Jan. 6, “We should have brought rifles. We could have fixed it right then and there. I’d hang f---ing Pelosi from a lamppost,” boasting that he would have killed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“Yeah, I did say that,” Rhodes said but characterized his remarks as “rhetoric and bombast.”

Rhodes, charged with attempting to obstruct justice for allegedly ordering members to delete evidence of communications and actions on Jan. 6, blamed SoRelle.

“I told them they have a right to remain silent. She added, ‘delete stuff,’ ” Rhodes said, “She was impersonating me there.”

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Rhodes acknowledged that he blamed states, Congress and the Supreme Court for “illegitimately” refusing to overturn the election. He stood by his description of Biden and Vice President Harris as “Chicom puppets.” And he asserted from the witness stand that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and his wife, Elaine Chao — who served in the administrations of three Republican presidents, including as a member of Trump’s Cabinet — were also “compromised.”

“I think she has ties to the Communist Party in China,” Rhodes said.

Rakoczy challenged Rhodes’s “constitutional” argument that the president of the United States should be able to throw out an election result over the Supreme Court’s objection. She asked what would prevent every future president from doing the same: “What if the next president, notwithstanding there being a constitutional election, decides it was not won and brings out the military to hold a new election?”

“That’s the problem when you go beyond the Constitution,” Rhodes said. “You’re in uncharted territory.”

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