Oath Keepers founder Rhodes takes the stand in U.S. Capitol riot trial

FILE PHOTO: Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers poses during an interview session in Eureka

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The founder of the far-right Oath Keepers group Stewart Rhodes on Friday tried to soften his image as a militant anti-government supporter of former President Donald Trump, as he took the stand in his trial on criminal charges of trying to block the peaceful transfer of presidential power in 2021.

Rhodes, a Yale Law-educated former U.S. Army paratrooper, teared up at times as he spoke about his decision to create the Oath Keepers in 2009, saying it is a civic-minded group that welcomes people of all races, volunteers to help hurricane victims and gives veterans returning home from foreign deployments a sense of purpose.

“The suicide rate is so high,” Rhodes said referring to the number of veterans who die by their own hand each year in the United States.“And to come home and find they have no purpose. And the country doesn’t care anymore."

The decision by Rhodes to take the stand is risky. In most cases, defense attorneys urge their clients not to testify because it has the potential to backfire.

Rhodes and co-defendants Thomas Caldwell, Kenneth Harrelson, Kelly Meggs and Jessica Watkins are facing multiple felonies in connection with an attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021 that sent lawmakers and staffers fleeing for their lives.

The charges include seditious conspiracy, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors have said Rhodes is a radical far-right figure who urged his followers to use any means necessary, including violence, to keep Trump in power and prevent Congress from certifying President Joe Biden's election victory.

Trump supporters, including the Oath Keeper defendants, gathered on Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, as lawmakers met to certify Biden's win, after the Republican president falsely claimed that the election had been stolen from him by Democrat Joe Biden.

After the attack was over, Rhodes was secretly tape-recorded in a profanity-laced call, saying "we should have brought rifles" and that he would have been happy to hang House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress and a reviled figure among the far right, from a lamppost.

While most of the rioters at the U.S. Capitol have said they were motivated by Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, Rhodes said he was not among them.

His concern, he said, was not about election fraud, but his belief that the election had been unconstitutional because of a flurry of new rules by state executives rather than legislatures to make it easier for voters to cast ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Did you believe the election had been stolen?" one of Rhodes' attorneys asked.

"I believe the election was unconstitutional... and that made it invalid," Rhodes said. "You really can't have a winner of an unconstitutional election."

Rhodes is set to resume testifying on Monday.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)