Feds: Oath Keepers sought 'violent overthrow' of government

WASHINGTON (AP) — For weeks leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four associates discussed using violence to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and when rioters started storming the Capitol they saw an opportunity to do it, a federal prosecutor told jurors on Friday in her closing argument.

Making her final pitch to the jury that will decide whether the defendants are guilty of seditious conspiracy, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy said Rhodes' own words show he was preparing to lead a rebellion to keep Democrat Joe Biden out of the White House.

She sought to rebut suggestions from the defense that Rhodes' rhetoric was simply bluster, telling jurors that his messages filled with talk about violence and civil war weren't “ranting and raving" but were "deadly serious."

“These defendants repeatedly called for violent overthrow of the United States government, and they followed these words with action," she said.

Closing arguments began in Washington federal court after the final pieces of evidence were presented in the trial alleging Rhodes and his band of antigovernment extremists plotted for weeks to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power from Republican Donald Trump to Biden.

Evidence presented by prosecutors shows Rhodes and his co-defendants discussing the prospect of violence and the need to keep Biden out of the White House in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, before stashing a massive cache of weapons referred to as a “quick reaction force” at a Virginia hotel.

On Jan. 6, Oath Keepers wearing helmets and other battle gear were seen pushing through the pro-Trump mob and into the Capitol. Rhodes remained outside, like “a general surveying his troops on a battlefield,” a prosecutor told jurors. After the attack, prosecutors say, Rhodes and other Oath Keepers celebrated with dinner at an Olive Garden restaurant.

Closing arguments are expected to be Monday for the defense, which has focused on prosecutors' relative lack of evidence that the Oath Keepers had an explicit plan to attack the Capitol before Jan. 6. Rhodes, who is from Texas, testified that he and his followers were only in Washington to provide security to right-wing figures like Roger Stone. Those Oath Keepers who did enter the Capitol went rogue and were “stupid," he said.

Rhodes testified that the mountain of writings and text messages showing him rallying his band of extremists to prepare for violence and discussing the prospect of a “bloody” civil war ahead of Jan. 6 was only bombastic talk.

Two other defendants testified in the case. Jessica Watkins, of Woodstock, Ohio, echoed that her actions that day were “really stupid” but maintained she was not part of a plan but rather was “swept along” with the mob, which she likened to a crowd gathered at a store for a sale on the popular shopping day known as Black Friday.

Defendant Thomas Caldwell, a Navy veteran from Virginia, downplayed a chilling piece of evidence: messages he sent trying to get a boat to ferry weapons from Virginia across the Potomac into Washington. He testified that he was never serious about his queries, though he struggled to explain other messages referencing violence on Jan. 6.

Two other defendants, Kelly Meggs and Kenneth Harrelson, both from Florida, did not testify.

The group is the first among hundreds of people arrested in the deadly Capitol riot to stand trial on seditious conspiracy, a rare Civil War-era charge that calls for up to 20 years behind bars upon conviction. The stakes are high for the Justice Department, which last secured such a conviction at trial nearly 30 years ago and intends to try two more groups on the charge later this year.

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Follow the AP's full coverage of the Capitol riot at https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege.

Lindsay Whitehurst, The Associated Press