WASHINGTON (AP) — Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes took the witness stand Friday in his seditious conspiracy trial, telling jurors he is a patriotic American as he tries to counter allegations that his far-right extremist group planned an armed rebellion to stop the transfer of presidential power.
Rhodes mostly appeared relaxed, but at times seemed to choke up, as he began his testimony after prosecutors spent weeks laying out evidence they say proves Rhodes 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 for him, opening the way for intense cross-examination from prosecutors, who will get a chance to question him after the trial resumes next week. Rhodes has yet to get into the details of Jan. 6, when his followers pushed through a mob of Trump supporters to storm the Capitol in military-style stack formation.
Rhodes, wearing a dark suit and tie, faced jurors as he described his military experience and decision to start the Oath Keepers in 2009. Rhodes, whose stint as an Army paratrooper was cut short by a training accident, said he considers himself a patriotic person.
“You love your country?” Rhodes’ attorney asked him.
“Absolutely,“ Rhodes responded.
Rhodes portrayed the Oath Keepers as peaceful and disciplined despite a mountain of evidence showing him rallying his band of extremists to prepare for violence and discussing the prospect of a “bloody” civil war ahead of Jan. 6. Asked whether he believed the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, Rhodes falsely described Biden's victory as “unconstitutional” and “invalid.”
“You really can’t have a winner of an unconstitutional election,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes' trial is the biggest test so far for the Justice Department’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the attack on the Capitol, a violent assault that 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 upon conviction, is rarely brought and can be hard to prove.
The others on trial are Kelly Meggs, leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers; Kenneth Harrelson, another Florida Oath Keeper; Thomas Caldwell, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer from Virginia; and Jessica Watkins, who led an Ohio militia group.
Over a month of testimony, prosecutors sought to show that the riot for the Oath Keepers was not a spur-of-the-moment protest but part of a serious, weekslong plot to stop the transfer of power.
Rhodes' attorneys have signaled they will mount a novel defense with Trump at the center. Rhodes is expected to argue that his actions leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, were in anticipation of orders he expected from Trump. Those orders never came.
On the stand Friday, Rhodes described Oath Keepers’ events in the fall of 2020 before the election. After the election, he issued a “call to action” for the “Million MAGA March” in Washington on Nov. 14. Oath Keepers provided security for event speakers and Trump supporters who asked for their help, Rhodes said.
Rhodes said the Oath Keepers 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 possible attacks from antifa activists.
He tripped up at one point when discussing protests, some which turned violent, after George Floyd’s 2020 killing. Rhodes said he supports “their right to riot” before quickly correcting himself to say he supports their right to protest, not riot.
Rhodes got emotional at times during his testimony. He appeared to choke up as he recalled watching the Sept. 11, 2001, terror 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 purpose for their lives.
The portrayal of the Oath Keepers as disciplined contrasts with testimony on Thursday about Rhodes’ leadership during the Million MAGA March in November of 2020. Watkins’ fiancé, Montana Siniff, 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 early as November 2020. Messages shown to jurors show him calling on his followers to fight to defend Trump and keep Biden out of the White House at all costs.
Jurors have heard that Rhodes spent thousands of dollars on guns, ammunition and other equipment before Jan. 6, and that Oath Keepers stashed a massive cache of weapons referred to as a “quick reaction force” at a Virginia hotel. The weapons were never deployed.
Defense attorneys say there was no plan to attack the Capitol. The Oath Keepers say they were in Washington on Jan. 6 not to stop the certification of Biden’s win but to provide security for right-wing figures such as Roger Stone. Their attorneys argue the Oath Keepers regularly had a “quick reaction force” for events but the weapons were meant to be used only to defend against attacks or if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act.
Rhodes’ attorneys have said that his defense will focus on his belief that Trump was going to invoke the Insurrection Act to call up a militia and put down what the extremist group leader viewed as a coup by Democrats.
Rhodes repeatedly called on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, 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 and what qualifies as military force.
Prosecutors are expected to highlight messages they say show that 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.”
Follow the AP's coverage related to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol at https://apnews.com/hub/capitol-siege.
Michael Kunzelman And Alanna Durkin Richer, The Associated Press