Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and his associates went to trial last week in Washington’s federal district court in one of the highest profile cases to emerge from the fallout of Jan. 6.
Rhodes, 56, a former Army paratrooper who founded the far-right extremist group in 2009, and four of his colleagues are charged with “seditious conspiracy” for alleged efforts last year to prevent a peaceful transition of the presidency.
Nearly 900 people involved in the events on Jan. 6 have been charged thus far, according to the Justice Department.
Based on its membership info, over half of the Oath Keepers, including Rhodes and some of those on trial with him, have prior military experience, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League identified 117 active-duty troops who belong to the far-right militia group. Other members include reservists and military contractors.
Rhodes was honorably separated from the Army after serving two years and seven months on active duty, leaving at the rank of specialist with a “temporary” physical disability, according to Military.com.
Those on trial with Rhodes include:
- Kelly Meggs, 53, the leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers.
- Kenneth Harrelson, 41, another Florida Oath Keeper and former Army sergeant.
- Thomas Caldwell, 68, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer from Virginia. Caldwell’s attorney says his client is not a formal member of the Oath Keepers.
- Jessica Watkins, 39, an Army veteran who led an Ohio militia group.
Each defendant has pleaded not guilty since being indicted by the Justice Department in January. The each face a maximum of 20 years in prison.
During opening statements last week before Judge Amit P. Mehta, federal prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler said the Oath Keepers tried “to stop by whatever means necessary the lawful transfer of presidential power, including by taking up arms against the U.S. government.”
Nestler added that the group abused the possibility that Trump may invoke the Insurrection Act — a law that allows the president to deploy military force domestically to stop rebellions — as legal cover to ensure they could keep Trump in power by force.
“Stewart Rhodes meant no harm to the Capitol that day,” Rhodes’ attorney Phillip Linder responded in his opening statement, according to The Associated Press. “Stewart Rhodes did not have any violent intent that day. The story the government is trying to tell you today is completely wrong.”
Linder later described how the Justice Department would attempt to show that Rhodes, on a call with an intermediary, requested to speak with Trump in order to get him to call upon the group.
That call “doesn’t exist,” Linder stated. Attorneys for Caldwell and Watkins also presented opening statements.
FBI special agent Michael Palian, who testified as the prosecution’s first witness, described many of the events on Jan. 6 he personally witnessed. Palian painted a picture using Rhodes’ text messages that suggested the Oath Keepers began plotting for Jan. 6 immediately after the 2020 election.
Palian’s testimony, which continued later in the week, also included a description of the weapons the Oath Keepers were allegedly planning to bring on Jan. 6, according to Reuters.
The prosecution later played an audio recording of an alleged 2020 Oath Keepers meeting, according to CNN.
“We’re not getting out of this without a fight. There’s going to be a fight,” Rhodes allegedly says in the recording. “But let’s just do it smart and let’s do it while President Trump is still commander in chief.”
The defense pushed back, arguing the recording is actually in reference to a march that some of the defendants attended in Washington in Nov. 2020.
Three men formerly involved with the Oath Keepers, including Marine Corps veteran Abdullah Rasheed, also took the stand, according to The New York Times. Rasheed told the jury that he was responsible for recording the meeting. Additional witnesses included Capitol Police Special Agent Ryan McCamley.
According to the Post, three Oath Keepers have already pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy. Four others, meanwhile, have pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct the confirmation of the presidential vote.
Four other Oath Keepers are also set to stand trial next month, according to the Post, including Joseph Hackett, Roberto Minuta, David Moerschel and Army veteran Edward Vallejo.
The Oath Keepers trial is slated to continue this week.
In the same federal district court in Washington, another trial involving a far-right militia group’s Jan. 6 involvement will soon be heard. Last week, Jeremy Bertino, a former leader of the Proud Boys, pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy as part of the Capitol breach.
He is expected to appear in court in December.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media