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WASHINGTON ― Testifying for a second day in the Oath Keepers’ seditious conspiracy trial, founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes denied having anything to do with the violent U.S. Capitol breach on Jan. 6, 2021, telling jurors he thought the people who went inside were “stupid.”
Several of his Oath Keepers were among that mob.
“If they’d have asked me, I’d have said don’t,” the leader of the far-right group said Monday in federal court.
Throughout his testimony, Rhodes deflected blame for the violence and destruction his group stands accused of bringing to the U.S. Capitol on the day Congress met to certify the 2020 presidential election count. He attempted to cast the Oath Keepers as a rational force for peacekeeping, claiming that they provided “security” to people who asked for it.
But prosecutors poked holes in his claim with evidence that the Oath Keepers bring violence and intimidation everywhere they go — including to Washington, where they allegedly stockpiled weapons and prepared for violence leading up to the Jan. 6 riot by a mob of Donald Trump supporters bent on keeping him in the White House despite his election loss to Joe Biden.
U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy brought up several examples detailing their intimidation tactics, including an instance when Oath Keepers showed up to a protest in Louisville, Kentucky, in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s death in a police raid on her home. Rakoczy played a video clip showing some of the Oath Keepers standing by their trucks in tactical gear, holding rifles as bystanders heckled them.
“Wouldn’t you agree you are doing more to inflame the situation?” Rakoczy asked Rhodes.
Rhodes replied that he did not agree.
“Sir, do you hear someone on this video imploring you to leave?”
Rhodes replied that he did.
Rhodes said the Oath Keepers were in the District of Columbia on Jan. 5 and 6 to “protect” right-wing political adviser Roger Stone, “Stop the Steal” rally organizer Ali Alexander and people going to events organized by groups like Blacks for Trump and Women for Trump.
He denied ever telling any Oath Keepers to join the mob breaching the Capitol or that it was part of their plan from the start. He also denied simply implying that people should storm the building.
As Rhodes attempted to distance himself from the violent mob in court, though, Rakoczy picked apart his careful characterizations of the Oath Keepers, using Rhodes’ own words to portray the Oath Keepers as a group of anti-government extremists capable of significant violence to advance their fringe views.
She started with the group’s foundational story. Rhodes had said that he started the Oath Keepers in response to policy decisions made by the George W. Bush administration that he believed to be unconstitutional. But he admitted that it wasn’t until after Barack Obama became the nation’s first Black president that he actually founded the group in April 2009 in Lexington, Massachusetts ― a town known for its history as a Revolutionary War battle site.
This artist sketch depicts the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes as he testifies Monday before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta on charges of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
Courtroom sketch by Dana Verkouteren via Associated Press
Rhodes denied that Oath Keepers ever baited political opponents, like the so-called antifa movement, into physical fights. Yet Rakoczy confronted him with a recording of himself telling others on a phone call how he could use a helmet as a blunt-force object. Similarly, he denied ever encouraging Oath Keepers ― who tend to be older ― to buy weaponized canes from a website titled Cold Steel and dress like an elderly person to lure in unsuspecting opponents.
Rhodes estimated that 100 Oath Keepers were in the Capitol area on Jan. 6. He and four others — Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Thomas Caldwell and Jessica Watkins — are accused of organizing to keep Trump in power despite the November 2020 election results. On Jan. 6, both houses of Congress were meeting to certify the Electoral College count, two weeks before Biden’s inauguration.
Rhodes did not go inside the Capitol himself. But prosecutors say that a mountain of evidence shows that he primed others to do so.
Rakoczy repeatedly showed texts that Rhodes sent using the encrypted messaging platform Signal from before, during and after the riot.
In one message, Rhodes said of Trump: “He needs to know that if he fails to act then we will. He needs to understand that we will have no choice.” In another message, sent on Jan. 6, Rhodes spoke about “the Founding generation” engaging in “street fighting” to get their way and said present-day “patriots” were at the same point in history.
Rhodes testified that he thought he was talking about something else — about his theory that Trump was going to invoke the Insurrection Act. In his view, the Insurrection Act would allow Trump to call up militia groups like the Oath Keepers as he sought to remain in power and hold another presidential election. Rhodes said he believed the 2020 election was not legitimate because states had taken actions to make it easier to vote during the pandemic.
In this scenario, Oath Keepers would serve to keep the peace, Rhodes testified.
But many of his claims ran counter to testimony from government witnesses who said earlier that Oath Keepers leadership strongly implied they were going to Washington to commit acts of violence. One former member of the group testified that he had thought about how he would say goodbye to his family before leaving for Washington — he was willing to die to keep Trump in office.
Rhodes claimed both that the “quick reaction force” (QRF) that he and his followers discussed staging was meant to protect the White House and also that he was not involved with setting up an armed QRF that day. One witness previously described the group’s stash of guns as so large that he hadn’t seen anything like it since his time in the military.
After the riot, Rhodes sent texts in celebration of the day’s events.
“Patriots, it was a long day but a day when patriots began to stand. Stand now or kneel forever,” Rhodes said in one group chat with other Oath Keepers.
During direct examination, Rhodes also distanced himself from Trump’s rally outside the White House just before the riot. While there were several groups of Oath Keepers tasked with various “missions” on Jan. 5 and 6, Rhodes said he was there to speak at a Latinos for Trump event held a few blocks north of the Capitol and then planned to remain there all day.
Rhodes testified that he was told Trump supporters were agitating by the Capitol shortly before 2 p.m., and he went to check it out. He said he and Oath Keepers attorney Kellye SoRelle had been watching Trump’s speech, eating chicken wings and warming up at a friend’s nearby hotel room. Rhodes said it was a chilly day.
Rhodes testified that it wasn’t until he saw the mob that he thought, “Oh, shit, they might actually break in.”