Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes testifies in Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy trial
Rhodes is charged with four others in the U.S. Capitol attack.
Stewart Rhodes, leader of the militia group known as the Oath Keepers, took the witness stand Friday to testify in the Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy trial of himself and four other militia members.
Responding to questions from his defense attorney, Rhodes cast the Oath Keepers as a civic service organization that provided relief to communities hit by natural disasters and served as security at conflict-prone protests.
With a group comprised of some current and former members of law enforcement and the military, Rhodes, himself a disabled veteran, said his organization allowed them to continue their public service interests and feel like they still had a purpose.
"The suicide rate is so high," Rhodes said apparently becoming emotional. "I don't think the military does enough to let them transfer from military life to civilian life."
But as civil demonstrations and riots unfolded across the country in 2020, the group began attended more political events and speaking engagements. Rhodes explained this as an interest in protecting free speech regardless of political view, saying at one point the group was involved in protecting a Black Lives Matter rally.
Rhodes himself acknowledged his strong political beliefs, which he characterized as libertarian, having worked for Rep Ron Paul, and conducting post-9/11 civil liberties research during his time at Yale Law School.
"What I saw that disturbed me was the Bush administration very rapidly doing things that I knew were unconstitutional," Rhodes said of the federal law enforcement crackdown in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Then in 2020, Rhodes became concerned about restrictions and new policies put in place in response to the global pandemic. Some of these restrictions and new protocols, he believed, violated the constitution because they were enacted by local public officials in executive positions and not state legislators. This led him to believe the 2020 election was not legitimate, he said, and that neither Trump nor Biden legally won.
U.S. courts across the country have widely rejected challenges to the legitimacy of the 2020 election and Rhodes' theories remain unfounded.
Over dozens of hours in the Washington, D.C., federal courthouse, prosecutors have worked to reach the high bar of proving to the jury that the five defendants -- Rhodes, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Kelly Meggs -- all engaged in a conspiracy to forcibly oppose the execution of laws governing the transfer of presidential power on Jan. 6, 2021.
Judge Amit Mehta, overseeing the trial, said it was only the second time he has seen a defendant testify in a multi-defendant trial since he took the bench more than seven years ago.
Jurors have heard testimony from more than two dozen witnesses in the past month, ranging from law enforcement officials who investigated the group after Jan. 6, former members of the group who have entered into plea deals with the government, to Capitol Police officials and officers like Harry Dunn.
Prosecutors in the Oath Keepers trial officially rested their case-in-chief Thursday after 19 days of presenting evidence against the five Oath Keeper members. Investigators have meticulously documented the group's actions both leading up to, during and after the assault on the Capitol, using seized texts messages, audio files and surveillance videos to trace their steps and communications as, they argue, the group grew more and more intent on their alleged plan to use force to prevent President Joe Biden from taking office.
What has emerged is a highly-complex picture, prosecutors have gone into often granular detail -- describing the group's leadership structure, their financial records, weapons purchases, even at one point presenting proof that the group spent north of $400 at an Olive Garden the night of Jan. 6 where they allegedly "celebrated" the attack.
In cross-examination of the government's witnesses, attorneys have sought to make the case that prosecutors have overstated the group's true intentions and falsely cast their words and actions as plotting against the government.
Lawyers for the Oath Keepers presented some of their most direct defense yet Thursday, contending the defendants came to Washington to serve as security for others attending the pro-Trump rallies that day.
Roger Stone, a long-time confidant of former President Donald Trump, invited Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs to Washington on Jan. 6 and had previously asked Rhodes for his people to act as his so-called "security detail" for events in Florida relying on their mutual connection to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Meggs would pick up Stone from the airport, stand with him at events and drive him back to the airport, according to Meggs' defense attorney Stanley Woodward.
Defense attorney Brad Geyer cast his client, Oath Keeper Kenneth Harrelson, as an apolitical public servant who wanted to use his experience from the military to help others. He emphasized that Harrelson had been off social media since 2014 and hadn't engaged in the same online vitriol that other had fanned.
"He had no political objectives that day," Geyer contended. "That's what the evidence will show."
Harrelson is accused of helping to stockpile firearms in a Virginia hotel as part of a so-called "Quick Reaction Force" in anticipation of violence on Jan. 6. Geyer said that Harrelson has never voted in a presidential election and did not know what the electoral college was or how Congress worked. "Kenny is literally apolitical -- no deeply held positions either way," Geyer said.
Defense attorneys have previously said they expect their own presentations to stretch for at least another two to three weeks. The high-stakes prosecution could have a significant impact not only on the two remaining seditious conspiracy cases still yet to go to trial in connection with the Justice Department's Jan. 6 investigation, experts argue, but the department's overall approach to countering extremist groups within the U.S. inclined to use violence against the government.
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