Oath Keeper ringleader Elmer Rhodes did not need to step a single foot inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, prosecutors told jurors Monday, because he had his devotees there to do the heavy lifting while he oversaw a violent conspiracy to stop the transfer of power from former President Donald Trump to now-President Joe Biden.
After a week of rigorous jury selection and a series of failed pretrial attempts by Oath Keepers Elmer Rhodes, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell, and Kelly Meggs to shift venues or bar damning evidence from jurors, the historic seditious conspiracy trial began with a clear message from the U.S. government.
“The defendants concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy,” assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey Nestler said.
For just over an hour, Nestler laid out the opening statements for the Justice Department’s case against Rhodes and his four co-defendants now on trial at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Over the next month to six weeks, U.S. attorneys have vowed to show jurors that the Oath Keepers’ conduct on Jan. 6 was not a one-off act of political passion run amok or, as those charged contend, mere preparation in the event that Trump invoked the Insurrection Act and required the aid of the Oath Keeper’s self-stylized militia.
No, Nestler explained, the charges the defendants now face are the direct result of their weeks of planning and intense recruitment efforts that coalesced into a violent attempt to stop Congress from counting the certified Electoral College votes and sealing Trump’s defeat into the historic record.
“Ordinarily, a person’s intent cannot be proved directly because there’s no way of knowing what a person is actually thinking. But in this case, the evidence will show that the defendants actually made it easy for you,” Nestler said.
Rhodes, Meggs, Harrelson, Caldwell, and Watkins have all pleaded not guilty.
When the defense introduced its case, an attorney for Rhodes, Philip Linder, told jurors the defendants did not plan to attack Congress on Jan. 6 and that over the next few weeks, they would introduce information to “fill in the gaps” left out of the Justice Department’s indictment.
Linder extolled the Oath Keepers as a “peacekeeping force” comprised of ex-military, law enforcement and veterans. Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League alike have identified the Oath Keepers as a far-right extremist group.
But on Monday, Linder insisted the group’s intent was well-meaning and that largely, they “go where their protection is needed.” That mission has led the group to provide security to high-profile political figures, Linder said.
That would include GOP operative and Trump ally Roger Stone.
David Fischer, an attorney for defendant Thomas Caldwell, called the indictment against his client and associates “the biggest bait and switch in the history of the American justice system.”
Where prosecutors allege that Oath Keepers established a “quick reaction force” replete with weapons and ammunition to aid their rebellion on behalf of Donald Trump, Fischer told jurors that was an “abject lie” and that defendants only set up a stash of weapons in northern Virginia because they feared what was possible that day.
The quick reaction force, or QRF, set up at a hotel across the Potomac River was arranged in case leftists or “antifa” showed up to cause violence, Fischer said. A lot of this, the defense argues, is a matter of missing context.
To wit, when it comes to footage from Jan. 6 of Rhodes seen speaking on his phone moments before Meggs allegedly led a charge up the Capitol steps in a military-style stack formation, Rhodes wasn’t giving any orders, Linder said. Rhodes was just talking to people about “other” security details and missions that day.
Defense attorneys had some difficulty getting through their opening statements without seeing objections lodged by the Justice Department. Most were sustained by presiding U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta.
Linder told jurors Rhodes and his co-defendants were facing significant jail time if convicted, prompting an objection. This information is barred from being shared with jurors at trial.
Linder also told jurors they were going to see evidence that neither the government or media, specifically, have yet mentioned in its coverage of Jan. 6. An objection to this was raised by the government and sustained again.
Mehta offered Linder a warning once jurors left the room for a brief recess.
Commentary and speculation about what the media has reported about Jan. 6 or the Oath Keepers conduct therein should be avoided, Mehta said.
“If you get into it in your opening or cross-examination, you are opening the door to an invitation to evidence you do not want admitted in this case,” the judge remarked.
Rhodes will have a chance to speak for himself. Linder said Monday that his client would take the stand and testify later in the trial.
The government is expected to call 40 witnesses over the coming weeks and one of those witnesses will be the leader of the Oath Keeper’s North Carolina chapter, William Todd Wilson. Wilson faced a slew of charges, including seditious conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding. But he flipped on Rhodes in May along with two other Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy.
In the meantime, Wilson told the Justice Department that on Jan. 6 after the mob had failed to take the Capitol and Oath Keepers held a meeting, Rhodes attempted to call someone who he believed could patch him through to Donald Trump.
Allegedly, Rhodes had an important message to relay: The Oath Keepers still stood ready to help Trump stop the transfer of power to Joe Biden at the coming inauguration. Jurors will hear evidence that the call “never existed,” Linder said.
But prosecutors say that meeting was being recorded and in a brief clip played in court Monday, Rhodes can be heard lamenting how other rioters at the Capitol were underprepared.
“My only regret is that they should have brought rifles. We could have fixed it right there and then,” Rhodes said.
Much of what the government will show jurors in the next several weeks rests on damning correspondence seized directly off devices belonging to the defendants. Some of that was introduced Monday, including a message Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs sent on Facebook.
“It’s easy to chat here,” Meggs wrote to people railing about the election outcome on social media in November 2020. “The real question is who’s willing to DIE.” [Emphasis original]
Jurors saw another text message sent by Rhodes via the encrypted app Signal. This one came after Jan. 6.
While there was much celebrating among Oath Keepers about the damage done on Jan. 6, the prosecution pointed out that it was Rhodes who warned the group via text in no uncertain terms that their next steps should be carefully—and quietly—executed.
“Let me put it in infantry speak: SHUT THE FUCK UP,” Rhodes wrote in a message sent to a group chat.
The defense is eager to provide jurors with causal factors where they say context is lacking. One of those attempts came by way of Jonathan Crisp, an attorney for Army veteran Jessica Watkins.
Watkins is transgender, Crisp sad, and something of an “enigma” who has had “trouble fitting in.”
“Jessica never felt like she fit in and a lot of things she did that day were to try and fit in, both good and bad,” Crisp said.
Today, she regrets her choices, he continued. But Watkins has stopped short of admitting she intended to stop the transfer of power.
Defense attorney David Fischer tried to soften the evidence brought against defendant Thomas Caldwell.
Caldwell is a retired Navy commander and that is why text messages refer to him as “commander,” Fischer said.
In messages where Caldwell said “I’m such an instigator” and that they were “storming the Castle,” Fischer said prosecutors misinterpreted these texts. This was a reference to lines from the film The Princess Bride, Fischer said.
After opening statements concluded, the prosecution was able to call a single witness to the stand: FBI Special Agent Michael Palian.
Palian escorted lawmakers back to the Senate on Jan. 6 after rioters had been cleared from the building and certification was finally allowed to go on.
“It looked a bomb had gone off in there,” Palian told assistant U.S. attorney Kathryn Rakoczy during questioning.
There were an estimated $2 million in damages to the Capitol alone on Jan. 6, according to the Justice Department.
It was a terrifying experience that caused senators to cry as they sought shelter from the mob and when the count finally resumed, the air inside the Capitol was still dreadfully thick with pepper spray, Palian testified.
The seditious conspiracy trial resumes Tuesday. Daily Kos will have live coverage from inside the courtroom. For a look at our live blog today, click here and follow Brandi Buchman on Twitter.