The founder of the Oath Keepers, Elmer Stewart Rhodes, told jurors on Monday that when he learned on Jan. 6 that members of the extremist organization went inside of the Capitol, he told them it was “stupid.”
This. broadly speaking, was a common theme on Monday for Rhodes as he came under cross-examination by U.S. prosecutors at the federal courthouse in Washington. Co-defendant Kelly Meggs—one of the Oath Keepers in the military-style stack formation that breached the Capitol— went “off mission,” Rhodes testified. The same went for Joshua James, the Alabama Oath Keeper leader who has already pleaded guilty to sedition.
And the quick reaction force, or QRF, at the hotel in northern Virginia where an arsenal of weapons was stored in the run-up to the Capitol assault? Rhodes insisted he knew nothing of it despite the fact that prosecutors have shown extensive evidence suggesting he was part of the same text group where the QRF was discussed at length.
“OK We WILL have a QRF. The situation calls for it,” Rhodes wrote Meggs on Jan. 2, 2021.
It was the Oath Keeper leader’s second day on the stand and while the first day offered a smooth-talking and confident Rhodes with testimony flowing from him like so much water, once put to the test by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy, his demeanor shifted. Rhodes often fumbled through responses Monday, beginning sentences with “um” and the frustration bubbled to the surface on multiple occasions as his face tightened up and in at least one instance, his eye appeared to roll incredulously.
Rhodes repeatedly tried to cast off his leadership role on Jan. 6 and rebuffed the assertion from prosecutors that his efforts leading up to it and afterward were focused on stopping the transfer of power to President Joe Biden.
Rhodes and co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell, and Kenneth Harrelson insist the only plan Oath Keepers had in place after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, was to provide security details for Trump allies and other VIPs attending or organizing events like the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally led by right-wing conspiracy theorist Ali Alexander.
Alexander as well as Roger Stone and Bianca Gracia of Latinos for Trump were among those VIPs Oath Keepers offered their services to, he said.
When under direct examination by his attorney Philip Linder, Rhodes has regularly claimed that he and members of the group feared “antifa” and leftist activists would attack Trump supporters on Jan. 6.
Prosecutors argue this is just another excuse Rhodes uses to lend the Oath Keepers “security detail” claims a greater air of legitimacy.
But in pulling up an August 2020 text, Rakoczy showed jurors how Rhodes told Oath Keepers that when it comes to “cracking heads” of counter-protesters in the streets, that was a discussion one simply didn’t have publicly.
“Being open about wanting to crack heads is what got the Proud Boys prosecuted,” Rhodes wrote.
Rhodes initially denied that he said this before Rakoczy showed him the text. She continued to read from it for jurors.
“Anyone who says publicly that they are going to confront antifa of BLM and can be easily prosecuted after the fact… you just killed your own self-defense line,” Rakoczy recited Rhodes’s message aloud.
He attempted to do some cleanup in short order.
“If a person’s goal is to beat people up, they’re going to get in trouble,” he testified.
But in the text, Rakoczy noted, he was instructing Oath Keepers not to talk about this openly, wasn’t he?
No, Rhodes said.
Other messages extracted by the FBI off devices belonging to Rhodes and his quasi-girlfriend Kellye SoRelle show him urgently telling members to “clam up” about their conduct on Jan. 6 just a couple of days after the assault. In less polite terms, Rhodes also told Oath Keepers to “shut the fuck up” about what they did or saw.
Those messages were sent to Oath Keepers through SoRelle’s phone while Rhodes’s phone was turned off as he and SoRelle drove over a thousand miles from Washington to Texas, prosecutors said.
On Monday, Rhodes threw SoRelle—who is already under indictment on multiple charges including felony obstruction of justice—under the bus.
SoRelle sent those messages on her own accord, Rhodes testified.
He was a lifelong “dissident,” he explained and he expected to be trailed by law enforcement at some point. SoRelle’s paranoia in sending the warnings on his phone didn’t phase him, he said.
This bravado has been commonplace during his testimony. He has said on two occasions in as many days that he has never required a “bodyguard.” He knows martial arts, he said. He always carries a gun. And, further, he boasted of never wearing a helmet when on “security” details.
Helmets, Rhodes testified Monday, are purely defensive tools.
When Rakoczy asked Rhodes if he ever used a helmet offensively, he quickly said no.
The prosecutor then played a video showing Rhodes explicitly telling Oath Keepers that when he was in Portland, Oregon during protests there in the past, he kept his helmet in his hand.
“Guess what that was for?” Rhodes said on the recording. “That was to whack someone across the face if they’re going to come at me. So.”
More of his machismo was on display as Rakoczy probed Rhodes about the level of control he had over SoRelle,
Rhodes was unable to conceal his pleasure as a message was shown to jurors where Rhodes told SoRelle to “be a good girl” and subsequently ordered her to meet him at a hotel room on their way out of Washington,
Rhodes, smiling from the stand, proudly quipped: “Yeah, that’s me” when Rakoczy asked him if he sent the message.
A moment later, as the assistant U.S. Attorney worked to elicit more testimony about the control Rhodes had over SoRelle, he took it as an opportunity to air personal sexual details.
“Well, we were dating. Do we have to get into kink, really?” he said. “Outside the bedroom, she’s definitely a Type A. Inside the bedroom, she switches to a sub.”
Prosecutors argue the Oath Keepers are using thin “legal cover” when they insist that they never went to Washington to spar with police or stop the transfer of power. From the trial’s outset, Rhodes has claimed that the group arrived in D.C. ahead of the joint certification ceremony just in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act and required their assistance to reverse the election.
Rhodes wrote two public letters to Trump in December 2020 urging him to invoke the act in order to stop the “Chicomm” or “Chinese communist puppet” administration of Joe Biden.
As the certification drew close, the more impatient Rhodes became. Rhodes once warned Oath Keepers: If Trump didn’t act to stop the “unconstitutional” election, then they would be “forced to act” with or without him.
“Trump has one last chance right now to stand but he will need us and our rifles too,” Rhodes wrote.
Rhodes fumbled this point as he faced Rakoczy.
When he discussed Trump invoking the Insurrection Act or the need for Oath Keepers to act, he was really talking about after Jan. 6 and if Biden took office.
Yet, the prosecution noted, Rhodes never specified this detail in any of his messages.
Rhodes pushed back and said a person could not even practice civil disobedience of a given power if that power was not yet in office.
A slight smile crept across Rakoczy’s face.
“With all due respect, you can do civil disobedience any time,” she said. “Isn’t that what happened at the Capitol—civil disobedience that occurred to fight the certification?”
“It wasn’t mine,” Rhodes said quickly.
Rhodes also leaned all the way into his microphone Monday and spoke slowly and pointedly.
He wanted Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, he said, so Trump could “declassify all of the documents that would expose the election “fraud” and seize data. The data in question, Rhodes said, would expose a vast array of government officials as pedophiles. When Rakoczy suggested Trump didn’t need to invoke the Insurrection Act to declassify data, Rhodes rambled on about Trump’s broad powers to declassify whatever he wanted.
When discussion of the many lawsuits Trump lost contesting the results of the 2020 election arose, Rhodes rolled his eye slightly and attempted to explain to the jury himself how legal jurisdiction works after Rakoczy explained that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge by Trump that originated in Texas.
Rhodes described the high court’s decision not to take up Trump’s lawsuit as “illegitimate.”
Ultimately, Trump had a responsibility “just like Lincoln,” Rhodes said to “defend the Constitution” by overturning the results.
“You’re a constitutionalist and you’re suggesting that the President of the United States should be able to throw out an election result despite the Supreme Court of the United States not taking a legal case to address it?”” she said. “What’s to prevent any president in the future from doing the same.”
“Hold a constitutional election and it won’t have to happen,” Rhodes replied.
In his mind, Rhodes said, the decision by some Oath Keepers to enter the building cleared the way for their opponents to undermine the group’s real mission of service and protection, Rhodes argued.
“It opened the door for our political enemies to persecute us. That’s what happened. And here we are,” Rhodes said on Monday.
The heated language regularly dripping in contempt for anyone opposed to Donald Trump’s ascension to a second unearned term that was on display in hundreds of text messages was no real indicator of intent either, according to Rhodes.
He testified last week that the language was superheated on “both sides” in 2020. Last week, jurors saw a video of Rhodes from Jan. 10 where he was secretly recorded by Jason Alpers, a U.S. veteran who ended up turning witness for the government in the sedition case.
Alpers had indirect ties to Trump and was connected through a former employee to Rhodes in the days after the attack. Meeting in an empty parking lot outside of an electronics store after nightfall, Rhodes urged Alpers to understand there was still time for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act.
Doing so, Rhodes explained Monday, would have allowed Oath Keepers to aid Trump how he saw fit.
During the secret meeting, Rhodes unloaded on Alpers and told him he feared Trump would be thrown in jail and then “raped and shanked” in prison if now President Joe Biden was allowed to take office.
There would be “combat here on U.S. soil no matter what,” he told Alpers.
Rhodes wrote out a message for Trump into Alpers’s phone, expecting it to be passed along to Trump. Alpers never acted as his messenger.
Alpers said under oath that Rhodes was too extreme and he worried how it might be interpreted if he took the demand from Rhodes to the Trump White House.
Rhodes was often unapologetic Monday. His defense has rested, in part, on his insistence that the election was “unconstitutional” because of changes to election protocols that took place in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As quickly as Rhodes told jurors how he felt about the election, he was equally quick to offer a remarkable response when Rakoczy asked him if he had to “fight his way out” of anything since Biden took office as he once suggested in his missives.
“Not yet,” Rhodes said.
For a moment-by-moment look at today’s testimony, check out the Daily Kos live blog or check out the mega thread below.