Oath Keepers Leader Testifies at Jan. 6 Sedition Trial

Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right militia group, took the stand in his own defense in Federal District Court in Washington.

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Oath Keepers Leader Testifies at Jan. 6 Sedition Trial | INFBusiness.com

Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, in 2016. He sought to defend himself against sedition charges when he took the witness stand on Friday.

Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, took the witness stand at his seditious conspiracy trial on Friday, telling the jury that after the 2020 election he was afraid that leftist protesters might physically drag President Donald J. Trump out of the White House and that he hoped Mr. Trump would mobilize his far-right group to come to his aid.

In his first day of testimony in Federal District Court in Washington, Mr. Rhodes sought to defend himself against sedition charges by painting an apocalyptic, albeit imaginary, scene of the White House being overrun by antifa activists and Mr. Trump being hauled from the building if he failed to concede that he had lost the election.

Speaking in rapid-fire fashion, Mr. Rhodes also claimed that he and his group had brought weapons to the Washington area for a pro-Trump rally in the run-up to the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, anticipating that Mr. Trump might employ a two centuries-old law called the Insurrection Act to summon them and other military personnel.

“If a president jumped up and invoked the Insurrection Act and said, ‘I’m calling on any veterans in the area to come defend the White House,’” Mr. Rhodes told the jury, “we’d be ready to do so.”

Mr. Rhodes did not have time before court ended on Friday to address what he and the Oath Keepers did on Jan. 6. He was expected to continue his testimony next week.

But the hour or so he spent on the stand suggested that he intended to use a two-part defense strategy: He would most likely claim that the far-right group was seeking to defend Mr. Trump and his supporters against their leftist adversaries on Jan. 6 and that the Oath Keepers had brought weapons to the outskirts of Washington to simply be prepared if the president called them up as a militia.

ImageMr. Rhodes did not have time before court ended on Friday to address what he and the Oath Keepers did on Jan. 6, 2021.Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times

In his distinctive black eye patch — the result of a gun accident — Mr. Rhodes began by telling the jury that he was an indicted defendant at the trial and had personally made the decision to testify, an extremely risky move that would expose him to cross-examination by prosecutors who had been working on his case for nearly two years.

But he acknowledged the risks, telling his lawyer, Phillip Linder, “I’m good to go.”

Then, under questioning by Mr. Linder, Mr. Rhodes described his personal history: how he had grown up poor in Fresno, Calif., the son of a Mexican farmworker and a Marine. How he had served in the military from 1983 to 1989. And how, after working on Capitol Hill for Representative Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas who left Congress in 2013, he earned a law degree at Yale.

After moving to Montana, Mr. Rhodes testified, he founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, months after President Barack Obama took office. He said, however, that the organization, which has always largely been composed of military veterans and law enforcement officers, was meant to be a hedge against the government abuses of the administration of President George W. Bush.

Mr. Rhodes spent much of his time on the stand seeking to persuade the jury that the Oath Keepers, who are widely viewed as an antigovernment militia, were not as they have been described in the news media. He said, for instance, that the group was nonpartisan, not based on racist or white nationalist beliefs, and was more judicious than other far-right groups in screening its members for a history of crime or violence.

“Unlike the Proud Boys, who want to go and street fight,” he said, “we’re not like that.”

He also gave the jury a selective list of missions that the Oath Keepers had undertaken over the years. He cited in particular how armed members of the group went to Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 as self-appointed protectors for local businesses during the unrest there after the death of Michael Brown, a Black man who was shot by the police.

After George Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis in 2020, Mr. Rhodes sent the Oath Keepers on similar missions to cities like Louisville, Ky., where unrest sometimes accompanied racial justice protests. What he took away from those events, he told the jury, was that leftist demonstrators were prone to violence and habitually armed with items like frozen water bottles, chains and bike locks.

ImageMr. Rhodes speaking at a rally outside the White House in 2017.Credit…Susan Walsh/Associated Press

After the election, in November and December 2020, the Oath Keepers took a central role in serving as security guards at pro-Trump rallies in Washington as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, drawn by the president’s lies about voting fraud.

“The pattern, unfortunately, across the country, was Trump supporters would go to an event,” Mr. Rhodes told the jury, “and then after the event, especially at night, antifa would come out and attack them.”

Much of his testimony appeared to lay the seeds for Mr. Rhodes to argue next week that the Oath Keepers did not go to Washington on Jan. 6 as part of a plan to storm the Capitol and disrupt the transfer of presidential power from Mr. Trump to Joseph R. Biden Jr., as the government has claimed.

Instead, Mr. Rhodes is likely to say that the group went to provide security for pro-Trump figures who were in Washington that day, including Alex Jones, the proprietor of the conspiracy-ridden outlet Infowars, and Roger J. Stone Jr., Mr. Trump’s longtime adviser.

That is precisely what lawyers for some of Mr. Rhodes’s co-defendants said on Thursday, when they delivered their opening statements to the jury. (Two of them deferred their introductory remarks at the beginning of the trial.)

Speaking on behalf of Kelly Meggs, who ran the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, his lawyer, Stanley Woodward Jr., struck a similar note as Mr. Rhodes, saying that Mr. Meggs had been deeply affected by the violence that sometimes accompanied the racial justice protests after Mr. Floyd’s murder.

Fearing for the future and steeped in the “discord and vitriol” that had roiled the country, Mr. Meggs joined the Oath Keepers and started going with them to rallies in Washington because “he believed he could help,” Mr. Woodward said.

Mr. Woodward suggested that in the coming days he would call witnesses who would testify that the Oath Keepers’ mission on Jan. 6 was to serve as bodyguards for pro-Trump celebrities in Washington. He promised to introduce evidence showing that Mr. Stone had invited Mr. Meggs to protect him.

Bradford L. Geyer, a lawyer for another defendant, Kenneth Harrelson, said his client, a former soldier, was an apolitical person who had never voted in a presidential election. As recently as a year ago, Mr. Geyer said, Mr. Harrelson did not know that Congress had two chambers, the House and the Senate.

Seeking to rebut one of the government’s chief arguments, Mr. Geyer said that Mr. Harrelson did not participate in “any of the planning” for the Oath Keepers’ assault on the Capitol and “therefore cannot be involved in any kind of conspiracy.”

While he admitted that Mr. Harrelson had entered the Capitol building on Jan. 6, Mr. Geyer told the jury that the evidence during the defense’s presentation would show that the doors his client went through had “mysteriously opened and the surging crowd swept him inside.”

Source: nytimes.com

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