‘Fighting Fit’: Trial to Show Oath Keepers’ Road to January 6

Voting was over and almost all ballots were counted. News media on November 7, 2020 had called the presidential election for Joe Biden. But the leader of the Oath Keeper’s extremist group had just begun to fight.

Convinced that the White House had been stolen from Donald Trump, Stewart Rhodes urged his supporters to take action.

“We must now … refuse to accept it and march en masse on the nation’s Capitol,” Rhodes declared.

Authorities allege that Rhodes and his band of extremists would spend the next several weeks after Election Day on Nov. 3 gathering weapons, organizing paramilitary training and readying armed squads with one singular goal: to prevent Biden from becoming president.

Their plot would come to a head on Jan. 6, 2021, prosecutors say, when Oath Keepers in combat gear were caught on camera weaving their way through crowds of Trump supporters and storming the Capitol in military-style stack formation.

Court documents in the case against Rhodes and four co-defendants – whose trial opens Tuesday with jury selection in Washington federal court – paint a picture of a group so determined to overturn Biden’s victory that some members were prepared to die for to do it.

It is the biggest test of the Justice Department’s efforts to hold those responsible for the Capitol attack accountable. Rioters temporarily halted the certification of Biden’s victory by sheer force, engaging police officers in hand-to-hand combat as they rammed their way into the building, forcing Congress to adjourn as lawmakers and staff hid from the mob.

Despite nearly 900 arrests and hundreds of convictions in the riots, Rhodes and four Oath Keeper employees – Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell – are the first to stand trial on the rare and hard-to-prove charge of sedition conspiracy.

Oath Keepers accuse prosecutors of twisting their words and insist there was never any plan to attack the Capitol. They say they were in Washington to provide event security for the likes of Trump ally Roger Stone before Trump’s large outdoor rally near the White House on January 6. Their preparations, training, equipment and weapons were to protect themselves from potential violence from left-wing antifa activists or to be ready if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act to call in a militia.

Rhodes’ lawyers have signaled that their defense will focus on his belief that Trump would take that action. But Trump never did, so Rhodes went home, his lawyers have said.

On November 9, 2020, less than a week after the election, Rhodes held a conference call and rallied the Oath Keepers to go to Washington and fight. He expressed hope that antifa (anti-fascist) activists would start clashes because it would give Trump “the reason and justification to drop the sedition law.”

“You’ve got to go there and you’ve got to make sure he knows you’re willing to die to fight for this country,” Rhodes told his people, according to a transcript filed in court.

In December, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers had their sights set on Congressional certification of the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, prosecutors say.

On December 23, he published an open letter on the Oath Keeper website, declaring that “tens of thousands of patriotic Americans, both veterans and non-veterans” would be in Washington. He warned that they might have to “take up arms to defend our God-given liberty.”

As 2021 approached, Rhodes spent $7,000 on two night vision devices and a gun scope and shipped them to someone outside of Washington, authorities say. Over several days in early January, he would spend another $15,500 on guns, magazines, holders, sights and other equipment, according to court documents.

Stewart Rhodes, the founder of Oath Keepers, is seen on a screen during a House Select Committee hearing to investigate the January 6 attack on the US Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on June 9, 2022. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP via Getty Images)
Stewart Rhodes, the founder of Oath Keepers, is seen on a screen during a House Select Committee hearing to investigate the January 6 attack on the US Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on June 9, 2022. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP via Getty Images)

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI via Getty Images

Rhodes had instructed Oath Keepers to be ready, if called upon, to secure the White House perimeter and “use lethal force if necessary” against anyone, including the National Guard, who might try to remove Trump from the White House House, according to court documents.

On Jan. 5, Meggs and the Florida Oath Keepers brought gun cases, rifle cases and briefcases filled with ammunition to the Virginia hotel where “rapid response force” teams would be on standby, according to prosecutors. A team from Arizona brought weapons, ammunition and supplies to last 30 days, according to court papers. A team from North Carolina had rifles in a vehicle parked on the hotel grounds, prosecutors have said.

At the Capitol, the Oath Keepers formed two teams, military “stacks,” prosecutors say.

Some members of the first stack headed toward the House in search of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., but could not find her, according to court documents. Members of the second stack confronted officers inside the Capitol Rotunda, prosecutors allege.

Rhodes is not accused of entering the Capitol, but was seen huddled with members outside after the riot. Rhodes and others then went to the nearby Phoenix Park Hotel, prosecutors say.

In a private suite there, Rhodes called someone on the phone with an urgent message for Trump, according to an Oath Keeper who says he witnessed it. Rhodes repeatedly urged the person on the phone to tell Trump to call on militia groups to fight to keep the president in power, court papers said. The person declined Rhodes’ request to speak directly with Trump.

“I just want to fight,” Rhodes said after hanging up, according to court papers. Authorities have not released the name of the person they believe Rhodes spoke to during the call.

That night, Rhodes and other Oath Keepers went to dinner in Virginia. In messages throughout the evening, they indicated their battle was far from over.

“Patriots walking into their own Capitol to send a message to the traitors is NOTHING compared to what’s to come,” Rhodes wrote.

Rhodes returned to Texas after the January 6 attack and remained free for a year before his arrest in January 2022.

In interviews before he was jailed, he tried to distance himself from the Oath Keepers entering the Capitol, saying it was a mistake. He also continued to push the lie the election was stolen and said the January 6 investigation was politically motivated.

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