Here's what to know as the Oath Keepers trial opens
WASHINGTON - Stewart Rhodes is on trial in federal court in Washington along with four people described by prosecutors as "top lieutenants" in the militia-movement group he founded, the Oath Keepers. Rhodes is the highest-profile defendant charged so far in the investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and is accused of steering a months-long effort to prevent by force the swearing-in of President Biden. Rhodes is among 14 fighting the historically rare charge of seditious conspiracy in what the government has called one of the largest investigations in U.S. history.
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Who are the Oath Keepers?
The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 by Rhodes, who wanted armed paramilitary groups to prepare for an inevitable conflict with a tyrannical federal government. Rhodes, a former aide to libertarian congressman Ron Paul, recruited among law enforcement and military veterans and soon claimed thousands of members for the anti-government group. But few of those supporters have gotten involved in any Oath Keepers events, and former members describe it as a vanity project Rhodes used to fund personal luxuries.
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Which Oath Keepers are facing trial, when and why?
Rhodes is facing trial with Thomas Caldwell, Kenneth Harrelson, Kelly Meggs, and Jessica Watkins. All are accused of conspiring to engage in sedition, obstructing the congressional affirmation of President Biden's victory and impeding police on Jan. 6. Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins, who went into the Capitol, are also accused of property damage, and all but Watkins are charged with destroying evidence.
Caldwell and Rhodes stayed out of the building, according to court records. But prosecutors say they helped organize the Oath Keepers' involvement, including the stationing of armed "Quick Reaction Force" teams with firearms, ammunition and explosives outside Washington. Four more defendants charged in the same seditious conspiracy are set to go to trial in November. Nine more Oath Keepers members or associates face trial in February on related but separate charges.
Rhodes has accused prosecutors of trying to manufacture a nonexistent conspiracy, denied there was a plan to enter the Capitol, and asserted that defendants only brought firearms in case President Donald Trump mobilized private militias to maintain order in a national emergency.
Attorneys for the defendants say their aggressive talk was just bravado that did not reflect their nonviolent actions on Jan. 6. Unlike members of the Proud Boys, who face their own seditious conspiracy trial next year, the Oath Keepers are not charged with assaulting police, though the indictment describes them as joining mobs that fought with law enforcement.
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What do we expect or hope to learn from the trial?
- Did the accused Oath Keepers interact with people in Trump's immediate orbit or other influential supporters involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results?
- To what extent did defendants plan for violence on Jan. 6, and did they anticipate continued armed resistance afterward?
- What was the scope of the Oath Keepers' relationship with other extremist groups, such as the Proud Boys, whose longtime leader Rhodes met in a parking lot the night of Jan. 5?
- Is there any evidence to back up the Oath Keepers defendants' claims that they went as peacekeepers, helped police inside the Capitol, and were unfairly targeted because of their beliefs?
- What impact will revelations at trial have on the Oath Keepers' or other domestic extremist groups' recruitment and willingness to promote violence?
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What is seditious conspiracy?
Seditious conspiracy is defined as an effort by two or more to "conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof."
A seditious conspiracy conviction carries the same 20-year maximum sentence as obstruction of an official proceeding, a felony hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants face. But seditious conspiracy carries more political weight by implying participation in a rebellion against the government. Prosecutions under the law are rare; the last was more than a decade ago, against a Christian militant group, and ended with a judge throwing out the charges. But three members of the Oath Keepers have already pleaded guilty to participating in a seditious conspiracy around Jan. 6 and are cooperating with the government.
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What connection is there to former president Donald Trump?
The profile of the Oath Keepers rose with the 2016 election, as Trump embraced far-right figures and conspiracy theories about the federal government. Oath Keepers began standing armed outside voting booths providing security for certain Republicans. Members of the Oath Keepers worked as security for Trump allies, including his close confidant Roger Stone, who has publicly distanced himself from the violence and has said there is no evidence he had knowledge of the attack. Oath Keepers attorney Kellye SoRelle, who volunteered with a group of lawyers challenging the election results, says she was in contact with administration officials and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani.
After the 2020 election, Rhodes began calling on Trump to give militants legal cover to forcibly stop the transfer of power. After the riot, according to court documents, Rhodes tried to get in touch with Trump and asked an intermediary to again urge the president to deputize the Oath Keepers to use force. It is not clear who he called.
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What is the Insurrection Act and why does it matter?
The Insurrection Act is an 1807 law that allows the president to deploy federal troops, including deputized militias, to put down a domestic rebellion. The law has not been invoked in decades or been tested in the Supreme Court in nearly 200 years.
Rhodes and his followers traveled to Washington for Jan. 6 and stashed weapons just outside the city in hopes that Trump would use the law to empower the Oath Keepers to act as a shock troop thwarting anyone who tried to make Biden's election victory a reality, according to allegations outlined in court documents.
Trump first threatened to use the law against Americans during racial justice protests in the summer of 2020. The Oath Keepers were among those urging Trump to do so, tweeting, "We'll give Trump one last chance to declare this a Marxist insurrection & suppress it as his duty demands."
After the election, Rhodes again pushed Trump to use the Insurrection Act to stay in power by force. Court records show that in advance of Jan. 6, Rhodes privately told lead Oath Keepers to have weapons ready in case they were "called up by the President as a militia." Prosecutors point to the discussions as evidence that the Oath Keepers had a plan to use violence to thwart democracy. Rhodes says the group was preparing for what would have been a legal order from the president.