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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    Oath Keepers founder guilty of Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy

    A federal jury on Tuesday convicted Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and a top deputy of seditious conspiracy for leading a monthslong plot to unleash political violence to prevent the inauguration of President Biden, culminating in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

    The panel of seven men and five women deliberated for three days before finding Rhodes and lead Florida Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs guilty of conspiring to oppose by force the lawful transition of presidential power. But three other associates were not convicted of the historically rare and politically freighted sedition count. All five were convicted of obstructing Congress as it met to confirm the results of the 2020 election. Both offenses are punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

    Rhodes, 56, in a dark suit and black eye-patch from an old gun accident watched impassively as verdicts were read.

    James Lee Bright, one of Rhodes's attorneys, said Rhodes intended to testify on behalf of other Jan. 6 defendants "if asked." Edward L. Tarpley Jr, another Rhodes lawyer, noted that the defendants were acquitted on 11 of the 28 counts: "This is not a total victory for the government in any way shape or form."

    Rhodes and his co-defendants were the first accused of seditious conspiracy and the first to face trial and be convicted on any conspiracy charge to date in the massive Jan. 6 investigation. He is the highest-profile figure to face trial in connection with rioting by angry Trump supporters who injured scores of officers, ransacked offices and forced lawmakers to evacuate the U.S. Capitol.

    Rhodes and followers, dressed in combat-style gear, converged on the Capitol after staging an "arsenal" of weapons at nearby hotels, ready to take up arms at Rhodes's direction in an attack on the 'bedrock of democracy,' the government charged. Rhodes's defense said he and co-defendants came to Washington as bodyguards and peacekeepers, bringing firearms only in case Trump met their demand to mobilize private militia to stop Biden from becoming president.

    Analysts called the outcome a vindication for the Justice Department.

    "The jury's verdict on seditious conspiracy confirms that Jan. 6, 2021, was not just 'legitimate political discourse' or a peaceful protest that got out of hand. This was a planned, organized, violent assault on the lawful authority of the U.S. government and the peaceful transfer of power," said Randall D. Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at George Washington University.

    "Now the only remaining question is how much higher did those plans go, and who else might be held criminally responsible," Eliason said.

    U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, who helped defend the Capitol on Jan. 6, said he ran over to the federal courthouse when he heard there was a verdict. He sat sweating in the front row as the verdict was read.

    "I was emotional," Dunn said afterward. "I didn't expect to cry."

    He thanked the jury and the Justice Department for their work on the case.

    "I don't look at it like a victory," Dunn said. "A victory is when you win. This was right. This was about doing the right thing."

    The verdict in Rhodes's case likely will be taken as a bellwether for two remaining Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy trials set for December against five other Oath Keepers and leaders of the Proud Boys, including the longtime chairman Henry 'Enrique' Tarrio. Both Rhodes and Tarrio are highly visible leaders of the alt-right or far-right anti-government movements, and were highlighted at hearings probing the attack earlier this year by the House Jan. 6 committee.

    The Justice Department arrested Rhodes in January and Tarrio in June after an internal debate over whether the magnitude and organization behind the Capitol attack merited bringing seldom used seditious conspiracy charges. Bringing the politically charged count posed a higher risk at trial because it required that prosecutors prove the defendants harbored an intent to forcibly oppose the federal government, compared to the charge of conspiring to obstruct a proceeding of Congress.

    The Justice Department has argued in related cases that a conviction on either charge should carry the same seven to nine-year sentence under advisory federal guidelines, a potential starting point for the judge in Rhodes's case. But the department calculated it was worth the risk to try to send a public message by charging the defendants with comitting one of the most serious political crimes in a wider attack on democracy.

    Rhodes, who was at the Capitol but did not enter on Jan. 6, and Tarrio, who allegedly directed his group from Baltimore, drew heightened scrutiny because of the prominence of their followers' actions at the Capitol and linkages to violence. Both also claimed ties to a long list of Trump advisers associated with the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election results - including Trump political confidant Roger Stone, "Stop the Steal" organizer Ali Alexander and former national security aide Michael Flynn - while attorney Sidney Powell's nonprofit raised legal defense funds for Rhodes co-defendants.

    Though prosecutors sought to prove only that Rhodes plotted with co-defendants to obstruct the presidential transition, both sides acknowledged that he was in contact with Stone, Alexander and Flynn during the post-election period. Oath Keepers provided them with bodyguards and communicated in a "Friends of Stone" encrypted chat group ahead of Jan. 6.

    After networks declared the election for Biden, on Nov. 7, 2020, Rhodes asked the Stone chat group, "What's the plan?" and shared a proposal for storming Congress. That day and over coming weeks, including in two open letters to Trump, Rhodes spurred followers with growing urgency to be ready for an "armed rebellion," organizing members who came to Washington with firearms prepared for violence, according to several who testified.

    Meggs, 53, an auto dealership manager from Dunnellon, Fla., echoed Rhodes in messages shown in court, writing to other Oath Keepers: "We are Militia! We don't have to play by their rules! We make the rules." He also said he had "orchestrated a plan" with the Proud Boys, having met members of the group during an earlier violent pro-Trump protest in D.C.

    Rhodes and co-defendants testified that those plans did not include entering the Capitol, describing it as a spur-of-the-moment decision made without consultation. Distancing himself from the actions of co-defendants, Rhodes called it "stupid" and "off-mission" for co-defendants to enter the building.

    But prosecutors said their words and actions demonstrated tacit agreement with an illegal plot proposed in public and private before Jan. 6 by Rhodes, who warned repeatedly that "bloody civil war" was necessary to keep Trump in office if the election results were not overturned.

    And prosecutors homed in on a call between Rhodes and Meggs just before Meggs entered the Capitol with two other defendants - Kenneth Harrelson, 42, a former Army sergeant from Titusville, Fla., and Jessica Watkins, 39, another Army veteran and bar owner from Woodstock, Ohio. Thomas Caldwell, 68, a retired Navy intelligence officer stayed outside the building but hosted other defendants at his farm in Berryville, Va. The contents of the call remain unknown; Rhodes maintains they were unable to hear each other.

    Only Meggs and Watkins were found guilty of conspiring to stop the congressional proceeding, but all five defendants were found guilty of obstructing Congress. Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins were acquitted of damaging the ceremonial doors through which they entered the building but convicted of impeding lawmakers by going inside. All were convicted of destroying evidence but Watkins, who was found guilty of a separate rioting count.

    Attorneys for Rhodes and the other defendants urged jurors to focus on testimony that there was no specific plan to break into the Capitol, and predicted that lawyers would be parsing the jury's reasoning for weeks. One noted Tuesday that while the seditious conspiracy conviction will end Rhodes's military veteran benefits, the acquittal of three other veterans on that count means they can keep them after their sentences.

    The verdict is the latest hinge-point in Trump's political fortunes. Rhodes's trial concluded as the former president announced his renewed candidacy for the White House in 2024 after midterm elections in which his party failed to match historical gains in Congress and voters resoundingly rejected his endorsed candidates. Closing arguments began the day Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel to take over the ongoing investigation into efforts to interfere with the lawful transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election.

    Two Florida Oath Keepers who pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct Congress testified that when they breached the Capitol, it was with the understanding that Rhodes had directed them to stop the election certification by any means necessary, including potentially committing treason and risking death.

    "That's why we brought our firearms," one said.

    Other witnesses recorded Rhodes statements and turned them over to the FBI, saying they quit the Oath Keepers because they wanted no part of his "unchained" plans.

    "It sounded like we were going to war against the United States government," said a former member who recorded a Nov. 9, 2020, online meeting in which Rhodes told 100 Oath Keepers leaders, "We're not getting out of this without a fight."

    On the stand, Rhodes said his goal was for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and stay in power with support of private militia. That call never came, and prosecutors argued it would not have been a legal order.

    "Venting is not a meeting of the minds. Expressing hatred and anger is not a meeting of the minds in this country," Rhodes attorney James Lee Bright said in closing arguments, describing what he called a lot of "horribly heated rhetoric and bombast" by defendants.

    "We've had 50 witnesses in this case. Not one person has testified that there was a plan," Bright said.

    In closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn L. Rakoczy showed jurors a Dec. 10 text message by Rhodes to Oath Keepers attorney Kellye SoRelle, Rhodes's girlfriend and his post-election liaison to groups working to flip the results, including Trump's campaign and the legal team of Rudy Giuliani. Rhodes told SoRelle that if Trump did not act, "we will have to rise up in insurrection (rebellion)."

    Four days after Jan. 6, Rhodes sought to pass a violent message to Trump - recorded by an intermediary and given to the FBI instead - that it was not too late to use paramilitary groups to stay in power by force. But he also said he wished he had gone further without waiting for the president.

    If Trump was "just gonna let himself be removed illegally, then we should have brought rifles," Rhodes said. "We could have fixed it right then and there. I'd hang f----ing Pelosi from the lamppost," he said, referring to House Speaker Nancy A. Pelosi (D-Calif.), in a recording played for jurors.

    The federal government last brought sedition charges against right-wing militants in 2010. A judge acquitted members of the self-described militia Hutaree in Michigan, saying U.S. authorities failed to prove the group had firm plans to launch attacks in an anti-government uprising.

    The government has secured felony convictions against all 14 Jan. 6 defendants who have gone to trial on felony counts, although juries hung on some charges in two cases.

    Overall, about 900 people face federal charges in the rioting, half with felonies such as assaulting police or obstructing a congressional proceeding. About 450, roughly half of the total charged, have pleaded guilty.