scorecardOath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes plans to testify at his seditious conspiracy trial, his defense lawyer says
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Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes plans to testify at his seditious conspiracy trial, his defense lawyer says

C. Ryan Barber   

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes plans to testify at his seditious conspiracy trial, his defense lawyer says
PoliticsPolitics4 min read
  • Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes offered to testify live before the House January 6 panel.
  • His lawyer said that offer was rejected, but Rhodes will testify at trial about "who he is."

Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes plans to testify in his own defense as he stands trial in the highest-profile prosecution stemming from the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, his lawyer said Monday.

As opening statements began at trial, Rhodes' lawyer Phillip Linder told jurors that they would hear from the Oath Keepers founder "himself about who he is." Linder said Rhodes had offered earlier this year to testify live before the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, but he was denied.

"He's going to do that, ladies and gentlemen, in this trial," Linder said.

Linder's remarks followed a more than hour-long opening statement from prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler, who said Rhodes and other Oath Keepers "concocted a plan for armed rebellion" in the weeks leading up to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Nestler presented jurors with messages in which Rhodes rallied Oath Keepers members to keep former President Donald Trump in power and prevent the certification of now-President Joe Biden's electoral victory in 2020.

Rhodes wrote in one message that the Oath Keepers "must refuse to accept Biden as a legitimate winner."

In preparation for January 6, Nestler said, Rhodes and other Oath Keepers assembled "weapons of war" and brought them to a hotel room outside Washington, DC, where a so-called "quick reaction force" stood ready to ferry them to the nation's capital. Though the force was not ultimately activated, Nestler said it was central to plan to "shatter a bedrock of American democracy" and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.

"That was their goal, to stop by whatever means necessary the lawful transfer of presidential power, including by taking up arms against the United States government," Nestler said.

A former Army paratrooper and graduate of Yale Law School, Rhodes is standing trial alongside four other members or affiliates of the Oath Keepers — Kenneth Harrelson; Kelly Meggs; Jessica Watkins; and Thomas Caldwell — on seditious conspiracy and other charges related to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. For the Justice Department, the case comes with high stakes and the most serious charges in the wave of more than 870 prosecutions linked to the attack on the Capitol.

The trial is expected to last more than a month and feature evidence tying Trump associates to the far-right Oath Keepers group. In a court filing earlier this year, prosecutors said Rhodes tried to speak directly with Trump and implore him to call on groups to help stop the certification of Biden's victory.

Defense lawyers for Rhodes plan to argue that the Oath Keepers founder believed his actions leading up to January 6 were legal because he expected Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. Linder on Monday described Rhodes as "extremely patriotic" and said the Oath Keepers stashed weapons outside Washington, DC, not to be used as an "offensive force" but rather defensively in the event Trump called them into the nation's capital.

"Stewart Rhodes meant no harm to the Capitol that day," he said. "Stewart Rhodes did not have any violent intent that day."

But Nestler said Rhodes' references to the Insurrection Act merely attempted to find "legal cover" for the violence he planned for January 6. Nestler pointed to an audio recording from January 10, just days after the Capitol attack, in which Rhodes said, "My only regret is that they should have brought rifles… We could have fixed it right then and there."

In his opening argument, Nestler described the Oath Keepers as a group that "by design" included military veterans and former police officers. Nestler displayed video footage of Oath Keepers forming a military-style stack formation as they entered the Capitol, with the pro-Trump mob around them shouting words of encouragement.

Rhodes did not personally enter the Capitol but instead coordinated the Oath Keepers' actions from outside that day, "like a general looking over the battlefield, surveying and communicating while his troops stormed inside," Nestler said.

The opening arguments unfolded at the start of the second week of the Oath Keepers' trial, which began with jury selection the previous week. Through much of that week, prosecutors and defense lawyers worked to narrow down the pool of 120 jurors to 45, and then to the final panel of 12 — along with four alternates — that will hear evidence.

Jury selection featured a distinctly Washington, DC, group: An employee at the US Agency for International Development, a defense contractor whose wife works at the Justice Department, and a defense lobbyist.

Another potential juror said she was a social acquaintance of Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunne, who publicly testified in July before the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The jury pool also included an elementary school principal who has a close friend who was close with a police officer who died in the days after the January 6 attack.

On Monday, Mehta defended the impartiality of the selected jury, noting that none of its members said they felt so strongly about January 6 that they would be biased against the Oath Keepers charged. The jury members similarly said they had not heard of the individual defendants and were not biased against the Oath Keepers.

"By and large," Mehta said, the potential jurors came to the selection process with "no preconceived notions about the Oath Keepers or the defendants."

At the conclusion of his opening statement Monday, Nestler said the Oath Keepers emerged from the January 6 attack emboldened to carry on and prevent Biden's inauguration.

"They were elated. They were boastful. They were proud," Nestler said.

"These defendants were fighting a war," he added. "They planned to continue waging that war, to stop the transfer of power" before Inauguration Day.