The leaders of a far-right group, charged with conspiring to keep a defeated Donald Trump in office with violent force, face jurors for the first time Monday in the most significant criminal trial to arise from the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four alleged co-conspirators are fighting a charge of seditious conspiracy, the gravest allegation leveled against any of the hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants charged in the nearly two years since the riot.
Prosecutors say dozens of Oath Keepers, led by Rhodes, stockpiled firearms at a Virginia hotel and prepared to lay siege to the Capitol to prevent the transfer of power to Joe Biden. They ultimately never deployed those weapons, but large factions of the group were among those who entered the Capitol - clad in military-style gear and using radio equipment - claiming to seek out lawmakers to prevent Congress and Vice President Mike Pence from certifying the election results that day.
The Oath Keepers plan to argue that everything they did was legal. Members of the group say they were primarily in Washington to serve as security details for pro-Trump VIPs like Roger Stone, who were speaking at rallies on Jan. 5 and 6 to protest Trump's defeat. Their decision to descend on the Capitol, amid a pro-Trump mob that had already breached the building, was not a carefully crafted plan, they say. The firearms they brought were lawfully possessed, and never brought into D.C., where strict gun laws would have prohibited them.
Notably, Rhodes and his allies say they had been girding for the possibility that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act as part of a bid to remain in power, a decision they contend could have permitted them to act as a government-sanctioned militia. This interpretation of the law, they say, further proves that their actions fell short of seditious conspiracy.
Trump will be at the center of the trial, which is expected to last six to eight weeks. Oath Keepers, including Rhodes - who didn't enter the Capitol but was seen outside rallying his allies amid the chaos - have indicated they took their cues from the former president. His Dec. 18, 2020 tweet urging supporters to come to Washington for a "wild" protest was shared among extremists, including some of the Oath Keeper leaders.
"Trump said It's gonna be wild!!!!!!! It's gonna be wild!!!!!!!," Kelly Meggs, a Florida leader of the Oath Keepers charged alongside Rhodes, posted on social media that day. "He wants us to make it WILD that's what he's saying. He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!! Gentlemen we are heading to DC."
Prosecutors - who have already secured seditious conspiracy guilty pleas from Oath Keepers Joshua James, Brian Ulrich and William Todd Wilson - indicated that Rhodes attempted to contact Trump via an as-yet-unidentified intermediary amid the chaos. There's no evidence he was successful in making contact with the White House.
The five defendants facing trial, who also include Oath Keepers Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson, have spent recent months raising procedural complaints, primarily contending that they couldn't get a fair trial in overwhelmingly liberal Washington, D.C.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta has repeatedly sidelined their efforts, urging them to await the selection of a jury. That process ultimately resulted in the selection of 12 jurors and four alternates last week. Mehta said Monday morning that the selection of the jury had successfully resulted in a panel that exhibited no signs of bias against the defendants, and indeed little awareness of the Oath Keepers or details of the Jan. 6 attack at all.
"My sense is this is a very diligent group of citizens who will abide by the court's instructions," Mehta said, rejecting a last-ditch effort to transfer the Oath Keepers' case to Virginia.
Prosecutors intend to lay out a case that the Oath Keepers exchanged messages and attended virtual meetings in advance of Jan. 6 indicating their intent to mount a violent effort to prevent Congress from certifying Biden's victory.
Several other members of the Oath Keepers are facing felony obstruction charges in a separate case, and an attorney who advised members of the group - Kellye SoRelle - was also recently charged for her role related to Jan. 6.