Prosecution and Defense Sum Up in Oath Keepers Sedition Trial
Prosecutors at the sedition trial of five members of the Oath Keepers militia made their final remarks to the jury on Friday, saying that the far-right organization, under the direction of its leader, Stewart Rhodes, strove after the 2020 election to stop Joseph R. Biden Jr. from entering the White House in a sweeping plot that culminated in the violent assault on the Capitol.
Painting a different picture, a lawyer for Mr. Rhodes argued that there was no plan to attack the Capitol that day — or to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power. Instead, he told the jury, the Oath Keepers went to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to do what they had done throughout the tumultuous election year: protect supporters of President Donald J. Trump.
The rival summations, offered in Federal District Court in Washington, marked a closing stage in an expansive seven-week trial that centered on the most serious charges to go to trial so far in the Justice Department’s sprawling investigation of the Capitol attack and what led to it.
The verdict could be a first major test of the government’s assertion that the violence of Jan. 6 was the product of a planned conspiracy, and it could influence a similar trial set for mid-December in which five members of another far-right group, the Proud Boys, also stand accused of seditious conspiracy.
The Oath Keepers case is the first of nearly 20 trials stemming from the Capitol attack in which jurors have been asked to consider a conspiracy charge. The jury’s deliberations, which are set to start next week, will likely focus on the question that was debated in court on Friday: whether there was a premeditated plan to use force to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
Prosecutors spent a month laying out what they said was evidence of a conspiracy, introducing hundreds of encrypted text messages exchanged by members of the group and firsthand testimony from several former Oath Keepers. But in an unusual and risky move, Mr. Rhodes and two of his co-defendants — Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell — took the stand in their own defense and denied that the Oath Keepers had a plan on Jan. 6.
Over the course of nearly two hours on Friday, Kathryn Rakoczy, one of the lead prosecutors in the case, told jurors that within days of the election, Mr. Rhodes rejected the legitimacy of Mr. Biden’s victory and stoked his followers to prepare for a violent intervention to help Mr. Trump maintain his grip on power.
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
- Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
- A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
- Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
- Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but who never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.
Mr. Rhodes was chiefly obsessed with convincing Mr. Trump to invoke a law known as the Insurrection Act, which the Oath Keepers believed would have given him the power to summon militias like their own to support him against his enemies. But Ms. Rakoczy pointed to messages showing he also told followers that if Mr. Trump did not, they would act anyway.
Ultimately, Ms. Rakoczy told the jury, fearing the results of the election would be set in stone, Mr. Rhodes led his organization in an assault on “a critical tradition of our democracy”: the certification of Mr. Biden’s victory at a joint session of Congress.
“On Jan. 6 they struck,” Ms. Rakoczy said. “They saw the riot unfolding at the Capitol. They threw their bodies to the cause and they took it. Our democracy is fragile. It cannot exist without respect for the rule of law. And it will not survive if people who are dissatisfied with the results of an election can use force and violence to change the outcome.”
In his own closing arguments, James Lee Bright, a lawyer for Mr. Rhodes, sought to paint the Oath Keepers as a law-abiding good Samaritan group that went to Washington on Jan. 6 to protect prominent Trump allies like Roger J. Stone Jr. He also told the jury that the Oath Keepers — despite their reputation — were a diverse organization, noting that several members of the group were Black and that Ms. Watkins, one of the defendants, was a transgender woman.
Mr. Bright acknowledged that he could not dispute much of the government’s voluminous evidence, including statements by Mr. Rhodes and others about their outrage concerning the election. But he said that nowhere in the prosecutors’ presentation was any proof of a conspiracy — a “meeting of the minds” that they would break the law.
“Did you find a plan to storm the Capitol?” he asked the jury. “No. Did you find a plan to breach the Rotunda? No. Did you find a plan to stop the certification of the election? No.”
Prosecutors went into the trial after a 20-month investigation with tens of thousands of encrypted text messages showing that Mr. Rhodes and some of his subordinates believed that Mr. Biden was a “puppet” of the Chinese Communist Party bent on destroying the United States and that a violent civil war might be needed to keep him from taking office.
Federal agents also interviewed scores of Oath Keepers from around the country, some of whom admitted they were troubled by Mr. Rhodes’s incendiary language and by his fixation on the leftist movement known as antifa, which he feared was set on attacking Mr. Trump.
While much of this evidence was used during the trial to establish Mr. Rhodes’s mind-set, Mr. Bright stressed that prosecutors never produced a smoking gun that explicitly showed the Oath Keepers had a plan in place to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6 and stop the certification of the election. Indeed, some of the government’s own witnesses admitted under cross-examination that the breach of the building, while connected to the group’s wider complaints about the election, more or less unfolded on the spot.
During the same months that the Oath Keepers were increasingly discussing civil war, the group’s vice president, Greg McWhirter, was secretly serving as an F.B.I. informant. But the government never called Mr. McWhirter to testify about what he knew, nor did they call three Oath Keepers who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and cooperated in the government’s investigation.
In a tacit nod to these complications, Ms. Rakoczy told the jury that Mr. Rhodes and his co-defendants — Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Ms. Watkins and Mr. Caldwell — were not charged specifically with entering into an agreement ahead of Jan. 6 to storm the Capitol. They were charged with using the “opportunity to attack the Capitol” to further their broader goal of keeping Mr. Biden out of office, an objective they pursued until nearly Inauguration Day.
“The attack on Capitol was a means to an end,” Ms. Rakoczy said. “That end being to use any means necessary, including and up to the use of force, to stop the lawful transfer of power.”
To prove seditious conspiracy, prosecutors have to show that Mr. Rhodes and his co-defendants knowingly formed an agreement to use force to oppose the authority of the government or to subvert laws governing presidential transitions.
The five have also been charged with two other conspiracy counts. One accuses them of plotting to disrupt the election certification process on Jan. 6. The other charges them with plotting to prevent federal officers — in this case, members of Congress — from discharging their duties that day.
Ms. Rakoczy dwelled at length on Mr. Rhodes’s testimony when he attempted to blame some of his compatriots for being “off mission” as they went inside the Capitol. During his time on the stand, Mr. Rhodes also claimed that he had nothing to do with a heavily armed “quick reaction force” that was staged in a hotel in Arlington, Va., and was poised to bring a cache of firearms to the Oath Keepers on the ground in Washington.
Attacking Mr. Rhodes’s credibility, Ms. Rakoczy said the evidence flatly contradicted this account.
“Why lie,” she asked the jury, “unless the truth is just too damning?”
Ms. Rakoczy also accused Mr. Rhodes of lying when he testified that he called his fellow Oath Keepers to join him at the Capitol at the height of the attack to keep them out of trouble.
“He was calling people to the scene of the riot to keep them from the riot?” she asked sarcastically. “Does that make any sense?”
Both sides homed in on a crucial moment on the ground on Jan. 6: a 90-second phone call between Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Meggs and the Oath Keepers’ “ground commander” that day, Michael Greene, who is facing charges in a separate case.
Ms. Rakoczy told the jury that within minutes of the call, Mr. Meggs led a military-style “stack” of Oath Keepers up the east-side steps of the Capitol and into the building, where some went in search of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The defense maintains that despite the records that the call happened, the participants were unable to communicate. Mr. Bright also reminded the jurors of testimony that Mr. Rhodes had said that Oath Keepers who breached the Capitol were stupid.
“There were no orders to go in,” Mr. Bright said. “There was no plan to go in.”