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FBI agent grilled over ‘armed rebellion’ testimony

Thousands of dollars were allegedly spent to arm a "quick reaction force" on Jan. 6, 2021, during the far-right effort to overthrow the U.S. government. Does it matter that they were never deployed?

WASHINGTON (CN) — An attorney for the leader of the Oath Keepers quibbled Monday with the allegation that any of the weapons bought by his client, Stewart Rhodes, were used to storm the halls of Congress last year.

The armed individuals were not among the mob that stormed the Capitol last year but rather part of an alleged "quick reaction force" holed up at the Comfort Inn Ballston in Arlington, Virginia, standing by for orders that never came. Prosecutors say they were waiting for Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, to give the word that they were needed to ferry weapons across the Potomac River into Washington for the insurrection.

The evidence displayed for jurors Monday included surveillance footage of accused Oath Keepers entering the hotel with large bags and boxes in the days leading up to Jan. 6, 2021. FBI Special Agent Sylvia Hilgeman meanwhile offered testimony about her review of certain text messages, financial records and cell site records from the weeks leading up to the riot as Rhodes met with various associates in parking lots for hand-to-hand transactions of guns and ammunition.

Rhodes, 57, and four members of his group are charged with orchestrating the insurrection as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.” While Rhodes did not physically enter the Capitol building, prosecutors say he spent months planning the assault, recruiting members and stocking up on weapons. Five people died in the attack, which delayed the ceremony that Congress had scheduled to certify the 2020 election results.

Rhodes’ defense attorney Philip Bright asked during cross-examination if Agent Hilgeman was aware of “extensive discussions” in which Rhodes instructed people multiple times not to bring weapons into Washington.

The agent did not deny the characterization but told jurors she believed Rhodes’ warning “was so that they wouldn’t lose access to those weapons.”

Bright then asked what the plan was for the quick reaction force if they were not brought into Washington on Jan. 6.

“They were prepared to fight the next day,” Agent Hilgeman insisted.

Quizzing the witness about what happened to the weapons from the quick reaction force at the hotel when they left, Bright repeated the government's claim from opening arguments that Rhodes led an armed rebellion on Jan. 6. Bright asked the agent to concede whether the so-called “armed rebellion was unarmed?”

“The armed rebellion was not over,” Hilgeman responded.

Bright continued to press the issue, insisting that the return of the weapons, unused, from Virginia to their original location, meant that Oath Keepers at the Capitol “went unarmed though.” Hilgeman stopped short of characterizing the rebellion as "unarmed" but conceded that the weapons were not used in Washington.

Jurors also heard brief testimony Monday from journalist Micah Loewinger about an article and a podcast related to audio of conversations between purported Oath Keepers that he recorded from the walkie-talkie app Zello.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, is presiding over the trial, which is expected to resume Tuesday at the Washington federal courthouse and may last another three weeks.

Standing trial with Rhodes on seditious conspiracy charges are Thomas Caldwell, 68; Kenneth Harrelson, 41; Kelly Meggs, 53; and Jessica Watkins, 40.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison. It requires prosecutors to prove to the jury that the accused Oath Keepers had an actual agreement to "overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force" the U.S. government.  

The Justice Department so far has charged more than 880 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Oct. 6, about 313 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, about 99 have pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 152 people have been sentenced to a period of incarceration.

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