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Feds lean on FBI records to undercut indicted militia commander’s testimony

Jessica Watkins had to contend on the stand with how her words match up against what she initially told the bureau about the Capitol riot.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A day after she framed her participation in the insurrection as being swept up with the crowd, prosecutors confronted Jessica Watkins on the stand Thursday with the more affirmative language she used about the storming of the Capitol in her initial FBI interviews.

Watkins conceded that she entered the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in a military-style stack formation but she testified Wednesday, her first day on the stand, that she never intended to enter the building.

“Isn’t it true,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexandra Hughes asked the 40-year-old Watkins on cross-examination, “that, when you joined that stack, you knew you were going into the Capitol?”

“Not correct,” Watkins said, emphasizing that the doors to the Capitol building looked open from her perspective, surrounded by a crowd that was singing and chanting.

The prosecutor then asked if Watkins told the FBI in March 2021, about two months after Jan. 6, that she knew exactly what was going to happen when she got into that stack — that they were going inside the Capitol building.

Watkins conceded that, yes, as soon as they “crested the stairs” she knew they were going inside the Capitol building.

Footage from the riot shows Watkins clad in the paraphernalia of the Oath Keepers, the far-right organization founded by Stewart Rhodes, who is among her four co-defendants in this trial. At the time of the riot, she held herself out on social media as the commanding officer of the Ohio Regular State Militia, a dues-paying subset of the Oath Keepers. On the witness stand, however, Watkins pressed for civilian lingo over the government’s use of the word military-style “stack” to describe their entry method.

“But, yes, we walked in a line inside,” she said.

Watkins ducked the question of whether she knew where she was going. “Yes, the doors were open,” Watkins replied.

Hughes also asked if Watkins knew she had the necessary amount of people to force entry into the Capitol building. Having charged Watkins and the others with seditious conspiracy, the prosecution needs to prove that they planned to oppose the U.S. government “by force.”

But Watkins dodged the question. “Did I say that?” Watkins asked. “Can I see the record, please?”

Even when the prosecutor brought up the FBI record of the interview, Watkins said she did not recall saying that. It “doesn’t sound like something I would say," she added.

Hughes pressed Watkins if it is her testimony that Jan. 6 had nothing to do with the violent rhetoric she exhibited in messages that she sent after the 2020 election.

Watkins replied evasively. “Half this country feels this way still," she said. “Half this country still feels disenfranchised by this election. That is not rhetoric — that is standard political talk in this current environment.”

Eight weeks into a trial that was supposed to last six, the decision by Watkins to testify had been an unexpected one.

The government’s case hinges on the theory that each of the co-defendants planned, recruited and stocked up on weapons after the 2020 election as part of a larger plot to unlawfully keep former President Donald Trump in office after the Democrat Joe Biden defeated him in the 2020 election.

Congress had been holding a ceremony to certify those election results when Trump's supporters breached the building, calling for the death of Mike Pence, who was presiding over the ceremony as the vice president.

Watkins testified that, at the time she entered the Capitol, around 2:44 p.m., she believed Congress had already certified the election results because people in the crowd were saying Pence had betrayed them.

On cross-examination, however, Hughes pointed out that this was not something Watkins mentioned in any of her five interviews with the FBI after the riot: that she believed the ceremony had already ended when she entered the building.

“I don’t know what I told them,” Watkins said.

The government was more successful in challenging Watkins' claim that Kenneth Harrelson, a co-defendant in the trial, could not have been a part of the stack that Watkins led because he was supposedly ahead of her at the top of the Capitol steps. Eventually, Watkins admitted that he indeed entered the building with her.

Watkins is charged with obstructing an official proceeding, but Hughes noted she never mentioned her theory that there was no proceeding to obstruct. “OK,” the defendant answered.

After Watkins exited the Capitol building, she made her way over to a large group of Oath Keepers led by Kelly Meggs, another of her co-defendants. She admitted that she heard Meggs say, “we took the castle,” and “now we are standing our ground.”

At the conclusion of cross-examination, Watkins' attorney Jonathan Crisp grilled one of the FBI agents who conducted the interviews of his client.

Crisp established through questioning that he was not Watkins’ attorney at the time the interviews were conducted, nor were the interviews recorded. The prosecutor, he told jurors, was citing 302 reports crafted by FBI agents based on interviews of his client, who has never seen those reports.

The defense attorney also pointed out that the FBI never asked whether Watkins believed an official proceeding was going on, despite the fact that Watkins was charged with it.

Following brief testimony from a private investigator, the defense team rested their respective cases. Previously in the trial, the jury heard testimony from two of the other defendants, Rhodes and Thomas Caldwell. Prosecutors will offer a rebuttal case before the trial turns to closing arguments.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, is presiding.

The Justice Department so far has charged more than 880 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Nov. 6, about 337 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, about 110 have pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 173 people have been sentenced to prison time.

A seditious conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

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