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Feds shine light on defense testimony from Oath Keepers leader

Stewart Rhodes underwent cross-examination about whether his conduct after Democrats won the 2020 presidential election amounted to a seditious conspiracy.

WASHINGTON (CN) — After a federal jury heard hours of explanation from Stewart Rhodes about the distrust of big government that led him to start a paramilitary group, prosecutors in his seditious conspiracy trial began the process Monday of showing holes in that testimony.

Rhodes first took the stand Friday, describing disillusionment with the Bush administration following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a “big impetus” for why he formed the Oath Keepers in 2009.

But U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy noted in cross-examination Monday that Bush had already left office when Rhodes formed the organization. The prosecutor also brought up the explanation Rhodes gave for celebrating the start of his new group with a launch party in Lexington, Massachusetts, on April 19, 2009.

Rhodes had he wanted to commemorate a moment during the Adams administration that he called “Patriot Day," in which militia members gathered to renew their oath to put constitutional rights over political party ideologies.

“But that wasn’t why you chose Lexington,” she said, noting that the location and date were meant instead to celebrate “the shot heard round the world" — considered the express catalyst for the American Revolution.

Rhodes went back and forth with the prosecutor, agreeing that both events were held that day but denying any connection until she brought up that he already acknowledged the tie to the “shot heard round the world” in a radio interview days before the event with the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

“Well, it’s both,” Rhodes finally conceded Monday.

Rakoczy then quizzed Rhodes about a “number of armed confrontations” involving the Oath Keepers in the 13 years since the group's founding.

She argued that Rhodes himself characterized the Oath Keepers as opposing government forces during a 2014 armed standoff in Nevada between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Cliven Bundy, a cattle rancher who refuses to pay grazing fees for his use of federal land.

Rhodes denied the lawyer's framing, telling the jury he sent members there to check that the government had a lawful search warrant to seize Bundy's cattle as well as to protect the Bundy family “from being Waco’d,” as he called it — a reference to the 51-day armed standoff between members of a religious cult and law enforcement in Waco, Texas, in 1993, that culminated in a fire and the deaths of at least 76 civilians.

When the prosecutor pointed out that, in the Bundy standoff, law enforcement did indeed have a lawful order to seize his cattle, Rhodes said that surprised him. He also said no one at the Oath Keepers knew Bundy and his family were plotting to seize their cattle back.

Rhodes confirmed when Rakoczy pressed him on whether he had supplied more than 100 AR-15 magazines for the mission in Nevada. He also acknowledged supplying night-vision goggles.

The interview again turned to Waco when the prosecutor quoted Rhodes as warning that “he and his people” would resist any attempt by the government to interfere with people's rights.

Only be “if they did it like in Waco,” Rhodes countered, stating incorrectly that children had burned to death in the 1993 massacre.

Rhodes agreed with the prosecutor when she noted that nobody in the Waco massacre had burned to death. Many of those who died, including children, succumbed to smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning. Several children were also among the members who were buried alive by rubble, suffocated or shot.

Rakoczy played an audio clip of Rhodes stating, after the Bundy standoff in Arizona, that the Oath Keepers would be prepared to meet government forces “rifle to rifle.” Rhodes said he did not recall the remark.

The prosecutor also brought up the presence of Oath Keepers in mining towns in the spring of 2015, insisting Rhodes “sent [his] men with rifles to those events.” Rhodes equivocated, saying she was correct, “in part.”

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Earlier in his testimony, Rhodes said he likes to recruit active-duty law enforcement officers into the Oath Keepers. Rakoczy suggested this is because the law allows such individuals to openly carry their firearms in most places.

“That puts your people — with firearms — on the front lines,” she said. Rhodes shot back that it puts his armed protection around people who otherwise would not have it.

He also insisted that Oath Keepers focus on deterrence when the prosecutor pressed on, insisting Rhodes wanted to have armed people there to “bait” others into fighting.

Rakoczy then said Rhodes “sent people with armed rifles down” to Louisville, Kentucky, in 2020, to assist a woman who tried to reopen her salon in violation of government-issued pandemic shutdown orders.

Rhodes reframed that event, saying the goal was to protect the woman’s salon from protesters, not to oppose the government’s order.

For every event he was asked about throughout nearly five hours of cross-examination, Rhodes offered another explanation that ran counter to the government’s theory.

He and four Oath Keepers associates standing trial alongside him are accused of orchestrating the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, as part of a larger plot to stop the transfer of power from then-President Donald Trump to Joe Biden. Prosecutors say they communicated about their plans via encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and traveled across the country to carry out the attack.  

Rhodes denied Rakoczy’s claim that the Oath Keepers came to Washington on Jan. 6 “prepared for battle.” He insisted they came to provide security detail for rallygoers and speakers, as they have done in years past, and to be on standby in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act to remain in power. The law authorizes a president to call on militias for the purpose of enforcing federal laws or suppressing a rebellion.

It was only after the Oath Keepers were contacted to provide security detail for people involved with the Latinas for Trump organization, Rhodes said, that plans for Jan. 6 started to form. This was about three weeks prior to date that Congress was set to certify the results of the election and begin the process of transferring the office of the presidency to Trump's Democratic opponent.

Rhodes acknowledged that he bought about $17,000 worth of equipment, including guns, ammunition and night-vision goggles, while driving to Washington during the week of Jan. 6. He insisted that the gear was intended for use only if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act.

Rhodes is not accused of physically breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6, but prosecutors say he was like a general on the battlefield outside the building, directing his troops. 

Rakoczy asked Rhodes about his message in an Oath Keepers chat on the app Signal, telling associates to come meet him on the northeast side of the Capitol grounds after he already knew the building had been breached. Rhodes noted that the message specified that it was meant only for associates who were not on a security-detail mission. He claimed it was because he did not want them to get wrapped up in the riot.

Rakoczy brought up another Signal message from the middle of the riot in which Rhodes said, “Patriots are taking it into their own hands.” On the stand, Rhodes insisted he was just speaking as a third-party observer. 

As the prosecutor underscored, however, none of the messages showed Rhodes telling anyone to stay away from the Capitol while the riot was underway. Indeed, Rhodes had been telling fellow Oath Keepers for months that, if Trump did not invoke the Insurrection Act to stop Biden from becoming president, then patriots would take matters into their own hands. 

Rhodes conceded that his co-defendants Kelly Meggs, 53; Kenneth Harrelson, 41; and Jessica Watkins, 40 — each one accused of storming the Capitol — heard him make that statement. But he noted that the full quotation shown to the jury makes clear he said that patriots would take matters into their own hands if Trump did not act while president.  

Rhodes tried to downplay the significance of the date of Jan. 6 while on the witness stand Monday, insisting that Trump could have invoked the Insurrection Act at any time and not necessarily on the day Congress was ceremonially certifying the election results.

Prosecutors have brought seditious conspiracy counts against all five defendants — Rhodes, Meggs, Harrelson, Watkins and Thomas Caldwell, 68. This requires prosecutors to prove to the jury that the defendants had an actual agreement to "overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force" the U.S. government.  None of Rhodes' co-defendants are expected to testify. 

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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