WASHINGTON (CN) — Stewart Rhodes took the witness stand on Friday to defend himself against charges that his conduct at the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, and the weeks leading up to it amounted to a seditious conspiracy.
The testimony offered some insight into what led Rhodes to form a far-right militia group in 2009, beginning with an account of his upbringing, his mother's background as a Mexican-American and the six years he served in the U.S. Army.
There is no allegation that Rhodes physically entered the Capitol building on Jan. 6 — part of a riot that left five dead and interrupted the ceremony certifying Joe Biden as the president-elect — but prosecutors say he and members of his Oath Keepers group spent months planning, recruiting and stocking up on weapons to unlawfully keep Donald Trump in power.
Rhodes was honorably discharged in 1986, then got his bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He said he spent the next couple of years parking cars and providing free firearms training to women and LGBTQ groups. In the 1990s, his estranged wife has told reporters, Rhodes blinded himself by dropping a loaded gun and shooting himself in the face. He now wears an eye patch, and dressed for court this morning in a dark suit and tie.
Representative Ron Paul of Texas took Rhodes on as a congressional staffer in 1998. Rhodes told the jury he “picked” Paul for his Libertarian leanings, which he saw as “definitely anti-war, anti-corruption and also not a big fan of the prison industrial complex.”
“You all have seen my ID already,” Rhodes told the jury, referring to earlier trial testimony from a government witness who said Rhodes had been wearing his long-expired congressional access badge in December 2020 during a rally at the March for Trump in Washington.
Rhodes went to Yale next for a law degree. He said he was on the school’s Indiana campus on 9/11 when terrorists attacked the U.S. “That was a rough event for all of us,” Rhodes said while describing how he and his classmates watched on television as the Twin Towers fell. As Rhodes teared up giving this account, his defense lawyer offered him a tissue.
Rhodes said his grief in the aftermath of 9/11 soon turned to anger. Americans were “wanting to strike at the bad guys,” he told jurors, adding that, if there was one good thing that came from the attacks, it was that “nobody cared what your party was.”
But what disturbed him, Rhodes said, was that then-President George Bush and his administration were doing things, “rapidly, that I knew were unconstitutional,” such as engaging in excessive use of force and torturing people “around the world.”
Rhodes said his frustration with the Bush administration became a “big impetus” for why he decided to form the Oath Keepers.
“What bothered me most,” he told jurors, was his belief that President Bush could declare anybody to be an enemy of the state through its use of enemy-combatant status to indefinitely detain prisoners. A paper that Rhodes wrote on the topic during his time at Yale, “Solving the Puzzle of Enemy Combatant Status,” would win an award.
Given his belief that enemy-combatant status was “very dangerous,” Rhodes said he became disillusioned when the Supreme Court upheld it as lawful in Hamdi vs. U.S. “The troubling thing,” Rhodes continued, was that all three branches of government “thought it was OK.”
Exacerbating his dismay, Rhodes said he witnessed the lack of law enforcement, including police using excessive force and “people being shot” for looting, in the aftermath of the 2005 natural disaster Hurricane Katrina.