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Indicted Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes takes the stand

The former Army paratrooper credited his frustration with the Bush administration's handling of 9/11 as a "big impetus" for why he founded the Oath Keepers militia in 2009.

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.

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Rhodes said he thought it was a “gross violation of [human] rights" that government officials were instructing people to go to the Louisiana Superdome and not allowing them to leave.

While “police all over the country” were obeying the government order to evacuate and shelter-in-place at the stadium, Rhodes said he learned about lawful and unlawful orders in the military, which led him to believe it was an “unlawful order that you should refuse.”

Rhodes told jurors he was concerned that members of law enforcement, military, firefighters and emergency response services who took an oath to serve the U.S. — like he did in the Army — needed to be made aware of “what the Constitution says — what the rights of people are.”

So he formed the Oath Keepers partly as a way to reach out and teach them that there are some situations in which they must resist unlawful orders, even from their superiors, telling the jury he wanted to make sure they “knew where their lines were.”

But the “biggest point” for the Oath Keepers, Rhodes testified, was that all members have an obligation to do volunteer firefighter or emergency response services. This, he said, was why the Oath Keepers would recruit retired members of law enforcement, military or emergency response services.

Rhodes denied that his organization is racist, telling the jury his family is largely Filipino, and he would “never tolerate it if we found someone that was a racist.” Conceding that the Oath Keepers has “found a few” racist members over the years, Rhodes said these individuals were kicked out.

The first big event of the newly minted Oath Keepers was in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man. Rhodes said his group of Oath Keepers helped protect a Black woman’s bakery after rioters broke the store windows and vowed to come back and burn down all buildings on the street.

To ward off any wrongdoers, Rhodes said, this woman and other nearby minority business owners gave the Oath Keepers permission to stand on the roofs of their buildings.

Rhodes agreed that the Oath Keepers support the “right to protest,” but he said police were deploying tear gas and using their rifle scopes to look at protesters when they should have been using binoculars. Instead of standing back or trying to shut down the whole protest, he said, police should have gone into the crowd to find “actual troublemakers” to arrest.

Local police were “kind of embarrassed,” he said, because the Oath Keepers were “showing them how to do it right” while “also respecting the rights of the protesters.”

Rhodes differentiated his group from another right-wing organization that also has several members charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the Capitol riot. Rhodes said it has been the “general MO” for the Oath Keepers at various events — whether they be natural disaster clean-ups, protests or rallies — to stay calm, “unlike the Proud Boys who want to go and street fight.”

The Oath Keepers founder said he would “never tolerate” a member becoming violent during a mission — a stance that is at odds with testimony delivered earlier in the trial by a government witness. Rhodes also said no Oath Keepers members had ever been charged with a crime while at an event, “until now.”

He also talked about the pro-Trump Million MAGA March that the Oath Keepers attended on Nov. 14, 2020 — just days after the election. Event speakers reached out for security detail to escort them during the event, he said, because, unless someone is willing to pay lots of money, “you’re kind of stuck.” They also planned to help elderly, civil veterans, women and family if they needed such assistance, he said.

Rhodes repeated a conspiracy theory about the loosely organized Antifascist movement, saying he witnessed “a pattern unfortunately across the country after Trump events” in which “Antifa would try to come out and attack."

“When they walk out of that Trump rally, they have nothing on ‘em, and Antifa knows that, and they’ll attack them with pepper spray,” he said.

Despite video evidence capturing the thousands of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, there was a push from the far-right to insist without evidence that "Antifa" stirred up the riot.

Rhodes is expected to resume testimony on Monday. None of his four co-defendants, Thomas Caldwell, 68; Kelly Meggs, 53; Kenneth Harrelson, 41; and Jessica Watkins, 40, are expected to testify.

Prosecutors have brought charges for seditious conspiracy, which 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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