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Indicted rioter denies that he led stand-by battalion of armed Oath Keepers

Thomas Caldwell is the second of five defendants in the seditious conspiracy trial to put himself on the witness stand.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A day after jurors heard his wife play down their participation in the U.S. Capitol riot as the enthusiastic protest of a couple of senior citizens, a Virginia man charged with seditious conspiracy testified Tuesday in his own defense. 

Thomas Caldwell, 68, is not accused of physically breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Rather, prosecutors say he was in charge of coordinating a team of armed members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia while a ceremony was underway in Congress to certify the results of the 2020 election.

Prosecutors say this “quick reaction force” was on stand-by at a hotel in Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the seat of the U.S. government, pending further instructions from the Oath Keepers' eyepatch-wearing founder, Stewart Rhodes, as part of a plot to stop the transfer of presidential power. 

To prove seditious conspiracy, however, prosecutors must demonstrate that Rhodes, Caldwell and the three others on trial with them had an actual agreement to "overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force" the U.S. government. Evidence from the defendants' encrypted chats, their purchase of weapons and their travel across the country ahead of Jan. 6 go to the heart of the case.

Caldwell meanwhile denies that he can even be considered a member of the Oath Keepers, insisting that he only learned about the organization on Nov. 8 when he met Rhodes at a Stop the Steal rally — one of several that broke out in protest of election results showing that President Donald Trump would not get a second term. According to Caldwell's testimony, Rhodes described the group he founded in 2009 as one made up of veterans and current and former law enforcement members who “provide security services to conservative speakers at various events around the country.” 

After hearing from Rhodes that the Oath Keepers needed accommodations before another rally, the Million MAGA March on Nov. 14, Caldwell said he offered up his farm in Berryville, Virginia.

The government has portrayed this campout as training in the plot to attack the U.S. Capitol. Caldwell portrayed it innocently on the stand, denying that anything nefarious occurred. Caldwell said the Oath Keepers were nice people in need of a place to stay. 

Throughout the trial, prosecutors have focused on messages Caldwell sent to Rhodes regarding a reconnaissance trip that he took to Washington prior to the Million MAGA March. Prosecutors say the photos Caldwell took of government buildings in Washington are proof that he was scoping out areas in furtherance of an attack operation targeting the Capitol to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power. 

But Caldwell, who worked briefly for the FBI and held top security clearance in the Navy for 20 years, downplayed the messages on the witness stand Tuesday. Noting that he had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for Jan. 9, 2021, in the Washington area, Caldwell he often uses the military term "recce" to describe checking out an area before an event.

Stewart Rhodes testifies on Nov. 7, 2022, before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington. Rhodes is charged with seditious conspiracy related to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. He is on trial with four others for what prosecutors have alleged was a plan to stage an armed rebellion to stop the transfer of presidential power. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)

Caldwell claims he generously passed along the findings of his medical recce to Rhodes because he knew several Oath Keepers were planning to attend the upcoming Million MAGA March, and he wanted to share his thoughts about the “weird vibe” in the district, which he said was very lively prior to the pandemic. 

In the nearly two years since the riot occurred, Trump supporters have often claimed in contravention of the evidence that the violence of Jan. 6 could be traced to opponents of the former president in the decentralized Antifascist movement.

Caldwell offered a variation of this theme in his testimony, saying the ops plan he sent to the leader of the North Carolina Oath Keepers was something he had been working on since 2016.

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“I didn’t like seeing people injured and riots and so forth,” he told the jury. “So, I began to research what was going on with Antifa. Were they real? Were they a localized or decentralized kind of insurgency?" 

Caldwell mentioned Antifa again as the reason why he wrote on Nov. 14 to a member of the Oath Keepers about plans for a “much bigger op.” While prosecutors say Caldwell was speaking in reference to the Million MAGA March, the defendant testified that he was instead speculating about the size of a potential Antifa operation. 

Defense attorneys insist that the four people indicted alongside Caldwell were in Washington on Jan. 6 solely to offer security detail, claiming that Antifa and members of the Black Lives Matter movement posed a substantial threat to speakers at pro-Trump rallies. 

As for Caldwell, he told jurors Tuesday that his only goal was to attend a pro-Trump rally with his wife, Sharon. Caldwell did not deny that he knew he was staying at the same hotel as the quick reaction force of the Oath Keepers. Repeatedly the defendant denied that he was in charge of that battalion. 

According to the government, Caldwell chose the Comfort Inn Ballston in Arlington, Virginia, to serve as the base of operations for the Oath Keepers’ quick reaction force on Jan. 6. But Caldwell testified that he picked the hotel because of its proximity to the Ellipse, where the pro-Trump Save America rally would be held. He said he also got extra points through a hotel rewards program for staying there. 

Offering an innocent explanation for why the Oath Keepers needed forces on stand-by, Caldwell said that he thought this team was meant “to extract people or rescue people.”

In the days leading up to Jan. 6, Caldwell attempted to procure a boat that could be used to ferry weapons across the Potomac. He framed these solicitations Tuesday as simple lip service to an Oath Keeper. He said he had no intention to follow through. 

Prosecutors introduced this image of Jessica Watkins wearing paramilitary equipment and other paraphernalia from the far-right Oath Keepers militia during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Justice Department via Courthouse News)

Along with Rhodes, one of the other defendants on trial with Caldwell is Jessica Watkins, 40, the commanding officer of a militia from Ohio that is considered a dues-paying subset of the Oath Keepers.

Caldwell says messages that he sent during the riot — what the government has called coordination of a plan to attack the Capitol — should instead be considered “play by play.” He said he never communicated with Rhodes on Jan. 6, and he only messaged Watkins because she had apparently promised to provide him and his wife with VIP passes for the Save America rally on the Ellipse.

Watkins followed in a car behind Caldwell and his wife, he said, as they drove into Washington on the morning of Jan. 6. When she never materialized with the VIP passes, Caldwell said he and his wife waited in their car for a bit to warm up, then rejoined the rally before heading to the Capitol. 

The reason he was messaging Watkins, he said, was so that, “if she maybe didn’t have anything else going on, maybe she’d like to come down” and meet them outside the Capitol. 

“I like her. She’s a nice person,” he said.

As for other messages he sent during the siege about “we the people” breaking into the Capitol, Caldwell termed them on Tuesday as “kind of a sardonic retort” to his friends back home in Clark County, Virginia. He admitted that he and his wife stood on the inaugural stage in front of the Capitol during the riot, but he said they never breached the Capitol building. 

“People who know me know I’m a goof,” he said. “And I’m not capable of doing these things.” 

Caldwell's wife offered similar explanations on the witness stand a day earlier, saying more than once that the evidence just showed "Tom being Tom." In one such instance, the husband was recorded stating on Jan. 6 that he knew where Vice President Mike Pence lived and that Pence had better do what his “punk ass” needs to do.

At another point in the riot, Caldwell was recorded stating that he wanted to wipe his ass on House Speaker Pelosi’s doorknob. Caldwell said Tuesday, “she was just a good person to poke fun at, at that time.” 

Like Caldwell, Rhodes, 57, also testified for his own defense. Rhodes, Watkins and Caldwell's remaining co-defendants are Kelly Meggs, 53, and Kenneth Harrelson, 41.  

They are among more than 880 people whom the Justice Department has charged so far in connection with the Capitol riot, which delayed the certification of the 2020 election results and led to the deaths of five people. 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. 

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, is presiding over the trial at the Washington federal courthouse. 

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

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