WASHINGTON (CN) — Pushing back the schedule for closing arguments, another of the five defendants on trial for seditious conspiracy trial in connection with the riot at the U.S. Capitol took the witness stand Wednesday without warning to the court.
Jessica Watkins, 40, is accused of leading members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia in a military-style stack formation as they stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. Her testimony this afternoon makes her the third defendant in the case to get on the witness stand, following appearances there by Thomas Caldwell, 68, most recently and Stewart Rhodes, 57, before that.
Watkins' attorney Jonathan Crisp called her to the stand just before noon after the conclusion of testimony from Caldwell and an FBI agent.
The move was met with apparent frustration from U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who had already told jurors that they could expect defense counsel to rest their cases before lunch on Wednesday with the government’s closing arguments to follow in the afternoon.
Breaking for lunch earlier than usual after Watkins took the stand, Mehta dismissed the jury and reproached counsel for not alerting him of their plans to call Watkins.
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.
At the time of the riot, Watkins held herself out on social media as the commanding officer of the Ohio Regular State Militia, a dues-paying subset of the Oath Keepers. She told the jury Wednesday, however, that she would not have gotten involved if there was any plan to overthrow the government.
“Quite frankly,” she testified, “I would have contacted law enforcement.”
Watkins talked about why she got involved in the militia and even expressed remorse.
"I feel like I was gullible,” she said. “I got a steady diet of InfoWars and Alex Jones. That's how I found the Oath Keepers in the first place. I probably watched five or six hours a day."
In the lead-up to the election, Watkins was purportedly inundated by conspiracy predictions from the far right that said Biden's first move as president would be to bring in the United Nations to forcibly administer vaccines against Covid-19. It was the United Nations, not the U.S. government, she testified that concerned her most in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
Prosecutors have already walked the jury through the violent rhetoric that characterizes messages Watkins sent after the election. In one, she discussed a bloody civil war. But Watkins testified Wednesday that a civil war would have been the “worst possible solution for this country,” and that this wasn't something she sought.
Attempting to distance herself from Rhodes, Watkins told the jury that she had met him at a rally in November 2020 and never saw the two public letters he penned after the election in which he implored Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, a move that would enable the president to call on militias to enforce federal laws or suppress a rebellion.
As Watkins put it Wednesday, however, “nobody was really taking that seriously.” She said it was her belief at the time that that the more likely scenario was that the Chinese government would invade the U.S. by way of Canada.
Watkins admitted Wednesday that she knew the Oath Keepers had instructed a some of their members to spend Jan. 6 at a Virginia hotel across the river from the Capitol building with a cache of weapons. And though Watkins was staying at the same hotel, and though she traveled with weapons to Washington, she said she did not contribute those weapons to the force. Instead, she claimed Wednesday, she left the weapons with the family of fellow Oath Keeper about two hours away from the city where Congress would be holding a ceremony to certify Biden's win.