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Militia commander indicted with Oath Keepers among final trial witnesses

The surprise testimony forced the judge to revise instructions for the jury on when to expect closing arguments.

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.

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Describing her decision to go to Washington as a fairly spontaneous one, she noted that she simply likes going to protests. The insurrection on Jan. 6 was her 13th protest, she said, and "it kind of got in my blood." 

Caldwell had noted in his own testimony Monday that Watkins was following in the car behind him and his wife on Jan. 6. Of her co-defendant, Watkins said Wednesday, he “knew the city real good.” 

It is the core defense of the indicted Oath Keepers that their mission for Jan. 6 was to provide security on Jan. 6 for people who would be speaking at a rally Trump was hosting at the Ellipse.

“I wouldn’t say [we were] official security for the VIP Ellipse,” Watkins explained. “We were official security for people leaving the Ellipse but, if a fight broke out or something on the Ellipse, we would have intervened.” 

After Trump spoke, Watkins said they began escorting some of the speakers from the rally and various podcasters to the Capitol. “It was like the Fourth of July," she added. "It was awesome.” 

By the time they arrived at the Capitol about 45 minutes later, Watkins said she thought Congress had already certified the election because she heard crowd members say Vice President Mike Pence had betrayed us.  

“We were counting on him to turn it back to the states for the audits,” she said of the election results. 

Footage of the ensuing riot shows Watkins clad in paramilitary gear amid a mob that breached Capitol security, but she told the jury that she ended up inside the building only because she got swept up by the crowd. 

“Well, I didn’t intend to go into the building,” she said. “I went there to support the VIPs, and I kind of just got swept up into the protest.” 

She said people were chanting, "the Oath Keepers are here," and that the crowd parted for them as she marched up with fellow Oath Keepers, including her co-defendants Kenneth Harrelson, whom she met that day, and Kelly Meggs, who she knew previously. “It was a cool moment," she said. "Everybody was excited to see us." 

Denying that she saw any violence, Watkins even went so far as to say that the widely documented instances of police being attacked might have been over by the time she got there. She also claimed that the doors to the Capitol building we open. “It was like Black Friday” when everybody wants to get in the door to get a flat-screen TV, she said.  

Watkins said that the point of the stack formation was just to stay together, not as a tactical military posture.

As she walked around the building, Watkins said she take photos because she believed it was “some heroic American moment … we, the people, going into our House.” 

Watkins denied that she sought out senators, claiming that she only went further into the Capitol and down a hallway because the crowd started pushing and she was in the middle “like a trash compactor.” She conceded that at one point she encouraged the crowd to “push, push, push” past a line of police officers guarding a hallway, and she admitted she interfered with police doing their duty.  

Turning down the offer from the lawyer questioning her to apologize for her actions on Jan. 6, Watkins said she would rather say sorry to Christopher Owens, whom she described as the cop who testified that he was trying to protect the Capitol “from my ass.” 

Prosecutors are expected to begin cross-examination of Watkins on Thursday. The trial was initially expected to last six weeks but it has already been going on for eight. Watkins' testimony will undoubtedly prolong the trial further, likely unraveling Judge Mehta's stated desire to have verdict forms in jurors’ hands before Thanksgiving next week.

The judge has already put proceedings on hold twice for illness and dismissed two jurors, with plans to dismiss a third before they are given the case to deliberate. Doing so would leave the 12-person jury with just one alternate.

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