WASHINGTON (CN) — Five members of a far-right group charged with trying to overthrow the U.S. government after the 2020 election called their first defense witness Thursday, eliciting testimony about their reasons for joining a militia group.
Montana Siniff, who is engaged to marry defendant Jessica Watkins, described to jurors how the pair formed their own organization, the Ohio State Regular Militia, in 2019 before joining the Oath Keepers.
It was Watkins’ idea to form the so-called militia group, Siniff explained, partly because she loved the time she spent serving as an EMT and firefighter.
“[She] wanted to serve in a way that didn’t involve working for the U.S. government,” he said, telling the jury how “painful” it was for her to be discharged from the military in 2003 after having gone AWOL from being hazed “to the point of fearing for her life.” Siniff also noted that Watkins found someone in Alaska “supposedly that would help her transition,” an apparent reference to the fact that Watkins is transgender.
Laying out the original mission of the couple’s militia group, Siniff said they sought to “render aid where we could,” and to “respond mostly to natural disasters, was our original, hopeful thought.”
But in the summer of 2019, as national protests against police brutality spread throughout the country, he said the Ohio State Regular Militia’s mission became less about emergency response and more “security-focused.”
Siniff said they recruited two other members and attended at least five protests between June and October 2020. The defense launched its case Thursday after a full month of evidence from the prosecution. It played a video of a dumpster fire at the first protest Siniff and Watkins attended in Columbus, Ohio. From the stand, Siniff described how they provided aid as police performing crowd control on protesters, and they witnessed “unlawful action” that could have resulted in injury.
After hearing of the Oath Keepers’ involvement at protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Siniff said they contacted the group. He and Watkins became official members of the Oath Keepers, Siniff said, during their first in-person interaction with the group at a protest in Louisville, Kentucky.
Later, Siniff explained, he, Watkins other Oath Keepers attended the pro-Trump Million MAGA March on Nov. 11, 2021, “with the understanding that we would be providing security to speakers at the rally.”
It was a “disorganized” event, he said, where Oath Keepers followed the group's founder, defendant Stewart Rhodes, around and “sort of hung in the back with the crowd.” Anytime Rhodes saw a camera, Siniff said, he would go over to it and advocate for the right-wing militia group and “potential conspiracies for the control of the government.”
Siniff confirmed that the Oath Keepers were stashing weapons in Virginia during the November 2020 rally with a “Quick Reaction Force” vehicle. The witness said he considered it “a contingency last-minute resort” for law enforcement, to “help them regain order,” or if “something like the Insurrection Act” were invoked.
When thousands of supporters of the outgoing President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the Oath Keepers had another Quick Reaction Force, also armed with weapons, standing by at a hotel in Virginia. Congress at the time was conducting a ceremony to certify Trump's loss to his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. Prosecutors say the purpose of the Quick Reaction Force was to have weapons ferried across the Potomac at Rhodes’ direction to stop the lawful transfer of power.
But defense attorneys have asserted that overthrowing the government was not the plan. Rather it was to prepare for the possibility that Trump would invoked the Insurrection Act, thus authorizing him as president to call on militias to enforce federal laws or suppress a rebellion.
Siniff described a conspiracy Watkins had talked about: that the United Nations would somehow be involved in the transition of power if Biden became president, and Biden would erect some “unconstitutional executive orders,” such as vaccine mandates, that would “splinter” the government.
In preparation for potential violence after the election, Siniff said they attended a training camp in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6 at the Virginia farm of defendant Thomas Caldwell where they shot guns at targets.
The government contends that the point of this training was to stop Biden from becoming president.
But when asked if he and Watkins ever had a plan to go into the Capitol and stop Congress’ certification of the 2020 election, Siniff said no. He also denied ever talking with Watkins about going in and stopping the transition of power from Trump to Biden.
In fact, Siniff was not in Washington on Jan. 6, having opted to stay home. He described his surprise and concern upon learning Watkins breached the Capitol. He said she was not sure if she had broken any laws by doing so, meanwhile the news was making the riot out to be like the worst thing that “happened since 9/11.”
Watkins, Caldwell and Rhodes are standing trial alongside two fellow associates of the Oath Keepers, Kelly Meggs, 53, and Kenneth Harrelson, 41. They are accused of orchestrating the insurrection on Jan. 6 as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.”
Proceedings are expected to go another three weeks.
Prosecutors have brought counts for seditious conspiracy, saying the defendants communicated about their plans via encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and traveled across the country to carry out the attack.
A seditious conspiracy charge 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 prison time.
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