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Social media takes center stage at Oath Keepers trial

Prosecutors showed jurors a 120-slide PowerPoint on Friday that included one defendant's communications in the days leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

WASHINGTON (CN) — One of the right-wing extremists charged with plotting the insurrection last year has hinged his defense on the idea that he was only in the nation's capital to attend a rally with his wife.

The jury saw evidence of a different story Friday, however, courtesy of Thomas Caldwell's online activity.

“Let them try to certify some crud on capitol hill with a million or more patriots in the streets,” Caldwell, an associate of the far-right Oath Keepers, wrote on New Year's Eve, responding to a post he saw on Facebook. “This kettle is set to boil.”

The post was part of a 120-slide PowerPoint in which the government documented how Caldwell's virtual rhetoric became increasingly violent in the between the Nov. 3, 2020, election and the Jan. 6, 2021, ceremony where Congress was set to certify that America's next president would be Joe Biden.

On Jan. 2, Caldwell messaged someone about having a "Quick Reaction Force" with heavy weapons standing by that could be ferried across the Potomac to "our waiting arms."

Caldwell, 68, of Berryville, Virginia, is among five other Oath Keepers affiliates charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the deadly riot. Prosecutors say he helped his co-defendants plan, recruit and stock up on weapons as part of a plan to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.”

The slideshow of Caldwell’s messages begins with posts from the immediate aftermath of the election. Caldwell wrote about plans to attend the Million MAGA March in Washington with his wife, Sharon, as a “show of support” for then-President Donald Trump.

“If we lose him from the White House,” Caldwell wrote on Nov. 7, 2021, “our country is dead.”

The rally, he insisted, may be the last hurrah or final push to let people know that “we are not going down easily.” Caldwell predicted that, if the “Democraps” will not follow the Constitution, then “the next step, I guess, is civil war.”

We are “truly fucked,” Caldwell told his associate on the day of the pro-Trump march, if they could not get Trump to another term.

If it comes to that point, he said, “it’s kill or be killed.”

“I kinda hope there is some shit tomorrow in some ways just so we can get ON with it!” Caldwell added.

After attending the Million MAGA March with his wife, Caldwell messaged two people on Nov. 16 that there were at least a million people at the rally, and “we could have burned Congress to the ground if we had wanted to.”

This kind of language grew more frenzied eager as Jan. 6 approached. On Dec. 4, Caldwell suggested to someone that, “maybe I should be planning a MUCH bigger op for like when we have to roll into town to actually save the Republic.”

About two weeks later, he responded to a Facebook message on Dec. 20 about fighting for Trump and said, “Yeah, but what are WE supposed to do? Tell me who to shoot first and I’m all in.”

The next day, Caldwell shared a post on Facebook. It was a letter from Stewart Rhodes, who founded the Oath Keepers, calling on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. Caldwell also sent a message to Doug Smith, leader of a North Carolina chapter of the Oath Keeper, about having booked a hotel in Arlington, Va., that gives them a spot to “stage materials in case things go south.”

Caldwell then messaged someone about the 3%ers militia on Dec. 29, asking if they are having any meetings to discuss Jan. 6 and stating that he would like to meet some of them.

U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler called FBI Special Agent Sylvia Hilgeman as a witness to testify about Caldwell’s posts and messages. Friday's proceedings wrapped early, with the prosecution closing on some questions about three calls that the Oath Keepers held on GoToMeeting, a remote-conferencing software, on Jan. 1-3.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, is presiding over the trial, which is expected to resume Monday and may last another three weeks.

Standing trial with Caldwell and Rhodes in the Washington federal courthouse are Kenneth Harrelson, 41; Kelly Meggs, 53 and Jessica Watkins, 40.

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 a period of incarceration.

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