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Trial focuses on chatter among Oath Keepers before insurrection

An FBI agent testified about evidence said to show a plan to overthrow the U.S. government after Donald Trump lost reelection.

WASHINGTON (CN) — In the lead-up to a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a government witness testified Thursday, members of the Oath Keepers switched from communicating with their real names to monickers.

It was a "big shift," Special Agent Kelsey Harris insisted, responding to a demand from the defense on cross-examination for evidence that the indicted Oath Keepers were communicating on the secure-messaging platform Signal to evade law enforcement.

“But you have no basis” to infer illegal activity from the use of a messaging application that is legal, insisted William Shipley, who represents Roberto Minuta.

“I believe I do,” Harris replied.

As for the absence of messages between the indicted Oath Keepers that specifically discussed plans to attack the U.S. Capitol, Agent Harris spoke about communications that became more pointed in the days after the Nov. 3, 2020, election.

Most news outlets at the time were projecting Joe Biden had defeated Trump, when Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the right-wing group, began telling his associates about the 2000 overthrow of the former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

"We must now do what the people of Serbia did when Milosevic stole their election. Refuse to accept it and march en-mass on the nation's Capitol," Rhodes wrote.

Harris called what followed a “step-by-step” plan. When Rhodes revisited this history lesson three days later, this time on his group's website, he detailed how protesters swarmed the streets after Milosevic's disputed reelection and gathered at the Capitol. Having encouraged military to align with people in the streets, the revolutionaries stormed parliament.

The account appeared beneath an all-caps headline, “WHAT WE THE PEOPLE MUST DO."

While the defense suggested that the Oath Keepers would have been looking at the time to the most immediate pro-Trump event on the horizon, the Nov. 14 Million MAGA March, Agent Harris said Rhodes' words held a broader sweep, applying to anything following the election.

Rhodes and one of his four co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, were convicted last month of seditious conspiracy related to the Capitol riot. They face up to 60 years in prison. Three others who stood trial with Rhodes and Meggs were all found guilty on various charges as well but were acquitted of the top charge.

On trial this week with Minuta are Edward VallejoDavid Moerschel and Joseph Hackett. Along with two others who averted trial by pleading guilty, they were all indicted together this past January.

A U.S. Capitol Police officer testified earlier this week as the government's first witness. He said military-style vests and helmets helped Oath Keepers stand out from the crowd that laid siege to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

To date, the government has charged more than 880 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Nov. 6, about 337 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and about 110 have pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 173 people have been sentenced to prison time.

In less than a week, U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, will preside over a third seditious conspiracy trial at the Washington federal courthouse. Five members of the Proud Boys, another right-wing group, are set to go to trial on Dec. 19 for seditious conspiracy.

In the interim, the House committee investigating the Capitol insurrection is expected to release its final report with criminal referrals.

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