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Witness hints at connections between Oath Keepers and Secret Service before Capitol riot

A former member of the right-wing extremist organization says he had the impression that the president's security was just a phone call away.

WASHINGTON (CN) — In the months leading up to the riot at the U.S. Capitol last year, the founder of the far-right Oath Keepers may have been communicating with a Secret Service agent assigned to then-President Donald Trump, one former member of the group testified Thursday.

John Zimmerman told jurors he did not specifically recall any direction connections between Trump and Stewart Rhodes, who founded the Oath Keepers, but that Rhodes “did have the phone number of a Secret Service agent or someone who claimed to be.” 

“I don’t know who the person was,” Zimmerman said, but the way Rhodes was asking questions during a phone call made it sound like it could have been a Secret Service agent on the other end of the line.  

The revelation came in response to questions from U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy, who quizzed the former member about the group’s quick-reaction force stationed near a Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in September 2021 — less than four months before the insurrection. 

Rhodes, 57, and four members of his group are charged with orchestrating the insurrection as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.” 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.

Zimmerman said Thursday it was ahead of the September rally in North Carolina that he heard Rhodes on the phone with someone discussing the group’s plan. At one point, he said Rhodes asked the person what the parameters or boundaries are “with regards to firearms” for protecting people going back and forth to the rally. 

Although Zimmerman admitted he did not actually hear what the caller was saying to Rhodes, he insisted that Rhodes’ line of questioning made it sound like it could have been a Secret Service agent on the other end of the line. 

Zimmerman, the second witness to testify for the government since the trial started this week, also described a fallout among Rhodes and some members of the North Carolina Oath Keepers chapter after the pro-Trump Million MAGA March held in Washington in November. 

Prepared for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act during that rally, Zimmerman told jurors he waited on standby in his parked car at Arlington National Cemetery with other Oath Keepers as part of a quick reaction force. With several handguns and about 15 rifles, the group was ready to drive into Washington should Rhodes give the order. 

Trump did not in fact invoke the act, but Zimmerman said Rhodes wanted them to drive into the capital after the rally from Arlington. “Most of us were tired,” Zimmerman explained, that they did not go back. Zimmerman said he and others who left were “pretty upset” by the next day about how things had transpired. 

Rhodes reportedly gathered the group to have an “after-action review” of the rally about what went right, what went wrong and what could be done better. He said that Rhodes, for a lack of a better term, was “bad mouthing” someone he referred to as “Ranger Doug” for making the wrong decision by not making the members “stay out there.” 

Zimmerman said Rhodes thought the Oath Keepers members should have dressed up as elderly people “or be like a single parent pushing a baby carriage with weapons in the baby carriage” to try to incite an altercation with members of the Black Lives Matter movement or with the antifascist movement, Antifa. 

He recalled Rhodes suggesting that, “If we could just entice them, we could give them a beatdown.” 

“I told them no that’s not what we do — that’s entrapment,” Zimmerman told the jury, adding that he was starting to feel his blood pressure rise while discussing it on the witness stand. 

Zimmermann, who used to run an emergency preparedness store, said he bought in “hook, line and sinker” to what he thought was the Oath Keepers’ mission: to help provide emergency services in the event of a disaster as sort of an “extension” to law enforcement, firefighters and other emergency responders. 

“So when [Rhodes was] talking about, you should get dressed up and trick people into attacking you so you can give them a beatdown — no, that’s not what we do,” Zimmerman told the jury. 

After that day, Zimmerman said he and some other Oath Keepers members decided to part ways with the organization. He had been a member since August 2020. 

On cross-examination, defense attorneys tried to establish that the Oath Keepers have a history of providing security detail services at events. 

Asked if it was both “common and normal” for Oath Keepers to have personal security detail at events like the Million MAGA March in Washington, Zimmerman conceded that it is. 

The defense attorney went on to ask if Zimmerman thought a quick reaction force or personal security detail at such events “was absolutely needed,” given that he believed the general consensus among a lot of people at that time was that members of Antifa or the Black Lives Matter movement could attack “weak” people, like an elderly person or a single mom with a stroller. 

“Yeah, I would say they would,” Zimmerman said, “but I don’t know how 30 people are going to protect 30 million people [in D.C.].” 

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, is presiding over the trial, which is expected to last another five weeks. 

Rhodes’ alleged co-conspirators set to stand trial alongside him in the Washington federal courthouse are Thomas Caldwell, 68; Kelly Meggs, 53; Kenneth Harrelson, 41 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 an actual agreement — to "overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force" the U.S. government — existed among the accused Oath Keepers.  

The Justice Department has so far charged more than 870 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of last month, about 300 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, 80 have pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 132 people have been sentenced to a period of incarceration. 

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