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Sedition Trial of Oath Keepers to Get Underway

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When Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, and 4 other members of the far-right group go on trial on Tuesday for seditious conspiracy within the attack on the Capitol last yr, they may join an inventory of defendants who’ve faced sedition charges, one that features Islamic terrorists, Puerto Rican nationalists and radical left-wing unionists.

But Mr. Rhodes and his subordinates intend to supply a novel and dangerous defense in looking for to rebut the accusations that they plotted to make use of force against the federal government: They plan to inform the jury that when armed teams of Oath Keepers prepared to rush into Washington from Virginia on Jan. 6, 2021, they believed they’d be following legal orders from the president himself.

Lawyers for the five defendants are set to argue on the trial — which is able to begin on Tuesday with jury selection — that the Oath Keepers were waiting on Jan. 6 for President Donald J. Trump to invoke the Rebel Act, a Revolutionary-era law that grants the president wide powers to deploy the military to quell unrest in emergencies.

Because the trial in Federal District Court in Washington moves forward, lawyers within the case have said, Mr. Rhodes intends to take the stand himself and testify that though Mr. Trump never did invoke the act, the Oath Keepers believed that he was going to accomplish that. Their preparations for violence on Jan. 6, he’ll argue, needs to be regarded as a lawful try to help the president, not as an illegal attack against the USA.

The trial is anticipated to last 4 to 6 weeks, and it’s the primary of a handful through which far-right groups are facing accusations of anti-government activities. Enrique Tarrio, the previous chairman of the Proud Boys, and 4 other members of the nationalist group are scheduled to face trial in the approaching months on seditious conspiracy charges for their very own roles within the storming of the Capitol.

For Mr. Rhodes and the Oath Keepers, a legal strategy of allying themselves with Mr. Trump reflects their evolution from a bunch founded throughout the Obama administration to oppose what they saw as an overreaching government into one which mobilized to defend presidential power after Mr. Trump assumed the office.

“When the Oath Keepers were founded, the argument they made was relatively easy: The federal government was bad and so-called patriots needed to be able to resist it,” said Sam Jackson, an authority on right-wing extremist groups who teaches on the State University of Recent York at Albany. “But that narrative became more complicated when an ally was sitting within the White House.”

In court filings and pretrial hearings, prosecutors have rejected the concept that Mr. Rhodes and his underlings can defeat sedition charges just by claiming they believed the Rebel Act would have given them the standing as a militia to employ force of arms in support of Mr. Trump.

As a matter of law, prosecutors say, the act doesn’t allow a president to deputize private armed groups to revive law and order, which the Oath Keepers feared can be lost by the hands of leftist counterprotesters on Jan. 6. The prosecutors have also claimed that Mr. Rhodes invented the Rebel Act defense well before Jan. 6 to supply a legal fig leaf for his plan to station a heavily armed “quick response force” of Oath Keepers in hotel rooms across the Potomac River in Virginia.

Prosecutors point, as an example, to a video meeting on Nov. 9, 2020, when Mr. Rhodes told other members of the group that this armed contingent would “be awaiting the president’s orders.”

“That’s our official position,” he explained. “And the explanation why now we have to do it that way is because that offers you legal cover.”

The video meeting, recorded and given to the federal government by a disillusioned member of the group, is only one piece from a trove of evidence that prosecutors plan to introduce at trial to prove that Mr. Rhodes had began planning to oppose Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s ascension to the White House inside days of the election.

The federal government’s presentation will include live testimony from cooperating witnesses from contained in the Oath Keepers, recordings of digital walkie-talkies used on Jan. 6 and reams of encrypted Signal chats that Mr. Rhodes and others exchanged in the times leading as much as the attack.

Two days after the election, for instance, Mr. Rhodes sent a message to several of his members urging them to refuse the outcomes of the voting and warning, “We aren’t getting through this and not using a civil war.” Just a few days later, he sent one other message to the group, saying that the Oath Keepers needed to “march en-mass on the nation’s Capitol.”

Over the following several weeks, prosecutors say, Mr. Rhodes’s 4 co-defendants joined his plot to stop the lawful transfer of power. They included Kelly Meggs, the leader of the Oath Keepers’ Florida chapter; Kenneth Harrelson, one other Florida member; Jessica Watkins, an Ohio bar owner who ran her own militia within the state; and Thomas Caldwell, a former naval officer and F.B.I. worker from Virginia.

Lawyers for the Oath Keepers have repeatedly claimed that the group went to Washington in the times leading as much as Jan. 6 to not storm the Capitol, but to supply security at pro-Trump rallies for dignitaries like Roger J. Stone Jr., Mr. Trump’s longtime political adviser, and Ali Alexander, a distinguished Stop the Steal organizer who had a permit for an event on the Capitol on the day of the attack.

But prosecutors say that despite their work as bodyguards, members of the group broke into the Capitol throughout the assault in two separate military “stacks,” with some moving off in the hunt for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Others, serving with the “quick response force,” remained in Virginia, “watching and waiting on the surface,” as Mr. Rhodes had written in a Signal chat that morning, to cope with “worst case scenarios.”

Mr. Rhodes himself never went into the Capitol that day, but remained outside with the group’s top lawyer, Kellye SoRelle, who’s facing separate charges in reference to the riot. That evening, after the violence had finally been subdued, Mr. Rhodes continued to encourage his members to the struggle against the brand new administration.

“Patriots entering their very own Capitol to send a message to the traitors is NOTHING to what’s coming,” he wrote.

Prosecutors say that over the following two weeks, as Mr. Biden’s inauguration neared, Mr. Rhodes spent greater than $17,000 on weapons, ammunition and military gear. He remained in contact with several members of the group, including one who reached out to him 10 days after the attack to ask about “next steps.”

These efforts to thwart Mr. Biden and to bolster Mr. Trump were a far cry from the Oath Keepers’ initial mission.

Known for his black eye patch — the results of a gun accident — Mr. Rhodes founded the group in 2009, at the peak of the Tea Party movement, and specifically recruited former and current law enforcement officers and military veterans who swore an oath to disobey what they considered to be unconstitutional orders from the federal government.

Throughout President Barack Obama’s time in office, the group inserted itself into distinguished conflicts with federal officials. They turned up, as an example, in 2014 at a cattle ranch in Nevada after its owner, Cliven Bundy, and others engaged in an armed standoff with federal land management officials.

But after Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Rhodes and his members pivoted away from their anti-government views and appeared to embrace the brand new spirit of nationalism and suspicions of a deep-state conspiracy that had taken root in Mr. Trump’s administration. Additionally they appeared to adopt lots of Mr. Trump’s enemies — amongst them leftist groups equivalent to antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement — as their very own.

By the point Mr. Rhodes was arrested one yr after the Capitol attack, prosecutors had already charged greater than 20 members of the group, effectively dismantling each its leadership and its rank-and-file membership. Two other groups of Oath Keepers are set to be tried in Washington in reference to the Capitol assault — one in November and the opposite early next yr.

Still, Mr. Jackson, who has studied the group for years, said that regardless of what happens to the Oath Keepers as an entire, their far-right beliefs and authoritarian views are more likely to persist.

“Even when Rhodes is convicted and sent to prison for 20 years, I don’t think that changes the character of extremism in America,” Mr. Jackson said. “There’s a broader movement on this country that may proceed to advertise those ideas despite the lack of anybody organization.”

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