Washington — Leaders of the far-right militia group Oath Keepers worked to “shatter the foundations of American democracy” when they planned and executed a coordinated attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, the Justice Department alleged in federal court on Monday. the first day of his trial.
“They came together to do whatever was necessary, including the use of force,” prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler told a jury at the trial of five members or affiliates of the group charged with seditious conspiracy and other crimes stemming from their alleged involvement. on Capitol Hill. breach.
Leader of the Oathkeepersand co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell were part of the group whose goal was “to stop by any means necessary the lawful transfer of power, including the taking up of arms against the government of the United States,” he said. Nestler, during the opening argument of the government.
The defendants are accused of planning their attack on Capitol Hill from November 2020, then stockpiled weapons and advocated violence with other co-conspirators, both charged and uncharged, and coordinated their movements on the day of the attack.
Nestler led the jury through a summary of the government’s case, including the structure of the Oath Keeper operation with Rhodes at the helm. Meggs and Harrelson, the prosecutor explained, teamed up with the group’s Florida contingent while Watkins spearheaded operations in Ohio, and Caldwell, not a bona fide member of the group, allegedly launched his “Quick Reaction Forces.” (QRF), who stored weapons in a hotel in Virginia.
Caldwell is accused of planning to use a ship to transport those weapons to Washington, D.C. That call to action never came, according to the government, and during his own opening argument, Caldwell’s attorney, David Fischer, denounced the characterization as “nonsense.” .
“This is the biggest bait and switch in the history of the American justice system,” Fischer argued, “the QRF was not designed in the remotest way” to attack the Capitol, but to provide health and safety support if needed. necessary.
On Jan. 6 itself, prosecutors alleged, Rhodes and his co-conspirators traveled to Capitol Hill, ready to use “the training, knowledge, and experience” many of them gained during military service to plot to overthrow the government. Many members of the Oath Keepers organization are military veterans.
Nestler said the group’s calls for “civil war” and refusal to accept Biden as the “rightful winner” of the 2020 presidential election came to a head when the Capitol was under attack. He argued that evidence at trial will show that they were waiting for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, a Civil War-era law that would have called in an armed citizens’ militia to oppose the work of Congress.
“He needs to know that if he doesn’t act, we will,” Rhodes is accused of writing about the former president.
Rhodes’ attorney, Phillip Linder, said in his opening statement Monday that Rhodes and his associates were there to provide help and security to high-profile attendees of rallies in support of the former president, a Fischer defender and Watkins’s attorney. , Jonathan Crisp, both reiterated.
Text messages released earlier this year reveal that Oath Keepers members were discussing protecting people, including Trump ally Roger Stone and rally organizer Ali Alexander, in the weeks leading up to 6 from January.
Taken out of context, his communications before and during the attack sound “sinister as hell,” Crisp admitted, but the evidence at trial would not support the government’s claims, he said.
“Stewart Rhodes did not mean to harm the Capitol that day. Stewart Rhodes had no violent intentions that day,” Linder argued for his client, telling the jury that Rhodes will testify in his own defense during a trial expected to last more than a year. month.
But Nestler told the jury that investigators will show that Watkins, Harrelson and Meggs were part of an “invading army” that allegedly formed a military-style “pile” to enter the Capitol building and push toward members of Congress, including the Speaker of the House. Nancy Pelosi as Rhodes coordinated from the outside.
Prosecutors also showed jurors an image of a patch they say was on Meggs’ clothing during the attack. She would say, “I don’t believe in anything. I’m only here for the violence.”
Using snippets of video evidence, Nestler led the jury through what the government will argue as evidence that the group coordinated to overthrow the government by force and prevent the peaceful transfer of power, a “core democratic custom.”
Linder told the jury that the government used the videos and inflammatory language in “an attempt to alarm and anger them.”
“Although it may seem inflammatory, they did nothing illegal,” Linder said of the defendants.
After the attack on Capitol Hill, Nestler told the jury that Rhodes allegedly met with an unidentified person on January 10, 2021, in which he lamented that the group was not armed on January 6 and attempted to convey a message to Trump of that “it was still not too late”, to take action. According to the prosecutor, that conversation was secretly recorded.
But Linder claimed his client believed “in good faith” that Trump was willing to invoke the Insurrection Act and that any calls for improper violence were “free speech and bravado.” In all, defense attorneys argued throughout the day Monday that the Oath Keepers felt Trump had “failed” them because they were never called into action on Jan. 6.
Prosecutors said they will argue at trial that talking about the Insurrection Act was simply to provide legal cover for the Oathkeepers.
Attorneys for Kenneth Harrelson and Kelly Meggs, both of Florida, chose not to present opening arguments for their clients. Fischer, speaking for Caldwell, and Crisp, Watkins’ attorney, told jurors that at the time of his arrest, his clients spoke freely to investigators in interviews.
“These are not the actions of someone who was trying to bring down the government,” Crisp said, arguing that although Meggs entered the Capitol, she was innocent of the most serious charges.
Prosecutors called their first witness Monday, FBI Special Agent Michael Palian, to present evidence about alleged planning before the attack on Capitol Hill, the first aspect of the accused conspiracy.
Palian said he was one of 70 officers who responded to the call and went to Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 to help members of the Senate, who he said were “shocked” by the day’s chaos. Some, he said, were crying.
He also answered questions about the data mining of some of the defendants’ cell phones.
On Rhodes’s phone, Palian said she found encrypted messages dating to the period immediately following the 2020 presidential election. According to the messages, Rhodes wrote the day after the election that they were setting up a QRF in Washington, DC and planning to oppose Biden’s pick.
Later in November 2020, Rhodes texted a group that they were to “march en masse on the Nation’s Capitol” with references to the Serbian revolution.