“There was no plan,” said Stanley Woodward, the defense lawyer for Kelly Meggs, leader of the Florida Oath Keepers, who is charged alongside Rhodes and three other defendants.
“I won’t ask you to agree with Mr. Meggs’ political beliefs, his preference for the president of the United States,” Woodward continued. “I will ask you to read, to hear the evidence in this case … and to decide whether the evidence was a plan, a scheme, something nefarious or whether, as others have observed, they represent hyperbole, political rhetoric.”
The case against the Oath Keepers is one of the most significant to emerge from the investigation of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which has led to about 900 arrests and a sweeping nationwide investigation that the Justice Department has called the largest in American history. Although hundreds of those charged face felony charges for attempting to disrupt congressional proceedings, only the leaders of the Oath Keepers and the far-right Proud Boys face seditious conspiracy charges. Prosecutors say both groups orchestrated plots to stop the transfer of power by force.
Prosecutors spent all of October laying out a case that Rhodes and Meggs — along with Kenneth Harrelson of Florida, Jessica Watkins of Ohio and Thomas Caldwell of Virginia — amassed an arsenal of firearms in Arlington, Va., and prepared to violently prevent Biden from taking office.
The five co-defendants joined group chats and calls — some of which were recorded and provided to investigators — discussing their desire to keep Trump in power, their hope that Trump would designate the Oath Keepers as a federalized militia to help retain power, and their expectation of a bloody civil war if he didn’t. Prosecutors also centered their case on thousands of text messages, Signal chats and social media messages that showed the defendants expressing increasingly menacing views about their efforts to keep Trump in power, by force if necessary.
Nearly two dozen members of the group, including Watkins, Meggs and Harrelson, joined the mob that breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 — with Meggs later telling an associate he had searched for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And after that date, many of them deleted scores of messages that were only recovered by investigators after seizing the phones of other people targeted as co-conspirators.
But defense attorneys say those private messages amounted to “talk” among associates, not backed up by anything the group members actually did. They never brought their firearms into Washington, the attorneys have noted. Though some of them had hoped Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act — a 19th-Century statute they thought empowered Trump to declare the Oath Keepers a state-sanctioned militia to help him remain in power — no order ever came, they noted.
In the days leading up to Jan. 6, there were no messages “about armed insurrection, about attacking law enforcement officers, invading or occupying the Capitol, attacking congressional staff, preventing the peaceful transfer of power,” contended Brad Geyer, Harrelson’s attorney. There’s no evidence, he added, that Rhodes ever ordered any members of the group to go inside the building or seek to disrupt Congress that day.
As Jan. 6 approached, the Oath Keepers intensified their use of encrypted messaging apps to communicate about their plans, mixing conversations about the election results with logistical discussions about providing security at Trump’s rally. Rhodes, an associate of Trump allies Roger Stone and Alex Jones, had agreed to provide security for the two men and other speakers.
Defense attorneys say those personal security details were the only reason the Oath Keepers agreed to travel to Washington, with their presence at the Capitol an outgrowth of the march by the large crowd. The weapons they amassed at a Comfort Inn in Arlington were a common feature of many other security operations performed by Oath Keepers at large protests and events for years, they added.
The Oath Keepers “never caused a disturbance at any event in which they provided security services,” argued Harrelson’s attorney, Brad Geyer.
The first defense witness, Watkins’ fiancé, Montana Siniff, told jurors that Watkins never had any plan to attack the Capitol or try to prevent Biden from taking power. He said he viewed Watkins’ trip to Washington for the Jan. 6 rally as unconcerning, since he expected she would be performing a security role. Had he understood the trip to be about subverting the transfer of power, he said, he would have tried to prevent her from going.
Siniff added that he didn’t go because he didn’t have any interest in performing security and had to tend to his bar business in Ohio.