WASHINGTON – Members of a federal jury will hear opening statements Monday in the most high-profile case brought against participants in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack so far – that of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four other members of the group.
“This trial is incredibly important,” said Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “This is about accountability, about making sure that the people who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection and were involved with the destruction of that day, in an effort to overturn the government, are held accountable.”
The prosecution will go first, laying out its case in about an hour and a half. Then, a defense attorney for each defendant will make their case, which is expected to take close to three hours.
Here’s what you need to know about the Oath Keepers trial.
Oath Keepers trial:A 1800s-inspired defense meets most significant Jan. 6 prosecution yet
Who are the Oath Keepers?
The Oath Keepers is a right-wing extremist militia group that seeks to defend its interpretation of the US Constitution against perceived enemies – if necessary, by force, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Founded in 2009 by former Army paratrooper Elmer Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers have since viewed themselves as a “protector” of civil liberties against a tyrannical government with which conflict is imminent, according to Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
“‘When all else fails, when the government lets you down, when there’s no one else there to protect you, the Oath Keepers are there’ – that was really their propaganda, their messaging in the early years of the organization,” Lewis said .
The group is unique among other militia movement organizations because it targets current and former military, law enforcement and emergency services personnel with its messaging and recruitment, putting a unique set of skills at its disposal, Friedfeld said.
People present during the early years of the organization previously told USA TODAY that, at first, there was nothing really “extreme” about the Oath Keepers.
The group has been involved in nonviolent – albeit, armed – confrontations with government authorities and left-wing protesters for more than a decade, including a 2014 standoff against the Federal Bureau of Land Management at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch and the aftermath of Black teen Michael Brown’s police killing in Ferguson, Missouri.
But over time, as Rhodes’ own views grew more conspiratorial, so too did the group’s.
“By 2020, what you saw was a group that had gone from being vehemently opposed to the government – government agencies, representatives of the government – to almost being in lockstep with the messaging and the propaganda that’s coming out of mainstream right-wing spaces, Lewis said.
Who is Stewart Rhodes, the group’s founder?
Rhodes is the eye-patch wearing, gruff-talking Yale law school graduate who founded the Oath Keepers.
He served briefly in the military as a paratrooper in the 1980s before badly injuring himself in an accident and leaving the service. He learned the ropes of politics during a brief stint working for libertarian congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, his ex-wife Tasha Adams previously told USA TODAY.
While in law school at Yale, Rhodes authored an award-winning paper on the political rights of “enemy combatants” in the George W. Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” In short, he argued that armed, informed civilians must always remain superior to the military and the federal government. The concept would later become a bedrock principle of the Oath Keepers.
“In many ways, the Oath Keepers is Stewart Rhodes,” Friedfeld said. “It’s his vision of him, it’s his execution of him, and he’s the one dictating everything and driving everything forward.”
What are the Oath Keepers’ ties to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack?
When on Jan. 6, 2021, the US Capitol came under siege by a pro-Trump mob seeking to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, the Oath Keepers were there.
Footage filmed by British documentarian Nick Quested showed Rhodes near the Capitol the night before the attack, meeting with Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio in a parking garage. On Jan. 6, members of the Oath Keepers were seen wearing military gear and traveling single-file through the crowd in a military stack formation.
Prosecutors allege that the Oath Keepers’ presence that day wasn’t spontaneous.
They say Rhodes and 10 other Oath Keepers planned and trained for a violent uprising at the nation’s Capitol, with the goal of preventing Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. The conspirators stockpiled weapons in hotel rooms a few miles from the Capitol, conducted training drills and talked of bloody revolution, prosecutors allege.
What will the prosecution argue?
the 11 Oath Keepers were charged in January with numerous crimes in connection with the Capitol attack, including the rare and flashy charge of seditious conspiracy.
Simply put, seditious conspiracy is conspiring against the US government through the use or threat of force in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power or the functioning of the government, Lewis said. It alone holds a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
“What you see laid out pretty clearly by the government is this months-long set of conspiracies and preparations by the Oath Keepers, by Rhodes, by key members of the group, who were pretty singularly focused on mobilizing with force to Jan. 6 in preparation for what they thought was going to be this first shot of a violent revolution,” Lewis said.
In the courtroom:What we learned from the first day of the Oath Keepers’ trial
Other charges in the indictment include conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding and obstructing one, conspiring to prevent an officer from discharging duties, destruction of government property, civil disorder and tampering with documents or proceedings.
To yield a guilty verdict, the government must prove those claims beyond a reasonable doubt.
Three Oath Keepers have so far pleaded guilty to the charges. Five of the group’s members who have retained not guilty pleas are on trial this month – Rhodes, Virginian Thomas Caldwell, Ohioan Jessica Watkins and Floridians Kelly Meggs and Kenneth Harrelson. The other three Oath Keepers will face trial in November.
Read the indictment against the Oath Keepers
What will the defense argue?
The Oath Keepers members’ attorneys plan to argue a novel legal defense crafted by Rhodes’ attorneys that relies on an arcane and controversial interpretation of the Insurrection Act, a statute from the 19th century.
The Act gives the president authority to call on military and National Guard forces to suppress an insurrection if a state requests it or if the insurrection makes it impossible to enforce federal law.
Trump never invoked the Insurrection Act, despitethreatening it. But the defense attorneys say Rhodes and the other Oath Keepers sincerely believed at any time on or before Jan. 6 that he would, calling upon people like them as an “unorganized militia” to intervene with electoral vote certification.
The defense argument boils down to this: If Trump had, indeed, invoked the Insurrection Act, all the actions taken by Rhodes in planning for the Jan. 6 insurrection would have been legally justified. And because Rhodes sincerely believed Trump was going to do so, he was engaged in activity that was legal, not illegal.
“It’s simple in many ways,” James Bright, one of Rhodes’ attorneys, told USA TODAY. “It’s just never been tried before.”
But legal experts told USA TODAY that they don’t see the argument standing up in court.
Elizabeth Goitein, senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program and an expert on the Insurrection Act, described the argument as an “absurd defense” and “completely devoid of any merit.”
Why does the Oath Keepers trial matter?
The trial already feels like a referendum on the Capitol attack.
Failure to convict members of the Oath Keepers could undermine the Justice Department’s narrative that the events of Jan. 6 endangered American democracy. It might also embolden the militia movement, Friedfeld said.
“If the Oath Keepers are acquitted of the charges, this could be a galvanizing moment for the militia movement,” he said. “It will be seen as a major win for them, that the government failed in this effort to hold them accountable, and it’s possible that this will become a rallying cry going forward.”
But if the jury hands down guilty verdicts to the Oath Keepers, the trial could serve as a warning to dissenters that those who perpetrate violent acts against the government will be held to account.
“A message is sent that you can’t just rise up against the government because you don’t like the results of a legitimate election,” Friedfeld said.
Contributing: Will Carless
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism