Washington – A one-time member of the far-right Oath Keepers told a jury that he was led to believe that the group’s leader, Stewart Rhodes, had the phone number belonging to a U.S. Secret Service agent and that Rhodes had been in contact with that individual in the months before the Jan. 6, 2021,.
John Zimmerman, a former member of the North Carolina chapter of the militia group and military veteran, testified that Rhodes told him of the alleged connection with the agent during a Sept 2020, phone call between Rhodes and the individual who Zimmerman thought was the Secret Service agent ahead of a Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Zimmerman, called as a government witness in the case, said that although he couldn’t hear the other end of the call, Rhodes led him to believe he had spoken with the agent about gun laws in the D.C. area ahead of the rally.
Rhodes and four codefendants – Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson, and Thomas Caldwell – are on trial for multiple charges stemming from their alleged planning for and participation in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, including the high crime of seditious conspiracy. Each has pleaded not guilty.
U.S. Secret Service officials told CBS News that is not uncommon for demonstrators or leaders of protest groups to contact members of the U.S. Secret Service for logistical reasons, noting that it is routine for demonstrators to reach out to the U.S. Secret Service ahead of their appearance at a presidential event.
The Secret Service is not aware of any allegations of criminal wrongdoing among their ranks connected to the Rhodes case, the officials said.
Prosecutors called Zimmerman – who said he was a member of the Oath Keepers group for about three months – to discuss the group’s planning and coordination ahead of events in September and November of 2020, specifically, a march in support of former President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., after the 2020 election.
Ahead of the Nov. 14, 2020 demonstration, the witness said he joined Rhodes and other Oath Keepers at Calwell’s Virginia home, where they planned their presence in the capital city. Zimmerman said they were headed to D.C. to provide protective services in the area and prepare for a potential call to action from Trump should the former president invoke the Insurrection Act.
According to Zimmerman, the Oath Keepers transported more than a dozen firearms, including long guns and handguns, to just outside Washington, D.C., in the expectation that Trump would invoke a decades-old law to take up arms against what Zimmerman characterized as a “rogue government” and overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
But Trump’s call never came, and Zimmerman told the jury that the group largely provided personal security detail to higher-profile participants in the protest and were prepared to give medical care if needed. He said they were particularly on high alert for any violence from their perceived political rivals, members of the Anifa or Black Lives Matter groups.
Zimmerman testified that Rhodes’ desire to entice those opponents into committing acts of violence caused a rift in the group that ultimately drove Zimmerman to leave the Oath Keepers. Zimmerman said he saw the North Carolina contingent as an extension of law enforcement and wanted no part in Rhodes’ plan to incite violence.
Still, the witness said, he and other Oath Keepers came prepared for violence and Trump’s call to action.
“We would need the weapons in the event that President Trump invoked the Insurrection Act,” he told prosecutors in court on Thursday, adding that his car had “plenty of room to carry weapons” from Caldwell’s Virginia property to just outside the Washington, D.C. limits, where gun laws are much stricter.
According to Zimmerman, concerns about gun laws were the impetus for Rhodes’ alleged call to the apparent Secret Service agent in September 2020, months before the rally in Washington, D.C. Zimmerman said the Oath Keepers group staged a “Quick Reactionary Force” (QRF) four to five miles away from where then-President Trump was set to speak in case violence broke out and they needed to respond. The goal of the call, Zimmerman said, was to establish “boundaries.”
Firearms and weapons are not permitted inside areas secured by the Secret Service, officials said, but areas outside of a secure zone, near presidential events, are under the jurisdiction of state and local authorities. The U.S. Secret Service doesn’t dictate what happens outside a secure zone.
Zimmerman did not come to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6 2021, but prosecutors allege the Oath Keepers who did – including the five defendants on trial – again staged an armed QRF, this time in a Virginia hotel. They are accused of amassing weapons and supplies and investigators say Caldwell even looked into using a boat on Jan. 6 to ferry the QRF into the city should Trump call upon them.
According to court documents filed earlier this year ahead of trial, another member of the North Carolina Oath Keepers, William Wilson, told prosecutors that on the evening of Jan. 6, Rhodes repeatedly implored an unnamed individual on the phone “to tell President Trump to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to forcibly oppose the transfer of power.”
During cross examination on Thursday, defense attorneys asked Zimmerman about his thoughts on the disorganization of the Oath Keepers and his decision to leave the group, trying to poke holes in the government’s contention that the group engaged in an organized conspiracy against the government on Jan. 6.
“I love Stewart Rhodes, I love Jessica. I love all of them,” Zimmerman said, “I don’t like what they did and I don’t like some of the events we’ve gone through.”
In the first days of the weeks-long trial, prosecutors have accused Rhodes and his associates of planning to bring arms to the D.C. area to use force to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
In a recorded portion of a Nov. 9, 2020 call played in court on Tuesday, Rhodes allegedly told attendees, “You gotta be willing to go to D.C. and street-fight Antifa…If the fight comes, let the fight come.” They were allegedly planning to Nov. 14 Trump rally, according to the FBI agent who took the stand.
Nicole Sganga contributed to this report.