Washington – In the months before the Jan. 6prosecutors say Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes’ rhetoric grew more desperate and more violent, calling on then-President Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to enable an armed resistance against a rogue government.
“It will be 1776 all over again,” Rhodes allegedly wrote in an Oath Keepers leadership message group. “Force on force is the way to go.”
Invoking the act would have meant that Trump could temporarily use the military for civilian law enforcement — which otherwise has been banned since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. In the eyes of the Oath Keepers, the rogue government to be stopped was the incoming Biden administration.
Rhodes, the founder of the far-right group, and four codefendants stand, a broad charge that in this case applies the use of force to resist the peaceful transfer of power from Trump to Joe Biden. The defendants are on trial in Washington, D.C., for other crimes related to the Jan. 6 Capitol breach, too. To secure a conviction on seditious conspiracy, prosecutors must be able to convince the jury that the defendants willfully conspired to forcibly halt the functioning of government, a task they say will take weeks.
FBI Special Agent Byron Cody, who started investigating the Oath Keepers soon after the attack, testified about Rhodes’ weeks-long plan for him and his followers, and ultimately Trump, to resist Mr. Biden’s lawful election. There has been no evidence at trial that this alleged plan made its way to the former president.
“I told you the Dems would steal it,” Rhodes allegedly wrote in another message, “Trump has one and only one option left,” alluding to the Insurrection Act.
Rhodes’ alleged scheme, which was never carried out, involved declaring President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris to be illegitimate and using community organizers and sheriff”s associations throughout the country to fight if needed, Cody alleged.
“Trump had one last chance to act. He must use the Insurrection act,” Rhodes is accused of writing on Dec. 14, 2020.
In an open letter to the former president penned on December 23, 2020 — the second of two letters — prosecutors say Rhodes urged Trump to follow the example of George Washington during the Revolutionary War and “attack.”
“Recognize you are already in a war,” the letter posted on the Oath Keepers’ website read, “You must act like a wartime president.”
Rhodes advised the president to purge the government of what he said were corrupt politicians and judges of all political stripes who meant Trump harm — an unfounded conspiracy theory commonly circulating in certain circles of extremist groups — and install a “true patriot” as acting attorney general.
The date of the, Rhodes told Trump in the letter, would be too late. Many of Rhodes’ alleged calls to action spanned numerous dates – as early as November 2020 in the days after the election – and the government contends Rhodes ultimately saw Jan. 6 as a “hard constitutional limit.” Much of the evidence presented at trial so far predates the day of the attack.
“If you fail to do your duty, you will leave We the People no choice but to walk in the Founders’ footsteps,” Rhodes allegedly wrote in that December open letter, “We will take to arms in defense of our God given liberty.”
“Keep your promise. Drain the Swamp. Do it now! We will help you every step of the way.”
Prosecutors also presented the jury with a Dec. 30, 2020 text from Rhodes to other members of the Oath Keepers in which he claimed to have been trying to advise Trump by establishing possible “back channels” to the then-president. There has been no evidence so far presented at trial that Rhodes succeeded in reaching him, but a one-time Oath Keepers leader from North Carolina admitted as part of a plea agreement earlier this year that he had heard Rhodes on the phone with someone on the evening of Jan. 6, imploring the individual to tell Trump to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to forcibly oppose the transfer of power. Rhodes’ defense disputes that claim.
Trump never invoked the Insurrection Act, but the five members of the Oath Keepers on trial, all of whom have pleaded not guilty, are also accused of amassing weapons outside of Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6 and coordinating their movements during the attack, some of them ultimately making their way inside the building.
Defense attorneys have told the jury at trial that the group was not as organized as prosecutors suggest, and that the defendants engaged in “bravado.” The amassing of weapons and supplies ahead of Jan. 6 in Virginia – where gun laws are less restrictive – was allegedly undertaken in case some sort of defensive action was needed. The defendants, they said, were mostly in D.C. to provide aid and security during the rally. Defense attorneys have also implied that the Insurrection Act would be a key part of their defense, arguing that preparation for a call to action that never comes does not amount to seditious conspiracy
The jury on Friday also heard from U.S. Capitol Police Special Agent Ryan McCanley, a veteran of the force, who testified that on December 12, 2020, he saw a group of Oath Keepers – including Rhodes – demonstrating in Washington, D.C. while on duty as a plainclothes officer. McCanley said he took a picture of Rhodes to share with his fellow officers and make them aware of the Oath Keepers founder’s presence.
During cross-examination, McCanley testified that Rhodes did not engage in any violent acts that day and, to his knowledge, was not accused of any violent acts of protest in the past. Rhodes and his codefendants are not accused of any violent crimes on Jan. 6.
Still, the government has alleged throughout the week that Rhodes and other Oath Keepers discussed the use of violence in the days after the election. The thrust of their evidence thus far has focused on text messages, social media videos, and a recorded meeting from November 2020, in which Rhodes called on his audience to be prepared to “fight” during a pro-Trump protest in D.C. later that month.
The man who recorded that meeting, Abdullah Rasheed, was called as a government witness on Thursday and said that although he once served as leader of the West Virginia Oath Keepers chapter, he grew concerned about Rhodes’ rhetoric.
“It was scary what was being brought to the table,” said Rasheed, who later under cross-examination testified that he was previously convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child.
Speaking under his breath and moving nervously in his chair, he said, “it sounded like we were going to war with the United States government.”