Relaxed and so easy with a response that he would often apologize for speaking over his attorney, Elmer Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the extremist Oath Keepers organization now on trial for seditious conspiracy, finally took the witness stand on Friday.
He and his fellow militia members Jessica Watkins, Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, and Kenneth Harrelson have been on trial at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., for a month and prosecutors didn’t rest their case until Thursday.
Rhodes, donning a dark suit and tie, took the stand under direct examination from his attorney Philip Linder and confidently turned to face jurors as he spoke.
He has watched for weeks as Justice Department prosecutors have rolled out text after text and video after video of himself and his co-defendants allegedly engaging in a conspiracy to stop the transfer of power.
The thrust of his personal defense began to emerge rapidly as Rhodes introduced his military history to jurors, his disabled veteran status, and above all his pathway to the fundamental political beliefs that he said drove him to form the Oath Keepers.
The undercurrent of his extremist views, including that the 2020 election was stolen, was never far from the surface on Friday and he proudly informed jurors that he was a libertarian at least twice before going on to criticize police and law enforcement who years ago asked Oath Keepers to leave from cities where they showed up armed to “protect” local businesses.
The defense relies heavily if not singularly on the theory that Rhodes and his co-defendants acted only as a security force on Jan. 6. They say they were there to protect Trump allies and rally VIPs, and ultimately make themselves available if then-President Donald Trump invoked the Insurrection Act.
Rhodes posted two open letters to Trump on the Oath Keepers’ website in December 2020, urging him to invoke the act in one turn, and in another, warning him whether he did or did not, “We the People” would be left with no choice but to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
“If you fail to do your duty, you will leave We the People no choice but to walk in the founders footsteps, by declaring the regime illegitimate, incapable of representing us, destructive of the just ends of government – to secure our liberty. And, like the founding generation, we will take to arms in defense of our God-given liberty,” Rhodes wrote.
Now able to finally jump off the page and the screens that jurors have looked at for 21 days, Rhodes bubbled over while explaining this on Friday.
”It was kind of like [Dr. Seuss’s] Horton Hears a Who, right? I’m trying to get not just the president but everyone to understand there’s a constitutional issue here,” he testified.
The 2020 election was “unconstitutional” he said—repeatedly—and argued that procedures put into place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic effectively delegitimized existing voting laws in various battleground states.
“I believe the election was unconstitutional and that made it invalid and that’s before you even get to fraud,” Rhodes said. “You really can’t have a winner if you have an unconstitutional election.”
Then, he sought to clarify for the jury, he viewed the election as unconstitutional even if Trump wasn’t the winner.
Rhodes’ grandiose views of himself and of the Oath Keepers made up the bulk of his testimony Friday morning.
He made a dig at a witness for the government, former Oath Keeper Abdullah Rasheed. It emerged during the trial that Rasheed, who provided the FBI with a recording of a Nov. 9, 2020, meeting where Rhodes rallied members to descend on Washington on Jan. 6, was convicted of assaulting a minor.
Rhodes glibly remarked from the stand Friday, “That’s how I knew he wasn’t a real member.”
Notably, neither Rhodes or his attorneys have explained in detail how the Oath Keepers’ vetting process actually functioned. And it was a point driven home by prosecutors early on in the trial: that membership entry was inconsistent. Often, fees did not have to be paid for a person to be ushered into the group anyway.
His testimony was also quick to paint the Oath Keepers as a cut above other groups like the pro-Trump far-right, self-described “western chauvinist” Proud Boys.
“Unlike the Proud Boys, we don’t go and street fight and yell back at people,” Rhodes said.
Though it may be the line he feeds the jury now, when Oath Keeper Graydon Young testified on Oct. 31, he said Rhodes’ co-defendant and Florida Oath Keeper division leader Kelly Meggs informed him the two groups had ties.
Extracted from defendant devices seized by the FBI, the Justice Department revealed a group chat housed on the encrypted texting app Signal that the Oath Keepers dubbed “Friends of Roger Stone” or F.O.S.
Participants, prosecutors showed, included Oath Keeper defendants as well as the leader of the Proud Boys, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, plus organizers of the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally.
Jurors also saw texts where Meggs expressed animosity for the Proud Boys, but seemed quite pleased with how useful they may ultimately prove on a shared battlefield.
“When the real shit starts, Proud Boys die first. It’s okay. Someone has to be first. It’s always the loudmouths with AirSoft shit on. I’d rather be the silent killer than the loudmouth dead,” Meggs wrote on Dec. 13, 2020.
In yet more smoothly delivered testimony, Rhodes told jurors he thought the rhetoric in 2020 was overheated.
It was a problem that had erupted on “both sides,” he said.
Not two days ago jurors heard Rhodes in a secretly recorded conversation tell a witness for the government, Jason Alpers, that he wanted to “hang [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi from a fucking lampost.”
“If he’s not going to do the right thing and he’s just gonna let himself be removed illegally then we should have brought rifles,” Rhodes said of Trump on Jan. 10.
Prosecutors say Rhodes spent upwards of $17,000 on various guns, weapons, and tactical gear between Jan. 6 and Jan. 20, 2021, the inauguration date for incoming President Joe Biden. Jurors saw those receipts and bank statements and other corresponding evidence that catalogued the shopping spree. This evidence and more, prosecutors suggest, was proof that Rhodes, left unsated by a failure to stop the certification on Jan. 6, was in the throes of planning some other seditious campaign.
The “quick reaction force” established at the hotel in northern Virginia on Jan. 6 had more weapons than Oath Keeper and veteran Terry Cummings had ever seen in one location since he was in the military, he testified on Oct. 12.
Rhodes downplayed the “quick reaction force” or “QRF” on Friday during a brief bit of questioning from Linder.
At other events, like at one in Kentucky following the police killing of Breonna Taylor, Oath Keepers coordinated “QRFs” so they could serve as rapid medic response teams, Rhodes said.
They established one for the first Million MAGA March in Washington on Nov. 14, 2020. They needed it then, Rhodes said, because Oath Keepers feared a repeat of what they said were attacks by “antifa” over the summer.
“Antifa said they were going to lay siege to the White House and drag President Trump out of the White House,” Rhodes testified.
This line was one similarly fed to the public in June 2020 by former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
“Antifa” did not lay siege to the White House nor attempt to. There were at least four protesters who were detained by the Secret Service after breaching temporary fencing erected around the Treasury Department near the White House grounds, however.
The former president was moved into a secure location at the White House with former first lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron Trump, as protesters gathered near the White House but the time in the bunker was short. Officials told multiple news outlets, including The New York Times, that Trump was “never really in danger.”
Rhodes also took pains on Friday to convince jurors that neither he nor the Oath Keepers are racist by nature or affiliated with white supremacy. It “disgusted” him to be called a racist, he said. He told jurors Friday that his mother was a half-Mexican migrant worker and that he also has Filipino family members..
Members of the organization hail from diverse backgrounds, he said, noting that one member who serves in an administrative role for the organization is Native American.
“If we found someone who was a racist, and we found a few, we would kick them out,” Rhodes said.
While defending the organization he founded in 2009—just after President Barack Obama was elected—Rhodes pointedly told jurors that he felt the officers who “stood around” while George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin failed to uphold their oaths as members of law enforcement.
“They should have stopped him. They should have pushed him off,” Rhodes said.
When the Oath Keepers cropped up in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after a white police officer failed to be indicted for shooting and killing young Black man Michael Brown, Rhodes said Friday that his organization “actually embarrassed the police department in some ways.”
St. Louis County Police said Oath Keepers stalked the roofs of local businesses in Ferguson while armed and were unwelcome in the city because they were unlicensed to provide security. At the time, the Oath Keepers played down suggestions that they were a militia of any kind. That tune has since changed.
The Oath Keepers, Rhodes said, were asked to leave Ferguson because they essentially humiliated police.
“We showed them how to treat protesters and how to protect businesses … We supported the protesters’ right to protest,” Rhodes said. “We told cops how to do it right and how to find the actual troublemakers.”
There were other moments where Rhodes seemed to play on the jurors’ possible sympathies.
To wit, his love of country struck him apparently so profoundly on the stand that his voice wavered momentarily as he spoke. He sounded as if he was choking through his words, though no tears were visible and his face remained mostly unstrained and dull in pallor.
Oath Keepers, who are largely veterans and current and former police officers, found mutual purpose when joined together under the group’s single banner, Rhodes explained.
“The suicide rate is so high,” Rhodes said of U.S. veterans as he became briefly choked up. “And they come home and feel like they have lost their purpose. [They think] the country doesn’t care about them anymore.”
Rhodes became emotional too when Linder prompted him to speak about Sept. 11. Rhodes said he knew classmates who had family members in the Twin Towers. But it was what came out of the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 that disturbed him even further, he said.
“The big impetus [to form the Oath Keepers] was from what I had learned in the Bush years about enemy combatant status,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court, he added, had “made a serious error” when it recognized enemy combatant designations for Americans.
Rhodes seemingly held onto that frustration for years before forming the Oath Keepers. It was 2004 when the high court held in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld that an American citizen could be declared an enemy combatant.
It’s worth noting that Rhodes formed the Oath Keepers right around the same time a huge number of hate groups began to emerge in the U.S. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in 2013 that with the nation’s election of the first Black president in 2008, the number of hate groups and groups that dubbed themselves part of a “patriot” movement hit near-historic highs.
Rhodes and Linder did not yet delve into the details of the Oath Keeper defendant’s conduct on Jan. 6. Rhodes will be back on the stand on Monday and Linder said he expects to get into it then.
Rhodes only started to explain how members of the group came to rely on Signal after they were pushed off of Facebook, Rhodes said. He did not explain why. The group was banned from that platform and from Twitter in September 2020 after spreading COVID-19 disinformation and QAnon conspiracy theories.
Court resumes on Monday at 9:30 AM and Rhodes is expected to testify for at least another two hours under direct examination. Cross-examination will follow and it is expected that it will be conducted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy.
If found guilty of seditious conspiracy, Rhodes faces a possible maximum sentence of 20 years on that charge alone. The 56-year-old is facing a slew of other charges including conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of an official proceeding and aiding and abetting, conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging any duties, and tampering with documents or proceedings.
Tasha Adams, Rhodes’ estranged wife, told Daily Kos Rhodes behaved just about as she expected him to on Friday.
“This is, so far, pretty close to what I expected. He is extraordinarily gifted at crafting a narrative, so I thought that he would sound somewhat like a left-leaning politician, speaking in vagaries about how he helped to calm the inflamed crowds,” Adams wrote in an email. “In fact, I’m almost positive before his testimony is over, he will use the Bible quote, ‘calm amidst the storm,’ to describe his role in Jan. 6.”
Rhodes is also “still very much in his own head,” Adams said, and thinks he is using “all the same techniques he uses on his usual crowds.”
”But this is a very different audience,” she added. “His tactics only really work on people who are searching for acceptance and are looking to him for a sense of belonging.”
Adams said she thinks her estranged husband is desperate to save himself but is walking a tightrope.
“He wants to stay out of prison, but he doesn’t want to say anything that might upset the extreme right,” she speculated.
She expects him to be “at his weakest” during cross-examination because he can’t “use force, threaten, humiliate, bully, use violence or shun” anyone.
If prosecutors corner him with a challenge to his narrative, she suspects he could lose his cool and she also predicts that he’ll “fake cry about having to live in basements and on people’s couches.”
Rhodes, she said, will only ever insist that he was “doing the right thing” and draw comparisons from himself to other renowned peacemakers like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.
Indeed, when the trial began, Rhodes called into the InfoWars podcast and slammed the Justice Department and FBI as being like the Nazi Gestapo.
He was being persecuted for his speech, Rhodes insisted.
”I think Americans need to lose their fear of being indicted or put in prison,” he said before comparing himself to Nelson Mandela. “Nelson Mandela was willing to go to jail for life—he did 20 years—you have to be willing to do that.”
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