Defense rests in Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial; closings to come

Defense rests in Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial; closings to come

No further evidence or witness testimony will be presented in the Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial after Justice Department prosecutors and attorneys representing five defendants in the historic case rested on Thursday. 

The next step will be closing arguments on Friday. Then it will be left to the jury to decide whether Oath Keeper founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes and co-defendants Jessica Watkins, Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, and Kenneth Harrelson are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of plotting to stop the nation’s transfer of power on Jan. 6.

Deliberations are expected to begin next week. 

All of the defendants have pleaded not guilty to their respective charges. In addition to seditious conspiracy, Rhodes, Meggs, Harrelson, Watkins, and Caldwell are charged together with conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of an official proceeding, and conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging his duties. 

The evidence underpinning those charges billowed for weeks. The jury saw a vast array of text messages and other correspondence—including video footage and audio recordings— that offered a nose-to-the-glass look at a conspiracy that the Justice Department has alleged was nothing short of an “armed rebellion” against the United States government. 

Before the parties rested, defendant Jessica Watkins returned to the witness stand to be cross-examined.

Just 24 hours ago, she offered testimony that was blunt and sometimes repentant. Under the guiding hand of her attorney Jonathan Crisp, she appeared sympathetic and whether it was strategic or righteous, she nonetheless expressed a willingness to accept her civil disorder charge. In this group of defendants, she alone faces this charge. 

But while she tangled with prosecutor Alexandra Hughes under questioning, Watkins grew frustrated after Hughes showed a few minutes of footage to jurors of Watkins inside a Senate hallway in the Capitol screaming “push, push, push, get in there, they can’t hold us.”

The Woodstock Ohio resident and founder of the Ohio State Regular Militia described parts of her experience at the Capitol as “a cool American moment” and claimed that by the time she found herself “swept up” inside the building and in the Senate hallway, she hadn’t seen any violence unfold. 

Again, she said, things were “cool” in the moments before this. She only lost self control in the Senate hallway because she was angry, she said.

Watkins told jurors she was angry at the pain she was in from an injured arm and broken ribs and at being “compacted” into the hallway and peppersprayed. She was angry because she had only moments before found herself outside “standing up” for her country, she said, before being unwillingly jostled inside. 

With no sympathy from federal prosecutors who presented video footage they argue is completely to the contrary, Watkins began to raise her voice as she and Hughes rapidly talked over one another. 

“I accept responsibility for what happened in that hallway. I know it opens me up to criminal liability. I know I’m going to get charged for it. Why do you think I said it?” Watkins said, her voice wavering before she took a long sip of water.

She also doubled down on her belief that the 2020 election was stolen.

While this too was said a day earlier, on Thursday Watkins was more pointed and animated as she discussed her faith in former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. 

And all of the violent rhetoric shared among her and her co-defendants before, during and after the insurrection, Hughes probed, was that not connected to what happened when the Oath Keepers finally descended on the Capitol? 

Watkins claimed her statements were limited to frustrations with the election outcome alone. She has steadfastly denied conspiring to stop the transfer of power by force.

Yet seemingly unable to resist, Watkins defiantly told the jury: “Half this country feels this way still. Half this country feels disenfranchised by that election. All the Covid stuff, we didn’t have a free and fair election.” 

She also claimed that when she and fellow Oath Keepers including Kelly Meggs and Kenneth Harrelson marched in one of the group’s two stack formations that breached the building that day, she found “open doors” allowing her inside. 

“If i would have seen police officers being maced or beaten, that would have pissed me off,” she testified.

She also said when she arrived at the complex, she didn’t know anything about the violence on Capitol’s lower west terrace. Officers defending that section of the Capitol saw some of the most brutal and chaotic violence of the day. 

“I wasn’t absorbing the fact we were trespassing,I  wasn’t absorbing that we were trespassing in one the most secure buildings in the country,” she told her lawyer under redirect. “If I was charged with trespassing, I would have pled guilty to that in testimony as well.” 

She denied having any knowledge that a second stack of Oath Keepers was inside the building, too. 

Watkins’ testimony was frequently contradictory,

Bringing up audio from Zello, a walkie-talkie chat app used by Watkins on Jan. 6, jurors heard a voice identified only as “1%watchdog” tell her and others in the chat watching the mob lay siege that the “patriots are coming in.” 

It was just before 2:30 p.m. when “1%watchdog” railed that “patriots got in and were screaming and they recessed.” 

Hughes asked Watkins on Thursday who “they” were. 

“They,” she testified, was Congress. 

That was not what she said on Wednesday. Watkins said she thought the certification was successful when word got out among the mob that then-Vice President Mike Pence had “betrayed” them by refusing to intervene during the joint electoral certification ceremony. 

This contradiction in particular reaches all the way back to those statements she made to the FBI during interviews following her arrest.

After the defense rested its case and prosecutors launched into their rebuttal case, Hughes elicited testimony from FBI Special Agent Justin Eller. During his meetings with Watkins in February and March 2021—while she had an attorney present—she never told him, at any time, that she believed the certification had ended by the time she entered the Capitol. 

Hughes was dubious. She stands charged with obstruction of an official proceeding. And yet, if Watkins told the FBI she thought Pence had betrayed them because the certification was completed, wouldn’t that be something she would mention? 

“And in that interview, did she tell you: ‘I know exactly what was going to happen when I got into the stack. We had the necessary number of people to forcibly enter?” Hughes asked Agent Eller.

“Yes,” he testified. 

Watkins told jurors she was “angry” in the Senate hallway but she told Eller that while in that hallway she was “serious and somber.” 

Besides unraveling Watkins, the rebuttal case also gave prosecutors a chance to address claims by the defense and compare them to existing evidence. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler recalled FBI Agent Kelsey Harris to testify to rebut claims made by defendant Thomas Caldwell and others. Caldwell has sought to cast himself apart from the Oath Keepers entirely but his testimony was a parade of contradictions and emotionally-fraught. Jurors have seen extensive evidence underpinning allegations that Caldwell led coordination efforts to establish a heavily armed “quick reaction force” at a hotel in northern Virginia. That “QRF,” prosecutors say was intended to back up Oath Keepers on the ground in D.C. as they fought to stop the transfer. 

Other claims by Caldwell, including that he never had contact about the QRF with other Oath Keepers like Paul Stamey of North Carolina were poked through with holes when Nestler had Agent Harris review data from a tracking app Caldwell used known as Life360. 

Caldwell denied knowing about the app until the trial began. But when Agent Harris testified Thursday, he said Caldwell’s devices showed he did have the app, and further, that he had 36 contacts housed there—including Paul Stamey. 

The tracking app also shows location data. Harris testified that the app showed Stamey’s location on Jan. 5. He was at the QRF hotel with Caldwell.

Caldwell is accused of tampering too. Specifically, prosecutors say he unsent or deleted roughly 180 messages tied to his conduct on Jan. 6.

To that end, metadata extracted from Caldwell’s device shows that on the same day the 68-year-old Navy veteran accessed a New Yorker article about Watkins and fellow Oath Keeper Donovan Crowl’s conduct on Jan. 6 , he began deleting messages en masse. 

Nestler asks Harris about this article linked below. Donovan Crowl is pictured. Labeled in caption. Mentioned in article. Watkins too. Nestler elicits: C’well accessed this article on J14, shared with defendants. This was the same day he unsent FB msgs

— Brandi Buchman (@Brandi_Buchman) November 17, 2022

And while lead defendant Rhodes made much during his testimony about dropped calls on Jan. 6 and flatly denied talking to Kelly Meggs or his self-described “Jan. 6 ops leader” Michael Greene aka Whip in a three-way call, Agent Harris told jurors that the data told another tale. 

Each phone call has its respective notation that phone providers use to identify incoming  calls versus outgoing calls. Rhodes’ cell provider also uses a specific code to identify when three-way-conference calls are made. Rhodes’ phone log showed that code between Rhodes, Greene, and Meggs. 

Ed Tarpley, one of several defense attorneys hired by Rhodes, tried to shore this up for his client. In an attempt to cast doubt, Tarpley asked Harris if there was any record of what was discussed in that conference call and if there was evidence from that call that Rhodes was coordinating Meggs and Watkins as they breached the Capitol.

“I don’t know if there is or isn’t,” Harris said. 

The trial resumes Friday with closing statements from prosecutors. If trial tradition holds and Friday is a half day where jurors are excused at noon, the defense is expected to make its closing statements on Monday. 

If you want the blow-by-blow of Thursday’s proceedings, check out the Daily Kos live blog or the mega-thread on Twitter.

Good ☀️. Welcome to Day 28 of the Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial. Defendant Jessica Watkins is back on the witness stand this morning for cross examination. I will live tweet for @dailykos. Lots coming up today as the trial winds down. I hope you join me!

— Brandi Buchman (@Brandi_Buchman) November 17, 2022

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