Prosecutors make closing arguments in historic Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial

Prosecutors make closing arguments in historic Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial

For more than a month, prosecutors have worked to convince jurors that when Oath Keepers, led by their founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes, descended on Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, they arrived heavily armed and with a plan to forcibly stop a tradition in the U.S. that has been unbroken for more than 200 years: the nation’s peaceful transfer of presidential power. 

The charge of sedition is not frequently prosecuted and when it is, it is rarely prosecuted successfully. And in this matter, one of the most significant hurdles the Justice Department must overcome to secure a conviction is the Oath Keepers’ claim that their efforts before, during, and after Jan. 6 were spontaneous. They argue because the federal government cannot point to an explicit agreement to attack the Capitol or to stop Congress from completing the certification of electoral votes during its joint session, then an acquittal is the correct legal remedy. 

But on Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy glided seamlessly for two hours as she urged the jury to understand: In order to find Stewart Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson, and Thomas Caldwell guilty of seditious conspiracy, an overt stated plan is unnecessary to show that there was “some type of agreement or mutual understanding or meeting of the minds to try to accomplish a common and unlawful objective.” 

“But you just don’t need their words,” Rakoczy said. “You also have evidence of their conduct.“The defendants discussed bringing weapons to D.C.; they talked about pepper balls and mace; tasers and stun guns, and whacking people with helmets [as a weapon]… They made plans to have their real firepower on the outskirts of the city,” she said. 

When the Oath Keepers communicated, the Justice Department contends, the thousands of texts housed in group chats organized by hierarchy and mission—i.e. “DC OP Jan 6 21” chat—weren’t just hangouts where old men blew off steam like they would at a barbershop or in a locker room.

“’We need to surround the Capitol… scare the hell out of them with a million [people] surrounding,” Rackozy said, reading from a message that defendant Kelly Meggs sent before Jan. 6. “That was the force and intimidation to stop the certification.” 

All of their alleged bombast transformed into actions on Jan. 6,  Rakoczy argued. 

“They think they are self-anointed to stand up for what they think is the real version of the law, what they think is the real version of the election. The way they have appointed themselves to be above the law is the reason they have found themselves here today, ‘We make the rules,’ as Kelly Meggs said,” she said. 

The Justice Department alleges that the members of the extremist right-wing group now on trial were outraged to the point of committing sedition. 

When Rhodes testified, he was insistent that the election was unconstitutional because of changes to voting protocols in various battleground states during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In two open letters published on the Oath Keepers’ website addressed to former President Donald Trump, Rhodes urged Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act so he, fellow Oath Keepers, and other “militia” and “patriot” groups could help Trump stop his political enemies from “unconstitutionally” ousting him from the White House.

The Oath Keepers founder was a fierce opponent to Joe Biden’s victory almost immediately in November 2020 and federal prosecutors said his ire  and frustration only ramped into December.

It “took time,” Rakoczy said, for the group to assemble their forces, ready an arsenal for their “quick reaction force,” and to conduct reconnaissance as well as military training.

Defense attorneys argue that a Nov. 9 GoTo Meeting hosted by Rhodes and alleged to be a rallying call to stop Biden’s incoming administration was in no way connected to Jan. 6.

They premise this by pointing to the date that Trump first announced the “wild rally” at the Ellipse: Dec. 19. 

But even in that Nov. 9 meeting, a witness for the government, Abdullah Rasheed, testified under oath that he feared the group was preparing to “go to war” against the United States and he became scared. 

The defense has countered Rasheed’s testimony by attacking his credibility, given Rasheed’s prior sexual assault conviction. 

But Rhodes said openly in his letters and later at a meeting with a man, Jason Alpers, who had an indirect connection to Trump, that if Trump would not act, then he and the Oath Keepers would have to. 

And this was not simply limited to November or December or in the immediate days before Jan. 6, Rakoczy said on Friday. Prosecutors have shown evidence of Rhodes sending messages on and after Jan. 7 with his eyes toward stopping the inauguration.

In the immediate days after the Capitol assault, he kept his phone off as he drove back to Texas with his girlfriend and quasi-attorney Kellye SoRelle. SoRelle is currently indicted on obstruction and awaits trial. 

Through her phone and other phones belonging to Oath Keepers like Landon Bentley, the Justice Department alleges Rhodes was able to deceptively relay next steps in the group’s mission.   

On Jan. 7, Rhodes (through Bentley’s phone) told Oath Keepers if Trump would be unwilling to fight, it would be “up to us.” 

Nest. notes Rhodes sent msg @ 5:54AM on 1/7 w/Bentley’s phone “and like stewart said if trump wont do the insurrection act then we walk the same path as founders… I’ve got militia to organize” Nestler: what’s a milita? Harris: supplements the military

— Brandi Buchman (@Brandi_Buchman) November 17, 2022

Jurors also saw bank statements and a large number of receipts showing Rhodes spent some $17,000 on firearms and other tactical equipment between Jan. 7 and Jan. 20, 2021.  

In a message sent to Rhodes on the night of the insurrection at the Capitol, Rakoczy argued that Meggs made his point clear. 

“We aren’t quitting. We’re reloading,” he wrote. 

Another Oath Keeper who will go on trial imminently, Arizona resident Ed Vallejo, retorted: “We’ll be back at 6 a.m. to do it again.” 

Meggs, Harrelson, Watkins, and Caldwell each played their respective roles in the conspiracy.

When Meggs, Watkins, and Harrelson entered the Rotunda, for example, they did not disperse willy-nilly as if they were only “swept up” inside, as Watkins claimed on direct examination.

Rakoczy showed jurors video footage from the Capitol Rotunda and later noted how once inside, the defendants “split in half precisely with one half led by Meggs going south toward the House and the other half going north led by defendant Watkins,” she said. 

Caldwell, who prosecutors say led coordination efforts to stage weapons at the “quick reaction force” in a northern Virginia hotel just outside of Washington, also contributed to actions that forced police to be completely overwhelmed by the mob. 

Caldwell, a 68-year-old former Navy Commander, never got inside the Capitol on Jan. 6. But he did stream past barriers and made it up to the scaffolding erected around the complex. When his wife Sharon Caldwell testified last week, she said the people scaling the scaffolding reminded her of children climbing on monkey bars.

Her husband described Jan. 6 as a romantic adventure for he and his wife.

Video footage of Caldwell showed him wild-eyed, screaming obscenities and raising his fist in support of those breaching the Capitol, Rakoczy said. And when he snapped a photo of his wife on Jan. 6, prosecutors have noted that the couple was able to see the chaos erupting inside of the lower west terrace tunnel of the Capitol. This was where some of the most raw and brutal violence occurred. 

Caldwell claimed he couldn’t see any violence on Jan. 6 and didn’t know Oath Keepers were inside until later. His testimony was riddled with contradictions and under cross-examination, he became frequently defiant.

“Jan. 6 happened and I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Caldwell testified. 

Rakoczy reminded them of that today. There were so many inconsistencies in Caldwell’s testimony , she said Friday, she didn’t know where to begin.

The prosecution also harkened back to trial testimony from Oath Keepers who have already pleaded guilty, like Graydon Young.

Young pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy and obstruction of Congress. He told jurors on Oct. 31 that after Oath Keepers stormed the building and they went outside to chat, they discussed the police inside. Young said that discussion included what kind of armor they wore.. 

Young said they discussed then that “if they had been more geared up and prepared” they would have been able to get through barriers more effectively.  

Young told jurors he felt he acted like a traitor against his own government. Becoming overwrought with emotion in the witness box, Young said if he were to be “forgiven,” he felt he would have to confess “completely and wholly.” 

“The evidence has shown they meant to use any means necessary, up to force, to stop the transfer of power. That is a conspiracy. A conspiracy is simply an agreement between 2 or more persons to join together to accomplish some unlawful purpose,,” Rakoczy said on Friday. 

Closing arguments for the defense also unfolded, but only for Rhodes and Meggs. Summations for Watkins, Harrelson, and Caldwell are expected to unfold on Monday. 

James Lee Bright, a defense attorney for Rhodes, worked to counter the government’s claims about the Oath Keepers. The group was not riddled with “xenophobes” like the media claims, he said. Bright pointed to members, like Michael Greene, who are Black as proof of this and then remarked that Watkins is “a transgender.” 

Bright says it was the media that falsely painted Oath Keepers as “xenophobes.” But, Bright says, Michael Greene was here. (he’s Black but Bright doesn’t say this explicitly) Then the attorney remarks: “And we have a transgender here,” referring to Oath Keeper Jessica Watkins

— Brandi Buchman (@Brandi_Buchman) November 18, 2022

Slamming the government’s as an overdramatized version of events, Bright said the Oath Keepers never explicitly planned to stop the certification. The group was protecting Trump VIPs like Roger Stone and came to D.C. multiple times, including on Jan. 6, to “protect” Trump’s supporters from “antifa” attacks. 

As for the QRF, Bright said there was only one reason to justify it and that was if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act.

“And when he didn’t, nothing happened,” Bright said.

Admitting he could not really argue against what his client said or wrote, he played it down to jurors on Friday. 

”There was a lot of political rhetoric, yes,” he said. “But it was not a meeting of the minds. Venting is not a meeting of the minds. Expressing hatred and anger is not a meeting of the minds in this country. Was it inappropriate? Yeah. A lot of it. Something we wished hadn’t been done? Absolutely. But all of them talking about the same topic is not a meeting of the minds.” 

Quoting Proverbs, Bright said “in a lawsuit, the first to speak seems right until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” 

But after weeks of testimony that came across as less than sympathetic, that sentiment cuts both ways. 

Nonetheless, he reiterated: “Did you find a plan to storm the Capitol? No. Did you find a plan to breach the Rotunda? No. Did you find a plan to stop the certification of the election? No.”

The prosecution has combatted this argument from the start and as she closed on Friday, Rakoczy stressed to jurors that there was a reason the government opted against charging the defendants with agreeing to enter the Capitol in advance. 

It was an opportunity that they saw and took and aligned with their larger antidemocratic goals. Attacking the Capitol, she said, was a “means to an end.”

“The moment rioters entered the building, the two Houses had broken to debate, to resolve objections. That is the lawful way. That’s what these defendants disrespected and disrupted in favor of force, violence, and an unyielding desire to have election outcome go their way,” she said. 

Rakoczy accused all of the defendants of lying at various points in their testimony. 

So desperate to conceal the truth about a three-way-conference call between Rhodes, Greene, and Meggs just before Meggs entered the Capitol, Rakoczy said, their testimonies regularly contradicted each other. 

You know the conference call was connected between Meggs, Michael Greene and Stewart Rhodes. Both Rhodes and Greene testified about that call. They claimed they didn’t talk to Meggs. But they do so in ways that contradicted each other.

— Brandi Buchman (@Brandi_Buchman) November 18, 2022

Meggs marched up those steps minutes after that phone call. Is it really possible that it was a coincidence that Rhodes, Greene, and Meggs have this call, that nothing is said, and then Meggs goes marching into the Capitol?

— Brandi Buchman (@Brandi_Buchman) November 18, 2022

Closing remarks for Kelly Meggs by his attorney Stanley Woodward closely aligned with Bright’s remarks for Rhodes. Meggs urged jurors to carefully review video footage from Jan. 6. Oath Keepers intended to “help” police officers on Jan. 6 and were there as “security.” 

“You may wonder, why go into the building if you’re not going to stop the certification?” Woods said. 

Oath Keepers heard shots had been fired and police and people were in distress. He asked jurors to weigh whether Kelly Meggs had gone inside to stop the certification or move people out of the Capitol so the certification could continue.

Meggs, text records showed, told fellow Oath Keepers while inside he looked for then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. And though he contends he and others were protecting law enforcement, like U.S. Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, it was Dunn who stood between Oath Keepers and Pelosi’s office. 

Woodward argues that the Oath Keepers time on Jan. 6 was accounted for because of the rally permit and claims that testimony at trial corroborated OKers security plans and again, when Meggs walked to Cap it was to do security. Recall, Meggs wore this patch highly visible on 1/6

— Brandi Buchman (@Brandi_Buchman) November 18, 2022

Woodward said because a sign denoting Pelosi’s office had been ripped off when Oath Keepers arrived, they couldn’t have known. 

Dunn flatly rejected the Oath Keepers claims when he testified at the trial. The “help” they allegedly offered was none at all, he said. 

For a total blow-by-blow, check out the Daily Kos live blog or the mega-thread on Twitter:

Good morning. Today, prosecutors make their closing arguments in the Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial. It has been a long road with extensive evidence and testimony presented from both sides. Enjoy this moment of zen (and the view coming into DC from Va) before we begin!

— Brandi Buchman (@Brandi_Buchman) November 18, 2022

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