The trial of five members of the Oath Keepers militia group who participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot began Monday in the D.C. district courthouse. Stewart Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell, and Kenneth Harrelson are standing trial just across the street from the white marbled complex where a little less than two years ago a crowd of Trump supporters beat police and stormed the halls of Congress in an attempt to prevent the certification of the 2020 election.
Following opening arguments, the prosecution presented footage of Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes shortly after Jan. 6, asserting that his “only regret is that they should have brought rifles,” and that having been armed inside the Capitol would have “fixed it right then and there.”
Rhodes and his counterparts were indicted on charges of seditious conspiracy. According to the Department of Justice, “Rhodes conspired with his co-defendants and others to oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power by Jan. 20, 2021.” The DOJ’s argument against the conspirators centers around claims that under Rhodes’ direction members of the Oath Keepers and their allies conspired to carry out what amounted to a paramilitary offensive against the U.S. government on Jan. 6. If convicted, the charge of seditious conspiracy carries a maximum 20-year sentence.
“These conspirators’ narrative is that they were patriots. They were not,” the DOJ argued in its opening statement. Like many of the Jan. 6 cases that have gone to trial, the prosecution took advantage of the defendants’ willingness to document their activity and leave an electronic footprint. The DOJ quoted extensively from communications between the Oath Keepers, including instructions from Rhodes on Jan. 8 to purge any references to Jan. 6 from their social media and “shut the fuck up” about what had happened.
The Oath Keepers’ legal team countered by asserting the DOJ is misrepresenting the mountain of contemporaneous evidence it presented. Throughout opening arguments, presiding Judge Amit P. Mehta reprimanded the defense multiple times for attempting to reference media coverage of the case to the jury.
The DOJ’s opening witness, FBI Agent Michael Palian, described seeing members of the Senate crying during the evacuation of the Capitol. In a recording previously obtained by the Jan. 6 committee, members of the Oath Keepers communicating via walkie-talkies state that any legislator found in the building should expect “no safe place.”
The militia members’ defense appears to largely center around the argument that they went to the Capitol “to do security on the 5th and 6th,” and “are not a violent group.” The assertion is unlikely to hold much water against evidence of weapons caches, planned “Quick Reaction Forces,” video, and a seemingly endless parade of recorded statements indicating the defendants desire to commit violence on Jan. 6. Nevertheless, “Even though it may look inflammatory,” the defense argued on Monday, “they did nothing illegal.”