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Prosecutors rest in Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers members

Stewart Rhodes of Oath Keepers, speaking outside the White House in 2017. He and four other group members are on trial on charges that include seditious conspiracy, related to the attack on the Capitol.
Susan Walsh
Stewart Rhodes of Oath Keepers, speaking outside the White House in 2017. He and four other group members are on trial on charges that include seditious conspiracy, related to the attack on the Capitol.

After a month of testimony, the government rested its case Thursday in the seditious conspiracy trial against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four other members of the far-right group.

The trial is the most consequential yet to emerge from the Justice Department's sprawling investigation into the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Rhodes and the other defendants are accused of plotting to use force to prevent Joe Biden from taking office as president.

The jury heard testimony from more than two dozen witnesses, including FBI special agents, U.S. Capitol Police officers, former Oath Keepers, as well as two members of the group who stormed the Capitol and later pleaded guilty to conspiracy.

Jurors also were shown reams of Signal chats, Facebook messages and other communications the defendants sent, as well as videos and audio recordings that show what the defendants were saying and doing in the lead-up to Jan. 6, on the day itself and then afterwards.

Rhodes and his alleged co-conspirators — Jessica Watkins, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell — are charged with seditious conspiracy, obstruction and other offenses in connection with Jan. 6.

Watkins, Meggs and Harrelson donned tactical gear and forced their way up the Capitol steps that day and into the building. Rhodes and Caldwell were on Capitol grounds, but did not enter the complex.

As part of the alleged plot, prosecutors presented evidence that the Oath Keepers stashed guns at a hotel in Virginia just outside Washington, D.C., for a quick reaction force to speed into the city on Jan. 6, if necessary.

Prosecutors say the conspiracy didn't end on Jan. 6, but instead continued through Biden's inauguration. The government used one of its last witnesses to introduce critical evidence on that front.

Prosecutors called Jason Alpers, a military veteran who now does software development in Texas, testified Wednesday that a few days after the Capitol attack he met Rhodes and a few other Oath Keepers in the parking lot of an electronics store in the Dallas area.

Rhodes wanted to get a message to then-President Donald Trump, which was something Alpers said he would be able to do "indirectly." Alpers testified that he secretly recorded the meeting because he wanted to be sure to have an accurate record of what was said to pass along to the president.

Alpers said that during the meeting Rhodes typed out on Alpers' cellphone a message for Trump, in which Rhodes urged Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to remain in power.

"If you don't, then Biden/Kamala will turn all that power on you, your family, and all of us. You and your family will be imprisoned and killed," Rhodes wrote in the message, which was shown to the jury. "And us veterans will die in combat on US soil, fighting against traitors who YOU turned over all the powers of the Presidency to."

Rhodes urges Trump to be the "savior of the Republic, not a man who surrendered it to deadly traitors and enemies, who then enslaved and murdered millions of Americans."

Prosecutors also played clips of the recording Alpers made of the meeting. In one snippet, Rhodes can be heard saying: "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. We could have fixed it right then and there. I'd hang f****** Pelosi from the lamppost."

On the stand, Alpers told jurors that he did not agree with what Rhodes saying or his message.

"Asking for civil war to be on American ground and understanding, being a person who's gone to war, that means blood is going to get shed on the streets where your family lives," Alpers testified. "It was at that point that I stepped back and am questioning whether pushing this to President Trump is in the best interest."

Ultimately, Alpers did not pass the message to Trump. Instead, he provided recording of the meeting as well as the note Rhodes wrote to the FBI.

Up next: the defense

In their cross examination of government witnesses, defense attorneys were able to score some points.

Under questioning, FBI agents testified that in the thousands of text messages the defendants sent they did not find any concrete plan — or order — to storm the Capitol. The two Oath Keeper cooperating witnesses also said there was no specific plan to do so, although they did testify that it was their understanding that they wanted to stop Congress on Jan. 6.

They have suggested that all of the inflammatory talk in texts and messages was bombastic, but was largely just hot talk.

Now that the government has rested, the defendants will have an opportunity to put on a case of their own.

It is unclear how long the defense for all five defendants will take, but one thing is clear: Stewart Rhodes is expected to testify on his own behalf.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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