WASHINGTON — Prosecutors drew a direct line from the Oath Keepers’ founding in the early days of the Obama Administration through the 2014 standoff at the Bundy Ranch and, ultimately, to the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6 during cross-examination Monday of militia founder Stewart Rhodes.
Rhodes, currently standing trial with four co-defendants for his role in leading an alleged conspiracy to oppose the peaceful transfer of power, took the stand Friday morning in his own defense. He testified to founding the Oath Keepers out of a sense of responsibility to teach veterans about their duty to disobey unconstitutional orders following what he saw as the unlawful acts of the Bush Administration.
On Monday, the Justice Department had its chance to question Rhodes directly in front of jurors. While much of Rhodes’ testimony had been about the Oath Keepers’ activities prior to Jan. 6 – including at protest evens in Louisville, Kentucky, and Berkeley, California – he spoke relatively little about the actual day itself. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy, however, drew the jury’s attention to that day and to what she implied was a powder keg of Rhodes’ own making.
Before Monday, jurors had for weeks seen hundreds of messages, open letters and recordings of Rhodes calling for former President Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and promising if he didn’t the Oath Keepers would be ready to act.
“For weeks you had been describing the country as being on the verge of a war,” Rakoczy said.
Oath Keepers Jason Dolan and Graydon Young, who both pleaded guilty last year to charges of conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding, testified that they believed the militia had an implicit agreement that they were going to act to prevent the transfer of presidential power if Trump didn’t invoke the Insurrection Act. On Jan. 6, with dozens of Oath Keepers in D.C. and an armed quick reaction force stationed at a hotel in Northern Virginia, Rakoczy said all Rhodes needed to do to put that into motion was to send the right signal – which he did, she said, in the form of a series of messages to his followers.
In one, Rhodes wrote, “All I see Trump doing is complaining. I see no attempt by him to do anything. So the patriots are taking it in their own hands. They’ve had enough.”
“When you told the people on this chat that all the president was doing was complaining, that’s all the call you needed to give, isn’t that correct?” Rakoczy asked.
When Rhodes denied he’d intended that as a call to action, Rakoczy followed up.
“You said next comes our Lexington, isn’t that correct?” she asked.
“That’s what I wrote,” Rhodes acknowledged.
On cross-examination, Rhodes was careful not to implicate any Oath Keepers directly. But he repeatedly claimed the militia members who’d entered the Capitol had gone “off-mission” – something counsel for his co-defendant Kelly Meggs took issue with and which Rakoczy questioned him about directly after he claimed he hadn’t seen planning texts about the QRF.
“Sir, the buck stops with you in this organization, right?” she asked.
Rhodes responded he wasn’t responsible when people went “off-mission.”
“Well, that’s convenient,” Rakoczy said.
Rhodes also denied the Oath Keepers had any history of using force, although he was forced to amend that statement when reminded of an instance when some of his militia members surrounded a vehicle and one pointed a gun at a driver they believed had been filming them.
Rhodes also testified about the Oath Keepers’ public appearance in Nevada during an armed standoff between federal authorities and rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters. The standoff began in 2014 when Bureau of Land Management officials sought to force Bundy to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees for two decades of use of federally owned land near Bundy’s ranch. Rhodes testified the Oath Keepers had gone there to prevent the Bundy family from being “Waco’d” — a reference to the deadly 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, as a result of which more than 80 people were killed and another 27 were wounded.
On cross-examination, Rakoczy asked about Rhodes bragging that he’d purchased and supplied more than 100 AR-15 magazines and rifles to individuals who responded in support of Bundy. She also played a clip of a speech he’d given at the Liberty National Press Club afterward.
“Here’s the message I have for federal law enforcement,” Rhodes said at the time. “It was not going to be a Waco… It was going to be you against other well-trained American fighters.”
Rhodes’ statements about the Bundy Standoff came back later, when he was asked about Oath Keeper Joshua James, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to seditious conspiracy charges, assaulting police on Jan. 6. Rhodes said at the time James had misled him about what he’d done inside the Capitol.
“You now know that he yanked police officers out of the Rotunda?” Rakoczy asked.
“I do now,” Rhodes said. “I would never condone putting hands on a police officer.”
“Unless they were at the Bundy Ranch, right?” Rakoczy countered. “Then you pointed guns at them.”
No Oath Keepers have been charged with unlawfully carrying weapons on Jan. 6 – something defense attorneys have made a point of questioning multiple prosecution witnesses about in their effort to prove there was no conspiracy to forcibly oppose the transfer of power. The DOJ has framed Jan. 6 not as the culmination of that conspiracy, but just one step along the way.
“To you, Mr. Rhodes, Jan. 6 was just a battle in an ongoing war?” Rakoczy asked.
Rhodes said that wasn’t correct, but added in response to a follow-up question, “Were we prepared to walk the founders’ path? Yes.”
After Rakoczy’s questioning, defense attorney Phillip Linder asked Rhodes about one of the messages he’d sent to the Oath Keepers about having to “fight our way out” if Trump didn’t invoke the Insurrection Act.
“Have you had to fight your way out of anything?” Linder asked.
“Not yet,” Rhodes said.
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