WASHINGTON — Stewart Rhodes’ increasingly belligerent rhetoric in the wake of the 2020 election began to concern members and ultimately caused a schism in at least one state chapter, three former Oath Keepers testified Thursday at the militia founder’s ongoing seditious conspiracy trial.
John Zimmerman, who served briefly as the leader of the Oath Keepers’ Cumberland County, North Carolina, chapter, Michael Adams, the militia’s former Florida state coordinator and Abdullah Rasheed, who said he joined after seeing a recruitment post on social media, were all called as witnesses Thursday in the third day of testimony against Rhodes and four associates.
Zimmerman, a resident of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Army and Army Reserves, said he joined the group because he was attracted by the emergency preparedness aspect. He said he’d previously own an emergency preparedness business and saw the Oath Keepers as being similar in spirit to CERT, or community emergency response team, programs.
Zimmerman said he instead found Rhodes talking far more about the possibility of violent conflict with antifa – something Rhodes seemed to want not just to prepare for but instigate.
Along with other Oath Keepers, Zimmerman joined Rhodes in D.C. in November 2020 for the so-called Million MAGA March in support of former President Donald Trump. At the time, Zimmerman said, Rhodes was already talking about the need for the group to get weapons ready in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act, which he believed would come in response to a “rogue government.”
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Earlier in the trial, jurors heard an audio recording of Rhodes during a Nov. 9 GoToMeeting call saying Oath Keepers street fighting with antifa could “give President Trump what he needs” to invoke the Insurrection Act. In D.C, Zimmerman said Rhodes told them they should have dressed up like senior citizens and mothers pushing carriages in an effort to bait antifa into attack them so they could give them a “beatdown.” Zimmerman said he realized then Rhodes wasn’t the person he thought he was.
“I bought in hook, line and sinker,” Zimmerman said about the initial emergency preparedness pitch. “So when he’s talking about you should get dressed up and trick people into attacking you so you can give them a beatdown, no, that’s not what we do.”
Zimmerman and other members of the North Carolina contingent eventually broke ties with the organization following the Million MAGA March and a “dressing down” Rhodes gave to North Carolina chapter president Doug Smith, who went by “Ranger Doug,” and Zimmerman was not in D.C. on Jan. 6.
Adams, the former Florida state coordinator and a six-year veteran of the Florida Army National Guard, said he was also attracted by the community preparedness aspect of the Oath Keepers. He had joined in 2012 but found his state’s chapter was largely defunct. He renewed his membership in 2020 following civil unrest surrounding nationwide protests over the summer, and became a statewide leader for the chapter that included Kelly Meggs and Kenneth Harrelson, two of Rhodes’ co-defendants.
Like Zimmerman, however, Adams said he quickly found the discussions from Rhodes and other Oath Keepers weren’t about protecting their local communities.
“Mr. Rhodes, sometime in December, had written two open letters to the president of the United States. The message there indicated that we would not accept Mr. Biden as president, that this election was stolen and alluded to the fact that he’s part of an outside source that had basically taken over… he’s a puppet for an outside entity,” Adams said. “The letters indicated that if the current president, Mr. Trump at the time, did not declare the Insurrection Act and call up the militias and stand this down, if he didn’t do that then we would have to. And I was concerned about who that ‘we’ was. I’m not part of that ‘we.’”
Adams eventually resigned his position, telling Rhodes in a text exchange shown to jurors that the “unchained rhetoric” and “completely inappropriate conversations” could potentially cost him his job.
Rasheed was the day’s most complicated witness for prosecutors. He described himself as a Marine Corps veteran and equipment mechanic who joined the Oath Keepers in 2020 after seeing a post on social media. Rasheed called in to the Nov. 9 GoToMeeting in which Rhodes discussed the Insurrection Act and the possibility of violence. He testified Thursday he decided to record it after hearing alarming rhetoric from Rhodes.
“I was expecting hear, yeah, Biden bad, Trump good… and things like that,” Rasheed said. “But the more I listened to the call it sounded like we were going to war with the United States government. And I wasn’t comfortable with that.”
Rasheed said he sent a tip to D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, the U.S. Capitol Police and, inexplicably, to former Sen. Ted Stevens, who died in 2010. He didn’t hear back from the FBI until March 2021 – after the Capitol riot – when he resent in his tip.
Defense attorneys moved swiftly to attack Rasheed’s credibility, however, getting him to confirm on the stand he’d been convicted of sexual assault on a minor and asking him how many aliases he’d used over the previous decade. Counting his online nicknames, Rasheed said, the number was 30 or more.
Jonathan Crisp, the defense attorney representing Ohio Oath Keeper Jessica Watkins, asked Rasheed if he’d asked the government to assist him in changing his name again in exchange for his testimony. Rasheed said he had asked for help. On redirect, prosecutors asked, and Rasheed confirmed, that the request had come after he’d already received a subpoena from the Justice Department requiring him to appear at the trial.
David Fischer, attorney for defendant Thomas Caldwell, implied during his questioning that Rasheed could be a mole in the organization for the FBI – asking if he had a “handler” who’d instructed him to record the call. Rasheed denied that and Fischer introduced no evidence to further support the question.
The three former Oath Keepers were the first witnesses called in Rhodes’ trial after the lead case agent, Special Agent Michael Palian, spent portions of three days on the stand. At least a half dozen other Oath Keepers were expected to be called as witnesses in the case, including Joshua James and William Todd Wilson, who both pleaded guilty earlier this year to the seditious conspiracy charge.