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'Provocateurs' theory of Jan. 6 gets day in court during Oath Keepers trial

A defense attorney promised "ironclad evidence" provocateurs instigated the assault on the Capitol, but left jurors with only insinuation.

WASHINGTON — An Oath Keeper’s defense attorney who suggested to a jury trained provocateurs had initiated the breach of the Rotunda Doors of the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6 – and promised to show them “ironclad evidence” to bolster his theory – closed his case Monday without calling any witnesses to the stand.

Bradford Geyer, attorney for Florida Oath Keeper Kenneth Harrelson, told a judge last week he would be presenting no witnesses or evidence during the defense portion of the seditious conspiracy trial of militia founder Stewart Rhodes and four co-defendants. Harrelson entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 as part of a “stack” of Oath Keepers led by fellow Floridian Kelly Meggs and was one of 11 defendants indicted on a rarely used charge of seditious conspiracy in January.

Geyer, a former assistant U.S. attorney who now serves as general counsel for the Former Feds Group legal services firm, has pushed the theory that the Jan. 6 riot was initiated by unknown “trained influencers,” as he put it in an Aug. 20 court filing, who engaged in coordinated attacks on the Capitol. 

In prior filings, he has identified dozens of individuals who were at the Capitol as “suspicious actors.” Although some individuals on his list have been publicly identified – perhaps most notably Ashli Babbitt, the U.S. Air Force veteran who was fatally shot while attempting to climb through a window into the Speaker’s Lobby – Geyer suggested throughout the trial the anonymity of others was evidence of their nefarious intent.

“You’re going to see how these hoodlums who worked together – had a plan,” Geyer said Monday during closing arguments. “We don’t know who they are. We’ll never know who they are. They’re ghosts.”

During his opening statement, Geyer told jurors he would be focusing their attention on the “absolutely crucial” period between 2:35 p.m. and approximately 2:38 p.m. when Oath Keepers, including his client, were on the stairs near the Columbus Doors on the east side of the Capitol.

“We’re going to present ironclad evidence to you about that,” Geyer told jurors.

But Geyer’s argument in that respect never made it beyond insinuation. He called no witnesses of his own and when he cross-examined an Oath Keeper who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 and who was called as a witness by the government, he failed to elicit any testimony about “goons and provocateurs,” as he put it.

During the course of questioning Oath Keeper Jason Dolan, Geyer played long periods of surveillance video showing multiple angles of the east side of the Capitol. The camera angles were largely elevated and at a significant distance from the crowd.

“Let me know when you think something is amiss,” Geyer asked Dolan at one point. After a long pause without Dolan responding, U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta had to jump in and direct Geyer to move on.

“Point out to him where you think it is,” Mehta said.

Dolan was one of a group of Florida Oath Keepers who traveled to D.C. for Jan. 6. He pleaded guilty last year to two felony counts of conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding and was called as a witness in October by the prosecution. Dolan testified that he believed there was an implicit agreement among the Oath Keepers to stop the certification of the 2020 election “by any means necessary.”

Geyer played Dolan a number of other videos of individuals he suggested were “provocateurs,” including one of a man he did not identify in court who turned out to be Ricky Willden, a California Proud Boy who pleaded guilty to assaulting police on Jan. 6 and was sentenced to two years in prison. On another occasion, the man Geyer hoped to elicit testimony about wasn’t clearly visible on screen.

“Do you see the bald man who slides behind you while you’re singing the National Anthem?” Geyer asked.

“There wasn’t one,” Dolan said.

After several more minutes of Geyer pointing to unidentified people in the crowd and asking Dolan to identify them, Mehta signaled he thought Geyer had wrung all the usefulness out of that line of questioning.

“Mr. Geyer, please, I’m directing you to stop asking him to identify people he doesn’t know,” Mehta said.

In addition to Dolan, Geyer asked a number of other witnesses — including Rhodes — to identify suspicious actors or actions in videos from the riot, but was similarly unable to elicit such testimony from any of them.

The idea that the riot on Jan. 6 was sparked not by Trump supporters but rather by other unknown actors – or, in a theory loosely dubbed the “Fedsurrection,” by undercover FBI agents – began circulating among the political right even while the attack was still taking place. 

In particular, provocateur-theorists have pointed to Ray Epps, an Arizona resident and alleged former member of the Oath Keepers who was caught on camera using a bullhorn on Jan. 6. Epps, who has not been charged in connection with the riot, has denied ever being involved with the FBI. 

No member of the Oath Keepers’ defense team mentioned Epps’ name in court during nearly 30 days of trial and attorneys for militia leader Rhodes’ pointedly rejected his last-minute efforts to include Epps as part of his defense strategy, with attorney James Lee Bright calling it a “red herring.”

Near the end of his closing arguments, Geyer asserted once more for the jury that he believed the assault on officers attempting to hold the Columbus Doors, where the Oath Keepers eventually entered, was a “sneak attack” by provocateurs. In a strained nod to the late attorney Johnnie Cochran, Geyer told jurors if they agreed with his viewing, the only choice was acquittal.

“Everything you need to know about solving this crime is on the video,” Geyer said. “And if the video doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

As of Monday afternoon, all five defendants and the government had delivered closing arguments. Jurors were expected to begin deliberating first thing Tuesday morning and to resume on Monday if no verdict was reached by the end of the day.

We're tracking all of the arrests, charges and investigations into the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Sign up for our Capitol Breach Newsletter here so that you never miss an update.

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