When Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, and four other members of the far-right group stand trial on Tuesday for seditious conspiracy in last year’s attack on the Capitol, they will join a list of defendants who have faced sedition charges, including Islamic terrorists, Puerto Rican nationalists, and radical left-wing unionists.
But Mr. Rhodes and his subordinates intend to offer a novel and risky defence to counter the allegations that they plotted to use force against the government: They intend to tell the jury that when armed teams of Oath Keepers prepared to rush into Washington from Virginia on January 6, 2021, they believed they would be carrying out legal orders from the president himself.
The attorneys for the five defendants will argue at the trial, which will begin on Tuesday with jury selection, that the Oath Keepers waited on January 6 for Vice President Donald J. Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, a law from the American Revolution that grants the president broad authority to deploy the military to quell civil unrest in times of emergency.
Mr. Rhodes wants to enter the stand and testify that, despite the fact that Mr. Trump never invoked the act, the Oath Keepers felt he was about to do so, as the trial in Federal District Court in Washington progresses, according to the attorneys in the case. He will argue that their plans for violence on January 6 should be seen as a legitimate effort to aid the president, not as a criminal strike on the United States.
The trial is anticipated to run between four and six weeks, and it will be the first of many in which far-right organisations will be accused of anti-government acts. Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the Proud Boys, and four other members of the nationalist organisation are due to stand trial in the next months on seditious conspiracy charges for their respective roles in the Capitol storming.
For Mr. Rhodes and the Oath Keepers, their legal strategy of allying with Mr. Trump reflects their transformation from a group founded during the Obama administration to oppose what they viewed as an overreaching government into one that mobilised to defend presidential power after Mr. Trump assumed office.
Sam Jackson, an expert on right-wing extremist organisations who teaches at the State University of New York at Albany, stated, “When the Oath Keepers were created, their thesis was quite simple: the federal government was evil, and so-called patriots ought to be prepared to fight it.” This narrative, however, got more problematic when an ally occupied the White House.
In court files and preliminary hearings, prosecutors have rejected the notion that Mr. Rhodes and his subordinates can defend themselves against sedition charges merely by asserting that they thought the Insurrection Act would have authorised them as a militia to use force against Mr. Trump.
Prosecutors assert that the statute does not permit a president to appoint private armed organisations to restore law and order, which the Oath Keepers thought would be lost at the hands of leftist counterprotesters on January 6. The prosecution have also said that Mr. Rhodes fabricated the Insurrection Act argument long before January 6 in order to create a legal smokescreen for his plan to post a highly armed “rapid response force” of Oath Keepers in hotel rooms across the Potomac River in Virginia.
Prosecutors cite, for example, a video conference held on November 9, 2020, at which Mr. Rhodes informed other members of the group that this armed contingent would “await the president’s instructions.”
The video meeting, which was recorded and provided to the government by a disillusioned member of the group, is just one piece of a trove of evidence that prosecutors plan to present at trial to prove that Mr. Rhodes had begun plotting to oppose Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s ascension to the presidency within days of the election.
The government will provide live evidence from cooperating witnesses inside the Oath Keepers, recordings of digital walkie-talkies used on January 6, and reams of encrypted Signal communications that Mr. Rhodes and others exchanged in the days before the assault.
Two days after the election, for instance, Mr. Rhodes sent a message to some of his members asking them to reject the election results and saying, “We’re going to have a civil war.” A few days later, he sent another message to the group, stating that the Oath Keepers were required to “march en masse on the nation’s Capitol.”
Prosecutors claim that Mr. Rhodes’ four co-defendants joined his conspiracy to thwart the legal transition of power in the subsequent weeks. Kelly Meggs, the commander of the Florida branch of the Oath Keepers, Kenneth Harrelson, another Florida member, Jessica Watkins, an Ohio bar owner who led her own militia in the state, and Thomas Caldwell, a former navy officer and F.B.I. employee from Virginia, were among them.
A year after the assault on the Capitol, when Mr. Rhodes was arrested, prosecutors had already prosecuted more than 20 members of the organisation, essentially dissolving both its leadership and its rank-and-file membership. Two further Oath Keepers organisations are scheduled to be tried in Washington, D.C., in connection with the attack on the Capitol: one in November and the other in early 2019.
However, Mr. Jackson, who has researched the organisation for years, said that regardless of what happens to the Oath Keepers as a whole, its far-right ideologies and authoritarian viewpoints would certainly endure.