WASHINGTON — Oath Keepers’ founder Stewart Rhodes was recorded saying at a meeting of his far-right group days after the 2020 election that their “mission” was to travel to Washington to stand up against what he viewed as a fraudulent presidential race.
“You’ve got a responsibility and duty,” Rhodes told more than 100 followers, according to a transcript of the recording played Tuesday by prosecutors at his trial on sedition charges in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
The government questioned FBI Special Agent Michael Palian on Tuesday morning about messages and audio recordings from Rhodes, who it has sought to cast as ringleader in a plot to stop the transfer of presidential power.
The trial’s five defendants, including Rhodes, have denied any such conspiracy, arguing that they went to Washington to provide security for authorized events and were prepared for former President Donald Trump to invoke a law to authorize them to bring weapons into the city.
During the Nov. 9 meeting, Rhodes discussed setting up armed quick reaction forces on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. He said that he hoped left-wing activists would become violent to give Trump a reason to invoke the Insurrection Act, according to the transcript.
The Insurrection Act, which was signed into law by Thomas Jefferson in 1807, gives the president power to call on armed forces in certain situations. The group had to mirror what the Serbians did in 2000, Rhodes said, according to the transcript. “It’s our own version of the color revolution,” he added, the document shows.
A few days earlier, Rhodes had sent instructions in a chat that included long-time Trump political strategist, Roger Stone, from a Serbian author outlining steps that revolutionaries took, including storming the parliament, to stop Slobodan Milosevic when he allegedly stole their presidential election, according to the government. Milosevic was later accused of war crimes but died before a verdict was reached.
In the secret meeting, Rhodes also discussed the need to protect the Oath Keepers from any legal repercussions by following Washington, D.C.’s strict gun laws and relying on the Insurrection Act “as legal cover” so they could avoid conspiracy charges.
Rhodes’ lawyers have argued that the actions he took were done to prepare for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act.
Phillip Linder, Rhodes’ defense attorney, has contended that the government mischaracterized what occurred by cherry-picking inflammatory statements. On cross examination, Linder asked Palian to confirm that there were 850 Signal chats on Rhodes’ phone. He also sought to seek testimony in order to show how Rhodes was law abiding when he discussed Washington’s gun laws in the secret meeting.
Palian testified that no incidents occurred when Rhodes and others gathered in Washington on Nov. 14, 2020, for a rally with Trump’s Make America Great Again group, in response to another question from Linder. On questioning from the government, Palian confirmed that Rhodes never used a Nov. 14 end-date when he asked “for a fight” in the secret meeting that month.
Palian also faced questioning from lawyers for the four other defendants in the case — Thomas Caldwell, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson and Jessica Watkins.
Palian agreed that he didn’t hear from anyone that the purpose of the quick reaction forces the group had stationed outside Washington was to attack the Capitol. David Fischer, a lawyer for Caldwell, asked whether he agreed that would then cast doubt on the government’s theory. “No, I would not,” responded Palian.
Stanley Woodward, a lawyer for Meggs, asked Palian to read messages sent from Rhodes shortly after the 2020 election discussing the legality of the Insurrection Act. In one message, Rhodes wrote that some legal experts have said that the president has broad discretion to use the law.
Palian also testified that he knew Oath Keepers were in Washington for security, in response to a question from Harrelson’s lawyer. He noted that the individuals they were supposed to guard didn’t show up so there was nobody to protect.
Story by Sabrina Willmer.