By Chris Gallagher
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes told followers of his far-right group that Donald Trump “will need us and our rifles” just days after the then-Republican president lost the 2020 election, an FBI witness said in court on Tuesday.
Rhodes and four co-defendants – Thomas Caldwell, Kenneth Harrelson, Kelly Meggs and Jessica Watkins – are on trial in federal court in Washington, accused of conspiring to prevent Congress from certifying the election victory of President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in a failed bid to keep Trump in power.
Some of the defendants are among the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, after the former president falsely claimed the election had been stolen from him through widespread fraud, prosecutors say.
The five defendants are charged with several felonies including seditious conspiracy, a Civil War-era statute that is rarely prosecuted and carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
FBI Special Agent Michael Palian read to the court messages that he said Rhodes sent to his followers on Nov. 7, 2020, around the time media outlets were calling the Nov. 3 presidential election for Biden. In them, Rhodes warned that “the coup isn’t over” and that Biden’s fellow Democrats would also “steal” a majority in the Senate.
“Trump has one last chance, right now, to stand. But he will need us and our rifles,” Rhodes said in a message that was shown to the court.
Palian also read messages from Meggs discussing what weapons were legal to bring into Washington, such as pepper spray and Tasers, and from Watkins about organizing a military-style basic training class in early January so that members would be “on the same page before (Biden’s) inauguration.”
In an opening statement to the jury on Monday, prosecutors said Rhodes and the other defendants had plotted to do whatever it took to prevent the transfer of presidential power.
Defense attorneys have said the evidence will show that the defendants did nothing illegal and that the Oath Keepers are simply a peace-keeping group that has done security work at events around the country in recent years.
Palian, testifying for a second day, said Rhodes had organized an Oath Keepers conference call on Nov. 9, 2020, during which he told members their mission was to go to Washington.
Rhodes, in an audio recording played to the court, said on the call that Trump should invoke the Insurrection Act. The Insurrection Act is a law that empowers the president to deploy the military to suppress civil disorder.
“And to get him to do that, he has to know that the people are behind him, and that he will not be deserted,” Rhodes said on the call. “So we’ve gotta be in D.C.”
Palian, under cross-examination by the defense, said there was no specific mention of Jan. 6 on the conference call and he would agree the discussions were probably related to Nov. 14, 2021, when Trump followers went to Washington for an event to support the president following the Nov. 3 election.
Prosecutors have said the defendants trained and planned for Jan. 6, stockpiling weapons at a northern Virginia hotel outside the capital for a so-called “quick reaction force” that would be ready if called upon to transport arms into Washington.
The government and extremist monitoring groups have characterized the Oath Keepers as a far-right anti-government group, some of whose members have ties to militias. Some of the members include current and former military and law enforcement personnel.
Rhodes, a Yale-educated attorney and former U.S. Army paratrooper, has disputed that characterization.
(Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Ross Colvin, Rosalba O’Brien and Grant McCool)