Prosecutor: Oath Keepers Saw January 6 As The War’s “First Battle”

A federal prosecutor said Monday at the start of a second trial for the leaders and members of the far-right extremist group Oath Keepers that four of its members accepted an “invitation to sedition” from the group’s founder. These four people are accused of trying to stop the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

Two weeks earlier, a different jury found Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs guilty of seditious conspiracy and other charges related to an attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob on January 6, 2021.

Rhodes is in jail until he is sentenced, so he wasn’t in court on Monday. However, a prosecutor kept bringing up his name. Assistant U.S. Attorney Troy Edwards said Rhodes sent out a “call to action” before his followers carried out a violent plan to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s election win.  The prosecutor said, “This was a call to stir up trouble.”

Joseph Hackett of Sarasota, Florida, Roberto Minute of Prosper, Texas, David Moerschel of Punta Gorda, Florida, and Edward Vallejo of Phoenix are the people on trial in the latest case. Along with seditious conspiracy, they are charged with several other crimes.

In their opening statements, their lawyers often made the same points that Oath Keepers’ lawyers did at the first trial. In particular, they said that group members never had the plan to attack the Capitol or stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote.

Scott Weinberg, Moerschel’s lawyer, said that the prosecutors “overpromised and underdelivered.” The lawyer said that a lot of Oath Keepers’ members were old, out-of-shape men who “played military” and were often rude in online chats. “These gentlemen had Twitter fingers, not trigger fingers,” Weinberg told the jury, paraphrasing Drake lyrics. On Tuesday, the first witness for the prosecution is expected to talk to the jury.

Prosecutors say that Oath Keepers members put guns in a hotel in Virginia for a “quick reaction force” that could bring weapons to Washington, D.C. on Rhodes’ orders. On January 6, two groups of Oath Keepers stormed the Capitol, which had already been broken into by thousands of other protesters. Guns were hidden at the hotel, but they were never used.

Edwards said that Rhodes and other Oath Keepers saw the attack on January 6 as “street fighting” and “just the first battle in a war.” Angela Halim, the lawyer for defendant Hackett, said that the Oath Keepers didn’t come to Washington to attack, but to provide security at a “Stop the Steal” rally where Trump spoke to a large group of his supporters.

Prosecutor Oath Keepers Saw January 6 As The War's First Battle
Prosecutor Oath Keepers Saw January 6 As The War’s First Battle

Halim told the jury that no one ever said they were going to attack the Capitol. “There wasn’t a single goal.” The lawyer for the defendants said that the prosecutors were giving a “twisted” account of what happened. Halim said that people were too quick to judge.

Prosecutors say that Hackett, Moerschel, and other Oath Keepers walked up to the Capitol in a military-style stack formation before going inside. Edwards said that Minuta and his group of Oath Keepers fought with police after answering Rhodes’s call to rush to the Capitol.

Edwards says that Minuta was a leader for Rhodes in New York. He thought that the Oath Keepers were “part of a revolution.” The prosecutor said that Minuta was “very angry about the election” that Trump, the current Republican president, said was stolen from him.

Edwards says that Hackett warned the other Oath Keepers many times about “leaks” and the need to protect their communications before January 6. The prosecutor said that Moerschel was careful with his words but that he meant what he did.

Vallejo, a U.S. Army veteran, and Rhodes’s friend drove from Arizona to the hotel outside Washington to prepare with the “quick reaction force” (QRF). On the morning of Jan. 6, jurors listened to an audio recording of Vallejo talking about a “declaration of a guerilla war.”

Edwards said that the four defendants “perverted the constitutional order” and worked together to “impose on the rest of the country their views of the Constitution and their views of America.” He said, “On that day, these defendants stopped the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next.”

Rhodes and Meggs were found guilty, which was a big win for the Justice Department. However, three of their co-defendants were found not guilty of seditious conspiracy. In the second trial, the question is whether prosecutors will be able to get lower-level defendants found guilty.

The seditious conspiracy was a crime during the Civil War, but it can be hard to prove, especially when the alleged plot fails. Rhodes and Meggs were the first people in decades to be found guilty at trial of the charge, which can lead to up to 20 years in prison.

In the first case, the sedition charges were dropped against Thomas Caldwell of Berryville, Virginia, Jessica Watkins of Woodstock, Ohio, and Kenneth Harrelson of Titusville, Florida. But in that case, all five defendants were found guilty of stopping Congress from certifying Biden’s win, which is a crime that can get you up to 20 years in prison.

In Rhodes’s case, prosecutors spent weeks arguing that Trump did not send the Oath Keepers into a rage on January 6, but that they came to Washington to keep him in power no matter what. Authorities say that the Oath Keepers talked about their plans in encrypted chats for weeks before the riot and hid weapons in case they needed them to carry out their plan.

Investigators looked through thousands of messages that Rhodes and his co-defendants sent, but none of them were clear about a plan to attack the Capitol. During the whole trial, the defense lawyers kept bringing up this fact to show that there was no plot. They said that the Oath Keepers didn’t come to Washington to cause trouble but to protect people like Roger Stone, who supports Trump, at events before the riot.

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