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Oath Keepers' Stewart Rhodes denies he organized the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in 2017.
Susan Walsh
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in 2017.

Updated November 7, 2022 at 5:36 PM ET

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes testified Monday that his far-right group had no plan to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and that the members of his organization who did barrel into the building that day made a "stupid" decision.

Rhodes, who was testifying in his own defense, is on trial along with four co-defendants on seditious conspiracy and other charges in connection with the Capitol breach.

The case is the most consequential yet to go to trial related to the deadly events of Jan. 6. Rhodes and his co-defendants are accused of conspiring to prevent — by force, if necessary — the transfer of presidential power to Joe Biden.

On the stand Monday, Rhodes was asked by his own attorney, Phillip Linder, whether he talked about, planned or implied breaching the Capitol.

"No, never," Rhodes replied. "Absolutely not. All my effort was on what Trump could do."

The government spent around a month presenting its case, including hundreds of text messages and dozens of witnesses who tied the defendants to sometimes violent rhetoric about keeping former President Donald Trump in power.

Rhodes used his time on the stand to push key aspects of his defense so far. He testified that the Oath Keepers came to Washington, D.C., to provide security to prominent Trump supporters; that his rhetoric in the run-up to Jan. 6 was aimed at getting then-President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to call up militias and stay in power; and that there was no plan to storm the Capitol.

He also sought to distance himself from important aspects of the government's case.

Prosecutors, for example, say the Oath Keepers stashed firearms at a hotel in Virginia and had a quick reaction force ready to ferry them into downtown Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, if needed.

Rhodes testified that he didn't control or have anything to do with the quick reaction force. He said he had delegated most of the oversight of the Oath Keepers operation that day and warned members of the group to be careful about what they brought into D.C., given the city's strict gun laws.

He also said that one of his co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, went "off-mission" when he entered the Capitol. "I said that was stupid," Rhodes testified.

Storming the building "opened the door for our political enemies to persecute us," Rhodes said, and he said that's exactly what happened.

Rhodes said he was in a hotel room when he got a call telling him that the Capitol had been breached, and that he asked, "Who?" He said the caller, another Oath Keeper, replied, "Trump supporters." Rhodes said he later went to the Capitol grounds.

He said he called Oath Keepers to meet at a central point but it was to keep them out of trouble, not to assault the Capitol. He said he didn't get some cellphone messages related to the events of Jan. 6 until the next day.

After the attack, Rhodes said, a woman he describes as his lawyer but that prosecutors call his girlfriend instructed Oath Keepers to keep quiet about their activities. Rhodes said the woman, Kellye SoRelle, acted on her own when she told Oath Keepers to delete text messages and other materials that might incriminate them.

Rhodes said he brushed off her warning that law enforcement would soon appear at his doorstep, and he described himself as a "dissident" authorities know where to find if they want him.

Government's cross-examination

On cross examination, assistant U.S. attorney Kathryn Rakoczy sought to poke holes in Rhodes' testimony.

She raised doubts that SoRelle would have freelanced and added advice on her own under Rhodes' name instructing Oath Keepers to delete texts about Jan. 6.

She showed Rhodes and the jury text messages in which Rhodes says days before Jan. 6 that he has overall command for the operation to counter his testimony that he wasn't running the show or was out of touch with what the Oath Keepers were doing.

The jury had heard a month of testimony from more than two dozen witnesses, including FBI special agents, U.S. Capitol Police officers, former Oath Keepers, and two members of the group who stormed the Capitol and later pleaded guilty to conspiracy.

Rhodes and his alleged co-conspirators — Jessica Watkins, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell — are charged with seditious conspiracy, obstruction and other offenses in connection with Jan. 6.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
Barbara Campbell

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