WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors cast the Oath Keepers as a threat to democracy in the first seditious conspiracy trial to stem from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Describing the long tradition of a peaceful transfer of power after U.S. presidential elections, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said in opening arguments on Monday that the right-wing militia group sought to halt that “by whatever means necessary,” planning “an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of democracy.”
The Oath Keepers “descended upon D.C. to attack not just the Capitol, not just Congress, not just the government, but our country itself,” Nestler told the jury in federal court in Washington.
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four other members of the group are among a small handful of defendants facing sedition charges, which means they are accused of attacking the U.S. government. It’s the most serious to emerge from the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 investigation, carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The government has alleged that the defendants tried to stop the lawful transfer of power by coordinating travel, transporting firearms to the outskirts of Washington and entering the Capitol.
The defendants have denied any conspiracy. They claim they were in Washington to provide security for authorized events and that they took actions to prepare if President Donald Trump invoked a law to call in armed forces.
While Rhodes never entered the Capitol building, prosecutors have cast the Yale Law School graduate as ringleader of the plot. They allege that after Trump lost the election, Rhodes encouraged his followers to reject the results and to use violence to stop Joe Biden from assuming the presidency. He called for a “massively bloody revolution” before the Capitol riot, according to the government.
Nestler on Monday described Rhodes as “a general overlooking a battlefield” on Jan. 6, saying, “He remained outside the Capitol surveying and communicating while his troops stormed inside.”
After Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, Rhodes “kicked into gear,” Nestler said. “He would do whatever was necessary to make sure power did not transfer,” he said.
By December 2020, Rhodes’ rhetoric turned increasingly violent as he and his followers became more “desperate,” said Nestler. The prosecutor showed video footage where Rhodes called for the Oath Keepers to take matters into their own hands to keep Trump in power and referred to a “much more bloody war.”
Rhodes’ lawyer said on Monday that the Oath Keepers leader plans to testify in his own defense.
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