WASHINGTON — The founder of the far-right Oath Keepers was recorded days after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol saying his "only regret" about that day is that the group "should have brought rifles," federal prosecutors revealed in federal court Monday.
Opening statements began Monday in the seditious conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes alongside Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell. Other members of the alleged conspiracy will go on trial in November.
The Justice Department alleges that Rhodes and members of his organization plotted to oppose the peaceful transfer of power, stockpiling guns in "quick reaction forces" just outside of D.C. that could be brought into the city at a moment's notice. Rhodes' lawyers have noted that he followed D.C.'s strict gun laws, which they say is an indication that he would have only acted upon an order from then-President Donald Trump. But the audio recording and other evidence prosecutors presented Monday suggest that Rhodes planned to disrupt certification of the presidential election regardless of what Trump said.
“My only regret is that they should have brought rifles,” Rhodes said in a recording from Jan. 10 played by the government. He added that they could’ve “fixed it right then and there” if they had weapons with them at the Capitol.
Rhodes' defense attorneys are using a novel legal defense strategy, arguing that he believed his actions leading up to Jan. 6 were legal because he believed Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said that Rhodes' references to the Insurrection Act were nothing more than an attempt to give legal cover for something that Rhodes, a Yale-educated attorney, knew was illegal. His proof? A recording of Rhodes saying the Insurrection Act references were "legal cover," which Nestler played for the jury.
The trial is expected to further highlight ties between Trump associates and the far-right Oath Keepers, who provided security for high-profile Trump supporters and had links to others in Trump's orbit. As NBC News reported, Kellye SoRelle — the general counsel for the Oath Keepers who was charged in connection with Jan. 6 last month — had been in touch with former Trump White House aide Andrew Giuliani in connection with her work for Lawyers for Trump during the 2020 campaign. SoRelle has said that Rhodes asked for her White House contacts ahead of Jan. 6.
Another Oath Keeper who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy told the court that Rhodes spoke with a Trump intermediary on the night of Jan. 6 and asked to speak directly to Trump while imploring the person “to tell President Trump to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to forcibly oppose a transfer of power.”
Citing America's history of a peaceful transfer of power dating back to George Washington and John Adams, Nestler told jurors during opening arguments that the Oath Keepers "tried to change that history" by keeping Trump in power.
The defendants “banded together to do whatever was necessary, up to and including using force, to stop the transfer of power from Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden,” Nestler said.
“If Congress could not meet, it could not declare the winner of the election,” he said. “And that was their goal.”
The Oath Keepers, he said, "were fighting a war, and they won a battle in that war" on Jan. 6.
After the riot, Nestler said, Rhodes tried to get other members of the Oath Keepers to delete their texts.
“You all need to delete any of your comments regarding who did what,” Rhodes told members of an Oath Keepers group chat on Jan. 8.
“Do not chat about Oath Keeper members allegedly doing anything at Capitol,” he said. “Go dark on that. Do not discuss... Let me put it in infantry speak: SHUT THE F--K UP."
Phillip Linder, one of Rhodes' lawyers, told jurors that the government was presenting selective evidence of his client's actions that day. Linder, who had to be reined in by the judge several times because he made unallowable arguments that cited media coverage or referred to the amount of time the defendants could spend behind bars if convicted, told jurors that the evidence "is going to show you that my client, Mr. Rhodes, did nothing illegal."
Linder confirmed that Rhodes will testify during the trial.
“The real evidence is going to show that our clients were there to do security for events that were scheduled on the 5th and the 6th,” Linder said.
“Stewart Rhodes meant no harm to the Capitol that day,” he said. “Stewart Rhodes did not have any violent intent that day.”
The Justice Department disagrees, saying this group of Oath Keepers weren't there to assist anyone on Jan. 6.
“They did not go to the Capitol to defend or to help, they went to attack,” Nestler said.
Opening arguments from the other members of the Oath Keepers who are on trial were scheduled for Monday afternoon. The trial is expected to last five weeks.