WASHINGTON — The founder of the Oath Keepers indicated in the months before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol that he was in contact with a member of the Secret Service, a former member of the far-right organization testified during a seditious conspiracy trial Thursday.
Former Oath Keepers member John Zimmerman testified that Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes told him he had a contact in the Secret Service and that he heard Rhodes talking with someone he believed to be a member of the Secret Service in September 2020, a bit over three months before the attack on Jan. 6, 2021. The reported call came ahead of a Trump rally in North Carolina, where Zimmerman was an Oath Keepers county leader before he left the organization.
Rhodes got on the phone with the unknown person to ask about “parameters” the Oath Keepers could operate under during the rally, Zimmerman said. He said Oath Keepers attended the rally to escort attendees from the rally location to their vehicles.
“From the questions Stewart — Mr. Rhodes — was asking, it sounded like it could’ve been” a Secret Service agent, Zimmerman said.
In response to a request for comment, a Secret Service spokesperson said: "We are aware that individuals from the Oath Keepers have contacted us in the past to make inquiries.
"As part of our protective mission, we will establish an overall security plan, including traffic and crowd management protocols at venues where a protectee is scheduled to visit," the spokesperson said in a statement. "As part of this effort, it is not uncommon for various organizations to contact us concerning security restrictions and activities that are permissible in proximity to our protected sites."
The spokesperson emphasized that "regardless of organization affiliation, no weapons of any kind are allowed inside of a Secret Service protected site or venue,” adding, “Only sworn law enforcement officials who are actively participating with the security plan are allowed to have weapons at these locations."
Another member of the Oath Keepers, one of three who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy, has told the court that Rhodes tried to get in touch with President Donald Trump through an intermediary on the night of Jan. 6 after the Capitol attack. It is unclear who was on the other end of the phone call. Another member of the Oath Keepers, Kellye SoRelle, was in touch with former White House aide Andrew Giuliani in November 2020, NBC News has reported.
Zimmerman recalled going to an Oath Keepers meeting when they were trying to relaunch a state chapter and being frustrated with a lack of organization. He ended up leading a county chapter of the Oath Keepers and traveling to the Washington, D.C., area with members of the organization for the Million MAGA March in November 2020, after Trump's election loss.
Zimmerman testified Thursday in the trial of Rhodes and four other Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy: Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell. The trial — the Justice Department’s biggest challenge to date — is set to last five or six weeks.
Rhodes frequently cited the Insurrection Act, according to evidence presented by prosecutors, and said in a call recorded in November 2020 that a "quick reaction force" with weapons set up outside Washington for the November rally would go into Washington only if Trump invoked the act to call militias to his aid, under an 1807 law that is supposed to help a president suppress a civil disorder, insurrection or rebellion. Zimmerman said that he didn't think that Rhodes was necessarily in touch with Trump but that he did think Rhodes had a Secret Service connection and that that is how the Oath Keepers might find out that Trump had invoked the Insurrection Act.
Prosecutors have said Rhodes' references to the Insurrection Act in connection with Jan. 6 were nothing more than "cover" for the Oath Keepers plot. Another former Oath Keeper, Michael Adams, testified Thursday afternoon that he decided to leave the Oath Keepers in December 2020 after the group published open letters calling upon Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. One of the letters said Oath Keepers would have "mission-critical gear stowed nearby just outside D.C., and we will answer the call right then and there, if you call on us.”
Zimmerman testified at the trial that he and other members of the Oath Keepers from North Carolina had a falling-out with the national chapter as a result of the November trip.
“He [Rhodes] thought that we should dress up as elderly or be like a single parent pushing a baby carriage with some weapons in the baby carriage,” Zimmerman said, describing one of Rhodes' ideas, which he said Rhodes thought would entice “antifa” or Black Lives Matters members to attack Oath Keepers so they could give them a “beatdown" and potentially give Trump a reason to invoke the Insurrection Act.
“If we’re going to trick people into attacking us so we can give them a beatdown, that’s not what we do,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said it was probably “about 60% accurate” that Rhodes talks a big game but never follows up on it. A defense attorney asked Zimmerman whether he hated Rhodes.
"I love Stewart Rhodes. I love Jessica [Watkins]. I love all of them," Zimmerman testified. "I don't like what they did."