The Justice Department this week will argue at trial for the first time in over a decade that a group of Americans plotted to violently oppose the US government.
The historic trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and four of his top lieutenants will provide a deep dive into a far right-wing militia and extremist movement as they allegedly planned to stop Joe Biden from becoming president in January 2021 by any means necessary.
Federal prosecutors intend to prove that the plan included a reconnaissance trip to Washington, DC, staging an armed “quick reaction force” at a hotel across the Potomac River, using a military formation to breach the US Capitol, and, for some defendants, searching for lawmakers inside.
The landmark indictment is the most aggressive and politically fraught case that prosecutors have brought against a group of alleged rioters to date and marked a dramatic change in the department’s approach to prosecuting January 6 defendants.
This is the first of three sedition trials scheduled to take place this year.
The case also comes with hefty political ramifications. When it was unsealed in January 2022, the indictment sparked an outcry from some Trump supporters and figureheads on the right who claimed that the charges were trumped up or politically motivated, and the Justice Department as a whole has come under increased fire from some on the political right for its investigations into those aligned with the former president.
The trial against the Oath Keepers will begin on Tuesday with jury selection in DC federal court.
All five defendants have pleaded not guilty to the indictment and face a maximum sentence of 20 years in a federal prison.
Stewart Rhodes, 57, is a former Army paratrooper and graduate of Yale Law School. Rhodes, who is from Texas, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 and has led the militia ever since.
Kelly Meggs, 53, is the leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers. Meggs went by the moniker “Gator 1.”
Jessica Watkins, 40, is an Army veteran and bar owner from Ohio. Watkins, who served in Afghanistan, was a “commander” of her own Ohio based militia using the moniker “Cap.”
Kenneth Harrelson, 41, is a former Army sergeant and Oath Keepers leader from Florida. Harrelson used the moniker “Gator 6.”
Thomas Caldwell, 68, of Virginia, is a former lieutenant commander in the Navy and FBI employee. Caldwell went by the monikers “CAG” and “Spy.” He has denied he is a member of the Oath Keepers.
To make their case, prosecutors will lay out an extensive retelling of January 6 and the months leading up to the riot. The story will rely on more than 40 witnesses, prosecutors said in court, including FBI agents, Capitol Police officers, journalists and confidential human sources.
They also plan to use recordings from the group of planning meetings leading up to January 6 and walkie-talkie communications during the siege.
Taken together, prosecutors believe the evidence will lay out a sophisticated plan by the Oath Keepers that began to take shape just days after the 2020 election.
In a November 5, 2020, Signal message, Rhodes allegedly warned the Oath Keepers that “we aren’t going through this without civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body and spirit.” Less than one week later, according to court documents, Caldwell traveled to Washington for a reconnaissance trip and reported his findings back to Rhodes.
Rhodes, Meggs, Watkins, Harrelson and Caldwell coordinated for several weeks, prosecutors say, including attending paramilitary training camps and renting rooms at a Virginia hotel to stash guns and other weapons in case they were needed in Washington.
On January 6, the Oath Keepers donned combat and tactical gear, and allegedly stationed themselves around the nation’s capital – some at the Capitol, others providing security and a third group waiting with a cache of weapons in Virginia.
That afternoon, prosecutors allege that the group converged on the Capitol at Rhodes’ direction. Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins, who were in a military “stack” formation with other Oath Keepers, pushed past police officers and into the building, court documents say. As Watkins tried to push past officers guarding the hallway to the Senate Chamber, prosecutors say Meggs, Harrelson, and other Oath Keepers broke off in an unsuccessful search for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Rhodes directed the group from outside, prosecutors say. Caldwell is also not alleged to have entered the building.
After the riot, Rhodes and others went to Olive Garden to celebrate the attack and “discuss next steps,” according to court documents. By Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021, Rhodes allegedly told associates to organize local militias to oppose the Biden administration.
For their part, lawyers for the five defendants have argued that the Oath Keepers came to Washington to act as “peacekeepers” if riots broke out between Trump supporters and Antifa. Some members went inside the Capitol to assist police officers, lawyers for the defendants have contended.
Though it is not clear how the trial will affect the future of the Oath Keepers, experts say the prosecution alone has severely affected the organization.
“The media, the public, and then the legal accountability that’s been brought down at Oath Keepers has had incredibly detrimental effects that organization and quite frankly, has nearly decimated it,” Rachel Carroll Rivas, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center who studies extremism, told CNN.
Because the organization lacked a robust leadership structure, Rivas said, the fate of the group rose and fell with Rhodes. Rhodes has been in federal custody since his arrest in January, and Rivas said that “removing him from the ability to be a leader in that organization, it has had a huge impact.”
Regardless of the outcome of the case the threat of domestic extremism remains large in the US, Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the program on extremism at George Washington University, told CNN.
“The threat today has metastasized far beyond individual groups,” Lewis said. “The life or death of the Oath Keepers … doesn’t change the contours of the threat today.”
“I think what’s more was far more concerning from our perspective, is that the rhetoric that inspired them, the narratives that they push forward haven’t gone away. Hate has only gotten stronger,” Lewis said.