Takeaways from the dramatic opening statements from the Oath Keepers’ January 6 trial

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With the historical case that they had filed against the Oath Keepers accused of planning attacked the US capital on January 6, 2021prosecutors laid out how the jury should think about the allegations with an hour-plus opening statement that kicked off the trial in earnest.

Five alleged members of the far-right militia, including its leader Stewart Rhodesis on trial in Washington DC’s federal courthouse. They have pleaded not guilty to the charge of seditious conspiracy, a charge rarely brought by the Justice Department, and other charges.

The Justice Department’s opening statement contained messages and other communications among the defendants that prosecutors say show the Oath Keepers’ illegal plan to interfere with Congress’s certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory. As prosecutors tried to use the defendants’ words against them, they also played video that captured the Oath Keeper’s actions in the Capitol and showed maps and charts to help the jury follow along. Each juror has their own screen to view evidence.

“They said out loud and in writing what they planned to do,” Jeffrey Nestler, an assistant U.S. attorney, told the jury. “When the opportunity finally presented itself … they jumped into action.”

An attorney for Rhodes, the first defense attorney to make an opening statement, told jurors they will see evidence that will show the defendants “did not participate in the bulk” of the Jan. 6 violence.

“You may not like what you see and hear our defendants did,” said attorney Phillip Linder, “but the evidence will show that they did nothing illegal that day.”

Here are the takeaways from Monday’s trial so far:

The Justice Department began its opening statement by charging that the defendants sought to “stop by any means necessary” the lawful transfer of presidential power, “including taking up arms against the United States government.”

Nestler started with a reference to the “core democratic custom of the routine” transfer of power, which Nestler said stretched back to the time of George Washington.

“These defendants tried to change that history. They concocted a plan of armed insurrection to shatter a cornerstone of American democracy,” Nestler said.

The defendants got their opportunity two weeks before the inauguration, Nestler said.

“If Congress couldn’t meet, it couldn’t declare the winner of the election. And that was their goal — to stop the legal transfer of power by any means necessary, including taking up arms against the United States government,” he said.

He said the defendants descended on DC to attack “not just the Capitol, not just our government, not just DC, but our country itself.”

During the Justice Department’s opening, the jury was presented with video footage, maps and other audio-visual tools that prosecutors used to provide an overview of their case.

Nestler’s presentation included iPhone footage from the attack, which prosecutors used to identify the defendants and other alleged co-conspirators. When a video showing defendant Kelly Meggs was presented, Nestler noted the patch he was wearing, which Nestler said said, “I don’t believe in anything, I’m just here for the violence.”

As the video clips were played, the jury also saw a map of the Capitol that Nestler used to place the action that was videotaped. Nestler also had a physical chart, placed on an easel in the courtroom, listing the alleged co-conspirators.

Jurors were also presented with the messages the defendants allegedly sent in the weeks after the election, including their calls for a violent response to former President Donald Trump’s loss.

“It’s easy to chat here. The real question is who is willing to DIE,” Meggs wrote in a message shown by prosecutors.

The DOJ also showed video and photographs of Oath Keepers participating in tactical training sessions. A map of the Washington Mall — showing the site of the rally that preceded the Capitol attack and its distance from the Capitol — was presented as Nestler ticked through communications, including on the walkie talk app Zello, between the defendants who allegedly found place that day.

Nestler used the opening arguments to also preview how the Justice Department will respond to defenses the Oath Keepers’ lawyers are expected to make.

“There is evidence that you will hear that they had more than one reason to be here in DC, beyond attacking Congress,” the prosecutor said. The defendants may have planned to attend the rally near the White House earlier in the day, Nestler noted, but so did thousands of others. Nestler also referred to potential attempts by the defense to argue that the Oath Keepers were preparing to come to DC to serve as security, noting that the defendants were not licensed, trained or paid for their security work.

“Even being bad security guards is not in itself illegal.” Nestler said. But according to the prosecutor, the target they were actually preparing for was “illegal”.

In addition, Nestler alluded to the belief that Trump would invoke the Sedition Act; the defense has signaled that it plans to argue that the oath keepers were preparing to respond to such a subpoena.

“President Trump did not invoke the Sedition Act,” Nestler said. “These defendants had to take matters into their own hands. They had to activate the plan they had agreed upon.”

The Ministry of Justice also emphasized the background of some of the defendants and how it fit into the Ministry’s theory of the case. Rhodes, as Nestler repeatedly noted, is a graduate of Yale Law School. He knew to be careful with his words and told his co-conspirators to be careful with theirs, Nestler said.

Thomas Caldwell, another defendant, served in the military, Nestler said. “Based on that water experience, he planned to use boats to get across the Potomac.”

The Justice Department detailed the preparations the Oath Keepers allegedly made before Jan. 6, as well as what they accuse the defendants of doing during the Capitol breach.

In December 2020, Rhodes told others that January 6 presented a “hard constitutional deadline,” according to prosecutors, and that they would have to “do it themselves” if Trump did not stop the certification of the election.

“Over time, as their options dwindled and it became more and more likely that power would be transferred,” Nestler said Monday, “these defendants became more and more desperate and more and more focused on the date that Rhodes referred to as a constitutional deadline.”

According to Nestler, the group organized a caravan of Florida members to drive up to Washington on January 6 and made preparations for where the organization could store firearms in Virginia, just outside of DC. Some members of the group, according to prosecutors, brought weapons into DC that day, including chemical spray, thick pieces of wood, dressed in paramilitary gear.

Nestler’s opening described the “stack” formations the defendants allegedly used to enter the Capitol. He played a video of defendant Jessica Watkins, who allegedly led the first group, pushing toward a crowd outside the House floor, yelling “push, push, push! Get in there, they can’t hold us.”

The second group positioned themselves outside a suite of offices belonging to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Nestler said. Nestler said Meggs had a “keen interest in Speaker Pelosi,” and later told colleagues that “we were looking for her.”

At first, the defendants saw the breach as a success, Nestler said, describing them as “elated,” “boasting” and “proud.” But according to the DOJ’s account, the defendants quickly realized they were in legal jeopardy and instructed each other to flee the city, delete messages and keep quiet.

“Let me say it in infantryman speak: SHUT THE F**K UP,” Rhodes said in a signal message, as presented by prosecutors.

Even with their criminal exposure, Nestler said, Rhodes continued to plot. On January 10, Rhodes met with someone in Texas to try to get a message to former President Trump. The meeting, which had not previously been reported, was secretly recorded by an attendee.

“My only regret is that they should have brought rifles… we could have fixed it right then and there.” Rhodes said on Jan. 6, according to the Justice Department opening.

Rhodes’ attorney, Linder, told jurors they will see evidence that will show the defendant “did not participate in the bulk” of the violence that occurred on Jan. 6.

He suggested there will be gaps in the evidence, such as video, that the Justice Department will show the jury. He said once prosecutors make their case, the defense will fill in those gaps.

“You may not like what you see and hear our defendants did, but the evidence will show that they did nothing illegal that day,” Linder said.

As the defense lawyer made his opening, he was told by the judge to avoid topics that had been deemed outside the scope of the trial – including at one point when Judge Amit Mehta brought him to the bench for a private discussion.

Among the prohibited topics brought up by Linder that prompted the interventions were comments about the amount of prison terms the charges carry, the congressional narrative around January 6, remarks about defendants who were in prison, and certain details about the Sedition Act .

Mehta asked Linder to keep his opening within the parameters of the relevant subject matter established before the trial.

Linder continued to see other aspects of the Oath Keepers’ defense.

“The real evidence will show you that our clients were there to secure events for the 5th and 6th,” Linder said, calling his client an “extremely patriotic” and a “constitutional expert.”

“Stewart Rhodes meant no harm to the Capitol that day,” Linder said, describing some of the rhetoric among those accused of “free speech and bravado.”

He said the evidence will show there was no plan like the one the government alleges.

Early in Monday’s proceedings, Mehta went to great lengths to emphasize that the jury had “no preconceived” prejudice to the Oath Guardians and the defendants specifically.

He did so while explaining why he denied a request by the defendants to transfer the case to Virginia. Mehta cruised through statistics from the jury selection process that shed light on how jurors had responded to questions designed to test their impartiality.

Neither reported having strong feelings toward January 6 that would affect their ability to be fair. While about half of the jurors said they had heard of Oath Keepers before, none reported having strong feelings about Oath Keepers that would threaten juror impartiality, nor had any jurors heard of the specific defendants, according to Mehta’s account of their responses to the jury questionnaire.

“It means the voir dire has done its job,” Mehta said, referring to the jury selection process.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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