As Oath Keepers Trial Starts, a Dicey Defense Strategy

Group leaders, charged with sedition, say they believed they would be following Trump orders
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 27, 2022 9:55 AM CDT
As Oath Keepers Trial Starts, a Dicey Defense Strategy
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in 2017.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The highest-profile trial yet out of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot gets underway Tuesday in DC federal court. Stewart Rhodes, founder of the far-right Oath Keepers, and four of his lieutenants are charged with seditious conspiracy—meaning prosecutors say they plotted a violent attack in DC to stop the transfer of power to Joe Biden, per NPR. Coverage:

  • Defense: Rhodes and the others plan to employ what the New York Times calls a "novel and risky" defense strategy: They say they believed then-President Trump was going to invoke the Insurrection Act on Jan. 6, which would have given them legal cover for their actions at the Capitol. Trump never actually did so.
  • Eyes of the beholder: "What the government contends was a conspiracy to oppose United States laws was actually lobbying and preparation for the President to utilize a United States law to take lawful action," wrote Rhodes attorneys James Lee Bright and Phillip Linder in a court filing, per the Washington Post.

  • Not buying it: Prosecutors reject that line of defense and say the Oath Keepers are using the Insurrection Act as flimsy cover. They say the group started planning a violent attack just days after the election, with much of their case based on messages sent through Signal and other forums. One big one cited is from Rhodes to his lieutenants on Nov. 5: "We aren't getting through this without a civil war," he wrote, per NBC News. "Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit." Less than a week later, he laid out an action plan that cited the example of anti-government protesters storming parliament in Serbia.
  • The stakes: If convicted of seditious conspiracy, the men face 20 years in prison, notes the AP. They would, however, likely become martyrs among anti-government groups and perhaps give a boost to recruitment, per the Post. On the other hand, if the case fails, it "would undermine the Justice Department's assertion that the Capitol attack posed a uniquely dangerous threat to American democracy," per NPR. Also of note, the trial could reveal more information about plans by Trump allies to overturn the election results.
  • More sedition trials: This is one of three sedition trials scheduled for this year, per CNN. Nine more members of the Oath Keepers go on trial in a separate case, while five leaders of the Proud Boys extremist group have a trial of their own.
(More Oath Keepers stories.)

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