Oath Keepers Talked About Protecting the Capitol—Before They Stormed It

Leaked audio from an Oath Keepers conference call shows the militia group thought “antifa” would storm the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
A demonstrator wears an Oath Keepers anti-government organization badge on a protective vest during a protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.
A demonstrator wears an Oath Keepers anti-government organization badge on a protective vest during a protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It was October 29, the 2020 presidential election was just days away, and the mood on the Oath Keepers’ weekly conference call was somber.

The far-right, anti-government militia members on the call were all but convinced that “weaponized” antifascist protesters or even Black Lives Matter militants were plotting a coordinated attack on Washington, D.C., on election night to prevent Donald Trump’s victory—and would maybe even storm the Capitol. 

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One of the participants in that call was Jessica Watkins, 38, a U.S. Army veteran and bartender from Ohio. Back then, she was discussing which improvised weapons would be most suitable to defend the nation’s capital from an angry mob. 

Instead, Trump lost the election. The rumored attack from the “radical left” never materialized. And on January 6, Watkins joined the angry mob in D.C., allegedly participating in the deadly insurrection at the Capitol. 

VICE News obtained leaked audio from that pre-election conference call, conducted via the GoToMeeting app. The call, which takes place weekly, was led by Michael Adams, the leader of the Oath Keepers’ Florida chapter, and lasted an hour and a half. (There’s currently no evidence to suggest that Adams was present in D.C. on January 6, and he did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.) 

The content of the call ranges from dry, middle-management chatter (for example, “leadership issues in Georgia” and appropriate methods of relaying “intel” to top brass), to sharing tips about befriending the local police department, to fretting over baseless claims of rampant voter fraud, to discussing whether D.C. police were adequately prepared to defend against an imminent invasion. 

“You know, you can go to Capitol Hill, you can go to the White House,” said one Oath Keeper on the call. “If they are going to allow, you know, a mob to just, you know, basically storm buildings, they’re basically abrogating responsibilities.” 

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The call offers a glimpse into the paranoia that drives groups like the Oath Keepers—and a reminder that violent fantasies, when fueled by disinformation, can easily turn into real-world violence. 

Watkins was indicted last week, along with fellow Oath Keepers Thomas Caldwell and Donovan Crowl, on conspiracy charges linked to the attack on the Capitol. They are among a very small but growing group of defendants who’ve been charged with conspiracy in addition to other counts like obstructing government proceeding and unauthorized entry. In the indictment, federal prosecutors provide evidence—namely communications—that they say shows that Watkins, Caldwell, and Crowl premeditated the attack on the Capitol, which left five dead, including one Capitol Police officer. None of the defendants have entered pleas in their cases.

Early on in the call, Adams expresses frustration over what he describes as “blatant” voter fraud (this is an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory) taking place, and not being given marching orders to do anything about it. 

“It’s obvious what they’re doing, and I think probably the mutual frustration of the regular red-blooded Americans in this country who could probably make the bombs and [make] Hiroshima, or whatever, look like a firecracker,” said Adams. “We’re at this weird place where we just had to kind of stand here and watch this happen because the government itself is preventing us from doing anything about it.” 

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“Stand back and stand by,” Watkins responded, an apparent reference to Trump’s words when asked to denounce the Proud Boys at a presidential debate in September. 

Later on, a call participant flags a conversation on Fox News between host Sean Hannity and commentator Dan Bongino regarding possible violence on election night. 

“I don’t mean to interrupt you guys, but on Fox, just now, Hannity, [Dan] Bongino said they’re planning on trying to storm the White House on election night,” one call participant said. “He just said that they’re going to take over D.C., they’re gonna kill anything they can.”

(VICE News reviewed that October 29 segment, in which Bongino references a Washington Examiner article. He notes an activist collective called “ShutDown D.C.” planned to swarm the streets of D.C. should Trump refuse to concede the election, and then raises the possibility of violence but doesn’t say anything about storming the White House or mass killings). 

On the conference call, participants said that Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes had similar “intel.” Two days earlier, Rhodes went on Infowars and said that members of his militia would be “in range” of D.C. to prevent a “Benghazi-style attack on the White House.”

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Rhodes clearly commands a lot of respect among the Oath Keepers. At one point during the call (which Rhodes was not on), Watkins gets personal and expresses anxiety that she might have annoyed him during a recent “operation” in Louisville. “To speak bluntly, to be in the barracks for a second, I feel like I stepped on Stewart’s dick,” said Watkins. “I kind of jumped him with like, ‘OK, I got this intel, I got this intel.’ Don’t be too ambitious if you’re just coming into this. I’ve learned that you don’t want to, like, shock leadership with whatever your local intel is.” 

She doesn’t explain exactly what she did that might have rattled Rhodes, but she continued: “I run a bar, so I jack myself up on caffeine, like coffee and Red Bull, and I go full-tilt,” said Watkins. “I’m a patriot, you know. So what I’m going to say is, like, there’s a time and a place.” Her advice to her fellow Oath Keepers was “let the Oath Keepers call you and just feed them intel and just don't call them.”

As federal prosecutors note in their description of the Oath Keepers, the militia is particularly focused on recruiting current and former military, law enforcement, and first responder personnel. And on the conference call, Watkins repeatedly touts her good relationship with local law enforcement. She discusses the friendly rapport she’s cultivated with her local sheriff’s department in her home state of Ohio. She also talks about how she’s built trust with law enforcement agencies in jurisdictions wherever Oath Keepers are planning an “operation” (for example, last summer heavily armed Oath Keepers showed up in cities to “defend” businesses from civil rights protesters). 

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She recommends that others position themselves as back-up to police during what she expected would be widespread leftist violence on election day or night. “They're going to feel overwhelmed,” said Watkins. “We got to have their back because so few people do right now.”

Watkins said that she typically likes to arm herself with paintball guns and pepper balls when offering that kind of defense to police, but wasn’t going to get her shipment of pepper balls from Amazon in time for the election. 

“They sent me an apology letter and said, hey, we’re having a supply issue. It’s going to be November, blah, blah, blah. So I never got them,” said Watkins. “But what is widely available is a rubber ball with steel flakes. And so I’ve tested them and they’re nasty. So that is still less lethal... That’s what we’re rolling with.” 

In the months that followed the election, there was a seismic shift among many far-right Trump supporters in their attitudes toward some police. In December in Salem, Oregon, for example, pro-Trump and anti-lockdown protesters found themselves clashing violently with police when they blocked their attempt to storm the state capitol. Later, when the leader of the far-right Proud Boys was arrested prior to January 6, supporters called to burn down D.C. police headquarters. 

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Watkins ended up bringing the paintball gun and steel rubber balls to Washington D.C. on January 6, according to court documents. Investigators say they searched her home in Ohio and discovered the paintball gun, as well as pepper spray, numerous firearms, pool cues cut down to baton size, zip ties, a mini drone, a radio, and other tactical gear — consistent with the type of “battle gear” that she’d worn on January 6. 

The FBI also obtained communications from a channel on Zello (a voice-messaging app that’s recently become popular among militia types) titled “StopTheSteal J6” that they say showed Watkins and other Oath Keepers talking while inside the Capitol. “We have a good group. We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan,” Watkins said, according to the FBI. 

“We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They are throwing grenades. They are fricking shooting people with paintballs. But we are in here,” Watkins said, according to the FBI. 

“Get it Jess,” a man replied. “Do your fucking thing. This is what we fucking [unintelligible] up for. Everything we fucking trained for.”

Watkins spoke to local media when she returned to her home in Ohio after the attempted insurrection, and before she was taken into custody by police. She told Citybeat, a Cincinnati-based alt-weekly that she felt pretty good about her actions on January 6, and that she hadn’t gotten into any issues with police or damaged property. “It staggers my imagination that it went down the way it did,” Watkins told Citybeat. “I don’t want to call it a false flag, but it was some people hijacking what started off as a peaceful movement.”

Similarly, one of Watkins’ alleged co-conspirators, Crowl, gave an interview to The New Yorker before he was arrested. He claimed he’d only gone to D.C. to do “security” for “VIPs.” 

He also claimed he’d remained peaceful, and that they had “protected the fucking Capitol Hill police,” but declined to substantiate the claim, according to The New Yorker.