The Oath Keepers’ Jan. 6 Texts Sure Do Look Damning

It’s bad.
oath-keepers-trial-texts-recordings-opening-arguments
Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, said that the government is trying to inflate the rogue actions of a few members into an alleged conspiracy committed by the organization on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo by Aaron C. Davis / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

U.S. prosecutors wasted no time in court cracking open a vast trove of evidence showing that Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right militia the Oath Keepers, and other members spent weeks preparing for the violence that plagued the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Advertisement

It’s an evidence pile that includes the defendants’ own inflammatory words. 

“My only regret is that they should have brought rifles,” Rhodes said in a recording made less than a week after the violence on Jan. 6 and played by prosecutors for the jury on Monday. 

The criminal trial, the most important related to the Jan. 6 insurrection so far, has revealed the remarkable extent to which investigators penetrated the Oath Keepers’ digital communications, amassing tens of thousands of text messages, hundreds of hours of video footage, and hundreds of pages of financial records. The FBI recovered approximately 850 chats on the encrypted Signal app from Rhodes’ phone alone, according to testimony in the case. 

The five defendants—Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins, and Thomas Caldwell—have all pleaded not guilty to charges that they conspired for weeks to unleash violence aimed at stopping the lawful transfer of power after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. Three of them—Meggs, Harrelson, and Watkins—allegedly joined the mob and burst into the Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. 

The defendants claim they were preparing for Trump to activate them as a kind of people’s militia under a centuries-old law called the Insurrection Act. But if they’re found guilty of the rarely-used charge of seditious conspiracy, all five could face 20 years in prison.

Advertisement

Over the next six weeks of the trial, prosecutors will reveal the group’s messages and recordings, presenting damning evidence and painting a portrait of the far-right militia group’s inner workings and its ties to high-profile figures in Trump’s orbit. 

Testimony has already invoked the name of one of Trump’s oldest political advisers: Roger Stone. 

Days after the 2020 election, Rhodes sent a message to a group chat known as “Friends of Stone,” which reportedly included Stone and a rotating cast of far-right characters.

“Trump has one last chance, right now, to stand,” Rhodes wrote to the group. “But he will need us and our rifles, too.” 

A ‘general overlooking the battlefield’ 

The prosecution opened the trial by casting Rhodes as a “general overlooking the battlefield” as he stood outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. There, he allegedly coordinated his co-defendants’ breach of the building. 

“They concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said in court Monday.

Rhodes pressed his associates and contacts to resist Biden’s victory within just days of the 2020 election in November, according to evidence presented in the trial.

On Nov. 9, 2020, only hours after the Associated Press called the election for Biden, Rhodes joined in a 126-minute call with over 100 other attendees and urged his associates to focus on the nation’s capital, prosecutors said.

Advertisement

“Our mission’s going to be to go into D.C.,” Rhodes said, in a recording of the call played by prosecutors on Tuesday. 

He added that he wanted other Oath Keepers to stash weapons outside the city to skirt the district’s restrictive gun laws so that members could escalate quickly if they wanted additional firepower. 

“So if the shit kicks off, then you rock and roll,” Rhodes told the call.

The group allegedly did stash weapons at a hotel in Virginia and made preparations to move them across the Potomac River by boat during the Jan. 6 insurrection, prosecutors said. Still images of hotel security footage, displayed in court, showed members of the group hauling large bags into the hotel, according to prosecutors. 

On Nov. 8, Rhodes messaged the “Friends of Stone” chat group, which at one time included Enrique Tarrio, the former chairman of the far-right Proud Boys, according to the New York Times. Tarrio is due to stand trial for seditious conspiracy charges in December for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection and has pleaded not guilty.   

“You’ve likely heard this saying,” Rhodes texted the group. “You can vote your way into socialism, but you have to shoot your way out.”

Rhodes wrote that Americans hadn’t voted for socialism, because, he asserted falsely, the election had been stolen from Trump.

Advertisement

But even if Americans hadn’t voted for socialism, “[T]he answer is the same,” he wrote.

‘Sounds incredibly damning’

Even one of the defense attorneys admitted on Monday that some of the evidence won’t look good for his client. 

The recorded audio of the group communicating via a messaging app called Zello during the Jan. 6 insurrection, in particular, “sounds incredibly damning,” Watkins’ attorney said in his opening argument on Monday. 

But the Oath Keepers’ attorneys promised to show that, with context, some of the evidence would turn out to describe behavior that was perfectly legal, and in some cases totally innocent. 

For example, messages sent by Caldwell, 68, referring to a “pre-strike” reconnaissance mission to downtown Washington, D.C., were really about scouting out mobile bathrooms ahead of Trump’s much-hyped rally on the Ellipse, Caldwell’s lawyer told the jury on Monday. 

“He’s an elderly veteran,” he said. “They were concerned about the port-a-potties.” 

Rhodes’ attorney told the jury that the group believed Trump would ask them to intervene on Jan. 6 by calling them up as a kind of people’s militia, even though that never happened. 

Prosecutors have dismissed that claim as an attempt to give the group’s actions the patina of legality, when the end result was that several Oath Keepers joined the mob that burst into the Capitol without direction from the president. 

Messages shown in trial suggest that Rhodes grew increasingly exasperated when Trump failed to summon the group to take action. 

“I see no intent by him to do anything,” Rhodes wrote in a message to his associates on Jan. 6, according to prosecutors. “So the patriots are taking matters into their own hands.” 

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.