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In the latest Jan. 6 case, Oath Keepers go on trial for seditious conspiracy


It's the most consequential January 6 trial so far. And it starts today in Washington, D.C.


Stewart Rhodes is at the center of this. He's the founder of the far-right group called the Oath Keepers. He and four others are charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been covering this case from the beginning. Ryan, who are the defendants? And what are they being charged with?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: So there are five defendants who are going on trial here. The biggest name is the one that was mentioned at the top there, Stewart Rhodes. He's a former Army paratrooper, Yale Law School graduate. But most importantly, for our purposes here, he's the founder of the Oath Keepers, which is this big, anti-government, self-styled militia, one of the biggest in the country. And prosecutors say Rhodes and his co-defendants conspired to use force to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden's election win on January 6. Now, these defendants all face a slew of criminal charges, including obstruction of an official proceeding, and most importantly, though, seditious conspiracy. And that one is a big deal. It carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

MARTÍNEZ: And what's the government's case against them?

LUCAS: So the government's case is built on text messages the defendants sent each other, as well as audio recordings, financial records, videos, of course, from January 6. And prosecutors say the evidence shows that shortly after the November, 2020, presidential election, Rhodes and his co-defendants began plotting to use force to try to block the transfer of power to Joe Biden, and that they spent months recruiting and training and organizing to do so. And the indictment cites text messages that Rhodes allegedly sent after the election. In those messages, he warns of a civil war and, quote, "a bloody and desperate fight" if Biden takes office. On January 6 itself, the defendants had guns stashed at a hotel in Virginia and men on call to ferry those weapons into D.C. if Rhodes thought that they were needed. And then at the Capitol, several of the defendants - although, not Rhodes - they put on tactical gear and marched in military formation up the steps of the Capitol, through the crowd and into the building with the mob. But prosecutors say it didn't end there. Even after January 6, they say, Rhodes bought thousands of dollars of guns and military gear and continued to urge his followers to resist the Biden administration.

MARTÍNEZ: What about defense attorneys? How are they going to push back against the government?

LUCAS: So in pretrial proceedings, we've heard a couple of things. Some of them have argued that the Oath Keepers were in D.C. on January 6 to provide security for VIPs at the Trump rally and to protect Trump supporters in case, say, antifa attacked them. Rhodes' attorneys have also argued that all of the chatter and planning ahead of January 6 were really just preparations in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act, which could have allowed Trump to call up militias to support him. Now, invoking the Insurrection Act is something that Trump had publicly toyed with dating back to the summer of 2020. But prosecutors say this argument is just legal cover, it's just a ruse. And they say that the defendants were ready to act regardless of what Trump did.

MARTÍNEZ: Why is this case, Ryan, seen as such an important January 6 prosecution?

LUCAS: Well, it's seen as so important because of the central charge here of seditious conspiracy, this allegation of an attack on the U.S., in essence. So it has political and symbolic weight, but also because this case is against the founder of one of the largest militia groups in the country. The government has not lost a January 6 jury trial so far. Failing to win a conviction in this high-profile case, particularly on seditious conspiracy, could undermine the Justice Department's assertion that the Capitol attack posed a uniquely dangerous threat to American democracy, that it was more than just a rowdy rally. So this trial is a big deal. It's an important trial. It's expected to last around five weeks or so. And it gets under way today with jury selection.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "PHASES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.