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Seditious conspiracy defendant wrangles with prosecutor over violent messages in Oath Keepers Jan. 6 case

Washington – A defendant in the high-profile Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial dismissed incendiary communications prosecutors say he sent in the days surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol attack doubt as "goofy" and told jurors he played no role in the riot, attempting to refute the government's evidence that was displayed in court on Tuesday. 

Thomas Caldwell – one of five individuals charged with seditious conspiracy currently on trial – took the stand in his own defense to convince the Washington, D.C. jury that he had no plans to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from then-President Donald Trump to then-President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 6 as the government alleges. He also testified that numerous painful health conditions – including chronic back and hip issues – prevented him from posing any type of  threat that day. 

Under questioning from his defense attorney, David Fischer, the 68-year-old Virginia resident who described himself as a "walking disaster" due to his health, said he first became acquainted with the far-right Oath Keepers group in the days after the 2020 presidential election, ultimately inviting some to stay at his farm before a November 2020 pro-Trump demonstration and acting as a "tour guide" of sorts for members of the group at various times in Washington, D.C. 

Prosecutors allege Caldwell and his codefendants, including Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, conspired to use force to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, allegedly amassing weapons in a Virginia hotel and coordinating their movements throughout the attack. Caldwell, a Navy veteran and former FBI employee, and the four members of the Oath Keepers have pleaded not guilty to all charges and Caldwell maintains – despite somewhat frequent communication with the group between the 2020 election and Jan. 6 – that he was not an Oath Keepers member. Caldwell is not charged with actually entering the Capitol building. 

Capitol Riot Oath Keepers
Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.  Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

The government has accused Caldwell – one of the first high-profile individuals to be arrested after the riot –  of coordinating multiple aspects  unsuccessfully looking into using a boat to shepherd weapons from the group's Virginia hotel base into Washington, D.C., showing the jury messages between Caldwell and another Oath Keepers member discussing that very topic. 

"Whose stupid freakin' idea is this," Caldwell said Tuesday as he described his reaction to the alleged maritime plan under direct examination from his lawyer. He told the jury he and his wife Sharon - who testified in court on Monday - traveled to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6 to see Trump speak.

The couple made their way up to the inaugural scaffolding outside the Capitol that day and were "taking it all in," he testified. And when asked about numerous incendiary and violent messages he sent – some allegedly advocating for violence against then-Vice President Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and members of Congress – Caldwell told the jury his language was over the top, but he was acting like "a little bit of a goof." 

Under cross-examination from Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Manzo, Caldwell continued to explain his violent messages as amounting to nothing more than violent rhetoric, not calls to act violently. 

The prosecutor presented Caldwell with some of his most violent messages from the time, discussing topics like "hunting" ANTIFA, their ability to burn down Congress "if [they] had wanted to", and "executing some traitors." 

The mention of "hunting" was a euphemism for monitoring, Caldwell said on Tuesday, and the group did not burn down Congress because they did not want to, he added, emphasizing the "if" in a message prosecutors say he sent. And the comments on executing traitors, Caldwell argued, were "drastic," but sent between individuals who knew not to take his violent comments seriously. 

Many of the messages the jury saw Tuesday had already been part of the government's evidentiary record and were presented once again after Caldwell decided to testify.

Another message displayed in court allegedly showed Caldwell and another man discussing on Jan. 1, 2021 their desire for Pence to overturn the election results. 

"If he hopes to live 'til Friday, he better stand tall," prosecutors alleged Caldwell wrote back. When confronted with the message in court on Tuesday, Caldwell described it as "joking" and said the recipient understood it was written in jest. 

After the events of Jan. 6, according to other messages displayed in court on Tuesday, the defendant called the day "a good time" and mentioned an "assault" on the Capitol. 

"That is a great exaggeration just like the charges against me," Caldwell shot back on Tuesday.  It was one of the times he used an impatient tone and retorted quickly at  the prosecutor who was questioning him. At one point he chuckled about a message he received discussing violence against Democrats, exclaiming "What a goof" about the author of the message. 

Despite the wrangling over the messages and the violent language used – which he dismissed – Caldwell maintained he did not conspire against the Congress, did not coordinate portions of the Capitol breach, and was not a member of the Oath Keepers. 

He was only the second of the five defendants currently on trial to take the stand. Last week, Rhodes himself testified that he had no plan for the group to actually enter the Capitol as some of them did and that they were instead there to provide security that day, a common defense for the Oath Keepers on trial. 

"Our goal was to make sure nobody got wrapped up in the Charlie Foxtrot around the Capitol," Rhodes testified last week, "Charlie Foxtrot" is military slang for "clusterf***." Prosecutors, however, contended their evidence shows that he and his codefendants were part of a months-long conspiracy to use force to keep Trump in office.

Prosecutors and Rhodes, too, argued over interpretations of messages and communications, his attorney's previously dismissing the incendiary and violent language as "bravado." 

The seditious conspiracy trial is currently in its seventh week and closing arguments are expected in the coming days. 

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