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Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes testifies in his own defense in Jan. 6 sedition trial

Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the far-right Oath Keepers, said in court Friday that he believed the 2020 election was "unconstitutional" and explained why he created his far-right libertarian militia.

Testifying at trial in his own defense, Rhodes took the stand after federal prosecutors spent nearly five weeks arguing he and four codefendants committed seditious conspiracy for their alleged roles in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

Rhodes told jurors he feared the White House would be attacked by anti-fascists in the weeks after the election and anticipated then-President Donald Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act to counter what he described as a "siege" of left-wing assailants. "Of course, Trump did not invoke the Insurrection Act," he admitted.

Rhodes is likely the only one of the five defendants in this trial who will testify. The five are charged with seditious conspiracy — a Civil War-era crime accusing the defendants of seeking to overthrow, levy war against, or prevent the execution of U.S. law. The last time federal prosecutors secured a guilty verdict for the charge was in a 1995 Islamic militant bomb plot trial in New York. 

In this case, the Department of Justice alleges Rhodes, alongside codefendants Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell, sought to stop the peaceful transfer of power during the Capitol attack on Jan. 6. All have pleaded not guilty. Defense lawyers maintain the defendants were in Washington, D.C., that day as security personnel for the president's rally.

Rhodes also claimed Friday the Oath Keepers' primary role was apolitical and meant to provide volunteer disaster relief and security, citing the group's presence in Ferguson, Missouri and Louisville, Kentucky during civil unrest protesting police killings of Black Americans. 

"[A local business owner] gave us permission and her neighbors did too, different minority businesses," he said, contrasting the Oath Keepers with the male-only, white supremacist group the Proud Boys. "I'm not like the Proud Boys who want to go street fight," Rhodes said.

According to Rhodes, creating the Oath Keepers was an idea that emerged from his unhappiness with Bush-era civil rights policies following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In particular, he took issue with the treatment of enemy combatants, a designation created by the Bush administration applied to detainees accused of supporting terrorist activities against the U.S. 

"A big impetus was what I had learned in the Bush years, the enemy combatant status," he said, citing his Yale Law School experience and time in the military. "In the military we're taught about lawful orders and unlawful orders," Rhodes said. The Oath Keepers launched in April 2009.

By testifying, Rhodes opened himself up to cross examination by federal prosecutors next week, once his defense team completes its line of questioning. The government is expected to press Rhodes on his private communications surrounding Jan. 6, as well as the defendants' actions inside the Capitol building on the day of the attack. 

Of particular interest is a stockpile of firearms Rhodes and other Oath Keepers accumulated in a Virginia hotel room the night before, which defendants claim was precautionary. 

Rhodes asserted in testimony that similar caches, called "quick reaction forces," were present at previous events for which the Oath Keepers volunteered as security. Federal prosecutors argue that, in conjunction with the group's communications, the Oath Keepers' intention that day was armed rebellion against Congress's proceedings.

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