WASHINGTON — Evidence presented at trial Tuesday showed that Elmer Stewart Rhodes, founder of the far-right Oath Keepers, started agitating for a strategy to keep President Donald Trump in power by force as early as Nov. 7, 2020 — the date that media outlets called the presidential election for Joe Biden.
Prosecutors showed the 16-member jury how Rhodes swiftly endorsed a “positive pressure” campaign to convince Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act so he could stay in office with help from the Oath Keepers and their firearms.
Rhodes and four others linked to the group are currently facing up to 20 years behind bars on charges of seditious conspiracy in federal court. Proceedings kicked off in earnest on Monday with several hours’ worth of opening statements before moving on to witness testimony from the FBI special agent in charge of the case.
In numerous text messages and surreptitiously recorded audio of an Oath Keepers conference call, Rhodes can be seen and heard telling members of his anti-government group that invoking the Insurrection Act would give them “legal cover” to bring high-powered guns into Washington, D.C.
Rhodes, a graduate of Yale Law School, styles himself as an expert on early American history. The centuries-old act was last used in 1992 to quell riots in California related to the Los Angeles Police Department beating of Rodney King. It gives presidents the ability to send in the military on American soil — usually forbidden — along with “the militia of any state” in order to “suppress insurrection.”
To Rhodes, the “insurrection” was what he perceived to be a fraudulent presidential election his group had a “duty” to oppose. The Oath Keepers takes its name from the oaths sworn by military and law enforcement officers to obey the Constitution, although the group positions itself as the judge of what is and is not constitutional.
Rhodes said in one text that the Oath Keepers needed to prepare themselves “mind, body and spirit” for a coming fight.
Washington has very strict gun laws, a fact Rhodes lamented at one point as he floated ideas for getting around them. He said they could keep a stash of guns just over the border in Virginia until Trump invoked the Insurrection Act, and carry “less lethal” weapons like tasers and pepper spray which were legal.
“You know, complying with D.C.’s bullshit gun laws, so that we are not vulnerable to being charged with felonies,” he said on a Nov. 9, 2020, call with more than 100 others. A tipster later provided a recording to the FBI, allowing prosecutors to play snippets in court. The group was formulating a plan of action for the “Million MAGA March” held in support of Trump on Nov. 14, 2020, but they employed a very similar plan on Jan. 6, 2021.
“The QRF” — or quick reaction force — “will be awaiting the president’s orders,” Rhodes said.
“So if the shit kicks off, you rock and roll,” he said.
Weapons could also be improvised. A flag pole could double as a beating instrument, as could a tactical helmet, Rhodes said, pointing out that he had wielded his helmet in such a way before.
On the Nov. 9 call, Rhodes regurgitated multiple disproven election fraud theories, such as the idea Democratic operatives brought in “extra ballots by the suitcase-load” and “flipp[ed] the numbers with the scorecard software.” He appeared to suggest there was rampant fraud in 2016, as well, but that “we overwhelmed their fraud” to elect Trump.
At the same time, Rhodes was also communicating in a group Signal chat with former Trump adviser Roger Stone and Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, labeled “Friends of Stone.” All wanted to keep Trump in power.
“Trump has a duty to stand, but so far her [sic] hasn’t. As Roger Stone said,” Rhodes texted the group on Nov. 7, 2020.
Later he added that Trump “will need us and our rifles,” and would take action to preserve his grasp on power “only if WE act.”
Invoking the Insurrection Act to interfere with the peaceful transfer of presidential power is not likely to have gone the way Rhodes planned. Trump would first have had to publicly order the supposed insurrectionists — in this case, it is unclear who that would be — to disperse within a certain amount of time.
The government has also argued in court filings that the act is irrelevant, since Rhodes said himself that it was just “cover” for things he and his followers were thinking about doing anyway.
The guns ultimately didn’t leave Virginia. In a recording from Jan. 10, 2021, played Monday, Rhodes was heard saying that his “only regret” was “that they should have brought rifles” to the Capitol the day of the riot.