By Anna Chiaradonna || Contributing Writer
Two days following the 2020 Presidential Election, Stewart Rhodes, the architect of a far-right militia group known as the Oath Keepers, sent a grave and esoteric message to exalted members of his organization, sharing his sentiment towards the election outcome. “We aren’t getting through this without a civil war.”
Rhodes, a Yale graduate and U.S. Army veteran, established the Oath Keepers in 2009 with the objective of recruiting past and present first responders, police officers, and military members to preserve the United States Constitution and stand against tyranny. Although the Oath Keepers are one of the largest organizations in the anti-government atmosphere, they adopted Donald Trump’s theory that the 2020 election was fraudulent. The Oath Keeper’s overt objection to the election results came to a tipping point on January 6, 2021, when Rhodes and his supporters charged the capitol wearing battle-ready protection, forcing their way through the mob in a military stack formation to stop the harmonious transfer of presidential authority to Joseph Biden. This insurrection followed Donald Trump’s Stop the Steal Rally, where he said, “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Although the Oath Keepers are not the only group that was present at the insurrection, the trial of Rhodes and his 4 associates is the most momentous prosecution yet in the Justice Department’s endeavors to hold the January 6th rioters accountable for their vehement attempt to sever the democratic roots of the United States. Charged with “seditious conspiracy,” a law enacted after the Civil War to arrest Southerners who kept fighting the United States government, the Oath Keepers members face up to 20 years behind bars.
Also with Rhodes on the stand is Kelly Meggs, the leader of the Oath Keepers’ Florida chapter. After Donald Trump posted on Twitter in December of 2020, inviting supporters to a “wild” protest in Washington on January 6, Meggs took to Facebook in a private chat, which has since been seized by the government, saying, “He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!! We are headed to DC.” Meggs was a part of the group who, on January 6th, entered the House of Representatives in search of Nancy Pelosi. Kenneth Harrelson, the appointed leader of Meggs’ ground team, also faces charges as he brought rifles to Arlington, Virginia, in preparation for January 6th, and joined Meggs in the hunt for Nancy Pelosi.
Jessica Watkins, an army veteran from Ohio, fused her own militia with the Oath Keepers following the 2020 election. Similar to the posts made by her co-defendants, Watkins wrote, “Biden may still be our President. If he is, our way of life as we know it is over… Then it is our duty as Americans to fight, kill, and die for our rights,” to an associate in November of 2020. As a transgender woman, Ms. Watkin’s personal narrative may provide a depth of uniqueness compared to her co-dependents. Her lawyer, Jonathan Crisp, plans to use Watkin’s individuality as a defense strategy.
Thomas Caldwell, a former naval officer who also worked as a section chief for the FBI, is not an official member of the Oath Keepers but was thoroughly involved in the organization’s post-election plotting. Caldwell, known as Commander Tom to other Oath Keepers, took charge of assembling the weapons for the insurrection. He reportedly started a Facebook live inside the Capitol building and sent messages to other group members saying, “We are surging forward. Doors breached and inside. We are storming the castle.” Two days after the insurrection, Caldwell messaged an associate describing the crowd by saying, “At LEAST a million. We could have burned congress to the ground if we wanted. The lawyer’s argument for Caldwell’s innocence is that he is not a dues-paying member of the organization.
On October 3rd, 2022, the first week of the Oath Keeper’s seditious conspiracy prosecution commenced. All five defendants have pleaded not guilty, and the prosecution is working towards sculpting the narrative around the deliberate plotting among the Oath Keepers leading up to the insurrection. Calling on six witnesses, including current and former members of the organization as well as law enforcement officials, the prosecution is also relying on the change in rhetoric among Oath Keepers after the election, which is endlessly displayed in discussions held online among group members. On the night of the 2020 presidential election, for example, Kelly Meggs wrote to a group chat that he was going to go “on a killing spree” and noted, “Pelosi first.” Prosecutors also cited Rhodes’ messages to Donald Trump, where he urged him to refuse to cede power to Joe Biden, stating that if he failed, the Oath Keepers would fight a “bloody revolution.” As the incriminating evidence builds and defense attorneys’ arguments wilt, law experts predict that the remaining 4 weeks of the most high-profile case to emerge from the January 6th insurrection will only amplify the faults of Stewart Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrleson, Jessica Watkins, and Thomas Caldwell. Nearly two years after this plotted rebellion, rioters who strived to dismantle an American foundation face substantial repercussions.
Anna Chiaradonna is a contributing writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.