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Key moments from the Oath Keepers trial

Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, is among the defendants at the trial.
Aaron C. Davis / The Washington Post
/
via Getty Images
Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, is among the defendants at the trial.

Prosecutors are deep into the first seditious conspiracy case stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.

FBI agents have explained to jurors hundreds of encrypted text messages. Older white men have testified about their attraction to the far-right Oath Keepers during the summer of 2020 as racial justice protests swept the nation and violence erupted on the streets of several cities. And on Wednesday, Terry Cummings, who traveled from Florida for the Jan. 6, 2021, rally, introduced the orange ammunition case and the AR-15 rifle he brought, as jurors craned their necks to get a closer look.

Every trial operates on its own rhythms, with a mix of personalities that seem both peculiar and familiar. Here's a glimpse at what it's like inside the room.

Stewart Rhodes can't stop talking

On any given day inside the wood-paneled courtroom, down the block from the Capitol, a screen might be displaying the words of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes. Rhodes is a prolific texter who once belonged to more than 100 chat groups.

What's unusual is that Rhodes, the most prominent defendant in the case, with a distinctive black eye patch, is continuing to speak outside the courtroom, too.

This week, while the trial was on break for a federal holiday, and while in federal custody, Rhodes gave a telephone interview to InfoWars, a website known for peddling conspiracy theories, likening himself to a martyr.

"But just like Nelson Mandela was willing to go to jail for life, he did 20 years, you have to be willing to do that," Rhodes said, comparing himself to the anti-apartheid leader who spent nearly three decades in prison. "You have to be willing to take the hit if you're a person who's a freedom fighter and is standing up for rights. Because if you don't, then what you become is a slave."

Lee Bright, an attorney for Rhodes, told NPR of his client Wednesday, "We kindly asked him to stop" doing interviews while the case continues.

Rhodes, a graduate of the Yale Law School who was later disbarred, has promised to take the witness stand later in this trial. Anything he says outside of court could wind up coming back to punch him on cross-examination. The InfoWars remarks add to a feet-long stack of texts and transcripts the prosecutors already have amassed. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined comment on Rhodes' communication style.

The defense operates on its own clock

In opening statements, lawyers for Rhodes and the four other defendants signaled they would strive to present jurors with a complete record. For every text the Justice Department introduces, they'll push for several more in a string. For every video snippet the prosecutors play, the defense will press for jurors to hear the full recording. Their argument is that the DOJ is mischaracterizing the goals of the Oath Keepers to inflame and anger the jury, which deserves a complete picture of events.

But that strategy risks testing the patience of Judge Amit Mehta and members of the nine-man, seven-woman jury. It's already led to repeated and sometimes lengthy arguments at the bench or over the phones, while the jury and audience hear the loud courtroom hushing device.

Judge Mehta told lawyers in an unrelated case this week that he expects the Oath Keepers trial to extend into the first or second week in November, on the far end of an estimate he gave the jury pool. Prosecutors had planned to call about 40 witnesses over 3 1/2 weeks. They're not quite through week two, and on witness No. 10.

Hints about Trump and his inner circle

This seditious conspiracy case against Oath Keepers is one of the two most serious the Justice Department has brought following the siege on the Capitol. Inside the same courthouse, prosecutors continue their work in secret, before grand juries that appear to be investigating the money and organization behind the Jan. 6 rally, as well as a scheme to replace slates of legitimate electors in swing states with fake electors.

What else federal prosecutors may have gathered, and about whom, sometimes surfaces briefly in the Rhodes trial before it sinks back into the water.

Last week, John Zimmerman, who affiliated with the Oath Keepers chapter in North Carolina, told the jury that Rhodes claimed he was in touch with someone at the Secret Service in 2020, as they prepared to provide backup support for a Trump campaign rally in Fayetteville, N.C.

Zimmerman, who said he only heard Rhodes' end of the phone call, testified that Rhodes asked the Secret Service agent about what sorts of weapons might be allowed near the site. Prosecutors didn't dwell on the issue, but it piqued interest given questions about Donald Trump's dealings with the Secret Service on the day of the Capitol attack and missing text messages from agents during that time.

This week came another glimpse at what Rhodes may have been doing outside the Oath Keepers network. On Dec. 30, 2020, only days before the Capitol siege, Rhodes texted members of the "DC Op: Jan 6 21" chat group: "I have been so busy on back channel working groups trying to advise the President."

The prosecutor didn't ask more questions about which working groups or who the members might be. But DOJ has told the jury that one of the chat groups Rhodes frequented was called "F.O.S." — for friends of Trump ally Roger Stone.

Bombast vs. sedition

In the weeks after news organizations called the 2020 election for Joe Biden, Rhodes and other Oath Keepers invoked angry and increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric.

That December, Rhodes delivered a speech at a rally urging Trump to use the Insurrection Act to enlist private militia groups like the Oath Keepers. "If he does not do it now, while he is commander in chief, we are going to have to do it ourselves later, in a much more desperate, much more bloody war," he said.

Days after the Capitol riot, Rhodes allegedly said, "My only regret is that they should have brought rifles."

Lawyers for Rhodes call that language bombast and bravado and they say the government is stretching when it alleges a formal conspiracy to overthrow the 2020 election.

The defense teams have used cross examination to highlight the lack of explicit text messages or recorded conversations among the defendants that outline a plot to burst through the doors of the Capitol and stop the electoral count.

"Was there ever any mention of an insurrection?" asked defense lawyer Brad Geyer. "Was there ever any mention of attacking the Capitol?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.