Nation/World

FBI got tip in November 2020 about Oath Keepers’ plans for armed fight, court hears

WASHINGTON - On Nov. 9, 2020, as Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes told members of his paramilitary group to get ready to fight for President Donald Trump in the streets of Washington, D.C., one listener was secretly recording, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.

An “increasingly alarmed follower” recorded the meeting and shared it with law enforcement, prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler said Monday in the federal trial of Rhodes and four others accused of a seditious conspiracy to keep Trump in office. But the tip, sent to the FBI on Nov. 25, 2020, was apparently ignored. Special Agent Michael Palian said in the second day of his testimony that he only saw the message when the tipster re-sent it in March 2021, after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, and he was not aware of anyone reaching out to the person earlier.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday on the testimony. Federal and local law enforcement officials received an avalanche of tips warning of violence in Washington to keep Trump in power, yet the Capitol was only lightly protected when lawmakers convened to certify Biden’s victory on Jan. 6. A Justice Department inspector general’s investigation into security failures is ongoing.

On the November call, according to court records, Rhodes told over 100 people that “we’ve got to be in D.C.. . . . You’ve got to make sure that [Trump] knows that you are willing to die, to fight for this country.”

As he did repeatedly after the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 riot, Rhodes said he hoped Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act, which he believed would allow the president to authorize the Oath Keepers to use force against fellow Americans.

“If he does that, then D.C. gun laws won’t matter,” Rhodes said. “I . . . want some Oath Keepers to stay on the outside and to stay fully armed and prepared to go in armed if they have to.”

Palian testified that Kenneth Harrelson, Kelly Meggs and Jessica Watkins, three Oath Keepers on trial with Rhodes, were also on the call.

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After the call, Palian testified, Meggs sent a message to fellow Florida Oath Keepers: “We have been issued a call to action for DC. This is the moment we signed up for.”

Thomas Caldwell, a retired Navy intelligence officer from Virginia who was not a dues-paying Oath Keeper, is also on trial with Rhodes. He has argued through an attorney that his role on Jan. 6 was insignificant. But chats read by Palian indicate Caldwell was directly involved in Oath Keepers’ preparations and hosted Rhodes at his home that fall.

Trump did not name Jan. 6, 2021, as the day for a “wild” Washington, D.C., rally until December, and the earlier messages between the Oath Keepers suggest they were planning for action on Inauguration Day.

“They are not the leaders of what happened that day,” Watkins’s attorney, Jonathan Crisp, said in his opening statement. “They joined it in some respects. But they didn’t breach the Capitol.”

But prosecutors argued that the Oath Keepers were consistently preparing for violence in Washington, using the Insurrection Act as “legal cover” for what they knew was an illegal plan. In the November meeting, played in court, Rhodes is heard telling others to “have discipline” and “don’t make it easy for them to pop you with a conspiracy charge and do you like they did those guys in Michigan” - a reference to a kidnapping plot against the state’s Democratic governor over coronavirus precautions.

“They said out loud and in writing what they intended to do,” Nestler said in his opening statement in U.S. District Court in Washington. “In some ways, they planned their conspiracy in plain sight.”

Days before the recorded meeting, Palian testified, Rhodes sent a series of messages calling for armed resistance to Biden in a group chat that included Trump confidant Roger Stone.

“The final defense is us and our rifles,” Rhodes wrote on Nov. 7, according to the records. “Trump has a duty to stand, but so far [he] hasn’t. As Roger Stone said. Trump has one last chance, right now, to stand. But he will need us and our rifles too. But will he FINALLY act? Only if WE act and call on him to lead us.”

Rhodes repeatedly referenced the 2000 overthrow of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, saying Trump supporters needed to follow the same playbook - which included storming the country’s parliament building and setting it on fire.

Stone, who helped organize “Stop the Steal” protests for Trump, was in Washington on Jan. 6 with Oath Keepers who later stormed the Capitol, according to prosecutors. The Justice Department has been investigating ties between the rioters and Stone, who is not charged and has denied any involvement in the riot.

Defense attorneys told jurors that the inflammatory messages were taken out of context.

“You may not like some of the things you see and hear . . . but they did nothing illegal that day,” Phillip Linder, one of Rhodes’s attorneys, said in his opening statement.

David Fischer, who represents Caldwell, echoed Linder, telling jurors, “They selectively edit and they take the most outrageous statements that politically attuned and politically active people make.” He suggested his client said nothing worse than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has, one of several defense assertions that Judge Amit P. Mehta asked the jury to ignore.

Palian had been working on health-care fraud cases before Jan. 6, he testified, when he was called to the Capitol to protect members of the U.S. Senate. Two days later, he began investigating the people responsible and quickly focused on a group seen entering the building in a “coordinated fashion.”

Their outfits bore the label “Oath Keepers.”

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The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

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