PALMER — Jailed Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes testified Monday in the trial of Alaska state Rep. David Eastman, who identifies as a member of the right-wing group.
Eastman, a Wasilla Republican, is accused of violating a clause of the Alaska constitution that bars people from holding elected office if they belong to a group that advocates the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.
During the trial, now in its fifth day, Eastman said he still identifies as an Oath Keeper despite the role that some of its members played in the violent events of Jan. 6, 2021, when supporters of former President Donald Trump attempted to stop the certification of the election President Joe Biden.
Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, was convicted last month of seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, in a landmark case for the U.S. Justice Department. Testifying on Monday from his Virginia jail cell where he awaits sentencing, Rhodes said that the Oath Keepers were not engaged in attempting to overthrow the U.S. government and that members of the group who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 did so against his instructions.
“I told them it was stupid for two reasons. One, it was not our mission that day, and two, doing that exposed us to persecution by political enemies who are taking advantage of that to persecute us, and that’s what happened to me,” Rhodes said.
A jury found Rhodes guilty of seeking to keep former President Donald Trump in power through a violent plot to overturn President Joe Biden’s election. Other Oath Keepers leaders have pled guilty to seditious conspiracy and obstruction of Congress in an effort to halt the transfer of power.
Eastman was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, but has testified that he did not enter or approach the Capitol and had not interacted with Rhodes before the trial.
The lawsuit against Eastman was brought by Randall Kowalke, a former Mat-Su Borough Assembly member who says Eastman should be barred from holding public office over his membership in the group. An attorney representing Kowalke, Goriune Dudukgian, has said that in order for Eastman to be barred from office, he must prove only that Eastman is a member of the Oath Keepers, and that the Oath Keepers have been engaged in in an attempt to overthrow the government.
Since Eastman has not disavowed his Oath Keepers membership — first brought to light when a list of lifetime members of the group was leaked last year — much of the trial has focused on whether the Oath Keepers as a group has been engaged in an attempt to overthrow the U.S. argument.
Eastman testified on Monday that he was still a member of the Oath Keepers but that he would leave the group if it became clear that the group advocates the violent overthrow of the U.S. government or that members convicted of felony charges were not removed from the organization, as internal rules dictate. But when asked why he had not already left given the events of Jan. 6, Eastman gave two seemingly conflicting arguments, at once standing by the group and its members and saying the Oath Keepers had been “dormant” for months.
When asked why he has not resigned his membership of the Oath Keepers, Eastman said “any organization that will assist us in supporting and defending the Constitution is an asset to our country, and I’m glad for them to do that.”
“I don’t think that there should be a monopoly on supporting the oath. I think there should be many, many different organizations who have a similar mission to promote, protect, defend the Constitution,” Eastman said.
If the Oath Keepers is found to be an organization that advocates the overthrow of government, Eastman said “that means that all the members would have to no longer be members. There would no longer be an Oath Keepers.”
Eastman said his refusal to resign the organization has to do in part with an understanding that “there are hundreds of members of the Oath Keepers here in Alaska” and resigning “would be an unfair characterization of their loyalty to the Constitution by having someone come in and assert that they aren’t loyal to the Constitution.”
“Legally speaking, I think it’s basically the exact same thing as if you were to be accused of being a spy for the Russian government,” Eastman said, going on to posit that anyone who had taken an oath of office could lose their jobs as a result of his decision to resign the Oath Keepers.
Eastman testified that he thought the Oath Keepers had been “dormant” for 18 months, based on the fact that he had not received any communications from the group leaders in that period. “If it’s in dormant status, I wouldn’t expect them to be doing anything,” said Eastman.
Joe Miller, the attorney representing Eastman, has argued that while some members of the Oath Keepers violently invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, the group as a whole is not violent and had no intention of overthrowing the government. It’s the same argument used unsuccessfully by other members of the group.
Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant in the case mentioned on Monday morning that the trial was taking place at the same time as the final meeting of U.S. House Jan. 6 committee, which urged the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against Trump. The committee also voted to refer several others to the Justice Department over their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, including conservative lawyer John Eastman (no connection to David Eastman), who devised dubious legal maneuvers aimed at keeping Trump in power. John Eastman is expected to testify in David Eastman’s trial on Tuesday. Rhodes is also expected to continue testifying in the trial on Tuesday.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jack McKenna is set to rule on whether Eastman can retain his seat in the Alaska Legislature after arguments in the bench trial conclude Wednesday. Eastman won reelection to his seat last month and the Legislature is scheduled to convene in mid-January. But without a decision by the court, Eastman’s future in the state House remains in question.
Eastman has drawn criticism and condemnation predating the revelation of his participation in the Oath Keepers over controversial policy positions and obstructionist tactics in the state House, where he has served since 2017. On Monday, Eastman said the lawsuit against him was motivated by “cancel culture.”
“The whole the idea of having to cancel someone is central to what is taking place in the effort to expel me from the Legislature, to kick me off the ballot, to overturn my election,” said Eastman, comparing those who stand up to cancel culture to those who stood up to Adolf Hitler before World War II.
Regardless of McKenna’s ruling in the case, both sides said in interviews Monday that they were seriously considering an appeal if the judge rules against them. Miller, the attorney for Eastman, said that this was a case about First Amendment rights.
“With all due respect to Rep. Eastman, it’s way bigger than him,” Miller said.