Jurors at Oath Keepers Trial Get Panoramic View of Chaos on Jan. 6
As Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, stood in the angry pro-Trump crowd outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a barrage of intelligence reports from others in the far-right group streamed into his cellphone.
Protesters had stormed the building’s grounds. The riot police were on their way. Officers had already been injured.
“American blood on the Capitol steps,” one of his members wrote.
But Mr. Rhodes, far from condemning the violence, seemed almost to be giddy.
“Patriots are taking it into their own hands,” he wrote back. “They’ve had enough.”
The messages from Jan. 6, revealed on Thursday at the seditious conspiracy trial of Mr. Rhodes and four of his subordinates, were shared with the jury along with striking audio and video recordings of the Capitol attack, presenting what amounted to a panoramic view of the chaos at the building and the move to push inside it as the crowd began to overwhelm the police.
Here, in one message, was a description of the mob hurling rocks and chunks of concrete. There, in another, was an account of flash grenades exploding. The jury saw images of riled-up Trump supporters chanting violent threats at law-enforcement officers and then in a rush bursting through the Capitol’s doors.
These dramatic scenes emerged as the trial of Mr. Rhodes and his co-defendants — Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell — neared the end of its third week in Federal District Court in Washington. They placed the Oath Keepers squarely in the middle of the upheaval at the Capitol as the House and the Senate met inside to certify the results of the 2020 election.
In recent days, the jury has seen evidence that Mr. Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper with a law degree from Yale, spent nearly $20,000 on an arsenal of weapons as he made his way to Washington from Texas in the week leading up to Jan. 6.
Jurors have also heard from a former Oath Keeper who testified that the group intended to block the election certification “by any means necessary,” including by stashing weapons at a hotel in Virginia in anticipation of supporting President Donald J. Trump in his bid to keep Joseph R. Biden Jr. out of the White House.
But on Thursday, prosecutors focused their attention on the storming of the Capitol itself, presenting the attack from multiple points of view.
Along with Mr. Rhodes’s messages, they played the jury an audio recording of Ms. Watkins chatting with others on a digital walkie-talkie app and giving what amounted to a play-by-play account of marching toward the Capitol, moving inside, and encountering paintballs and stun grenades from the police.
In yet another vantage, prosecutors showed a Facebook video made by Mr. Rhodes’s former lawyer and lover, Kellye SoRelle.
In the video, Ms. SoRelle, who has been charged with conspiracy in a separate criminal case, could be seen walking through the Capitol grounds with Mr. Rhodes, celebrating that crowds had broken through police lines. Minutes later, she referred to the attack as “the storm,” a term used by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy cult to describe the moment when they believe Mr. Trump will emerge victorious over his enemies.
Throughout their presentation on Thursday, prosecutors appeared to focus on how the Oath Keepers were especially concerned that day with Vice President Mike Pence, who had been the target for weeks of a pressure campaign by Mr. Trump. The president and his allies wanted Mr. Pence to delay or disrupt the election certification.
Even before the Capitol was breached, Mr. Rhodes wrote to his group: “Pence is doing nothing. As I predicted.” Around the same time, Mr. Caldwell, a former naval officer, said of Mr. Pence, in a video played for the jury, “That punk ass had better do what he’s supposed to do.”
Not long after, word reached Ms. Watkins that Mr. Pence had announced he would not go along with Mr. Trump’s plan.
“It has spread like wildfire that Pence has betrayed us, and everybody’s marching on the Capitol,” she said on her digital walkie-talkie. “All million of us. It’s insane.”
Lawyers for the Oath Keepers had tried unsuccessfully in pretrial filings to keep some of the evidence presented on Thursday from reaching the jury.
They had sought, for example, to pare back the recordings of Ms. Watkins, saying that several others on the walkie-talkie app, Zello, were unknown individuals who have not been charged in the case.
One of the figures in the Zello chat, who used the nickname 1% Watchdog, appeared at times to encourage Ms. Watkins and others at the Capitol, feeding them intelligence about police activity and urging them to keep pressing forward.
“This treason needs to be stopped,” 1% Watchdog could be heard telling the group just as the building was breached. “They need to be arrested. That’s all there is to it.”
In a brief cross-examination before the day’s proceedings came to an end, David Fischer, a lawyer for Mr. Caldwell, got Whitney Drew, an F.B.I. agent who led the jury through the evidence, to admit that Mr. Caldwell had spoken only to Ms. Watkins on Jan. 6.
“The allegation is Caldwell is in a conspiracy with four other defendants, but he had no contact with any of them on the 6th?” Mr. Fischer asked.
Ms. Drew agreed.
But prosecutors had already spent much of the day cutting in cinematic fashion between Mr. Rhodes’s messages, the Zello chat and other forms of communication to show how Oath Keepers inside and outside the Capitol — as well as those staged in Virginia as an armed “quick reaction force” — kept in constant touch on Jan. 6.
Just before several members of the group entered the building in a military-style stack, a participant in the quick reaction force wrote to Mr. Rhodes, saying: “Standing by at hotel. Just say the word.”
Minutes later, Ms. Watkins gave an update on the Zello chat: “We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They are throwing grenades.”
Around the same time, Mr. Caldwell chimed in on a Facebook group chat with other Oath Keepers: “We are surging forward. Doors breached.”
Throughout all of this, Mr. Rhodes remained outside the Capitol, monitoring the situation and occasionally weighing in with anxious hopes that Mr. Trump would “do his damn duty” and invoke the Insurrection Act — a move that he believed would have given the Oath Keepers standing as a militia to come to the president’s aid.
“Trump has one last chance to man up and fulfill his oath,” Mr. Rhodes texted his group at one point. “Will He?”