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Oath Keepers founder denies he had a role in planning the Capitol attack

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

A pivotal moment today in the Justice Department's first seditious conspiracy case connected to the January 6 attack. The lead defendant, Stewart Rhodes, took the witness stand, where he denied planning the assault on the U.S. Capitol. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is at the courthouse and joins us now to talk more about the case. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

NADWORNY: So the jury heard from the founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes. What's the core of his defense?

JOHNSON: Stewart Rhodes told these jurors that the people who broke into the Capitol did something stupid. He said that gave the Oath Keepers' political enemies a reason to go after the group, which he says is why he's on trial right now. Stewart Rhodes says about 30% of the far-right group's members are current or former law enforcement officers and that he does not condone violence against police. He says he did not instruct the group to delete text messages after the attack on the Capitol. He says his girlfriend did that on her own with no input from him.

NADWORNY: OK. So that's what he's saying. What about prosecutors? What are they trying to demonstrate as they've cross-examined Stewart Rhodes?

JOHNSON: Prosecutor Kathryn Rakoczy pointed out inconsistencies in his testimony. For example, when Stewart Rhodes said he founded this group because of abuses under President George W. Bush, she told the jury he didn't actually start the group until the Obama administration. And then when Stewart Rhodes said no Oath Keepers had been arrested or pointed weapons at people before January 6, the prosecutor talked about how one member of the group aimed a firearm and a Black man who was filming them one day. She's been trying to show the jury that Rhodes' talk about providing security to Trump VIPs was just cover for showing up heavily armed and trying to provoke violence and to show jurors that if Stewart Rhodes has been wrong about relatively little things, then he's not credible about the big things, either.

NADWORNY: And about those big things like January 6, how did Stewart Rhodes answer more pointed questions from the government about that?

JOHNSON: Rhodes tried to portray himself as non-violent, but the government kept displaying text messages in the days before the Capitol attack like, quote, "they won't fear us until we come with rifles in hand." And they showed another message that said, we need to push Trump to do his duty. And if he doesn't, we will do ours. The prosecutor says Rhodes didn't call off any members on January 6. Instead, he told them Trump wasn't going to act. And that's all these Oath Keepers needed to hear as a call to action that day.

Rhodes now - he says he wasn't encouraging anyone to do anything. But the prosecutor, Kathryn Rakoczy, focused the jury on a phone call Stewart Rhodes had with other Oath Keepers right before one of the defendants led a stack of people into the Capitol. Rhodes said that call, which lasted a minute and a half, was dead air, and they couldn't hear each other. That was his explanation. But several members of the jury were taking lots of notes. I think one even asked for another pen because her first pen ran out of ink. And others on the jury while I was in the courtroom seemed to be making faces suggesting they weren't buying parts of Stewart Rhodes' testimony today.

NADWORNY: So, Carrie, we're now about six weeks into this trial - any sense of how much longer it's going to go?

JOHNSON: You know, there are five defendants in this case, and at least a few more of them have signaled they want to call witnesses. The government also says it may put on a rebuttal case after the defense ends, so we could be here a while yet. Now, we know one of the jurors is moving out of state several days before Thanksgiving. We're going to see if we're all done by then. But this case has been dragging out in part because Stuart Rhodes got COVID, which caused a delay. A defense lawyer in the case had a scooter accident and broke his arm. So we need to leave some room for the unexpected.

NADWORNY: Yeah. NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.