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Oath Keepers founder denies in court that he organized the attack on the Capitol

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The seditious conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes now includes his own version of events. Rhodes testified in his own defense yesterday. He denied planning the January 6 attack on the Capitol, which is exactly what he's accused of doing, plotting to block Joe Biden from taking office as president. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas was in the courtroom. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did Rhodes say?

LUCAS: Well, Rhodes was on the stand all day yesterday. He was dressed in a dark suit and tie. He had his trademark black eyepatch on. And he told the jury that the Oath Keepers had no plan to storm the Capitol on January 6. He said the people who did breach the Capitol that day did something stupid. Important to note here that three of his co-defendants did enter the Capitol on January 6. But Rhodes said it was stupid to go into the building, in part because it would give the Oath Keeper's political enemies a reason to come after them. And he pointed to this trial, now in its sixth week, as case in point. So he's clearly trying to distance himself from those who did enter the Capitol on January 6. But he was also trying to distance himself from other key aspects of the government's case.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by that?

LUCAS: Well, the government showed evidence that the Oath Keepers had stashed firearms at a Virginia hotel and had what they called a quick reaction force that was on call, ready to rush those weapons into D.C. on January 6 if they were needed. And Rhodes testified that he didn't control or have anything to do with that. He said he delegated authority and oversight of the operation on January 6 to others. He also denied telling Oath Keepers to delete self-incriminating messages from their cell phones after the Capitol attack on January 6. He said that that instruction to delete those messages was something that his lawyer, who is also his girlfriend, added on her own. It was not something that came from him.

INSKEEP: But, Ryan, what you're saying there points at some of the evidence that the government has laid out. How did prosecutors cross-examine him?

LUCAS: Well, this cross-examination was a big moment in this trial. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy did the cross-examination. She spent about 3 hours or so trying to poke holes in Rhodes' testimony and then highlight those holes for the jury. So Rhodes, for example, said that Oath Keepers provided security at events and protests in the past, said he - Oath Keepers never had an issue with the law before. Oath Keepers had never pointed a gun at anyone. Rakoczy, though, brought up an old story that an Oath Keeper had pointed a gun before at a protest, and it was at a Black man who was filming the group.

Rhodes also said he wasn't really in command on January 6, as I noted. He said pointedly that the buck didn't really stop with him. Rakoczy then showed a text message from before January 6, just days before, when Rhodes wrote in his own words that he was, quote, "in overall command." So there was a lot of that - the government using Rhodes' own words against him, showing the jury inflammatory text messages and audio recordings of Rhodes talking about fighting and coming with rifles in hand and taking action if Trump didn't take action.

INSKEEP: Does Rhodes' testimony bring this trial near the end?

LUCAS: Well, that's a good question. We are certainly moving closer. Rhodes' attorneys say they have a few more witnesses they expect to call. So they are planning on about another day and a half or so for their defense. The other four defendants are also expected to put on a defense. And the government has said it may want to put on a rebuttal case. So we still have a bit of a ways to go before this all wraps up and goes to the jury.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks as always.

LUCAS: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.