Prosecutors presented their opening arguments Monday in a second trial against members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group accused of joining a months-long plot to keep Joe Biden out of the White House.
The Justice Department prosecuted the first Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy case earlier this fall with mixed success – two leaders, including Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, were convicted of the charge while three others were acquitted. The two convictions vindicated, at least in part, how the department is prosecuting high-profile cases related to the US Capitol riot.
But in this case, brought against Oath Keepers Roberto Minuta, Joseph Hackett, David Moerschel and Edward Vallejo, federal prosecutors will likely have to adjust their arguments to explain how the four men, none of whom are alleged to be leaders of the militia, helped to orchestrate the violent plot.
That adjustment was on full display Monday, as prosecutor Troy Edwards delivered his opening argument to the jury. While prosecutors focused on lofty constitutional arguments, the Insurrection Act and the Electoral College vote in the first trial, Edwards instead emphasized that these defendants were focused on using “brute force” to keep Trump in power.
“In the defendant’s words, they were at war,” Edwards said. “These defendants agreed to and joined together to stop the transfer of power, and they were ready to do it by force. And on January 6, 2021, they did.”
The four defendants have all pleaded not guilty. Defense attorneys are now presenting their opening statements.
Edwards said that the four defendants took their cues from Rhodes, who was convicted earlier this month for his role in the alleged plot.
Prosecutors struggled at times during the first trial to explain whether Rhodes directly ordered his militia to enter the Capitol building. On Monday, Edwards pointed to a message from Rhodes telling his followers that America’s founding fathers “stormed the governor’s mansion in MA… They didn’t fire on them, but they street fought. That’s where we are now.”
“Recall that Rhodes had consistently told his troops to be ready, to be ready to act to stop the transfer of power. They were. Rhodes told them it was now time to take their place in history,” Edwards said.
“They acted. Everything crystallized. They did what was necessary to stop that process.”
Edwards also worked to undercut any suggestion that the Oath Keepers were only present at the Capitol to hear Trump speak and to provide security for so-called VIPs – an argument that defense lawyers in the first trial used to argue that there was no premeditated conspiracy to storm the Capitol or stop the transfer of power.
The defendants “had a few other reasons to be at the Capitol than fighting the transfer of power. And we know this is normal because humans are complicated,” Edwards said.
When the Oath Keepers heard that the Capitol had been breached, Edwards said they hustled toward the chaos. “They abandoned anything they were doing that day and they activated their agreement to take matters into their own hands,” he said.
“A defendant’s unlawful action is not excused just because they talked about other things for a few months. A defendant is not off the hook just because they were there for more than one reason,” he added.
Edwards also preemptively struck at defense arguments that the Oath Keepers went into the Capitol to help law enforcement, telling the jury officers would testify that “none of these defendants helped them, they only presented a danger.”
Minuta, Moerschel, Hackett and Vallejo “perverted the Constitutional order” and “were willing to use force to push their view of the Constitution, their view of America on the country,” Edwards said, telling the jury that each defendant, at the end of the trail, should be found guilty of several charges, including seditious conspiracy.
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