On January 6, 2021, as his comrades were smashing into the Capitol, right-wing Oath Keeper leader Stuart Rhodes yelled exactly what John Wilkes Booth did as he murdered President Abraham Lincoln in 1865: “Sic semper tyrannis!”
“Thus always to tyrants,” federal prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler translated from the Latin on Monday. Though Rhodes didn’t enter the Capitol proper, he shouted that phrase “like a general overseeing the battlefield,” the prosecutor explained.
At the opening arguments in the trial of Rhodes and four codefendants for seditious conspiracy, both sides conceded some shared basic facts: The men had been at the insurrection, all agreed. But the defense insisted that they were not guilty, because they believed they were acting at Donald Trump’s behest. Once again, Trump could come off as the most guilty guy. But the defendants look very dirty, too.
“That was their goal—to stop by whatever means necessary the lawful transfer of presidential power, including by taking up arms against the United States government,” Nestler said. They descended on Washington “to attack not just the Capitol, not just Congress, not just our government—but our country itself.”
Although Rhodes apparently didn’t enter the Capitol on January 6, he was garrulous about his insurrection plans, for weeks. Nestler explained how, before and after January 6, Rhodes tried to get Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, an ancient law that lets the president deploy military forces to put down a rebellion (which in this case would be a verified exercise of the popular vote).
On November 5, 2020, two days after the election, Rhodes reportedly wrote, “We MUST refuse to accept Biden as a legitimate winner,” an FBI agent testified. In a December 12 speech, Rhodes said, “Let’s get it on now while he [Trump] is still commander in chief.” The prosecution shared Rhodes’s January 6 messages to his confreres that show what he was waiting for. At 1:25 pm, according to the prosecution, Rhodes texted, “Pence is doing nothing. As I predicted.” Not long after, apparently without Rhodes, crowds in the Capitol were crying, “Hang Mike Pence!”
For weeks, the Oath Keepers were sure Trump’s move to invoke the Insurrection Act—which was impending, they believed—would make legal their effort to help him remain in office. But Nestler insisted that Trump never acted on their demand.
And later on the night of January 6, Rhodes wrote to a Trump associate, the prosecution claims: “My only regret is we should have brought rifles. We could have fixed this then and there.” The prosecution has evidence that Oath Keepers indeed brought rifles into D.C.-adjacent Virginia, at a minimum.
But the defense insists that Rhodes and his Oath Keeper allies were just awaiting word from Trump, and that whatever they did wouldn’t be illegal if Trump commanded them. Although abetting a coup would seem to be illegal—only if you see it as a coup, I guess.
Nine of the 33 alleged Oath Keepers members or associates arrested on charges related to January 6 have pleaded guilty, and several are expected to testify for the government against Rhodes, according to The Washington Post.
This is truly a trial in which, whoever wins, somebody loses. It would be a shame if Rhodes and friends got off by claiming that Trump had sanctioned their lawlessness (which I don’t see). It would be a shame if they face consequences but Trump got off, at least nominally, since he’s not charged here, by a finding that these cosplay revolutionaries weren’t taking orders from him, which made their violent plotting neither legal or patriotic—even as he abetted it daily.
But I think we’ve entered the breakneck-speed round of Trump’s legal troubles. So pay attention to this, and pay attention to the work of New York Attorney General Tish James and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis; wait another week for the next January 6 committee hearing, and pray that Attorney General Merrick Garland is moving faster than his careful countenance indicates. These are bad people doing criminal things. Somebody’s got to pay for it, and soon.