In the 22 months since the Jan. 6 attack, Americans have seen hundreds of criminal suspects face a variety of charges related to the assault on the Capitol. Some of the accused of have even been convicted of felonies and begun lengthy prison sentences.
The seditious conspiracy trial underway in Washington, D.C., however, is a qualitatively different kind of dispute. NBC News reported:
Opening statements began Monday in the seditious conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes alongside Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell.... The Justice Department alleges that Rhodes and members of his organization plotted to oppose the peaceful transfer of power, stockpiling guns in “quick reaction forces” just outside of D.C. that could be brought into the city at a moment’s notice.
As part of the proceedings, federal prosecutors revealed a recording in which Rhodes said just days after the Jan. 6 attack that his “only regret” about that day is that members of his pro-Trump paramilitary group didn't bring rifles.
In other words, the assault on the U.S. Capitol, according to the Oath Keepers founder, wasn’t quite violent enough.
Part of what makes these developments striking is the seriousness of the details. Prosecutors have alleged that Rhodes and his confederates conspired to use force to stop the peaceful transfer of power. To that end, they not only breached the Capitol, they also stashed a significant number of weapons, including grenades, just outside of D.C. in preparation for an escalated offensive.
Federal law enforcement has also alleged that it believes Oath Keepers members intended to launch a second armed attack intended to prevent President Joe Biden from taking office.
But as Rachel noted recently, there’s also a historical dimension to this: Rhodes’ case is the largest sedition trial in the United States since World War II. Charges like these are incredibly uncommon — Americans rarely try to overthrow their own government — and hard to prove.
That said, as a New York Times report explained, “Because of the nature of the Oath Keepers’ defense — and because of the government’s wealth of evidence — the trial is less likely to focus on disputes over what the group did in the days and weeks leading up to Jan. 6 than it is to hinge on the question of why they did it.”
In other words, there’s broad agreement about the basic details. We know what Rhodes and his allies did, and the defense attorneys aren’t making much of an effort to contest the revelations.
Instead, the lawyers are focused on intent, arguing that the Oath Keepers founder believed Donald Trump might invoke the Insurrection Act, which in turn would’ve extended legal protections to the right-wing activists, effectively deputizing them as the then-president’s armed militia.
Trump, we now know, did not invoke the Insurrection Act. And while Rhodes and his cohorts aren’t the first Americans to face sedition charges, they are the first to ever argue as a legal defense that they expected the White House to legitimize their alleged crimes.
What’s more, there’s ample reason to question the sincerity of the defense. From NBC News’ report:
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said that Rhodes’ references to the Insurrection Act were nothing more than an attempt to give legal cover for something that Rhodes, a Yale-educated attorney, knew was illegal. His proof? A recording of Rhodes saying the Insurrection Act references were “legal cover,” which Nestler played for the jury.
It’s going to be quite a trial. Watch this space.
The House Jan. 6 committee is holding its ninth public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 1 p.m. ET. Get expert analysis in real time on our live blog at msnbc.com/jan6hearings.