Oath Keepers leader talks to Jan. 6 panel from federal jail
WASHINGTON (AP) — Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, appeared remotely before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection on Wednesday from a federal jail where he is awaiting trial on sedition charges.
The panel sought out Rhodes’ testimony even after he was arrested last month on charges that he plotted with others to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. He and 10 others were the first to be charged with seditious conspiracy for their roles in the violent insurrection. Rhodes has entered a not guilty plea.
Rhodes’ appearance was confirmed by two of his lawyers, Jonathan Moseley and James Lee Bright. A spokesman for the Jan. 6 committee declined to comment on the interview.
“He is both answering some questions and not answering others under the Fifth Amendment and preserving his due process rights to a fair trial,” Moseley said in an email as the interview was ongoing.
Rhodes’ testimony came as the panel also interviewed Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official who aligned with former President Donald Trump ahead of the violent attack. The committee of seven Democrats and two Republicans has interviewed nearly 500 people, casting a wide net as they try to create the most comprehensive account yet of the worst attack on the U.S. Capitol in two centuries.
It is unusual for Congress to interview federal inmates awaiting trial and for defendants to speak about their case, since they could incriminate themselves. The indictment against Rhodes alleges that the Oath Keepers for weeks discussed trying to overturn the election results and prepared for a siege by purchasing weapons and setting up battle plans.
The indictment alleges Oath Keepers formed two teams, or “stacks,” that entered the Capitol. The first stack split up inside the building to separately go after the House and Senate. The second stack confronted officers inside the Capitol Rotunda, the indictment said. Outside Washington, the indictment alleges, the Oath Keepers had stationed two “quick reaction forces” that had guns “in support of their plot to stop the lawful transfer of power.”
Rhodes’ lawyers sought to keep him jailed in Texas if he isn’t going to be freed on bond, but a federal judge refused on Wednesday to block his transfer to Washington, D.C., where dozens of other Capitol riot defendants remain detained pending trial.
The House panel was also interviewing the former Justice Department official, Clark, on Wednesday. Clark appeared for the interview in person after months of delays that the committee said was due to illness.
The panel voted to recommend contempt charges against Clark in December after he appeared for a Nov. 5 deposition but refused to be interviewed, citing Trump’s legal efforts to block the committee’s investigation. A vote of the full House on contempt charges was postponed after Clark’s lawyer said he would appear a second time.
Clark met with Trump ahead of the insurrection and unsuccessfully pushed his then-supervisors to publicly announce that the department was investigating election fraud and direct certain state legislatures to appoint new electors, according to a Senate Judiciary Committee report released earlier this year. The report said that Trump’s pressure on the Justice Department culminated in a dramatic White House meeting at which the president ruminated about elevating Clark to attorney general.
Trump did not do so after several aides threatened to resign, but he continued to push the baseless claims of fraud that were repeated by the violent mob of his supporters as they broke into the Capitol and interrupted Biden’s certification. State election officials, courts across the country and even Trump’s own attorney general rejected the former president’s claims of widespread fraud.
Clark’s lawyer said in December that his client would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in the second interview. The chairman of the Jan. 6 panel, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said then that Clark had offered “no specific basis” for asserting the 5th Amendment and that he viewed it as a “last-ditch attempt to delay the Select Committee’s proceedings.” But he said members would hear Clark out.
Billeaud reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland, and Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.