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Trial of Oath Keepers involved in Jan. 6 Capitol Riots gets underway

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

And now to Washington, D.C., where the biggest trial so far in the investigation into the attack on the U.S. Capitol is underway. The founder of the Oath Keepers extremist group and four others are charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with January 6. Jurors heard opening statements today, as did NPR's Ryan Lucas. He's on the line now from the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

SUMMERS: So there is a lot of interest in this trial. And as I mentioned, you were in the courtroom today. Can you give us a sense of what the scene was like there?

LUCAS: So like other January 6 trials, this one is at the federal courthouse just down the street from the Capitol, but this trial is different in that it is the most significant one so far from January 6. And it's significant because of who's on trial - five members or associates of the Oath Keepers, including the group's founder, Stewart Rhodes. But it's also significant because these individuals are charged with seditious conspiracy. They're accused of plotting to use force to prevent Joe Biden from taking office. As for the scene today, people lined up this morning to get into the courtroom. There was enough space for everybody, but the courtroom was full, although they did have the air conditioning cranked up, I have to say, so it is chilly inside. But to give you a sense of the importance of this case, the head of the Justice Department's National Security Division was in the front row this morning to listen to the government's opening statement.

SUMMERS: Interesting. OK, so what did the government say to open its case for the jury?

LUCAS: So Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler opened for the government. He spoke for just over an hour and 20 minutes, and he began by reminding jurors that the peaceful transfer of power has been a bedrock, he said, of American democracy for more than 200 years. And the five defendants on trial, he said, concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter that bedrock. He called their actions, quote, "an attack on the country itself." Now, Nestler used videos and excerpts from text messages and audio recordings to illustrate and try to show the jury how Rhodes and the others conspired. And I'll say the jury was paying very close attention to those. Most of them were taking notes throughout. One of the videos showed some of the defendants in tactical gear marching in military style up the steps into the Capitol on January 6. Now, Stewart Rhodes himself did not go in the building. Nestler said Rhodes instead was outside, like a general, he said, organizing, coordinating and surveying his troops, storming the building.

SUMMERS: OK, so that's what the prosecution said, Ryan, but what did you hear from the defense today?

LUCAS: Well, one of Rhodes' attorneys, Phillip Linder, went first, and he urged jurors to keep an open mind. He said Rhodes meant no harm to the Capitol on January 6, said Rhodes had no violent intent. Linder said that the Oath Keepers are basically a peacekeeping force, he described them. He said they were in D.C. that day to provide security, and he argued that the government is taking videos and texts and audio recordings out of context. He and attorneys for two other defendants, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell, also pushed back against something that the government has emphasized, and that's a quick reaction force, or QRF. The government says the Oath Keepers had a QRF with guns in Virginia on January 6 ready to rush into central D.C. if necessary. The defense attorneys say, no, this was not a unit to overthrow the government. It was purely a reactive - purely a defensive force.

SUMMERS: And, Ryan, as we look ahead here, what can we expect next?

LUCAS: Well, the jury heard testimony from the first witness today, who was an FBI agent. That's just the beginning. We expect around 40 witnesses in all in the government's case in chief. This trial is expected to last four to six weeks. So we've got a long way to go.

SUMMERS: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "LOVE PROCEEDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.