Oath Keepers Militia Members Face Seditious Conspiracy Charges : The NPR Politics Podcast Jury selection has begun in the trail of five members or associates of the far-right group over their alleged role in the Jan. 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol. The charges are the most serious that the Justice Department has pursued in conjunction with the attack.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, justice correspondent Ryan Lucas, and congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales.

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Oath Keepers Militia Members Face Seditious Conspiracy Charges

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SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Susan Davis from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. And Atlanta, come see us live. Join me, Mara Liasson, Asma Khalid, Tamara Keith, Miles Parks, Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler and WABE's Rahul Bali as we do our show live at the Buckhead Theatre, Thursday, October 20, at 8 p.m. You can find more information about tickets, including student ones, at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners at Georgia Public Broadcasting, WABE and WCLK Jazz. We hope to see you there.

MCKENZIE: Hi. This is McKenzie (ph) from Paeonian Springs, Va., coming to you from inside Harold the Bus...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Ah.

MCKENZIE: ...A decommissioned school bus that we converted into a mobile classroom and makerspace.

KEITH: Oh, wow.

MCKENZIE: This podcast was recorded at...

KEITH: 1:32 p.m. on Wednesday, the 28 of September.

MCKENZIE: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I'll still be driving around town in my learning adventure bus.

KEITH: (Laughter).

MCKENZIE: All right. Enjoy the show.

KEITH: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYMBALS CLANGING)

KEITH: What was that?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Whoa.

KEITH: (Laughter).

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KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LUCAS: I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: And I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

KEITH: The trial has begun for the Oath Keepers - well, five of them at least. This is a far-right, anti-government group that was involved in the attack on the Capitol on January 6. And the trial of the Oath Keepers' founder and several members of its group happening - starting this week is the highest-profile January 6 case so far to come to trial. Ryan, you - I hear the sounds. You are outside of the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., right now for the trial.

LUCAS: That's right. I am - popped out of jury selection to come talk to you guys. But yeah, I'm sitting outside the federal courthouse in D.C. I've got Pennsylvania Avenue in front of me, the courthouse to my left and just over the trees here, I can actually glimpse a bit of the Capitol - so right where all the things that, you know, we're eventually going to be talking about in this trial transpired.

KEITH: And to be clear, you are not auditioning for the jury. You are there to cover this trial. And...

LUCAS: Correct.

KEITH: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: I do want you, though, to tell us about what this trial is about. What are federal prosecutors accusing the Oath Keepers of doing?

LUCAS: Well, the five people who are going on trial here are among 11 individuals who are either members of the Oath Keepers or have ties to the group who have been charged with a number of crimes involved in January 6, connected to January 6. But the biggest one that we really should talk about is seditious conspiracy. The government accuses them of conspiring to use force to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president. They say that they recruited, they trained, they organized to come to Washington, D.C., to try to block Congress, the certification of the Electoral College count on January 6.

Prosecutors say that these defendants had weapons stashed at a hotel just across the river from D.C. in Virginia, ready to ferry downtown towards the Capitol into downtown D.C. if they decided that they were necessary. Several members - several of the defendants actually entered the Capitol or are accused of entering the Capitol. There are videos that put them inside. But the fact that they are charged here with sedition, with attempting to use force to block the execution of U.S. law - in this case, the peaceful transfer of power - is a big charge. It's the biggest, most important charge that we've seen come out of the January 6 investigation so far.

KEITH: Yeah. Claudia, as folks heard on the podcast yesterday, these trials are happening as there is an ongoing congressional investigation that you've been covering closely. There was supposed to be a hearing today, but...

GRISALES: Right.

KEITH: ...That has been postponed. What are you expecting from Congress on this front?

GRISALES: Right. So, yes, that hearing was postponed, they said, because of Hurricane Ian. And so we're supposed to hear about a new date for a next hearing sometime soon is what the leaders of the Jan. 6 panel said yesterday. So we're going to see what more evidence they want to present.

In the meantime, when they launched their blockbuster hearings earlier this summer, sharing some of their investigative findings, one of the central issues they touched on was this concern about seditious conspiracy and pointing to these Justice Department cases where folks were criminally charged with this - some pleading guilty - and as Ryan is talking about now, some of these more high-profile cases that are now headed to trial.

And so one interesting argument that we heard Democrats on the panel make, as well as the vice chair, Republican Liz Cheney, is that others should be considered for these charges as well for seditious conspiracy - others higher up the ladder. As Ryan was mentioning, some of these Oath Keepers were said to be providing security for some of these Trump allies, advisers, what have you. And so that's one thing that you can hear from the committee, even probably to this day and maybe in the coming months that others - such as those who were seen with the Oath Keepers that got security, that coordinated - should be considered, that were closer to the former president and maybe even the former president himself.

LUCAS: It's interesting kind of the overlap between the January 6 committee in its hearings and what's going on in federal court here in the sense that, you know, we've had jury selection that started yesterday in the Oath Keepers' trial. And one of the things that potential jurors are being asked is whether they have watched the January 6 hearings, how much attention they've paid to news coverage of the January 6 hearings and the events of January 6 writ large. And interestingly, a lot of them have in some way, shape or form paid attention to it. These are, of course, all D.C. residents, so they are people who kind of felt the effects of January 6 itself or the aftershocks.

But, you know, ultimately, even though these potential jurors have in some way, shape or form perhaps been affected by January 6, the judge presiding over this case has made the distinction between having experienced January 6 as a resident of D.C., but being able to set all of those emotions and preconceptions aside and judge this case and the evidence that's presented against these five defendants on the merits. And that's something that's being asked, of course, of every juror and potential juror. And we'll see if we can get to the required number that we need in the next couple of days here.

GRISALES: Yeah. I think it's interesting, Ryan, that you raise that point. When I've talked to constituents or voters around the country when I've traveled, in some cases - for example, I was in Texas earlier this summer, and I'll ask folks because I've been covering this - have you been tracking the January 6 hearings? And more than once I've heard, what January 6 hearings? So it just plays out differently in different parts of the country, and it's going to be a popular topic or more popular in the town we're in now.

KEITH: All right. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, more on the prosecutions coming out of January 6.

And we're back. And, Ryan, with this Oath Keepers' case, what kind of punishment could these defendants face if they're convicted?

LUCAS: So just on the central charge in this case, which is the one that everyone's really paying attention to here - on the central charge of seditious conspiracy, that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, which is a significant sentence. The government's track record in bringing seditious conspiracy cases is mixed. They don't bring this charge a lot, only around a half dozen times in the past 40 years or so. And the most recent case was in 2010 against a militia in Michigan. And the government didn't win that case. The judge ultimately threw it out for lack of evidence of a conspiracy. And, you know, those defendants never actually took action against the government.

In the case here with January 6, what former prosecutors tell me and defense attorneys say, there's a big distinction is that in this case you have the defendants at the scene of the crime. You have them on video. And so the government may have an easier job making the case to jurors here, marshalling the evidence to convince them that they should be convicted of seditious conspiracy.

KEITH: I want to pull back slightly from this particular case to the sort of the broader spectrum of prosecutions around January 6 because there have been a lot more people getting sentenced recently, it seems like. And some of those sentences have been very long, including someone sentenced yesterday.

LUCAS: That's right. I mean, a lot of the early cases that we saw were misdemeanor-type cases, really kind of the folks who showed up at the Capitol, went into the building, but didn't necessarily do any property destruction, didn't fight with police, didn't attack law enforcement. And so they were getting short sentences. But what we're seeing now, we're getting into the people who have been accused and, in cases now, convicted of assaulting police. The gentleman who you referenced who was sentenced yesterday, a man from Iowa, he received a sentence of 86 months - so more than seven years in prison for assaulting police on January 6.

As we get into kind of the more serious cases, I think the seditious conspiracy case against the Oath Keepers, which is - it'll be the first of three seditious conspiracy trials at the tail end of this year - this is really the big, meaty cases that have come out of January 6 so far. Whether we'll see other ones that perhaps tackle folks more on the political end of the spectrum, I don't know. The Justice Department is obviously still working its investigation, but these cases, particularly this one involving the Oath Keepers' founder, Stewart Rhodes, really are the highest-profile, most consequential prosecutions that we've seen to this point in the January 6 investigation.

KEITH: Claudia, politically, do you have a sense of how much or in what way these trials and these prosecutions matter?

GRISALES: Well, it's kind of interesting seeing the back and forth between, for example, the House select January 6 committee and the criminal investigations, the public conversation, if you will, between this committee and the Justice Department, pressure from the committee to see the ball move forward in terms of these criminal cases. And so, in many ways, members of this panel see kind of their mission to present what really happened, what fueled the January 6 attack. They see that validated with these criminal investigations as they pick up pace. And they continue to look at, perhaps, folks even higher up the ladder as we've heard about the criminal investigation potentially involving even the former president.

And so a lot of this, politically, you could say, Democrats see it as a payoff. They kept hearing from folks as they were putting out their findings that more needs to be done in terms of criminal charges. And this really gets to that point for the committee. And perhaps this is something they can respond to when it comes up with voters who really wanted to see some consequences here.

KEITH: I really think that this is on three tracks, right? Like, you've got the congressional hearings and the findings that they have and the political case that they're making. You have these prosecutions and the Justice Department case that's being built and presented. And then you have these elections that are coming up in November where you have candidates on the ballot who were at the Capitol on January 6 or were in Washington for the protest and for the riot or who were part of the effort to put forward alternate electors. So you have, like, multiple levels where there could be something decisive that happens, that the voters could decide, no, we don't want those people or, yes, we are totally fine with those people being elected. And that may ultimately say more about how this history gets written.

We are going to leave it there for now. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LUCAS: I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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