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Second seditious conspiracy trial against Oath Keepers begins with opening statements

<i>Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images/FILE</i><br/>A member of the right-wing group Oath Keepers stands guard during a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building on January 5
Getty Images
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images/FILE
A member of the right-wing group Oath Keepers stands guard during a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building on January 5

By Hannah Rabinowitz, CNN

Prosecutors on Monday presented opening arguments in a second trial against members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group accused of joining a monthslong plot to keep Joe Biden out of the White House, as the defense opened its own case saying the men have been “overcharged” and had no real plan.

The Justice Department prosecuted the first Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy case earlier this fall with mixed success — two leaders, including Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, were convicted of the charge while three others were acquitted. The two convictions vindicated, at least in part, how the department is prosecuting high-profile cases related to the US Capitol riot.

But in this case, brought against Oath Keepers Roberto Minuta, Joseph Hackett, David Moerschel and Edward Vallejo, federal prosecutors will likely have to adjust their arguments to explain how the four men, none of whom are alleged to be leaders of the militia, helped to orchestrate the violent plot.

That adjustment was on full display Monday, as prosecutor Troy Edwards delivered his opening argument to the jury. While prosecutors focused on lofty constitutional arguments, the Insurrection Act and the Electoral College vote in the first trial, Edwards instead emphasized that these defendants were focused on using “brute force” to keep Trump in power.

“In the defendant’s words, they were at war,” Edwards said. “These defendants agreed to and joined together to stop the transfer of power, and they were ready to do it by force. And on January 6, 2021, they did.”

The four defendants have all pleaded not guilty.

Edwards said that the four defendants took their cues from Rhodes, who was convicted earlier this month for his role in the alleged plot.

Prosecutors struggled at times during the first trial to explain whether Rhodes directly ordered his militia to enter the Capitol building. On Monday, Edwards pointed to a message from Rhodes telling his followers that America’s founding fathers “stormed the governor’s mansion in MA… They didn’t fire on them, but they street fought. That’s where we are now.”

“Recall that Rhodes had consistently told his troops to be ready, to be ready to act to stop the transfer of power. They were. Rhodes told them it was now time to take their place in history,” Edwards said. “They acted. Everything crystallized. They did what was necessary to stop that process.”

Edwards also worked to undercut any suggestion that the Oath Keepers were only present at the Capitol to hear Trump speak and to provide security for so-called VIPs — an argument that defense lawyers in the first trial used to argue that there was no premeditated conspiracy to storm the Capitol or stop the transfer of power.

The defendants “had a few other reasons to be at the Capitol than fighting the transfer of power. And we know this is normal because humans are complicated,” Edwards said.

When the Oath Keepers heard that the Capitol had been breached, Edwards said they hustled toward the chaos. “They abandoned anything they were doing that day and they activated their agreement to take matters into their own hands,” he said.

“A defendant’s unlawful action is not excused just because they talked about other things for a few months. A defendant is not off the hook just because they were there for more than one reason,” he added.

Edwards also preemptively struck at defense arguments that the Oath Keepers went into the Capitol to help law enforcement, telling the jury officers would testify that “none of these defendants helped them, they only presented a danger.”

Minuta, Moerschel, Hackett and Vallejo “perverted the Constitutional order” and “were willing to use force to push their view of the Constitution, their view of America on the country,” Edwards said, telling the jury that each defendant, at the end of the trail, should be found guilty of several charges, including seditious conspiracy.

‘Twitter fingers, not trigger fingers’

Defense lawyers for the four defendants said in their opening statements that their clients were being “overcharged” and that the militia did not have an explicit plan to storm the US Capitol. They painted the defendants as victims of the militia’s persuasive leader.

“There were no instructions, there was no plan,” Angela Halim, an attorney for Hackett, told the jury. “There was no unity of purpose.”

Halim said that prosecutors had an “understandable need to hold people accountable,” but had “tunnel vision” in the case of the Oath Keepers and “cherry-picked pieces plucked from here and there that supported their narrative.”

“Do not let them do that. Do not let them tell a story that is incomplete,” Halim said.

Vallejo’s defense attorney, Matthew Peed, also told the 12 jurors and four alternates that prosecutors “may have someone who did something wrong, but they are overcharging them,” and that it is the jury’s job to decide whether investigators “got it right.”

Several of the defense attorneys said their clients had been swept up in the events of 2020, including the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial justice protests that dominated the summer.

In Florida, Hackett was “subject to messaging that encouraged him and his community to be afraid. It wasn’t always clear what the precise threat was, but the message was always to be afraid,” Halim said.

Defense attorney Scott Weinberg said that his client, Moerschel, had a “steady diet from outlets like Newsmax and Fox News” that “tell you to be afraid.”

The defendants also were swayed by the passionate political tirades of Rhodes, some defense attorneys told the jury. Weinberg referred to Rhodes as a “right-wing televangelist” and a “faulty leader” who lives off member dues from Oath Keepers but was ultimately “incompetent” and could not have organized a conspiracy to stop the transfer of power.

Ultimately, Weinberg told jurors, they will see that prosecutors “overpromised and underdelivered” in their accusations against the Oath Keepers, which he described as people who were “out of shape, overweight, elderly, and really just wanted to play military.”

“I think Drake said it best,” Weinberg said, referencing the rapper: “These gentlemen had Twitter fingers, not trigger fingers.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.

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CNN’s Jack Forrest contributed to this report.

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