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Oath Keepers Leader Stewart Rhodes Talked Like He Had a ‘Direct Line’ to Donald Trump, Ex-Member Testifies

Graydon Young

Graydon Young (Photo via DOJ)

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes spoke as if he had a “direct line” to former President Donald Trump in an encrypted chat forum for Florida members of the extremist group, a cooperating witness testified on Monday.

The exchange occurred on Christmas Day in a Signal chat titled “OKFL Hangout.” Before and after that day, then-Oath Keepers member Graydon Young saw the appearance by the group’s leader as unusual. For Young, it felt like a CEO showing up to the local branch of a major bank.

What’s more, Young said, Rhodes appeared to have an uncommon degree of intelligence about efforts to reverse Trump’s defeat. Young quickly jockeyed to pick the boss’s brain.

“What’s your opinion on the likely outcome on 1/6 based on the current situation and Trumps dithering?” one chat shows him saying.

“He is being advised to wait till the 6th in reliance of Congress,” Rhodes wrote, adding later: “I’m working to get him to see the other options and put them on the table.”

At 6:58 p.m. on Christmas Day, Rhodes wrote: “He [Trump] needs to know that if he fails to act then we will. He needs to understand that we will have no choice.”

During his lengthy turn on the witness stand, Young recounted his radicalization after watching hours of election denialist videos every day on YouTube. He also described the low opinion that he formed of Trump associate Roger Stone, a friend of the group who relied on Oath Keepers for security.

“I wasn’t really impressed, to be honest,” ex-Oath Keepers member Young said of Stone.

After that first encounter with the longtime GOP operative, Stone said: “My opinion was less.”

Often described as a “dirty trickster,” Stone has been a longtime figure in Republican dating back to the days of Richard Nixon, whose face Stone has tattooed on his back. Stone also has a reputation for unleashing Nixonian tactics on perceived political enemies. He was convicted of obstruction, witness intimidation and other charges during the Robert Mueller investigation, until Trump pardoned him after Stone pointedly remarked that he could have turned on the former president.

For Young, however, Stone overstated his actual clout.

“I don’t think he has any political power,” Young said. “He thinks he does.”

Stone did have in-roads, however, in right-wing extremist groups. The Jan. 6th Committee revealed that both the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys had encrypted chat forums titled “F.O.S.,” short from “Friends of Stone.”

A photograph introduced into evidence shows Stone flashing his arms and hands up in Nixon’s iconic “victory” signs. The Oath Keepers members at his side, like Young, emulate the gesture.

Before he mingled with Stone, Young stewed over what he believed to be a stolen election. He said that he would get “really emotionally invested” watching videos on the topic via YouTube and Facebook.

“I get really ginned up,” he recalled.

Eventually, Young said, he felt the need for action. Evidence showed that he urged a more hardline stance on an Oath Keepers group chat on Signal on Dec. 20, 2020.

“So far, they’ve successfully suppressed and ignored our marches and protests… something more is required,” Young, writing under the handle “GenX,” said.

When Jan. 6th arrived, Young said, it seemed in his mind to be like the storming of the Bastille that began the French Revolution. Though the pro-Trump mob succeeded in delaying the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory, that heady rush for Young was short-lived.

Young said that he and his sister incinerated their tactical gear and Oath Keepers T-shirt in a burn pit. He also admitted that deleted certain Signal messages.

In June, Young pleaded guilty to two felonies.

“I participated in a conspiracy to obstruct Congress,” he said.

As he described his obligations under that agreement, Young appeared to choke up, and his voice cracked. “I was guilty, and I knew that,” he said. He reached for a tissue from the bench and rubbed his face with it.

On cross examination, Rhodes’s attorney James Lee Bright tried to undermine the notion that there was any criminal conspiracy — even if Young pleaded guilty to one. Bright tried to make Young angry that he never testified to an agreement to commit a crime.

That was true, Young acknowledged, but he added that he thought one was implied.

The top charge against the Oath Keepers, seditious conspiracy, punishes attempts to overthrow the government or stop of the execution of one of its laws by force. According to Bright, Young told the FBI that there was no explicit plan to enter the Capitol on Jan. 6th.

Agreeing, Young said: “We all just went in.”

“It was just spontaneous?” Bright asked.

Young replied in the affirmative. Defense attorneys in the five-defendant took turns hammering the same themes. Attorney Juli Haller, a former Trump Homeland Security staffer who represents Oath Keepers Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs, noted that Young did not plead guilty to assault, nor was he not violent on Jan. 6. Young also told rioters not to damage property, she said.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors emphasized that the Oath Keepers had a group waiting inside a Comfort Inn in Alexandra, Va., where they had stashed firearms ready to deploy.

Referring to this so-called quick reaction force, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler asked Young: “Who told them that there was an extra gun with your name on it?”

“Mr. Meggs,” Young replied.

Though defense counsel for the Oath Keepers took turns trying to minimize his actions, Young ended his testimony with a blistering self-assessment: “I guess I was acting like a traitor — someone against my own government,” he testified, before leaving the witness stand.

Young was not the only cooperating witness to suggest a relationship between Rhodes and the former president.

In admissions accompanying his guilty plea, ex-Oath Keepers member William Todd Wilson asserted that he overheard Rhodes trying to reach Trump in a phone call shortly after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The conversation allegedly occurred at the Phoenix Hotel at around 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Jan. 6, 2021.

Inside a private suite of the hotel, Wilson said, Rhodes put the person on the other line on speaker phone.

“Wilson heard Rhodes repeatedly implore the individual to tell President Trump to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to forcibly oppose the transfer of power,” Wilson admitted in a signed statement of facts accompanying his guilty plea. “This individual denied Rhodes’s request to speak directly with President Trump. After the call ended, Rhodes stated to the group, ‘I just want to fight.'”

It is unclear whether prosecutors will call Wilson to tell the jury his account. Though he has a cooperation agreement, prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta that they have only one more civilian witness before the government rests its case this week. Rhodes is expected to testify in his defense.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."