WASHINGTON (AP) — A member of the Oath Keepers who traveled to Washington before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol testified Wednesday about a massive cache of weapons the far-right extremist group stashed in a Virginia hotel room.
Taking the stand in the seditious conspiracy case against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four associates, Terry Cummings showed jurors an AR-15 firearm and an orange box for ammunition that he contributed to the so-called quick reaction force the Oath Keepers had staged at the hotel outside of Washington in case they needed weapons.
“I had not seen that many weapons in one location since I was in the military,” said Cummings, a veteran who joined the Oath Keepers in Florida in 2020.
Weapons allegations center to federal case
Prosecutors have said teams of Oath Keepers guarded the arsenal of firearms and were prepared to rush them into the hands of extremists in the capital if needed.
The alleged teams and the cache of weapons are a central piece of the Department of Justice’s case against Rhodes and four associates charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 attack. Members of the Oath Keepers stashed the firearms just outside Washington district limits, given the capitol’s tougher gun laws.
Authorities have alleged the teams and the stockpile of arms were designed to get weapons into Oath Keepers’ hands quickly if they were needed to support a plot to stop the transfer of power from Republican Donald Trump to Democrat Joe Biden.
Cummings’ testimony came in the second week of the trial that is expected to last several weeks. The others on trial are Thomas Caldwell of Berryville, Virginia; Kenneth Harrelson of Titusville, Florida; Jessica Watkins of Woodstock, Ohio; and Kelly Meggs of Dunnellon, Florida.
Defense insists forces were defensive
Defense lawyers have not denied the existence of the quick reaction teams but noted that they were never deployed on Jan. 6. They have accused prosecutors of falsely portraying them as an invasion force.
Defense lawyers have said the Oath Keepers often set up quick reaction forces for events, but insist they were defensive forces only to be used to protect against violence from antifa activists or in the event Trump invoked the Insurrection Act. They are not facing any gun charges for bringing the weapons to Virginia.
Rhodes’ lawyers have said they will argue that cannot find him guilty of seditious conspiracy because all the actions he took before Jan. 6 were in preparation for orders he anticipated from Trump under the Insurrection Act, which gives presidents wide discretion to decide when military force is necessary.
Cummings told jurors that he traveled to Washington on Jan. 6 with other Oath Keepers to be part of a VIP security detail for Trump’s rally at the Ellipse. He said he saw it as an opportunity to “express my First Amendment rights” and see a sitting president speak, which he had never done.
Cummings said his understanding was the quick reaction forces “would potentially be used not as an offensive situation, but more as a show of force.”
Cummings said he was part of a group that acted as a security team for a VIP at Trump’s rally before the riot. Cummings and other Oath Keepers left before Trump’s speech was finished and went toward the Capitol.
He recalled Meggs talked about entering the Capitol – something Cummings didn’t think was a good idea. He then split off to find a bathroom, and when he returned the group was gone. The group entered the Capitol while he was away, he said. Up to an hour later, Cummings rejoined fellow Oath Keepers from Florida, and eventually Rhodes appeared as well.
Gun boxes, rifle cases, suitcases of ammunition
Cummings said he did not hear any talk about plans to storm or attack the Capitol, though he also said he wasn’t in a position of leadership. He has not faced criminal charges, was subpoenaed to testify for the government and acknowledged on the stand that he has contributed to the legal defense fund of some of the defendants.
Authorities have said that Meggs and the Florida Oath Keepers on Jan. 5 brought gun boxes, rifle cases and suitcases filled with ammunition to the Virginia hotel that served as the home for the quick reaction force. Another team from Arizona brought weapons, ammunition, and supplies to last 30 days, according to court papers. A team from North Carolina had rifles in a vehicle parked in the hotel lot, prosecutors have said.
Prosecutors have described surveillance footage that they say shows Oath Keepers rolling bags, large bins and what appears to be at least one rifle case into the hotel.
Over several days in early January, Rhodes spent $15,500 on guns, including an AR-platform rifle, magazines, mounts, sights and other equipment, prosecutors have said. Caldwell, in one message, suggested getting a boat to ferry “heavy weapons” across the Potomac River into the Oath Keepers’ “waiting arms.”
A former Oath Keeper from North Carolina last week described setting up a quick reaction force for the “Million MAGA March” in Washington on Nov. 14, 2020, in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act. Thousands of Trump supporters that day gathered at Freedom Plaza along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to rally behind Trump’s false election claims.
The former Oath Keeper, John Zimmerman, told jurors that the Oath Keepers stashed at least a dozen rifles and several handguns in his van parked at Arlington National Cemetery to serve as the quick reaction force on that occasion. He said they never took the guns into Washington.
Associated Press writer Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.