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Voting Rights Dead in Senate?; Sedition Charges Brought in January 6 Investigation. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 13, 2022 - 14:00   ET



JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: About 17 people have already been charged with conspiracy, Ana.

ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Thank you so much, Jessica Schneider, Jeffrey Toobin and Elliot Williams. I appreciate all of you.

That does it for me today. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York.

The news continues right now with Alisyn Camerota and Victor Blackwell.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: And thank you for being with us. I'm Victor Blackwell. Welcome to NEWSROOM.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: And I'm Alisyn Camerota.

We start with breaking news. For the first time, federal prosecutors have filed charges of sedition for the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The Justice Department just announcing charges against 11 people with the count of seditious conspiracy.

BLACKWELL: Among them is Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far right group the Oath Keepers.

There have been more than 725 people arrested in relation to the attack on the Capitol.

Let's go to CNN senior justice correspondent Evan Perez and CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig.

Evan, first, talk about this arrest of Stewart Rhodes.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Victor and Alisyn, this is a major, major step in this investigation.

And the arrest today of Stewart Rhodes and another prominent member of the Oath Keepers -- his name is Edward Vallejo -- his arrest happened in Arizona. And, in Rhodes' case, he was arrested in Texas.

They're now charged with seditious conspiracy. And this is a case that the Justice Department has been hinting at in court filings against some of the other members of the Oath Keepers who are already facing conspiracy charges, that they were building this case.

And what you hear, what you see in the documents that were unsealed today is this allegation that they say that, after the November 3, 2020, election, that Rhodes and these other members of the Oath Keepers conspired to oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power by January 20, 2021.

This is a charge that prosecutors have been looking at for some time. Merrick Garland and the leaders of the Justice Department tapped the brakes a little bit over the last few months to make sure, before this went ahead, that they could they could sustain this in court.

And you heard hints of this from the attorney general in his speech on the anniversary of January 6, where he said that the department was not just going to stop at some of the lower-level people, that they were going to pursue people, even people who were not inside the Capitol that day.

In the case of Stewart Rhodes, according to prosecutors, he was coordinating, he was giving locations to other people using Signal, the encrypted app, to communicate with other members of the Oath Keepers, telling them essentially what weapons to bring, what they could get away with inside the District of Columbia, and helping to coordinate the assault on the U.S. Capitol that day -- Alisyn, Victor.

CAMEROTA: Yes, this is major.

So, Elie, seditious conspiracy, what does it mean?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So, Alisyn, let me break that down into its two component parts.

First of all, sedition, the legal term sedition, as it's charged here, means made an effort to interfere with a lawful function of the federal government. As applied here, they're talking about the effort to obstruct Congress from counting the electoral votes. And then the second part of that is conspiracy.

Conspiracy just means an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime. Here, they allege conspiracy goes way beyond two or more people. Now, the thing to keep in mind is, this is really a landmark charge by the Justice Department.

We have seen up to this point 700-plus charges. This is the first time we have seen the Justice Department charge sedition or seditious conspiracy. I think those -- these charges, based on the complaints in the indictments that I have seen, are well-founded here. If anything, they're overdue, and focusing again, on the conspiracy piece.

We now know that, according to the Justice Department, a domestic extremist group, an organized domestic extremist group, was behind a significant part of this attack on the Capitol. That's an incredibly important statement by the Justice Department.

BLACKWELL: All right, Evan, break down this indictment for us, because there's a lot of information about how prepared and what steps this group was going to go to, to stay prepared on January 6. What do you know?

PEREZ: Right.

So, this indictment, it charges a total of 11 people as being part of this conspiracy, which includes, according to prosecutors, the decision to transport firearms and ammunition into Washington, D.C., recruiting members and affiliates to be part of this conspiracy, organizing, training, and to teach and learn paramilitary combat tactics, which, if you look at some of the video, you see some of the ways that these men moved onto police officers who were trying to defend the Capitol.


You could tell that they had practiced some of the paramilitary tactics that you see use there. And that's one of the things that the prosecutors are referring to. They said that they helped organize the bringing of weapons and supplies, including knives, batons, camouflage combat uniforms, and tactical vests, helmets, eye protection, radio equipment, all in order to carry out what, again, prosecutors are describing a very well-organized conspiracy that goes back weeks before January 6.

Again, a lot of the questions that have surrounded January 6 has been, was this just a spontaneous reaction by this group of people to storm the Capitol? Was this something that they had planned well in advance?

And according to this charge that you see being unsealed today in federal court, prosecutors are saying, no, this was something that was well-planned, and that these men, this group the Oath Keepers were a key part in essentially serving as the front end of what became over 1,000 people who went into the U.S. Capitol and took control of it for several hours, preventing the certification, at least for a time, of the U.S. president -- the new U.S. president.

CAMEROTA: Well, there you go, Elie. I mean, all of the poppycock about this was a spontaneous reaction, there were people in combat gear, there were people in battle fatigues.

And, by the way, this isn't just the Justice Department, correct me if I'm wrong, saying this. Some of the Oath Keepers have already begun cooperating with some of the investigators.

HONIG: Exactly right, Alisyn.

Let this put to rest the mythmaking and the revisionist history and the outright denialism around January 6. I mean, it's laid out there in black and white by the Justice Department, with, by the way, quite strong proof to back it up laid out in the indictment, including quoted electronic communications.

This indictment, when you read it, it is clear this was an organized effort. This was an effort that was organized not on the spot, but for days and weeks in advance. There were elements of weaponry, of armaments, of tactical movements.

And, again, the group that was putting this all together or one of the groups that was putting this all together was the Oath Keepers. We know who they are. That is a domestic extremist group. These are facts. The Justice Department lays them out very clearly in the indictment.

And that's why this is such a high-impact charge.

BLACKWELL: Yes, for some of those on Capitol Hill who have tried to whitewash what happened that day and talk about what they claim was spontaneous, we're learning from this indictment the allegation that Stewart Rhodes wrote this -- quote -- "We aren't getting through this without a civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, and spirit."

Evan, you talked about how the DOJ was pumping the brakes on a seditious conspiracy charge to make sure they could make the case.


BLACKWELL: Were they holding it specifically for Rhodes and Vallejo and these eight others? Or are you saying that they were holding off on charging anyone on this until they had this level of proof?

PEREZ: Yes, I think they -- there were some prosecutors, certainly the former acting U.S. attorney who was running these cases, Mike Sherwin, he thought this was ready to go, at least against some of the defendants that you already knew about, some of the 19 or so members of the Oath Keepers who already are facing charges.

He thought this was ready to go. He said so in an interview on "60 Minutes." Merrick Garland, who had just taken office, was not so ready. He wanted more work done by prosecutors. And I think that's what has happened in the past eight, nine months or so, is you see, for one, one of the things that happened is the FBI was able to talk to Stewart Rhodes, probably not something his lawyers would have wanted.

But Stewart Rhodes actually did talk to the FBI. They seized his communications devices. And so they were able to talk to him. And we don't know what exactly was said in those interviews. But that's going to be part of what the prosecutors are going to be using against him, his own words, and some of those communications, some of the things that you just pointed out, just read from the indictment.

I think what it was, for the attorney general, he's very cautious, he -- some would say risk-averse. He wanted to make sure, before you go to a charge that, again, hasn't been used successfully in the United States for decades, right -- this is not a charge that you bring every day. He wanted to make sure that the prosecutors had done the work.

And it appears that's what these -- this indictment is about. It's describing a conspiracy that goes way beyond what we have seen laid out in court documents until now -- Victor and Alisyn.


CAMEROTA: Yes, really interesting.

Elie, I mean, when you read through the details, it just all comes back, what we saw with our own eyes that day, what we watched for those hideous hours unfolding.

And then, because it's been a year, more than a year since -- for this to come out, there were those seeds of doubt that were planted by all the Trump loyalists, no, it was just basically a tourist visit. Senator Ron Johnson said this wasn't an armed attack.

And now, when you read the indictment, it's just all in such vivid Technicolor again.

HONIG: Yes, Alisyn, it's really a reality hit.

And one of the talking points of people who were trying to downplay January 6 was saying, well, look, just look at the charges from DOJ. All they have charged is a bunch of trespass and misdemeanors. That was true, really, up until this moment.

And I have been clamoring and I know others have been clamoring that what we saw happen on January 6 does meet the definition of sedition and seditious conspiracy. And now DOJ has taken that action.

And one of the big questions that I have now is, how much farther does this go? How much more broad does it go out? How much does it go perhaps to even higher levels? We shall see. People might flip off of this indictment. DOJ may have other evidence.

But, for now, this is a very powerful statement.

BLACKWELL: We have our Sara Sidner on the phone with us, who has covered this group and these leaders more comprehensively than any reporter I know.

Sara, first, tell us more about this Stewart Rhodes, Edward Vallejo, the leaders of the Oath Keepers.

SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I can tell you that I have had several conversations with Stewart Rhodes, who is the national leader, or at least was, of the Oath Keepers.

And there was -- it was really interesting, because when we looked at what happened with Oath Keepers, several members of the Oath Keepers were the first to be charged with conspiracy charges in the January 6 insurrection. That's what led us down the road to start looking at whether or not Stewart Rhodes was there at the time in D.C. on that day. And he indeed was.

There are pictures of him. There's video of him standing outside of the Capitol, though not going into the Capitol. But there's always been this question of whether or not he helped plan what ended up going down.

There is video of some of the members of the Oath Keepers inside the Capitol saying they F'ing stormed the Capitol. They're excited. They did this on their own social media, which is how in some ways they got busted.

But, for him, he has kind of stayed in the background since all of this has been going on. However, about 24 days -- actually, 24 days exactly after the attack at the Capitol, Stewart Rhodes was still spewing the big lie. And he was egging on his followers to act against what he called the illegitimate Biden regime.

He called Biden a king, instead of a president and said that this administration is afraid of us, and they have plans for us because they know we Oath Keepers and we who believe in this Stop the Steal big lie mentality are well-armed. He said that. He said it very plainly. He was online doing interviews with different far right interviewers.

And so he has been instrumental in pushing forward this -- the big lie, pushing forward this idea of fighting back against what they say is an illegitimate regime, which the numbers show is not.

And so there's been a lot of talk about whether or not he would be charged in this, because, if he took part in the planning, in the conspiracy that some of his other members have been charged with, that he would naturally be a target for being arrested and charged.

And here we are. Fast-forward these many months, and this is what has happened. It is stunning, though, because he has been very vocal and someone who has not shied away from making threats, whether veiled or just outright, and encouraging people to literally fight against the Biden administration.

CAMEROTA: Sara, stand by, if you would.

Elie, we're seeing more passengers now from the indictment. I will read one. On December 11, 2020, Rhodes sent a message to an invitation-only Signal group chat. It was titled "December 12. D.C. Security Leadership."

Rhodes stated that if president-elect Biden were to assume the presidency -- quote -- "It will be a bloody and desperate fight. We are going to have a fight. That can't be avoided."

I mean, it's just all spelled out.


HONIG: Yes, a few things jumped out to me about that passage, Alisyn, first of all, the date, December 11, right? That's virtually a month before January 6. That tells you something about the level of pre- planning.


Also, the use of that encrypted app. Encrypted means it can't be read normally. Now, law enforcement can get it, as we have seen in this case. But if you're using an encrypted app, it's usually for a reason. You're trying to hide something.

And then, finally, that passage, I think, lays out the object of the seditious conspiracy that's been charged here, to interfere with the transfer of power, to interfere with Congress doing its job to officially appoint Joe Biden as president.

So I think that's a really important passage. And there are passages like that throughout the indictment. And I think it's a statement about how strong DOJ's case is here.

BLACKWELL: All right, here's one more.

December 22 2020, again, weeks before the insurrection, this was an interview with a regional Oath Keepers leader. Rhodes stated that if president-elect Biden were able to assume the presidency -- quote -- "We will have to do a bloody, massively bloody revolution against them. That's what's going to have to happen."

Very clear here the intention for that day.

Evan, to you. There were others, in addition to Rhodes and Vallejo, who are now charged with seditious conspiracy, additional members of this group.

PEREZ: Right.

BLACKWELL: And should there be others who expected this charge would be coming?

PEREZ: Yes, I think you can -- you can bet that one of the things that's happening is, they're trying to figure out whether there's additional people who can be charged.

But one of the things that I think that stands out to me, guys, in some of these documents and trying to read up on this as we're going through it here is, we're getting a little bit more information about essentially the conspiracy that the prosecutors have been laying out now for more than a year, including the fact that, according to prosecutors, that the Oath Keepers had organized themselves to the point where they had essentially designated three different what they called quick-reaction forces, one from Arizona, one from North Carolina, and one from Florida, to be here in Washington.

Again, gives this impression, at least according to prosecutors, that this was a paramilitary or operation, that this wasn't just a spontaneous riot by a group of people who were upset about the president's -- or being driven on by the president's rhetoric on the speech that day, that these guys, as you can -- as you just read those Signal chats from mid-December, it's -- prosecutors are saying that these guys had organized themselves in a way that they were able to take advantage of the size of that crowd, which overwhelmed the Capitol Police.

One of the other things that we learned -- and it gives a sense of perhaps that they have some cooperation from some of the members of the Oath Keepers. I believe that's already been made public before. But that's how they can build a charge like this, is they clearly have the help of somebody who has some of the inner mechanics of the group, who has described to them what was going on that day, including perhaps some reconnaissance missions that were done in Washington before that day.

It gives you the sense again that this was not a spontaneous riot, that this was a conspiracy that was hatched well before January 6. And what we saw before our eyes was something that was well-planned weeks before.

CAMEROTA: Yes, I mean, I'm just, again, still reading from the indictment here, Sara.

And it says here that -- we saw some of the people with walkie-talkies communicating with their team, if we still have Sara on the phone.


CAMEROTA: And so here it is, where Watkins is making the announcement: "It's spread like wildfire that Pence has betrayed us. We're sticking together and sticking to the plan."

That suggests there was a plan. And also, I mean, as you point out, like, Stewart Rhodes is an interesting character. He himself was an Army paratrooper. I'm not sure if you mentioned that, and had a law degree at Yale. So he was putting his organizational skills, it appears, into a lot of this.

SIDNER: And that is what everyone from the investigative side has been looking at.

And what we all suspected right after, having seen the uniforms, the military uniforms, many of the people -- we should also note, many of the people that the Oath Keepers have tried to recruit -- they try to recruit former or current members of the military. They try to recruit former or current law enforcement officers, both federally and locally, and they have been able to do that.

And so they have people who have those skills that have been trained in war, that have been trained in police work, who know tactics, who know weapons. And so this was the concern all along when we actually saw this group of about nine to 10 people going in, in a very clear military-style line to get in. They were one after the other right next to each other.


And the question has always been, how much planning went into this? But if you look at some of the indictments before Stewart Rhodes has been indicted, you will see some of the same things. There was this idea from one of the alleged Oath Keepers that they were going to take guns and run them across the Potomac, right, to a specific place.

So there are a lot of little details in some of the other conspiracy charges that are starting to match up with what you are now seeing in the charges against the national leader of the Oath Keepers.

And I want to -- I want to make this quick point. There was -- there are a lot of different groups of Oath Keepers, right, in a lot of different places, a lot of chapters, if you will. And one of the chapters in North Carolina wrote a letter to their sheriff right after January 6 and the attack, and they decided to break off from the national Oath Keepers.

And they said they were really disturbed by what happened on January 6, that they wanted no part of this, and suspected that Rhodes was involved. And they didn't want anything to do with it. So they broke off.

You can bet that the investigators in this have been trying to talk to people like that, who may know something, but as well as those who have either already been convicted or already pled, and those who are currently incarcerated and waiting for their day in court.

So this is a very big deal, to put it plainly, that someone in his position who has been running this organization for many years is now being charged with such a seditious conspiracy. It's like one of the highest charges they can charge people with who took part in this, someone, by the way, who I don't think there's any evidence that he actually breached the Capitol that day.

This is about planning. This is about conspiring. This is about creating the world that you saw that day on January 6, creating that and making it something that they could go through with. And they did. Some of the members of the Oath Keepers were the first, like I said, to be charged with conspiracy charges in this case.

CAMEROTA: Sara Sidner, Evan Perez, Elie Honig, thank you all so much for helping us understand the background and understanding this big breaking news.

All right, meanwhile, President Biden is meeting with Democrats on Capitol Hill right now, hoping to do something very challenging, and that is pushes voting rights legislation over the goal line. But two key Democrats are still standing in his way.

So we will go live to D.C. for all that next.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: First of all, you all ask questions about complicated subjects like, can you get this done?

I hope we can get this done. The honest to God answer is, I don't know that we can get this done.

Is this mic on? I guess. Anyway.


And I'm not sure either.

But, anyway, I hope we can get this done. But I'm not sure. But one thing for certain, one thing for certain. Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try the second time.

We miss this time, we miss this time, and the state legislative bodies continue to change the laws not as to who can vote, but who gets to count the vote, count the vote, count the vote. It's about election subversion, not just whether or not people get to vote. Who counts the vote?

That's what this is about. That's what makes this so different than anything else we have ever done. I don't know that we can get it done, but I know one thing. As long as I have a breath in me, as long as I'm in the White House, as long as I'm engaged at all, I'm going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures have moved.

Thank you.

BLACKWELL: President Biden there after meeting with senators, trying to get this -- voting rights bills across the finish line.

Of course, that will require some movement on the filibuster.

This morning, the House -- no, let's just bring in Manu Raju, who's on Capitol Hill following everything that's happening there.

What can you tell us, if anything, about this meeting and the effort -- we also have Astead Herndon with us as well -- the effort to convince these last two senators?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's not going very well for the White House. In fact, they are bound to fail.

There's virtually no path for this happening. Kyrsten Sinema shut the door to any changes to Senate filibuster rules, even before Joe Biden came here. And remember just the process of how this would play out. In order to pass a bill through the regular order to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, that requires 60 votes. That means 50 Democrats, 10 Republicans.

Republicans are steadfast against these two bills that Democrats are trying to approve, the Freedom to Vote Act and also the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. They oppose that. Now, the other way is to change the rules. In order to change the rules to allow the bill to pass by just 51 votes, 50 votes, with Kamala Harris breaking the tie, they need all Democrats on board in the 50/50 Senate.

Sinema said she will not support lowering the 60-vote threshold. She worries that could have drastic ramifications for the country in the long term. Joe Manchin has not been in favor of that as well. He also opposes changing the rules along party lines, meaning that there is no path for Joe Biden to move this, despite him investing political capital, despite him going to Georgia earlier this week, and despite him coming up here to the Senate Democratic lunch, in which he told Democrats, I'm told from a Democratic senator, that if there are no voting rights bill, that there are no rights at all.

And, also, I'm told that Manchin asked a question to Biden also in this meeting, and Kyrsten Sinema, according to Bob Menendez, did not speak to President Biden at this lunch. We will try to get a further readout from other members, as they're now just starting to depart here.

But, ultimately here, guys, Joe Biden made it clear, "I'm not sure this can get done," because they simply just do not have the votes. And the question will be, what do they do after the almost certain failure here that's bound to happen here in just a matter of a couple of days?

CAMEROTA: All right, so, Astead, that's the important process.

I want to talk about the substance. Are Senators Sinema and Manchin as worried about what we just heard there in President Biden's, I think, very forceful comments to journalists, where he just said, this isn't about who gets to vote, it's about who gets to count the votes?

Mitch McConnell came out yesterday and said, basically, that President Biden was fearmongering and that some states are increasing their hours of voting. It's about who's going to be overseeing the voting. That's what sends a shiver down a lot of Democrats' spines.


And I think that's the evolution of this issue. Originally, we saw voting rights specifically as the kind of classic question of voter suppression, the images we're used to seeing, the famous things from the civil rights movement, the Bull Connors, the poll taxes.

But what you have is President Biden now talking about another issue, election subversion, which has become the topic of -- specifically after the 2020 race, where...

CAMEROTA: Yes, Astead, I'm sorry to interrupt. Hold on.

Here is Senator Chuck Schumer giving his impressions.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): ... to pass these two bills. Thank you.

CAMEROTA: OK. That was short.

He's saying he's going to do everything he can to pass these two bills. But, again, Astead, I come back to you. And you're right. The vision of what is at stake here has shifted.

HERNDON: Yes. CAMEROTA: And do Senators Sinema and Manchin, do they talk about

that? Do -- are they worried about that?

HERNDON: Yes, in their words, they say that they share those same concerns, but where they differ is on the process.