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Oath Keepers Founder in Court; President Biden's Rough Week. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 14, 2022 - 14:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining us on NEWSROOM. I'm Alisyn Camerota.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: And I'm Victor Blackwell.

A short time from now, the leader of the far right extremist group the Oath Keepers is due to appear in federal court. Now, Stewart Rhodes is one of 11 defendants who the Justice Department charged with sedition for their involvement in the January 6 insurrection.

CAMEROTA: These are the most significant charges in the investigation so far. Prosecutors say Rhodes and others used encrypted communications to coordinate their actions leading up to January 6.

And prosecutors say Rhodes was planning for violence well beyond January 6. They say, in the week after the attack on the Capitol, he spent more than $17,000 on weapons, equipment and ammunition. And before Inauguration Day, Rhodes allegedly tried to organize local militias to oppose by force the transfer of power.

CNN's Ed Lavandera joins us live now from Plano, Texas, outside the courthouse.

Ed, what will we see it this appearance?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Stewart Rhodes is scheduled to appear here in federal court in the next hour.

It's expected to probably be a brief hearing, since it's his initial court appearance here in federal court, this the day after Stewart Rhodes was arrested in the town of Little Elm, a suburb in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

And according to the 48-page indictment, Stewart Rhodes has been -- is facing five criminal charges, including that most serious charge of seditious conspiracy. And federal prosecutors are saying that Rhodes and others spearheaded an attempt to oppose the peaceful transfer of presidential power and were plotting to prevent this transfer of power using force.

In that indictment, they detail some stunning and new allegations that we have heard here, the most we have heard in the last year. The federal prosecutors say they intercepted communications that were used through the encrypted app Signal.

In those text messages that they got and captured, prosecutors say that Stewart Rhodes texted: "We will have to do a bloody ,massively bloody revolution against them. That's what's going to have to happen. We aren't going through this without a civil war. Prepare your body, mind and spirit."

The indictment also goes on to outline that, as Stewart Rhodes drove from Texas up to Washington, D.C., prior to January 6, that, on January 3, he bought firearms and firearm gear here in Texas. On January 4, he stopped in Mississippi to buy more firearms and gear. And also, as you mentioned, Alisyn, a week after, he spent more than $17,000 on more firearm gear.

We were at the home where Stewart Rhodes was arrested yesterday, watched FBI agents remove carfuls of evidence and equipment from inside that home. Exactly what it was, we don't know.

But an attorney for Stewart Rhodes says that, despite all of the evidence outlined in this federal indictment, that the prosecutors still have a long way to go to prove their case.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I read the indictment, Jon. It says that they forcibly pushed past police officers, that they used force.

JON MOSELEY, ATTORNEY FOR STEWART RHODES: Right. And the video shows that they did not. And the prosecutor -- the prosecutors know that we know that they're lying.

We have the video. We have the documents, including nonpublic documents. But the charges are a very serious hurdle for them to overcome.


LAVANDERA: And, Alisyn and Victor, if Stewart Rhodes is convicted of these five criminal charges and for that seditious conspiracy charge, for that alone, he faces up to 20 years in prison -- Victor and Alisyn.

BLACKWELL: Ed Lavandera for us in Plano, Texas.

Thank you, Ed.

Now, we are getting new insight into the Justice Department's process that led to these charges. CNN has learned that Attorney General Merrick Garland previously balked at bringing the rarely used seditious conspiracy charge.

CNN senior justice correspondent Evan Perez is here.

Evan, why didn't he want to charge sedition originally?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think, Alisyn, one of the one of the factors was, this is a charge that is so rarely brought in -- by the federal prosecutors.

I talked to one prosecutor who told me that they don't even know if they have anybody who has actually previously brought this kind of charge who's still here working inside this building. So that's one of the complications, was simply that, before doing something like this, the attorney general wanted to make sure that all of the additional work was done.


And that's what I'm told happened in the intervening seven or eight months that this investigation has continued. We have additional information that you see in some of those pages, including the fact that this went beyond just January 6, that this was a conspiracy, according to prosecutors, that began the day right -- a couple of days right after the election, and continued well beyond January 6, where Stewart Rhodes and some of his -- some of the other Oath Keepers talked about a civil war 2.0.

They talked about constituting militias that would resist President Biden after he took office. That's part of the conspiracy that is being charged here by federal prosecutors.

Look, I think it is going to be a very interesting case to see whether this stands up in court. It's so rarely brought. But if you read the law, it is -- it does seem like it fits what is being alleged by federal prosecutors here.

CAMEROTA: OK, Evan Perez, thank you.

PEREZ: Thanks.

BLACKWELL: Joining us now, former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti, CNN law enforcement analyst Jonathan Wackrow, and CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Welcome to you all.

Renato, let me start with you and where Evan left off with that new reporting that the A.G. balked initially at this charge of seditious conspiracy. First, when you look at the evidence, is it going to be an uphill climb to prove this, or is it clear here in this indictment they have got a very strong case?

RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I think there's plenty of evidence.

I mean, the statements we heard from the defense counsel, I think, were very, very foolish a minute ago. I think there's plenty of evidence that they forcefully were entering Congress, that they were engaging in that sort of activity. The evidence detailed in the indictment is more than sufficient to prove that.

I do think, though, that, as Evan was saying a moment ago, the Justice Department had a reason to be concerned that this is a statute that's rarely prosecuted. There's not a lot of law, case law, regarding the statute. So I could see there being legal hurdles.

I certainly think that the defendants could potentially raise certain legal challenges. But as to the bottom-line facts here, they're very strong. And the Justice Department charged a number of different crimes here. So, even if they aren't able to make out the seditious conspiracy charge, there are a number of other charges as well.

CAMEROTA: Jonathan, there's so many chilling details in here that we hadn't known. I mean, it could have been so much worse. As horrible and as deadly as it was, it could have been worse.

I mean, I will just read you a portion about the weapons trove that they had: "While traveling, Rhodes spent approximately $6,000 in Texas on an AR rifle and firearms equipment, including sights, mounts, triggers, slings, and additional firearms attachments. Rhodes spent approximately $4,500 in Mississippi on firearms equipment, including sights, mounts, and optic plate, a magazine and various firearms parts."

I mean, there was apparently a hotel room in Virginia where they had gathered some -- this cache of weapons. And as a former Secret Service agent, it has to send a shiver down your spine.

JONATHAN WACKROW, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, listen, just as you're reading that, all the viewers should just feel that chill.

But, unfortunately, Alisyn, this is exactly how we have described this group in the past. They are anti-government, anti-authority, violent extremists who glorify these power military ideals.

And one of the dangers of this group, the dangers is that they believe in this apocalyptic, revolutionary ideology that manifested itself on January 6. And to achieve that ideology, they have spent years studying military and police tactics. They have spent a lot of time training with weapons and firearms to prepare themselves for battle.

We are seeing now the evidence of that, where, before, we knew that they were violent groups through their own rhetoric, but now we're seeing it in their own words. And this should be chilling as we read it. But more concerning is that members of the Oath Keepers and these other far right extremist groups are walking among us every day.

They're hiding in plain sight. The charging documents that we saw yesterday are a signal that this Justice Department and law enforcement are not going to tolerate that within our civil society.

BLACKWELL: Gloria, let's take this to Capitol Hill.

What does this new indictment, these new indictments, mean to the committee and for the broader competing narratives of January 6 in Congress?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I think that the committee would welcome the indictment we saw yesterday, because it means that Merrick Garland is ready to throw the book at people. And they're sitting there at the committee and they're kind of

wondering, where is the Justice Department? They have held former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in contempt, for example. The Justice Department has not yet spoken on that.


They're waiting for a Supreme Court ruling on executive privilege. The archival material they want to look at is in litigation. So, the news they got today is, OK, maybe Merrick Garland was a little reluctant, but he came down on the side of being tough on these people.

So I think it gives them hope that, when they say that people should be held in contempt, they might be backed up by the Justice Department. It's not a slam dunk. Nobody knows what Merrick Garland and the Justice Department is going to do about Meadows, for example.


BORGER: But I think they would say, this is how we see the narrative. This is how we see these people. They are domestic terrorists, and they are seditious, and we ought to treat them as such.

CAMEROTA: Renato, I want to play for you another portion from this morning from Stewart Rhodes' attorney. He was speaking to Brianna Keilar on "NEW DAY."

And I just want you to help us understand his logic for how he's going to defend his client. So here this is.


MOSELEY: They did believe that they were going to have to respond to Antifa or be called up by the president. But what's interesting is, they didn't bring any of that into the District of Columbia. They left it in Virginia.

So, if they were going to do any of those things, they would have brought weapons with them into the Capitol. And they didn't do that.


CAMEROTA: OK, the sound bite that I was thinking of was where he was basically saying, this is what they believed. They were acting on what they believed.

I mean, is being gullible a good defense?

MARIOTTI: Well, it's what you what you have to work with.

Obviously, if you have -- you have -- as a defense attorney -- and I do represent clients on the defense side now -- you have to work with the facts you have. And so I think what he's trying to argue there is, sure, they had this really dastardly, violent plan, but they didn't carry forward with the violent plan, they left the guns behind, and they carried forward with plan B, which is totally different, had nothing to do at all with these sinister-sounding messages and preparations beforehand.

Unfortunately for Mr. Rhodes and his attorney, I don't really think a jury is going to buy that. I don't really think a bunch of average people are going to look at it that way. But you work with what you got.

BLACKWELL: Jonathan, we know that the committee has issued subpoenas to YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, parent companies for Google and Facebook to get answers about potentially the misinformation that led to the insurrection.

This case about the Oath Keepers is about a finite group and amount of time. But if you want to keep this from happening again, what do you need to know from these social media companies?

WACKROW: Well, what we want to know is really the volume of the messages.

How much is the -- like, how wide is the dissemination of this really hate that they are trying to push out into all aspects of society here in the United States, but also abroad? Their ideology of anti- government, anti-establishment is something that they key upon.

But, right now, listen, their messaging has gone essentially unrestricted for the last year, since January 6. January 6 was a win for the far right extremist groups. Why? Because they really didn't have any culpability for their actions. No one held them primarily accountable for these -- for their actions.

That stopped yesterday. We're going to see a shift in the way that that messaging goes out online now. And it's going to disrupt the ability for these groups to get new members, to bolster support around what they're doing.

I mean, think about it. In one instance, they say they're trying to protect the Constitution, yet they literally tried to take our democracy down. They attacked law enforcement. So, their actions and what we now have is evidence of their actions and the pre-planning of that really are telling, and it will stop that narrative moving forward.

BLACKWELL: All right, Jonathan Wackrow, Renato Mariotti, Gloria Borger, thank you.

MARIOTTI: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Well, it has been a bad week for President Biden, from a Supreme Court lost on vaccine mandates to a major blow on voting rights by members of his own party.

What some say the White House needs to do to turn things around.


FMR. STATE SEN. NINA TURNER (D-OH): My message to President Biden, now, he done wasted a whole bunch of time with these folks, being diplomatic, inviting them out to the White House and to -- time-out for it.

He needs to hold a press conference, let them know, either you're going to be by my side, saying you're going to be with me and getting rid of the filibuster, or I'm gassing up the jet on your behind.


CAMEROTA: And in less than two hours, tennis champ Novak Djokovic will be interviewed by immigration officials in Australia. Will they toss him out of the country?



BLACKWELL: Today, President Biden is trying to pivot to infrastructure, highlighting plans to spend billions fixing bridges and roads and improving water quality across the country.

Now, these upgrades are part of the president's landmark bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed in November.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These investments are consequential. We're just getting started. We're building back better than ever before.

And we have arrived at this by a bipartisan agreement. There's nothing beyond our capacity when we work together. When we get this done, we will get back to beating the world again. We will once again be number one in the world, instead of where we sit now, at number 13, in terms of the quality of our infrastructure.



CAMEROTA: It's fair to say it's been a challenging week for the president.

He's been unable to get members of his own party to support voting rights or his Build Back Better plan. The Supreme Court blocked a key part of his COVID vaccine mandate. Inflation continues to rise. He's confronting the threat of Russia invading Ukraine, and North Korea continues to test-fire ballistic missiles, in defiance of U.S. sanctions.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is at the White House.

Phil, as you know, President Biden often frames himself as an optimist. So what's the plan now?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I don't think we have the time in this hit for me to go point by point in terms of what this week brought to the table for them, and how they're going to address it.

What I would say is this. What we saw earlier today, that infrastructure event, is actually a really good window into the moment the White House finds itself in. Look, president after president tried to do infrastructure, large infrastructure proposal and failed. President Biden succeeded at that. It's one of his cornerstone legislative achievements of his first year.

Also succeeded in a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Those are two significant legislative victories. And yet you're in the second week of his second year, and all anybody is talking about his legislative failures on the Build Back Better Act, on voting reform, on immigration or guns or any number of other things.

It's the same with COVID. The deployment of the vaccine effort was historic. It's something with no real clear parallel over the course of the last century, but Omicron is here. It's surging. It's still kind of overshadowing the entire country.

On the economy, you have had a robust recovery, one of the best in the world in terms of jobs, in terms of economic growth, in terms of wage growth as well. And yet inflation is at a 39-year high. And that is overshadowing everything else.

And it's kind of the conundrum the president and his team find themselves in right now. And I think you haven't -- I haven't heard from sources any desire or push towards large-scale changes. I think they're kind of addressing it piece by piece here.

There's a recognition that, because of the slim majorities in the United States Senate and the House, to some degree, voting reform was always going to be extraordinarily difficult. They felt they needed to make the push, but I think there was always an understanding here it was unlikely at best.

They will take another run, I'm told, at Build Back Better, maybe slim it down to some degree to try and address Senator Manchin's concerns. Foreign policy, we have seen Russia play out over the course of the last couple of days, obviously, North Korea as well. That will always be on the front burner here.

I think the question now for the White House is, how do you implement proposals or push things forward that address a lot of issues that you simply have no control over, whether it's gas prices or, to some degree, inflation, obviously, the foreign policy issues?

That's the biggest issue they're dealing with right now. And they're dealing with it in a midterm year, guys.

CAMEROTA: OK, Phil Mattingly, thank you.

Let's bring in Jim Kessler. He's the co-founder of the Third Way. He's also a Democratic strategist and a former legislative policy director for Senator Chuck Schumer.

Jim, great to see you. Earlier this week, before that litany of what you can call challenges or failures, you wrote an op-ed for "The Washington Post" saying how Democrats can survive the midterm jinx. And I'm just wondering if your advice to them still applies, or if you would like to revise it now, given that there have been so many roadblocks that they have hit?

JIM KESSLER, VICE PRESIDENT FOR POLICY, THIRD WAY: Well, none of these roadblocks are surprising to me.

I mean, this is January 2022. We knew in January 2021 where Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema were on the filibuster. And so, for 12 months, we have known it. So there's really no surprise to me on the voting rights issues.

Look, the point of my op-ed wasn't to be Pollyannish or even overly optimistic. This is going to be an extraordinarily difficult cycle for Democrats. I lived through 1994, working for Schumer, and 2010. But there are steps that you can take. And as we just heard, there's a story to tell that Democrats need to tell that is, I believe, very positive and can be persuasive for voters.

BLACKWELL: So let's go through the -- I think it's five points here that you say that could help them survive the jinx.

Ignore the polls, fight the culture war, be like Reagan on the economy, pass what you can, and brag.

So let me start with the last one there, bragging. You list 99 percent of schools being open at the end of the year and the 200-million plus who are fully vaccinated, infrastructure bill. But there's inflation. The cost of gas and food and clothing and so much is all up. Don't home economics supersede all of those?

KESSLER: Yes, they're very, very important.

And so I'm going to go from brag to be like Ronald Reagan, because it's not about doing supply-side economics. But our economic growth this year will be the largest since Ronald Reagan in 1984, when he called it morning in America, and had inflation similar to the inflation we have today, and was about to win 49 states to Walter Mondale.

Inflation is definitely part of the story. And it's a fairly major part of the story. But it is not the only part of this economic story here. The job growth that we have had this past year has been extraordinary.


If you're one of 56 percent of Americans who own stock either in your retirement account or personally, the stock market ended 2021 at an all-time high. So there's good news. And inflation, of course, is a problem. But there's some real good news out there as well that people are experiencing.

BLACKWELL: We should also point out that inflation was going in the opposite direction. I mean, this is going up, and who knows how long it's going to stay up. In 1982, it was coming down from the Carter years, but I just want to point out that difference in inflation.

CAMEROTA: But, Jim, what I want to get to is your suggestion fight the culture wars. Isn't that sort of normally seen as beneath Democrats? They don't like to create these boogeymen.

They like to kind of deal with, I think, the bread-and-butter issues. So how are they supposed to fight the culture wars?


So I think the most important thing here is that, if you looked at 1994 and 2000, Republicans did number one in obscure culture war issues and moved them from the back burner to the front page. And, in 1994, it was things like federally funded pornographic art through the National Endowment of the Arts, and, in 2010, it was things like the war on Christmas, or Barack Obama not saying radical Islamic terrorism.

What Democrats generally did in those cycles was ignore those attacks because they were absurd and that no one would believe them. And what I was saying in this op-ed is, don't think, just because they're absurd, that you can ignore them, or because there was a story on CNN or NPR or "The New York Times" editorial about Critical Race Theory that shows that it's not true.

You need to define yourself on these issues early. You need to say who you are, especially on issues like defund the police and the so-called crime crisis that Republicans are going to raise, so that you're not defined by these issues.

BLACKWELL: Jim, one more for you. You have got your prescription.

I want you to listen to Nina Turner, former Ohio state senator, well- known progressive, what she says the White House needs to do now.


TURNER: Now, he done wasted a whole bunch of time with these folks, being diplomatic, inviting them out to the White House and to -- time- out for it.

He needs to hold a press conference, let them know, either you're going to be by my side, saying you're going to be with me and getting rid of the filibuster, or I'm gassing up the jet on your behind.

And I will be in Arizona and West Virginia to directly and let the American people know who's standing in the way of my entire agenda, not just voting rights.

So, President Biden, gas up the jet.


BLACKWELL: She says, target Manchin, targets Sinema. What do you think?

KESSLER: Well, it's good to see her supporting Joe Biden, for a change. That's welcome news.

Look, Joe Biden is going to do what Joe Biden does. You have got to do what's going to work, OK? I mean, we have spent the last 12 months trying to convince Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema that they're wrong.

And in certain places, I think they were wrong, but on certain places, I think you have got to listen, and in particular on Build Back Better. I believe we can pass Build Back Better. It is not going to be what the House passed. It is going to be slimmed down, but it will be significant and make a major difference in issues like climate and income security and health care and universal pre-K.

And that is a pretty good list of things to get done with Joe Manchin in Kyrsten Sinema, not strafing them.

BLACKWELL: All right, Jim Kessler, thanks so much for the insight.

CAMEROTA: Thanks, Jim.

KESSLER: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: All right, after a week of tense talks, a U.S. official says they have intel that Russia is preparing an operation to justify an invasion. We have got details next.