On the morning of January 6, 2021, Michael Palian went to work as an FBI agent assigned to a task force investigating health care fraud.
Then a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol. That afternoon, he was among the FBI agents who rushed to the Capitol to guard senators who had gathered earlier in the day to certify now-President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.
On Monday, federal prosecutors called Palian as the first witness in the seditious trial of Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes and four others charged with plotting to violently prevent the peaceful handoff of power on January 6. From the witness stand, Palian recalled the chaos of that day.
“I think ‘shock’ would be the best word to describe what the senators were feeling at that point. There was some crying. Everybody was running around,” Palian testified.
Palian said he later joined other FBI agents in escorting senators back to the chamber to resume the counting of electoral votes. When asked to generally describe the route taken with senators, Palian said, “It was underground.”
Inside the Capitol, Palian said it was hard to breathe from the tear gas and other chemical irritants lingering in the air.
“It was chaotic. It looked like a bomb had gone off in there,” Palian said.
At a previous trial, the Justice Department confirmed — through the questioning of a Secret Service inspector — that then-Vice President Mike Pence hid in an underground loading dock at the Capitol as the pro-Trump mob converged on the building. But Palian’s testimony provided a rare glimpse into law enforcement’s interactions with lawmakers who had been rushed to safety on January 6.
Palian took the witness stand after a prosecutor and defense lawyers delivered opening arguments at the trial of Rhodes and four other members or affiliates of the Oath Keepers, a far-right group accused of developing a sophisticated plan to forcibly disrupt the certification of Biden’s defeat of Trump.
In a more than hour-long opening statement, prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler said Rhodes and the four others — Thomas Caldwell; Kelly Meggs; Kenneth Harrelson; and Jessica Watkins — “concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy” — the peaceful transfer of power.
Nestler displayed video footage of Oath Keepers forming a military-style “stack” formation as they pushed through the pro-Trump mob in tactical gear. In preparation for January 6, Nestler said, Rhodes and his fellow Oath Keepers gathered “weapons of war” and brought them to a hotel room outside Washington, DC, where a so-called “quick reaction force” stood ready to ferry them to the nation’s capital.
While the quick-reaction force never jumped into action, Nestler said it was central to the Oath Keepers’ plot. Nestler pointed to an audio recording from January 10, days after the Capitol attack, in which Rhodes said: “My only regret is that they should have brought rifles… We could have fixed it right then and there.”
With Palian on the stand, prosecutors sought to further underscore the Oath Keepers’ appetite for violence on January 6. Palian reviewed a text message conversation between Meggs and his wife on Election Day in 2020.
“I’m going to go on a killing spree,” Meggs texted his wife. “Pelosi first.”
Palian also reviewed video footage of Meggs in the single-file “stack” formation that cut through the pro-Trump mob en route to the Capitol on January 6.
On Meggs’ sleeve was a patch emblazoned with text: “I dont believe in anything. I’m just here for the violence.”