Jhe arrest this week of Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers militia, marks one of the most significant moments to date in the federal investigation into the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
Rhodes, along with ten other associates, are charged with seditious conspiracy to conspire to violently overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election – the first sedition charges prosecutors have brought related to the insurgency.
Rhodes is one of the most high-profile arrests to date in the year-long investigation into the insurgency, which has charged more than 700 people and counts crimes related to the attack. Many of these cases have involved minor charges and the majority of suspects received light sentences, but sedition charges against militia members could result in up to 20 years in prison and signal a move towards more serious cases. complexes targeting organized extremist groups.
The conspiracy charges against Rhodes and other members of the Oath Keepers, as well as the separate conspiracy to obstruct congressional business involving Oath Keepers and Proud Boys extremists, are also significant as they may expose the extent of the planning that led to the attack. The level of prior coordination and conspiracy of pro-Trump groups conducted prior to Jan. 6 remains a key issue, and one that is expected to become a focus of trials in the months ahead.
“We had such a good flow and narrative of what people were doing on the ground, but we haven’t yet had a definitive narrative of who was in power behind it all and who was organizing it,” Melissa Ryan said. , CEO. of CARD Strategies, a consulting firm that studies online extremism and disinformation.
“Between what we’ll see over the next few months from the Justice Department and whatever else will come out of Congress’s selective investigation, hopefully a story will start to emerge.”
Who are Rhodes and the Oath Keepers?
Rhodes has been a prominent figure on the far right for more than a decade. Easily recognizable by his dark eye patch — the result of dropping a loaded handgun and shooting himself in the left eye during his 20s, according to an Atlantic inquest — Rhodes is positioned at the forefront of the anti-government militia movement amid its resurgence following the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
A former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate, Rhodes announced the creation of the Oath Keepers at a 2009 rally at the site of a Revolutionary War battle. The group, which Rhodes has marketed to law enforcement and military, past and present, has claimed to defend the constitution and advocated for disobedience to certain laws such as gun control legislation. Rhodes was careful to create broad appeal for the organization, initially trying to steer it away from more overtly violent extremism and claiming it was not officially a militia.
But the Oath Keepers quickly became a leading group in the anti-government extremist militia movement, with thousands of members across the country. He became a visible presence at anti-government and anti-gun control rallies, while promoting far-right plots on a totalitarian New World Order. Rhodes has frequently told his followers that the United States is entering a state of civil war and arming itself, a claim that has become more frequent during nationwide protests against racism and police killings in 2020. The Oath Keepers also became ardent supporters of Donald Trump and gained a foothold in the modern Republican Party, including providing security for longtime Trump ally Roger Stone a day before the attack on the Capitol.
In September 2021, hackers released a membership list for the Oath Keepers which revealed how well the group had integrated into state institutions. Its members included dozens of law enforcement officers, members of the armed forces and elected officials – some of whom used their government emails when registering for the militia.
“Oathkeepers have just been building more and more political power within the GOP, taking positions at the grassroots level, running for office,” Ryan said. “You have state senators who proudly identify themselves as oath keepers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a congressman in the next two cycles.
A turning point in the investigation
The charges against the Oath Keepers are among the most serious to date in the investigation, alleging a well-armed conspiracy to undermine democratic elections. Investigators also expose a series of events that contradict the dominant Jan. 6 narrative among right-wing media figures and many Republican politicians, who claimed the attack was a largely peaceful political protest and pushed conspiracy theories. that leftists or government agents were behind any violence.
The charging documents implicating Rhodes and ten associates accused of seditious conspiracy portray a group determined to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and willing to use violence to achieve its goals. Prosecutors allege the oath keepers carried out extensive planning and coordination, with cryptic messages between members discussing the overthrow of the government before the attack and planning to form ‘quick reaction force’ teams to move around. the Capitol area with guns.
“They coordinated cross-country travel to enter Washington D.C., equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, donned combat and tactical gear, and were ready to heed Rhodes’ call to take up arms. “, say the court documents.
In the weeks leading up to the attack, Rhodes reportedly spent more than $20,000 on weapons and tactical gear, including night vision goggles, a shotgun and crates of ammunition. Court documents say that on the morning of the uprising, Rhodes suggested to other oath keepers in an encrypted group chat that armed Quick Reaction Force teams were standing nearby. (As part of a plea deal last year, an oath keeper admitted to hiding an M4 rifle at a Comfort Inn hotel just outside the Capitol.)
“We will have several well-equipped QRFs outside of DC,” Rhodes texted on the Oath Keepers group chat.
Federal investigators had surrounded Rhodes for some time, filing court documents in March alleging he was in direct communication with oath keepers involved in the Capitol attack, then several months later using a warrant to seize his cellphone. Rhodes said last year that, against the advice of his legal counsel, he sat down for a three-hour interview with federal agents to discuss the role he and the Oath Keepers played in the attack. . He continually asserted that he had done nothing wrong.
“I may be going to jail soon, not for something I actually did, but for made up crimes,” Rhodes said in March last year during a speech in Texas.
None of the government’s conspiracy cases related to the Capitol attack have yet gone to trial, and researchers say sedition charges can be difficult to prove. The government has accused a number of militia members of seditious conspiracy in the past only to have those defendants released after the cases have been tried. In the late 1980s, a jury acquitted 13 white supremacists whom prosecutors had charged with seditious conspiracy involving a plot to kill a federal judge and overthrow the government. More recently, nine Michigan militia members were acquitted in 2012 after authorities accused them of plotting to start an armed uprising against the government.
It’s also unclear what Rhodes’ arrest and the charges against numerous oath keepers mean for the extremist organization as a whole. Since the uprising, some members of the group have advocated for increased engagement in local government and political activism. Meanwhile, the researchers say they benefited from a Republican whitewash of the Capitol attack that allowed them to continue operating with some impunity.
“A lot of us assumed they would be weak by January 6,” Ryan said. “It seems the opposite has happened.”