Increasingly militant Oath Keepers were at the forefront of the Capitol siege. Who are they — and what oaths are they keeping?

Increasingly militant Oath Keepers were at the forefront of the Capitol siege. Who are they — and what oaths are they keeping?
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On the evening of Jan. 4, 2021, Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, a far-right antigovernment militia, issued a last-minute call to action.

“All Patriots who can get to DC need to be in DC. Now is the time to stand,” Rhodes wrote, urging supporters of then President Trump to make their way to Washington where rallies protesting the outcome of the 2020 election were scheduled as Congress prepared to meet on Jan. 6 to count and certify the results. “It’s not too late to go. Jump on a plane! Jump in your car! Just get there.”

The Oath Keepers, which claims to be composed primarily of current or former military, law enforcement and other first responders, represented only a fraction of hundreds of people who stormed the Capitol two days later. But they were apparently among the best organized, and the first three members of the mob to be charged with conspiring to commit violence — rather than lesser crimes such as trespass or disorderly conduct — were thought to be members. According to the New York Times, those three individuals make up about half of those arrested so far with ties to the Oath Keepers.

The increasing radicalization of the group is alarming to experts who study right-wing groups, both in itself and because of what it signals about the broader movement.

“The Oath Keepers has spent its whole history delegitimizing the American political process and saying that it has been subverted and that there are enemies within and without who are manipulating the system for their own benefit,” said Sam Jackson, a professor at the University of Albany who published a book on the Oath Keepers last year. “So even if Oath Keepers as an organization didn't formally organize anything in terms of January 6th, they still contribute to this atmosphere … that makes these kinds of conflicts more likely.”

Jackson said he chose to focus his research on the Oath Keepers specifically because he thinks “the group illustrates a lot of tendencies from the broader movement.”

Oath Keepers badge
The Oath Keepers badge. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

So far, no evidence has emerged to suggest that the alleged actions of those three were part of a larger coordinated attack by the Oath Keepers, or that Rhodes was involved in or aware of the plot. According to court documents, Thomas Edward Caldwell, a Virginia man “believed to have a leadership role within the Oath Keepers,” and his two alleged accomplices, Donovan Ray Crowl and Jessica Marie Watkins, both of Ohio, began discussing plans for Jan. 6 in Facebook messages as early as Dec. 24. In an apparent reference to Rhodes, Caldwell wrote to Crowl on Jan. 1: “I don’t know if Stewie has even gotten out his call to arms but its [sic] a little friggin late. This is one we are doing on our own.”

There’s also no evidence that Rhodes, who in the past has made a point of publicly denouncing violence or urging Oath Keepers to stand down in the face of potential conflict — sometimes to the disappointment of more militant members — has spoken out against the riot at the Capitol. Rhodes did not respond to multiple calls, texts and emails requesting an interview or comment for this story.

The Oath Keepers website, which was temporarily shut down after Jan. 6, is now soliciting donations for “the legal defense fund for Oath Keepers member Jessica Watkins.” The post links to a fundraiser on the website Rallypay.com, which states that “Jessica Watkins is currently facing charges from the events of 1-6-20. Among these are trumped up, fallacious charges of conspiracy against the Constitution she loves more than water.”

But statements made by Rhodes in the weeks and days leading up to and in the aftermath of Jan. 6 are part of a pattern of increasingly inflammatory rhetoric circulating among Oath Keepers in recent months, all steeped in the same cauldron of misinformation and conspiratorial fervor that drove the mob that stormed the Capitol, whether or not they had gone to Washington with that intention.

On Nov. 10, days after the major U.S. news networks finally declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 election, Rhodes issued a call to action for Oath Keepers and supporters to “march on Washington D.C. and directly back-up and defend President Trump as he fights against the ongoing coup that is attempting to steal the election.”

An Oath Keeper
A man who said he was an Oath Keeper attends a Washington, D.C., protest over the 2020 election results on Jan. 5. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

As with the various other protests and events around the country in which armed Oath Keepers have been dispatched over the last several years, Rhodes described the group’s latest tour in Washington as a “volunteer security operation” to help “keep patriots safe” at “Stop the Steal” rallies and a “Million MAGA March” scheduled for the following Saturday. But, he wrote, “understand that this Saturday’s march/rally is just the beginning, and there needs to be a strong, ongoing patriot presence in D.C. going forward.”

“Our men will be standing by, awaiting the President’s orders to call us up as the militia, which would override D.C.’s ridiculous anti-gun laws,” he wrote, adding that “Oath Keepers will also have some of our most skilled special warfare veterans standing by armed, just outside D.C., as an emergency QRF [“quick reaction force”] in the event of a worst case scenario in D.C. (such as a “Benghazi” style assault on the White House by communist terrorists, in conjunction with stand-down orders by traitor generals).”

While urging volunteers to remain “disciplined” and “calm under pressure,” the missive also included a section attributed to an unnamed “patriot from Serbia,” who offered advice on how Americans should stage an uprising like the one that resulted in the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic’s authoritarian regime in 2000.

“Millions gathered in our capital. There were no barricades strong enough to stop them, nor the police determined enough to stop them. Police and Military aligned with the people after a few hours of fist-fight. We stormed the Parliament. And burned down fake state Television!”

This particular message, and others that followed, also included references to a somewhat incoherent compilation of conspiracy theory villains, from the CIA-backed scheme by Democrats, Communist China and the “deep state” to steal the election from Trump, to the “compromised American elites” involved in everything from pedophilia to treason and even murder — along with recommendations for how Trump can defeat them.

“I used to think that Stewart Rhodes was a relatively sane and reasonable voice in the movement,” said Jackson. “And that is kind of no longer the case.”

An Oath Keeper
An Oath Keeper stands guard at a pro-Trump rally in Berkeley, Calif., in 2017. (Philip Pacheco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Particularly striking for those who’ve been tracking the Oath Keepers and broader antigovernment militia movement for years were Rhodes’s repeated calls for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, which empowers the president to deploy U.S. military and federalized National Guard troops within the United States in certain circumstances to quell civil disorder, insurrection or rebellion.

“You must stand tall and use your constitutional powers to fight this war against enemies foreign and domestic while you are still President and Commander-in-Chief,” read an open letter to Trump signed by Rhodes and Texas attorney Kellye SoRelle, posted to the Oath Keepers website on Dec. 17. “If you fail to do so, we the people will have to fight a bloody revolution/civil war to throw off an illegitimate deep state/Chinese puppet regime.”

The Oath Keepers was founded by Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper, in 2009 to guard against the imaginary threat of the Obama administration to suspend the Constitution and take away the rights of American citizens. After eight years of preparing to stand up to government tyranny, the organization made what Pitcavage describes as a “180-degree turn” to opposing sinister outside forces supposedly plotting to take over the country, a development that coincided with the election of Donald Trump.

“It’s remarkable,” Pitcavage said. “The Stewart Rhodes of 2009 would not recognize that.”

Rhodes, now 55, is a portly man with a greying goatee who is often seen wearing tactical gear emblazoned with the golden Oath Keepers logo and a black patch over his left eye. According to the Atlantic, he accidentally shot himself in the face by dropping a loaded handgun in the early 1990s.

Rhodes is said to have grown up in the Southwest and enlisted in the military after high school with dreams of becoming a Green Beret, but received an honorable discharge after injuring his spine during a night parachuting accident. In his late 20s, he enrolled at the University of Nevada and, after graduating 1998, went on to the Yale Law School, where he won an award for a paper he wrote on the Bill of Rights.

After law school, Rhodes started a family and established a law practice in small-town Montana, where he advertised his legal services as “Ivy League quality without Ivy League expense,” but was disbarred by the Supreme Court of Montana in December 2015 after refusing to respond to multiple ethics complaints about his conduct.

According to a 2010 profile published in Mother Jones magazine, Rhodes held a number of different jobs including firearms instructor, sculptor, trial lawyer and a staffer for former Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican and the father of current Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Rhodes, who has described himself as a libertarian and constitutionalist, also volunteered for the elder Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign and wrote a gun-rights column for SWAT, a monthly firearms magazine, where he first laid the groundwork for the Oath Keepers.

Rhodes was reportedly influenced by the so-called Patriot movement of militias and other antigovernment extremists that emerged in the early 1990s in response to federal gun laws and the deadly standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas. And like the broader movement, the Oath Keepers was rooted in the belief that powerful global elites are conspiring to install an authoritarian world government, known as the New World Order, and that federal authorities were working with the New World Order to strip Americans of their rights, starting with the right to bear arms.

While anyone is welcome to join the Oath Keepers, what makes the group different from other factions of the militia movement is that it specifically recruits current and former military, law enforcement and other first responders — people who Rhodes believed could thwart an impending tyrannical coup in obedience to the oath they took to defend the Constitution, hence the name. Rhodes also compiled a dystopian list of hypothetical orders that Oath Keepers would pledge to resist, deeming them “unconstitutional” and “acts of war against the American people by their own government.”

The 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey” range from enforcing gun control laws to subjecting American citizens to warrantless search and seizure and military tribunals, to assisting foreign troops on U.S. soil, blockading American cities and forcing citizens into concentration camps. Also included among the orders Oath Keepers must refuse are “Orders to impose martial law or a ‘state of emergency’ on a state, or to enter with force into a state, without the express consent and invitation of that state’s legislature and governor.”

Rhodes rejected the description of the Oath Keepers as a militia, and publicly sought to distance it from some of the darker and more destructive exponents of the Patriot movement like the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Rhodes disavowed racism and cautioned members against making threats of violence, portraying the group’s posture as defensive. He even registered the group as a nonprofit, and in recent years has dispatched members to provide relief to communities upended by hurricanes and other natural disasters across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

But organizations that track extremist movements, like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, describe the Oath Keepers as a far-right antigovernment militia. The ADL estimates that the Oath Keepers have between 1,000 and 3,000 dues-paying members, a fraction of the 30,000 the group has claimed. Still, between their estimated membership and much broader influence, the Oath Keepers is considered one of the largest armed antigovernment militias in the country.

A member of the Oath Keepers
A member of the Oath Keepers stands guard at the Supreme Court on Jan 5. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Still, the Oath Keepers are considered very loosely organized and the group’s financial picture is somewhat murky. The group uses its website to solicit donations and to sell branded body armor and other tactical gear. They also occasionally offer discounts on lifetime memberships, which normally cost $1,000 — though an investigation by the Atlantic in September 2020 suggested that new members typically pay a $50 annual fee upon enrollment.

During Obama’s second term, armed Oath Keepers became a familiar presence at scenes of civil unrest around the country, particularly those arising from disputes between ranchers or miners and federal authorities, such as the 2014 standoff between cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Bunkerville, Nev., and the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon led by Bundy’s sons two years later. Heavily armed Oath Keepers in military fatigues were also seen standing guard on the rooftops of various businesses in Ferguson, Mo., during the protests that erupted there following the deadly police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teen, in the summer of 2014.

But beginning in 2016, their posture shifted to take on a new role as the self-appointed protectors of Trump and his supporters. Even before Trump was elected, Rhodes called on Oath Keepers to conduct “incognito” patrols of polling stations on Election Day in 2016, in response to then-candidate Trump’s bogus claims about election fraud. At Trump’s inauguration in 2017, and at countless rallies and other events across the country over the last four years, Oath Keepers have presented themselves as volunteer security. They’ve done the same at various “free speech” rallies organized by alt-right figures and have also been called on to help support the president’s political agenda.

In March 2019, for example, Rhodes issued a call to action for “patriots” to form a “human wall” along the southern border in support of Trump’s proclamation of a national emergency, a declaration to allow him to divert funding from the Pentagon to construct his promised border wall.

“STAND ON THE BORDER IN DEFENSE OF THIS NATION, STAND IN SUPPORT OF A WALL, STAND IN SUPPORT OF PRESIDENT TRUMP’S DECLARATION OF EMERGENCY, AND STAND IN SUPPORT OF HIM DEPLOYING THE MILITARY EN MASS TO STOP THE INVASION OF OUR NATION!” read the call-to-action posted on the Oath Keepers website.

But by throwing their early and unwavering support behind Trump, the Oath Keepers and other factions of the militia movement who had previously mobilized around suspicion of the federal government, found themselves looking for new enemies.

“For some it was immigrants or Muslims, but for a lot it was antifa, George Soros, governors proposing gun control measures or lockdown measures,” said Pitcavage. The Black Lives Matter movement, which the Oath Keepers believe is controlled by Marxists, became another target.

“By focusing on those sorts of enemies, they become very receptive to these ‘Stop the Steal’ messages, because they automatically assume those are the people doing the stealing,” said Pitcavage.

But even after the Oath Keepers pledged its allegiance to Trump, Rhodes continued to take a public relations-minded approach to the group’s official messaging, tapping into his members’ grievances just enough to mobilize during incidents of civil unrest, but steering them away potential confrontations with law enforcement or negative media attention.

“Often what we've seen in the past is when push comes to shove, that’s when he calls for people to stand down,” said Pitcavage. “But that didn't happen recently, in the run-up to the Capitol.”

At some point within the last few months, Pitcavage noted, Rhodes’s public pronouncements took a sharp turn from measured to mutinous.

On May 28, the now defunct Oath Keepers Twitter account posted a statement from the Oath Keepers Police leadership concluding that Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin “should be prosecuted for the homicide of George Floyd & the other officers present should be prosecuted for failing to stop him. They were trained NOT to do what they did & did it anyway.”

The following day, in response to a series of tweets from Trump threatening to send the National Guard to Minneapolis to quell protests and warning “when the looting starts the shooting starts” the Oath Keepers account posted a thread, signed by Rhodes, opposing the president’s words. “I’m sure we’ll catch grief over stating this, but it needed to be said,” Rhodes wrote in one of several tweets, arguing that “National Guardsmen would be DUTY BOUND to refuse those orders to shoot people for stealing,” and that “Riots and looting don’t suspend the constitution any more than bad weather suspended it during Katrina. Nor does a virus. NOTHING suspends the Constitution. Period.”

It’s not exactly clear when his views changed, but in late August, after 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot three people and killed two during protests in Kenosha, the Oath Keepers official Twitter account reportedly praised the teen as a “a Hero, a Patriot.” Then in September, following tweets reportedly warning that there will be “open warfare against the Marxist insurrectionists by election night,” and stating that “Civil War is here, right now,” Twitter banned both Rhodes and the official Oath Keepers account for violating its policy against violent extremists.

Rhodes continued to express his increasingly scorched-earth perspective in diatribes posted to the Oath Keepers website. In his open letter urging Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, Rhodes wrote, “We are already at war with communist China and its willing American agents, puppets, and co-conspirators who seek to overthrow our Constitution, as well as the international elites and other foreign enemies who have aided and abetted this war on our nation. They have infiltrated and taken over every branch of government at every level, state and federal. War isn’t coming — war is already here.”

In his call to action on Jan. 4, Rhodes said Oath Keepers should be prepared to act in the event that Trump lets them down. “Whatever happens on Jan 6, you must prepare for standing tall, with courage, in the days ahead. Again, stand now, or kneel forever. You must stand.”

His messages have only become more incendiary since then. While he kept feeding the fantasy that Trump would stay in power somehow, Rhodes seemed to prepare his followers for the inevitable, writing on Jan. 10: “Don’t wait for the incoming administration to make it harder for you to by [sic] the ammo and gear you need. If you haven’t prepared the time is NOW!” In another “Warning Order” posted on Jan. 14, Rhodes instructed to prepare for blackouts and communications outages, stock up on radios, food, fuel and other items, and begin forming in-person militias in their local communities. “Patriots, keep your powder dry, your head on a swivel, and your gear ready to roll at moments notice.”

On Jan. 20, Rhodes officially gave up on Trump. In an interview with notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, he called Trump’s failure to use his presidential powers to overturn the election “a dereliction of duty and, frankly, cowardice in the face of the enemy.”

Not only had the Oath Keepers lost their ally in the White House, but he’d been replaced with a man Rhodes considered a “ChiCom puppet.”

“So many Americans now are running and hiding,” Rhodes said. “You need to get together and prepare to defend yourselves.”

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