Oath Keepers Claimed to Be a Veteran Support Group but Is a Dangerous Militia, Former Member Tells Jan. 6 Panel

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Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes claimed to be running a veteran support group but in reality was running a dangerous militia and aspired to be a paramilitary leader, a former member testified Tuesday to a House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Jason Van Tatenhove, who was a spokesman for the group, described during his testimony how Rhodes had hoped for then-President Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act -- a law allowing the president to deploy troops domestically -- as the opening salvo in an "armed revolution" in which Rhodes and the Oath Keepers would rise to power.

The hearing was the latest in the House Jan. 6 Committee investigation into the violent 2021 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters, including veterans in the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys extremist groups, as Trump sought to overturn the election results that put President Joe Biden in the White House. Rhodes and 10 members of his group were indicted in January on federal sedition charges related to plans to stop the peaceful transfer of power after Biden's election victory.

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Prior to the attack, Rhodes had consistently sought ways to legitimize what he was doing in the public eye, said Van Tatenhove, who testified that he eventually left the group due to antisemitism among its members.

Rhodes "was always looking for ways to legitimize what he was doing, whether by wrapping it in the trappings of 'it's not a militia. It's a community preparedness team; we're not a militia. We're an educational outreach group. It's a veteran support group.' But again, we've got this dishonesty and the mincing of words of what they are," Van Tatenhove said. "You know, he is a militia leader. He had these grand visions of being a paramilitary leader."

Five of the indicted Oath Keepers including Rhodes served in the military.

Extremist groups played a key role in the attack on the Capitol after Trump called for a mass demonstration in Washington to reject the peaceful transfer of power; it included a speech on Jan. 6 that urged his armed followers to march on the Capitol, according to the Jan. 6 committee and federal indictments.

The House panel laid out evidence and testimony from former Trump officials making the case that the former president had made various failed attempts to overturn the election results after November 2020 and eventually turned to his angry supporters and armed extremist groups as a way to disrupt the vote certification.

Most of Trump's advisers had felt that any chance of a legitimate challenge to the election results was over in mid-December when the U.S. Electoral College named Biden the president-elect and dozens of Trump legal objections had been rejected, according to the committee.

Federal prosecutors allege that Rhodes and his fellow Oath Keepers hatched a plan to breach the Capitol, spent weeks training and deployed heavily armed "quick reaction forces" in the area in anticipation of a conflict as they converged on Washington to block Biden from taking office.

Group members can be seen in video of the Jan. 6 attack marching up the Capitol steps through the throngs of rioting Trump supporters in a "stack" formation used by the military.

Five members of the Proud Boys extremist group, including former chairman Enrique Tarrio, were indicted on seditious conspiracy charges in June. All the indicted members except Tarrio were military veterans. Federal authorities allege they were the vanguard of rioters who initially punched through Capitol Police lines and breached the Capitol.

"We've gotten exceedingly lucky that more bloodshed did not happen because the potential has been there from the start," Van Tatenhove said. "A loss of life, as tragic as it is, we saw on Jan. 6 the potential was so much more."

Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran, was fatally shot by Capitol security as she was trying to break into the House chamber where lawmakers were barricaded from rioters. A Capitol Police officer who was injured during the attack later died. More than 140 officers were injured on Jan. 6, according to police.

Van Tatenhove, a former independent journalist, said he decided to leave the Oath Keepers after witnessing a discussion while he was living with the group in Montana among members who denied the Holocaust.

Before leaving, he said Rhodes had asked him to create a deck of playing cards with the faces of U.S. politicians that would mimic the cards handed out to U.S. troops during the Iraq war. Those cards, issued by the military, showed photos of the most wanted fugitives such as Saddam Hussein, who was eventually captured and executed.

"Stewart was very intrigued by that notion and influenced by it, I think, and he wanted me to create a deck of cards that would include different politicians, judges ... Hillary Clinton as the Queen of Hearts," he said. "This is a project that I refuse to do."

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

Related: Oath Keeper Militia Members Including 5 Veterans Indicted on Sedition Charges for Jan. 6 Riot