How the arrest of a far-right militia leader signals a new chapter in the January 6 inquiry

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Nathan Posner/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Nathan Posner/REX/Shutterstock

The arrest this week of Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers militia, marks one of the most significant moments thus far in the federal investigation into the January 6 Capitol attack.

Rhodes, along with ten other associates, is charged with seditious conspiracy for plotting to violently overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election – the first sedition charges prosecutors have brought related to the insurrection.

Rhodes is the one of the most high-profile arrests yet in the year-long investigation into the insurrection, which has charged more than 700 people and counting with crimes related to the attack. Many of these cases have involved minor charges and the majority of suspects have received light sentences, but the sedition charges facing militia members could carry up to 20 years in prison and signal a shift towards more complex cases targeting organized extremist groups.

Related: Guns, ammo … even a boat: how Oath Keepers plotted an armed coup

The conspiracy charges against Rhodes and other Oath Keepers members, as well as separate conspiracy to obstruct Congress cases involving Oath Keepers and Proud Boys extremists, are additionally significant because they may reveal the extent of planning that went into the attack. What level of prior coordination and plotting pro-Trump groups conducted prior to January 6 remains a key question, and one that is set to become a focal point of trials in the coming months.

A man wearing a black shirt and baseball cap speaks to a crowd via a microphone
Stewart Rhodes, founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, speaks during a gun rights rally in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2013. Photograph: Jared Ramsdell/AP

“We’ve had such a good unfolding and narrative of what folks on the ground were doing, but we’ve not yet had a definitive narrative emerge about the people in power behind it and who was organizing it,” said Melissa Ryan, CEO of CARD Strategies, a consulting firm that researches online extremism and disinformation.

“Between what we see over the next few months from the justice department and whatever comes out of the select congressional investigation, hopefully a story is going to start to emerge.”

Who are Rhodes and the Oath Keepers?

Rhodes has been a prominent figure in the far-right for over a decade. Easily distinguishable by his dark eyepatch – the result of dropping a loaded handgun and shooting himself in the left eye during his 20s, according to an Atlantic investigation – Rhodes positioned himself at the forefront of the anti-government militia movement amid its resurgence after 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 on the site of a Revolutionary War battle. The group, which Rhodes marketed towards former and current law enforcement and military personnel, claimed to stand for defending the constitution and advocated for disobeying certain laws such as gun control legislation. Rhodes was careful to create a broad appeal for the organization, initially trying to distance it from more openly violent extremism and claiming that it wasn’t officially a militia.

A man wearing military garb and a black baseball cap speaks into a radio as he monitors a crowd.
The Oath Keepers became ardent supporters of Donald Trump, seen here acting as security to those leaving a Trump rally in Minneapolis in 2019. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters

But the Oath Keepers soon became a leading group in the anti-government extremist militia movement, growing to thousands of members across the country. It became a visible presence at anti-government and anti-gun control rallies, while promoting far-right conspiracies about a totalitarian New World Order. Rhodes frequently told his followers that the US was entering a state of civil war and to arm themselves, a claim that became more frequent during the 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 Trump’s longtime ally Roger Stone one day before the Capitol attack.

In September of 2021, hackers released a membership list for the Oath Keepers that revealed the extent that the group had become embedded in state institutions. Its members included dozens of law enforcement, armed forces members and elected officials – some of whom used their government emails when signing up for the militia.

“The Oath Keepers have just been building more and more political power within the GOP, taking positions at the local level, running for office,” Ryan said. “You have state senators who identify proudly as Oath Keepers. I would not be surprised if they had a member of Congress in the next couple cycles.”

A shift in the investigation

The charges against the Oath Keepers are some of the most serious to date in the investigation, alleging a well-armed plot to undermine the democratic elections. Investigators also lay out a series of events that contradict the dominant narrative of January 6 among rightwing media figures and many Republican politicians, who have claimed the attack was a mostly peaceful political protest and pushed conspiracy theories that leftists or government agents were behind any violence.

The charging documents involving Rhodes and ten associates accused of seditious conspiracy portray a group intent on overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election and willing to use violence to achieve their goals. Prosecutors allege the Oath Keepers conducted extensive planning and coordination, with encrypted messages between the members discussing government overthrow prior to the attack and making plans to form “quick reaction force” teams to move into the Capitol area with firearms.

Men wearing military garb and black face coverings keep watch over a man wearing a gray fedora and a pinstripe suit inside a white tent.
Members of the Oath Keepers provided security to Roger Stone on 5 January. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters

“They coordinated travel across the country to enter Washington DC, equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, donned combat and tactical gear, and were prepared to answer Rhodes’s call to take up arms,” the court documents state.

In the weeks leading up to the attack, Rhodes allegedly spent more than $20,000 on weapons and tactical equipment, including on night vision goggles, a shotgun and cases of ammunition. Court documents state that on the morning of the insurrection, Rhodes suggested to other Oath Keepers in an encrypted group chat that armed quick reaction force teams were standing by. (As part of a plea deal last year, one Oath Keeper admitted to stashing an M4 rifle at a Comfort Inn hotel just outside the Capitol.)

“We will have several well equipped QRF’s outside DC,” Rhodes texted the Oath Keepers’ group chat.

Federal investigators had been circling Rhodes for some time, filing court papers in March that alleged he was in direct communication with Oath Keepers involved in the Capitol attack and then several months later using a warrant to seize his cell phone. Rhodes stated last year that, against the advice of his legal counsel, he sat for a three-hour interview with federal agents to discuss the role that he and the Oath Keepers played in the attack. He continually claimed that he had done nothing wrong.

A group of people in military garb stand on the steps in front of the US Capitol.
Members of the Oath Keepers militia group stand on the east front steps of the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

“I may go to jail soon, not for anything I actually did, but for made-up crimes,” Rhodes said in March of last year at a speech in Texas.

None of the government’s conspiracy cases related to the Capitol attack have gone to trial yet, and researchers say sedition charges can be hard to prove. The government has charged a number of militia members with seditious conspiracy in the past only for those defendants to go free after the cases went to trial. In the late 1980s, a jury acquitted 13 white supremacists who 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 charged them with plotting to start an armed uprising against the government.

It also remains unclear what Rhodes’ arrest and the charges facing numerous Oath Keepers means for the extremist organization as a whole. Since the insurrection, some members of the group have advocated for further engagement in local government and political activism. Meanwhile, researchers say they have benefited from a Republican whitewashing of the Capitol attack that has allowed them to continue operating with a degree of impunity.

“A lot of us assumed that they would be weakened by January 6,” Ryan said. “It seems like the opposite has happened.”

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