Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes faces rare charge of seditious conspiracy for Jan. 6 role

More than 700 people have been charged by the Justice Department in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol. On that day, a violent mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the building in an attempt to block the certification of the Electoral College tally for the 2020 presidential election. But in the year since the attack, none of the accused had been charged with the crime of sedition, a fact that has led a growing number of Republican lawmakers to question the seriousness of the insurrection.

That changed on Thursday, when Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, and 10 of its members or associates were charged with seditious conspiracy, a rare violation of a Civil War-era law that occurs when two or more people conspire to “overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force” the U.S. government.

"I hope that this arrest and this prosecution will shut up those of our colleagues who keep saying, 'Well, if it was a conspiracy, how come there are no conspiracy charges? If it was seditious, how are there no sedition charges?'" Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the select committee, said on CNN Thursday after the indictments were unsealed.

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington, D.C., June 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington, D.C., June 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Who is Stewart Rhodes?

Elmer Stewart Rhodes — a 56-year-old former U.S. Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate from Granbury, Texas — founded the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, in 2009 in response to the election of President Barack Obama. With a signature patch covering an eye he lost from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound, Rhodes rose to prominence as a guest on Alex Jones's Infowars program. He also came into the national spotlight in 2014 when the Oath Keepers took part in the armed confrontation between supporters of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and federal law enforcement at Bundy's Nevada ranch. (Rhodes was not charged in relation to the standoff.)

What are the charges against him?

The indictment unsealed Thursday alleges that Rhodes and the Oath Keepers discussed strategies to overturn the election results for weeks before and after Jan. 6.

Two days after Election Day, Rhodes allegedly urged his followers not to accept the election results. "We aren't getting through this without a civil war," Rhodes wrote in a message on Signal.

On Dec. 11, 2020, Rhodes warned that if then-President-elect Joe Biden tried to assume power, it would trigger “a bloody and desperate fight.”

“We are going to have a fight,” he wrote. “That can’t be avoided.”

On his drive to Washington, D.C., from Texas, on Jan. 3, Rhodes spent approximately $6,000 on "an AR-platform rifle and firearms equipment, including sights, mounts, triggers, slings, and additional firearms attachments," federal prosecutors allege. The next day, in Mississippi, Rhodes allegedly spent another $4,500 on additional firearms equipment, including a magazine.

Rhodes did not enter the Capitol On Jan. 6, but the indictment alleges several members of the Oath Keepers, wearing camouflaged combat attire, were seen on camera shouldering their way through the crowd and into the Capitol in two military-style "stacks." The first stack split up inside the building, the indictment alleges, with one group heading toward the House side and the other to the Senate. The second group confronted officers inside the Capitol Rotunda, according to the indictment. .

Outside Washington, the indictment alleges, the Oath Keepers had stationed two “quick reaction forces” that had guns “in support of their plot to stop the lawful transfer of power.”

Prosecutors say Rhodes was planning for violence well beyond the Capitol siege, spending more than $17,000 on weapons equipment and ammunition between Jan. 6, 2021, and Inauguration Day. And Rhodes allegedly tried to organize local militia groups to oppose by force the peaceful transfer of power.

Stewart Rhodes. (photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Collin County Sheriff's Office via AP)
Stewart Rhodes. (photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Collin County Sheriff's Office via AP)

What is "seditious conspiracy"?

Sedition has rarely been charged in the U.S., and carries a longer prison sentence than simple conspiracy. If convicted of seditious conspiracy, defendants face up to 20 years in prison.

Per the Associated Press, the last time U.S. prosecutors brought a seditious conspiracy case was in 2010, when nine members of the Hutaree militia in Michigan were charged with inciting an uprising against the government. They were acquitted on the sedition conspiracy charges at a 2012 trial. (Three pleaded guilty to weapons-related charges.)

Among the last successful convictions for seditious conspiracy charges came after the 1954 storming of the U.S. Capitol building by four pro-independence Puerto Rican activists who opened fire on the House floor, wounding several representatives. They and more than a dozen others who assisted in the attack were convicted of seditious conspiracy.

According to the indictment against Rhodes and the Oath Keepers, the defendants "conspired through a variety of manners and means, including: organizing into teams that were prepared and willing to use force and to transport firearms and ammunition into Washington, D.C.; recruiting members and affiliates to participate in the conspiracy; organizing trainings to teach and learn paramilitary combat tactics; bringing and contributing paramilitary gear, weapons and supplies — including knives, batons, camouflaged combat uniforms, tactical vests with plates, helmets, eye protection and radio equipment — to the Capitol grounds; breaching and attempting to take control of the Capitol grounds and building on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to prevent, hinder and delay the certification of the electoral college vote; using force against law enforcement officers while inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021; continuing to plot, after Jan. 6, 2021, to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power, and using websites, social media, text messaging and encrypted messaging applications to communicate with co-conspirators and others."

What's next?

Rhodes, who was arrested in Little Elm, Texas, on Thursday, is scheduled to be arraigned in a Texas federal court on Friday afternoon. In interviews since the Jan. 6 insurrection, Rhodes has said that there was no plan to storm the Capitol that day, that the Oath Keepers were only there to provide security, and that the members who did enter the building went rogue. Rhodes has also continued to push the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen.