Leader of Oath Keepers militia group charged over US Capitol riot

Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers. Photograph: Aaron C Davis/The Washington Post via Getty Images


Stewart Rhodes, the leader and founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, was arrested on Thursday and charged with seditious conspiracy for organising a wide-ranging plot to storm the Capitol in Washington last January 6th and disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory, federal law enforcement officials said.

The arrest of Mr Rhodes was a major step forward in the sprawling investigation of the Capitol attack, and the case marked the first time that prosecutors had filed charges of sedition. According to his lawyer, Jonathon Moseley, Mr Rhodes was arrested shortly before 1pm.

Mr Rhodes, a former US army paratrooper who went on to earn a law degree at Yale, has been under investigation for his role in the riot since at least last spring when, against the advice of his lawyer, he sat down with FBI agents for an interview in Texas. He was at the Capitol on January 6th, communicating by mobile phone and a chat app with members of his team, many of whom went into the building. But there is no evidence that he entered the Capitol.

The Oath Keepers, along with the Proud Boys, have emerged as the most prominent far-right extremists to have taken part in the assault on the Capitol. Prosecutors have collected reams of evidence against them, including encrypted mobile phone chats and recordings of online meetings.

They have charged its members not only with forcing their way into the building in a military-style “stack” but also with stationing an armed “quick reaction force” at a hotel in Virginia to be ready to rush into Washington if needed.

Through their lawyers, members of the Oath Keepers who are already facing charges have said that they converged on Washington just before January 6th as part of a security detail hired to protect conservative celebrities like Roger Stone, the longtime ally of former president Donald Trump.

In an interview with the New York Times this summer, Mr Rhodes expressed frustration that several members of his group had “gone off mission” by entering the Capitol on January 6th, quickly adding, “There were zero instructions from me or leadership to do so.”

But at least four Oath Keepers who were at the Capitol that day and are cooperating with the government have sworn in court papers that the group intended to breach the building with the goal of obstructing the final certification of the electoral college vote.

Mr Rhodes has also attracted the attention of the House select committee investigating January 6th, which issued him a subpoena in November. In a letter at the time, House investigators noted that Mr Rhodes had taken part in several events designed to question the 2020 presidential election throughout that autumn and winter.

On election day, the letter said, Mr Rhodes said that an “honest” count of the votes could only result in a victory for Mr Trump and called on members of his group to “stock up on ammo” and prepare for a “full-on war in the streets”. Within a week of election day, Mr Rhodes had told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones that he had men stationed outside Washington prepared to act at Mr Trump’s command.

Around the same time, federal prosecutors say, he urged his fellow Oath Keepers at an online meeting to support Mr Trump, calling him the “duly elected president” and adding, “You can call it an insurrection or you can call it a war or fight.”

The drumbeat continued through the winter, prosecutors say, as Mr Rhodes appeared at a pro-Trump rally in Washington on December 12th, 2020, and called on Mr Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, suggesting that a failure to do so would result in a “much more bloody war”.

At the rally, Mr Rhodes acknowledged in a television interview that he and members of his group were there to provide security for celebrity speakers along with another shadowy paramilitary organisation, the First Amendment Praetorian.

On January 4th, just two days, before the storming of the Capitol, Mr Rhodes posted an article on the Oath Keepers website calling on “all patriots” to “stand tall in support of President Trump’s fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic who are attempting a coup”.

In late March, Mr Rhodes himself publicly acknowledged that the FBI was after him, declaring during a fiery speech on the Texas border that the justice department had undertaken a “persecution campaign” against his group.

“I may go to jail soon, not for anything I actually did, but for made-up crimes,” he said. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times