Trial is set to kick off Tuesday against five members of Oath Keepers, including the far-right militia group’s leader, as they face the most serious charges to come out of the Capitol riot yet.
They’re accused of a rare crime, seditious conspiracy against the United States, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years behind bars. The government hasn’t won a conviction on a sedition charge since 1995, when Omar Abdel-Rahman and nine others were found guilty of conspiring to bomb New York landmarks.
According to prosecutors, the Oath Keepers were preparing for some seriously deadly violence to take place on Jan. 6, 2021. They dressed the part of modern revolutionary soldiers ready to fight back against oppression ― although, in reality, what they were opposing was the will of the American people, who had turned out to democratically elect Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020.
The group’s path to the Capitol grounds was over a decade in the making.
Who are the Oath Keepers?
In short, the Oath Keepers are an anti-government militia group with local chapters. It was founded by Elmer Stewart Rhodes. Here’s how prosecutors describe it in court filings:
“[They are] a large but loosely organized collection of individuals, some of whom are associated with militias. Some members of the Oath Keepers believe that the federal government has been coopted by a cabal of elites actively trying to strip American citizens of their rights. Though the Oath Keepers will accept anyone as members, they explicitly focus on recruiting current and former military, law enforcement, and first-responder personnel.”
Their name alludes to the sworn oath that members of the military take to defend the Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The group envisions a day where they will refuse to obey “unconstitutional orders” out of a sense of duty and patriotism. Such orders could include a federal assault weapons ban, which Rhodes has long pledged to resist.
The group appears to have been successful in recruiting active law enforcement. Earlier this year the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism said its ranks included some 370 people believed to currently work in law enforcement, including sheriffs and other top brass. A senior figure in the Oath Keepers bragged to a reporter last year about how many “active-duty law enforcement personnel” they had.
Who is Elmer Stewart Rhodes?
Rhodes, 57, is a Yale Law graduate who worked on Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign. He saw an opportunity to direct the energy of Paul’s Libertarian supporters into something new, and he founded the Oath Keepers after the election of America’s first Black president. Members appeared to be afraid of what action Barack Obama might take to curb the nation’s gun violence problem.
The group officially launched in April 2009 with a rally in Lexington, Massachusetts, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, but Rhodes largely ran it out of Las Vegas, where he had family.
Three of Rhodes’ six children spoke disparagingly about their father to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch site. The children were all home-schooled, one daughter said, but the only history their father ever wanted to discuss with them was the American Revolution. They described him as a manipulative and abusive man who did not provide well for his family, as he focused all of his energies on the Oath Keepers. Dakota Rhodes, Stewart Rhodes’ son, wrote in a lengthy essay that he started to become disillusioned with the group in the later days of the Trump administration.
What have they been up to in the past?
Since their inception, the Oath Keepers have been part of the far-right extremism movement that has festered in the last two decades as federal authorities focused much of their resources on combating foreign terrorism.
In 2014, Rhodes and the group played a role in the standoff between federal authorities and anti-government protesters at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch.
They did not cover themselves in glory. Rhodes’ estranged wife, Tasha Adams, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Rhodes went into a “depression” afterward because of the backlash the group had received for its actions on the ground. The Oath Keepers had taken seriously a “rumor” that the U.S. Department of Defense was about to launch a drone attack on the Bundy ranch, where a collection of heavily armed men had shown up to support the Bundys in their refusal to comply with a land management order from the federal government.
The Oath Keepers fled. Then they were mocked.
What are they accused of now?
Rhodes is going to trial alongside four fellow Oath Keepers: Jessica Watkins, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell.
Prosecutors say that the five conspired to amass high-powered weapons in order to be ready to engage in potentially deadly violence on Jan. 6, 2021 ― the date that Trump was holding a rally to oppose Congress’ official certification of the 2020 presidential election results. In late December 2020, Rhodes posted an open letter to the Oath Keepers’ website stating that “tens of thousands of patriot Americans, both veterans and non-veterans, will already be in Washington D.C.” for the rally “and many of us will have our mission-critical gear stowed nearby just outside D.C.”
Watkins also allegedly expressed a belief that more violence was to come after Jan. 6, telling an ally that Oath Keepers were working on “a bugout plan” if “the usurper” ― her name for Biden ― was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 2021.
Lawyers for the defendants say they were just there on the day of the rally to provide security and protect Trump supporters from “antifa.”
Yet evidence from the prosecution shows several of the defendants were part of the crowd that breached the Capitol.
There is no evidence that Rhodes entered the Capitol, and he has consistently denied having gone inside. Instead, Rhodes allegedly walked to the nearby Phoenix Park Hotel to call a contact in the White House. He allegedly implored the contact to put him in touch with Trump because he wanted the president to invoke the Insurrection Act.
“I just want to fight,” Rhodes said after the call, according to court filings.
Prosecutors say Rhodes spent thousands on ammunition and supplies before the rally, while others allegedly came to Washington with 30 days’ worth of essential supplies. Rhodes was also undeterred in the immediate aftermath of the riot, according to prosecutors, who say he spent thousands more on guns and supplies in the two weeks leading up to Biden’s inauguration.
The biggest questions surrounding the trial include how far the Oath Keepers went to plan their actions and who, if anyone, they coordinated with in Trump’s inner circle.