The leader of a right-wing group repeatedly linked to U.S. law enforcement and military members was sentenced to 18 years in prison on seditious conspiracy charges in connection with the January 2021 attack and right-wing coup attempt on the U.S. Capitol.
Federal judge Judge Amit P. Mehta called Oath Keepers head Elmer Stewart Rhodes “an ongoing threat and a peril to this country, to the Republic and the very fabric of our democracy” during Rhodes’ four-hour sentencing hearing, according to the New York Times.
Rhodes, who had been arrested on January 13 2022, refused to show remorse for his actions; the Times reported that in an interview four days before his sentencing, he repeated the lie that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent and said that the U.S. needed “regime change.”
Rhodes and 10 other members of his “Oath Keepers” group were accused of conspiring “to oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power by force” by seeking to stop the certification of U.S. President Joe Biden on January 6 2021.
More than 700 people have been arrested in connection with the attack. In a video interview with the Washington Post, Rhodes had claimed that while he was at the Capitol the day of the attack, he was not inside the building.
“No plan to do so, no instruction to do so, and no knowledge any of our guys had gone in ’til after,” he said at the time.
But the indictment stated that not only did he do so, he refuted the idea that “Antifa” — a catch-all term to define anti-fascist demonstrators that has been whipped into an all-purpose bogeyman by the far right — were involved. According to the indictment:
In response to a claim by an Oath Keepers associate that Antifa had breached the Capitol, Rhodes replied, “Nope. I’m right here. These are Patriots.”
On May 4 2022 William Todd Wilson, who led a North Carolina chapter of Rhodes’ group, said in court that Rhodes attempted to get in contact with Trump following the coup attempt at the Capitol.
CNN reported that Wilson made the remark after pleading guilty to charges of seditious conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding. According to a court filing, Wilson was part of a group of people who were in a room with Rhodes at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington D.C. when Rhodes made a speakerphone call to an unidentified person:
Wilson heard Rhodes repeatedly implore the individual to tell President Trump to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to forcibly oppose the transfer of power. This individual denied Rhodes’s request to speak directly with President Trump.
According to Wilson, Rhodes told the group “I just want to fight” after the call ended.
Prior to the attack, Rhodes told Alex Jones of the conspiracy theorist website Infowars about his “network”:
We have men already stationed outside D.C. as a nuclear option in case they attempt to remove the president illegally. We will step in and stop it. It’s either President [Donald] Trump is encouraged and bolstered and strengthened to do what he must do, or we wind up in a bloody fight — we all know that. The fight’s coming.
During his trial in October 2022, prosecutors showed the jury an open letter Rhodes posted online asking Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, believing it would allow his gang to act alongside the National Guard to suppress a (non-existent) anti-fascist coup. According to the New York Times, the letter also called on Trump to perform even more abuses of power:
Mr. Rhodes instructed the president to seize data from digital voting machines across the country that would purportedly prove the election had been rigged; declassify a trove of the nation’s secrets; and then perform a WikiLeaks-style “data dump,” exposing a supposed cabal of corrupt judges, law enforcement officers and state election officials.
All of this was followed by a threat of violence against Mr. Biden and Kamala Harris, his vice president-elect.
“If you fail to act while you are still in office,” Mr. Rhodes told Mr. Trump, “We the People will have to fight a bloody war against these two illegitimate Chinese puppets.”
Rhodes made the same demand of Trump in a December 11 2020 message sent to a group chat that included right-wing operative Roger Stone.
“If he doesn’t do that, then we will have to fight against an illegitimate Biden regime and the deep state with him,” Rhodes’ message read. “It will be a bloody and desperate fight.”
The indictment also noted that Rhodes’ group “explicitly” emphasizes recruiting military and police personnel as well as first-responders both retired and active. That connection dates back to the group’s origins. As Mother Jones reported in 2010:
Rhodes encourages active-duty soldiers to remain anonymous, noting that a group with large numbers of anonymous members can instill in its adversaries the fear of the unknown—a “great force multiplier.”
Those ties gained more public attention in the wake of the Capitol attack, as records leaked by journalism hacking group Distributed Denial of Secrets showed that around 40,000 law enforcement and military officials (both active and retired) were listed as “Oath Keepers” members.
“We’re increasingly seeing, in these [leaked] rolls, current and former members of a public office that are Oath Keepers,” Anti-Defamation League researcher Alex Friedfeld told Rolling Stone following the membership information leak. “Which means at some point they had a hand in shaping laws, and they could actually start to shape the world in a way that accords with their extremist agenda. This is really concerning, because it has real impacts on ordinary people’s lives.”
Among the active officials identified in the leak was Sheriff Chad Bianco of Riverside County in California — the tenth-largest county in the U.S. — who said at the time that while he opposed the attack on the Capitol he was not ashamed of being part of the “Oath Keepers” for a year in 2014.
“In today’s politically toxic environment, if you support the Constitution of the United States of America you are evil,” Bianco said after he was identified in the group’s membership rolls. “You’re branded as some evil, right-wing conspirator.”
On September 7 2022, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a report showing that a leaked membership list for the Oath Keepers revealed hundreds of its members serving in prominent public service positions.
According to the ADL, their research identified 373 people on the list they believed were currently serving as law enforcement positions around the U.S. “including at least ten chiefs of police and eleven sheriffs” as well as 117 people they believe to be currently serving in the U.S. military; 86 people believed to be working in local fire departments; and 81 people around the U.S. either holding or running for political office in 2022.
“To know that members of this group have permeated key aspects of civil society should serve as a wake-up call to people of all political persuasions that extremists hell-bent on destroying our democratic norms are making in-roads across the country,” ADL chief executive officer Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.
The ADL did note, however, that inclusion on the list did not guarantee that every individual mentioned was actually a member of the group. According to Associated Press, several officials identified in the list denied having any substantial connection to the Oath Keepers.
“Back in 2014, they appeared to be a pretty solid conservative group,” said South Carolina state Rep. Phil Jensen (R). “I can’t speak to them now.”
Associated Press reported that Jensen, who was among the officials identified in the list, “paid for a one-year membership in 2014 but never received any Oath Keepers’ literature, attended any meetings or renewed his membership.”
However, he would not say whether he disavowed the group and claimed to not have enough information on them.
Meanwhile, a witness at Rhodes’ trial — former Oath Keeper John Zimmerman — testified that he believed that Rhodes had a contact within the Secret Service; in a text message shown to the jury, Rhodes claimed to be “on back channel working groups trying to advise [Trump].”
Rhodes testified in his own defense on November 4 2022, falling back on familiar right-wing tropes. He claimed, falsely, that the 2020 election was “unconstitutional” because of new voting procedures prompted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; he claimed that he and his group were responding to the (non-existent) threat of an “Antifa siege” on the White House; and he also claimed that unlike other white nationalist groups, the Oath Keepers preferred to “stay calm.”
Rhodes’ testimony ran counter to that of another right-wing operative, Jason Alpers, two days earlier. Alpers testified that in a meeting between the two men on January 10 2021 — four days after the Capitol coup attempt — Rhodes said that the Oath Keepers would act violently if Trump did not invoke the Insurrection Act to retain power.
“If [Trump’s] not going to do the right thing, and he’s just gonna let himself be removed illegally, then we should have brought rifles,” Rhodes said in a recording played for the trial. “We could have fixed it right then and there. I’d hang fucking Pelosi from the lamppost.”
Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy on November 29 2022; a sentencing date was not immediately announced. Another Oath Keepers member, Kelly Meggs, was also convicted on the same charge.
Update 5/25/2023, 11:19 a.m.: Updated throughout to reflect that Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years in prison. -ag See other updates below. -bb
Update 11/29/2022, 2:31 p.m.: Updated to reflect Rhodes’ conviction for seditious conspiracy. -ag
Update 11/04/2022, 3:10 p.m.: Updated to reflect testimony by Rhodes at his trial, as well as recording of statements he made in January 2021. -ag
Update 10/10/2022, 9:33 a.m.: Updated to reflect developments in Stewart Rhodes’ trial for seditious conspiracy. -ag
Update 9/7/2022, 10:44 a.m.: Updated to reflect reporting by the Anti-Defamation League identifying law enforcement and political officials identified in an Oath Keepers membership list. -ag
Update 5/5/2022, 10:44 a.m.: Updated to note allegation that Rhodes attempted to speak to Donald Trump after the January 2021 coup attempt. -ag