The leader of a right-wing group repeatedly linked to U.S. law enforcement and military members was arrested on January 13 2022 and charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol just over a year earlier.
A grand jury accused Elmer Stewart Rhodes and 10 other members of his “Oath Keepers” group 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 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.
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 leaked records 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.”
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