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Landmark Oath Keepers verdict hobbles group, but the movement lives on

Dec. 3, 2022 Updated Sat., Dec. 3, 2022 at 8:54 p.m.

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, is seen on a screen during a House Select Committee hearing to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 9.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, is seen on a screen during a House Select Committee hearing to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 9. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Spencer S. Hsu and Hannah Allam Washington Post

WASHINGTON – For a decade, firebrand Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes preached violent revolution against the federal government with a remarkable impunity that ended this week with a landmark seditious conspiracy conviction for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The verdict and lengthy prison sentence facing Rhodes might amount to a knockout blow for one of the most visible leaders of the anti-government militia movement, extremism monitors said, but not necessarily for the interstate network he founded in 2009 to recruit military veterans and law enforcement officers to battle federal “tyranny.” The seditious conspiracy conviction Tuesday in a federal court in Washington made Rhodes the first militant not associated with Islamist extremism to be found guilty of the charge in more than 30 years.

While Rhodes has long proclaimed the inevitability and necessity of violence against U.S. authority, that message found new resonance amid public anger stoked by then-President Donald Trump against the government in 2020 over pandemic restrictions, social justice protests over police killings and his false and incendiary claims of a “stolen” election.

“The biggest difference with (Rhodes’) comments in the past is that, this time, someone actually acted on that implicit message that Rhodes has been repeating,” said Sam Jackson, a scholar on extremism. Jackson’s book “Oath Keepers” traces the group’s transformation from the far-right fringe to a national movement, grounded in the extremist belief in an absolute constitutional right not only to bear arms but to decide which federal laws to obey.

Analysts who study armed groups say it’s too early to be certain about the verdict’s effect on the wider militia movement. They said the Oath Keepers prosecution came from a unique set of circumstances – a singular attack that revealed security failures and prompted public demands for a more stringent government response to the violent right.

Rhodes’s core followers “are not going to stop being extremists. They’ll go to other groups” or rebrand the Oath Keepers under new leadership, said Mark Pitcavage, an Anti-Defamation League researcher who has tracked far-right militant groups for decades.

There might be a more dissuading effect for people who are curious about getting involved in the anti-government movement but are not far-right ideologues, extremism researchers said. The verdict, they said, makes clear that paramilitary movements will face legal consequences – accountability that such groups sometimes dodged in unsuccessful Justice Department prosecutions.

“Beyond those who already are convinced that the 2020 election was stolen and that the American government is increasingly tyrannical and that there is a global conspiracy to destroy the ‘real’ America, it could be a signal that this group is not, in fact, made up of ‘patriots,’ ” Jackson said.

After a two-month trial, a federal jury convicted Rhodes and four co-defendants tied to one of the indelible images of the Capitol attack – a column of Oath Keepers, dressed in military-style tactical gear, pushing their way through the mob to enter the building the day lawmakers convened to confirm Joe Biden’s election win.

Though only Rhodes and another Oath Keepers member, Kelly Meggs, were convicted of seditious conspiracy, all five defendants were convicted of obstructing Congress.

Though Rhodes didn’t go in himself, the Justice Department showed jurors he had purchased $20,000 worth of firearms and related equipment in days prior, conspired to stockpile an “arsenal” of weapons at nearby hotels with co-defendants who went inside, and mobilized followers over weeks of public and private communications to be ready to take up arms at his direction to prevent Biden from taking office.

“He really crossed a big line that, in the past, he had seemed to have the common sense to know not to cross,” Pitcavage said, “and he got nailed for it, and nailed for it in a really big way.”

Some who know Rhodes personally expressed surprise that he crossed the boundary between constitutionally protected speech and illegal action after years of carefully toeing it. But others say it was a matter of time.

“I kind of dismissed Stewart after I left things (in 2018) and didn’t think it would go much further, and I think the feds probably felt the same way,” former Oath Keepers spokesman Jason Van Tatenhove said in an interview.

After high-profile confrontations, including joining rancher Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff against the government in Nevada in 2014, Rhodes hitched the Oath Keepers’ fortunes to Trump in 2016, joining other anti-government leaders who suspended the traditional distrust of federal powers while “their guy” was in office. Armed Oath Keepers were dispatched to polling places, social justice protests and pro-Trump rallies.

After the 2020 election, Rhodes, along with other conspiratorial extremists, called on Trump to mobilize the military and sympathetic militant groups to retain power by invoking the Insurrection Act. Such an invocation was discussed by Trump and people in his inner circle to put down civil unrest earlier in the year, leading to a break with top military leaders, or to use martial law to rerun the election.

Rhodes saw in Trump “a marriage of convenience almost that fed not only the possibility for more money, but gave him more legitimacy and a sense of authority” as head of an unleashed American paramilitary movement, Van Tatenhove said. Rhodes “was like Evel Knievel. You’ve got to find a bigger jump, got to continue to grow that audience,” said Van Tatenhove, who has spoken about the dangers of the Oath Keepers since leaving the group and testified for lawmakers investigating probing the Jan. 6 attack.

After years of consternation at watching Rhodes’s anti-government organizing go unpunished, his critics, including family members, celebrated his downfall.

“I am so relieved,” said Tasha Adams, Rhodes’s estranged wife of more than 20 years, who with their children has widely publicized Rhodes’s manic conspiracist outlook and financial mismanagement, crowdfunding her divorce after Jan. 6. “For the first time, he is facing the consequence of his own actions and, barring any pardon after the 2024 election, he can now disappear into obscurity where he belongs.”

In real-world terms, the Oath Keepers organizational and mobilizing structure is defunct. In addition to still-pending criminal prosecutions, injured police officers, members of Congress, civil rights groups and the D.C. government have sued, asserting members of the group should pay stiff financial damages for causing the Jan. 6 violence. “Fourteen of our defendants (now) have been criminally convicted,” D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said on Twitter after Tuesday’s convictions, “We look forward to continuing our case with this mounting evidence.”

Even before the high-profile Jan. 6 prosecution, Rhodes’s image was tarnished among the broader movement. Other far-right leaders have described their misgivings about him, saying he focused on saving his own skin while they took the heat for anti-government events he promoted. Senior leaders accused Rhodes of using the group’s coffers as a piggy bank for his steak dinners and personal purchases, while chapters in the decentralized movement peeled off, in some cases publicly severing ties with him.

Rhodes’s trial itself exposed a group riven by infighting and schisms, and stalked by a pervasive fear of FBI infiltration. Testifying for the government, ex-Oath Keepers testified that they quit over Rhodes’s increasingly “unchained” rhetoric, calls that sounded like the group was “going to war” with the government, and proposals to bait violence with left-wing extremists. Key evidence against Rhodes included his statements seeped in violent rhetoric recorded by others that were later turned over to the FBI, and a leak during the trial revealed that an Oath Keepers board member was in fact an FBI informant.

Another sign of Rhodes’s diminished status is the militia movement’s reaction to the convictions. Other anti-government militant groups, which largely stayed away from the Capitol on Jan. 6, shared posts about the “garbage” verdict, but aren’t treating Rhodes as a fallen comrade.

“Many militia members did not support the insurrection and, long before it, did not care for Rhodes,” said Amy Cooter, a senior fellow at Middlebury University’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism. “They in particular will continue to see him as an outlier, as not a ‘real’ movement member.”

Across social media forums, there was little sympathy for Rhodes personally, only outrage at what the verdict might mean for other armed groups.

Some extremist outlets buried the news of the most serious convictions by emphasizing the acquittals of some members: “Three out of five J6ers found NOT guilty of seditious conspiracy,” one headline read, using shorthand for Jan. 6 defendants. Others continued to push a “false flag” narrative of FBI involvement in fomenting the attack.

The Oath Keepers’ political utility for the movement now is to serve as fuel for the wider right-wing outrage machine’s portrayal of a Biden administration crackdown on conservative, gun-owning “patriots,” analysts said.

“Given our general political milieu, there will be plenty of folks who view him as a martyr, as someone who is being punished for righteously standing up against a stolen election,” Cooter said. “They will be likely to reference Rhodes’s conviction and eventual sentence alongside several other emerging events as ‘proof’ that they need to be even more aggressive in their opposition of a Democratic win in 2024.”

Since the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, in 2017, federal authorities have faced mounting public pressure to more aggressively prosecute white supremacist and anti-government militant groups, and many extremist groups were deplatformed in 2020.

Pitcavage said he initially was skeptical that federal prosecutors could build a convincing seditious conspiracy case, but said his views changed over the course of Rhodes’s trial as prosecutors presented extraordinarily detailed and damning evidence.

“I would like to think they learned” from past failures, Pitcavage said. “They really crossed their T’s and dotted their I’s and really made an attempt to help the jury understand – and that is something they have sometimes failed to do in the past.”

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