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Oath Keepers leader Rhodes sentenced to 18 years for Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy

Prosecutors say this image shows Oath Keepers and affiliates of the right-wing group gathered outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.  (U.S. Attorney's Office for D.C./U.S. Attorney's Office for D.C.)
By Spencer S. Hsu, Tom Jackman and Rachel Weiner Washington Post

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was sentenced up to 18 years in prison Thursday in the first punishments to be handed down for seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

U.S. prosecutors asked for up to 25 years in prison and the longest sentence by far in the rioting to deter future acts of domestic terrorism, arguing that Rhodes played a significant role in spreading doubt about the 2020 presidential election and led more than 20 other Americans to seek to use violence against the government to thwart the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

“These defendants were prepared to fight. Not for their country, but against it. In their own words, they were ‘willing to die’ in a ‘guerrilla war’ to achieve their goal of halting the transfer of power after the 2020 Presidential Election,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey S. Nestler wrote in sentencing memos for the prosecution team.

Prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta to find that Rhodes’ actions were meant to intimidate or retaliate against the government, creating “a grave risk to our democratic system.”

Attorneys for Rhodes asked for time served – about 16 months – for the former Army paratrooper and Yale law graduate. They played down Rhodes’ repeated threats of “civil war,” “bloody revolution” and participation in armed standoffs with federal authorities, highlighting instead his far-right, anti-government group’s response to hurricanes and civil unrest since its founding in 2009.

“Assisting fellow citizens in times of natural disasters, protecting them when under siege from rioters and upholding the United States Constitution are not ‘extreme’ ideals, they are American ideals,” attorneys Phillip A. Linder and James Lee Bright wrote in sentencing papers.

Mehta signaled ahead of sentencing that he considered Rhodes’ actions to be far “different” in scale and scope than those of others. No Jan. 6 defendant has been sentenced to more than eight years in prison who did not assault police, and only one man has been sentenced to more than a decade – Peter Schwartz received just over 14 years after assaulting four officers with a dangerous weapon and had 38 prior convictions.

By comparison, the five defendants convicted of seditious conspiracy over the past two decades were all sentenced to at least 10 years on that count.

Counter-extremism experts say that Rhodes’ actions are comparable to what those five defendants did, and that the Oath Keepers and allied groups now pose one of the most significant threats to U.S. national security. Rhodes has promoted the fringe, “insurrectionist view” that individuals and private militia groups have a constitutional right under the Second Amendment to violently oppose the government for their own subjective reasons, fueled by often violent conspiracy theories about perceived federal “tyranny,” said Mary McCord, who headed the Justice Department’s national security division for the first several months of the Trump presidency.

Rhodes’ tenure over the Oath Keepers “should be seen as an indispensable building block toward his seditious conspiracy to assault Congress and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power,” McCord said in a letter to the court. “He should not be permitted to distort this history now that he faces the prospect of punishment for his crimes.”

Rhodes, a top deputy and four others were found guilty at trials in November and January of plotting to unleash political violence, culminating in the attack on the Capitol as Congress met to confirm the 2020 election results. Three co-defendants were acquitted of that count but convicted of obstructing Congress, among other crimes. Both top offenses are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, but prosecutors asked the court on Thursday to stack sentences to exceed that total for Rhodes and the Oath Keepers’ Florida leader Kelly Meggs.

Rhodes and followers dressed in combat-style gear converged on the Capitol after staging an “arsenal” of weapons at nearby hotels, ready to take up arms at Rhodes’ direction, prosecutors said. Rhodes did not enter the building but was in contact with “ground team” leader Meggs, an auto dealer manager, just before Meggs led a line of members in military-style tactical gear up the East Capitol steps, where they helped a crowd force entry.

Rhodes’ defense said he and co-defendants came to Washington as bodyguards for Republican VIPs including Roger Stone and a relative of Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander. The Oath Keepers said some brought firearms only to help act as “peacekeepers” in case Trump met their demand to invoke the Civil War-era Insurrection Act and mobilize a private militia to stop Biden from becoming president, and none carried them to the Capitol.

But prosecutors presented evidence that after networks declared the election for Biden on Nov. 7, 2020, Rhodes asked a “Friends of Stone” chat group – that included Stone and Proud Boys leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio – “What’s the plan?” and shared a Serbian academic’s proposal for storming Congress. Over the next two months, Rhodes amplified Trump’s bogus stolen election claims and used his platform as one of the extremist anti-government movement’s most visible leaders to urge followers to be ready for an “armed rebellion,” including in two open letters to Trump and a personal message intended for him pressing the president to use the military to hold on to power against Democratic opponents.

“We will have to rise up in insurrection (rebellion)” if Trump does not act, Rhodes texted one associate on Dec. 10. Four days after Jan. 6, Rhodes was recorded telling another that if Trump was “just gonna let himself be removed illegally, then we should have brought rifles,” and, “We could have fixed it right then and there. I’d hang f——ing Pelosi from the lamppost,” referring to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Rhodes and co-defendants testified that their plans did not include entering the Capitol, describing it as a spur-of-the-moment decision made without consultation after the building had been breached by others.

But prosecutors said their words and actions demonstrated tacit agreement to take advantage of the riot to further an illegal plot proposed in public and private by Rhodes, who warned repeatedly before Jan. 6 that “bloody civil war” was necessary if the election results were not overturned, with or without Trump.

Convicted of seditious conspiracy in addition to Rhodes and Meggs were Roberto Minuta of Prosper, Tex.; Joseph Hackett of Sarasota, Fla.; David Moerschel of Punta Gorda, Fla., and Edward Vallejo of Phoenix.

Convicted of other crimes were Kenneth Harrelson, a former Army sergeant from Titusville, Fla., Jessica Watkins, another Army veteran and bar owner from Woodstock, Ohio; and Thomas Caldwell, a retired Navy intelligence officer who stayed outside the building but hosted other defendants at his farm in Berryville, Va.

All are to be sentenced over the next nine days except for Caldwell, whose sentencing was postponed to review a defense motion to reconsider some of his convictions.