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Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes charged with seditious conspiracy in Jan. 6 Capitol riot

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/13/2022 Spencer Hsu, Devlin Barrett
a man wearing a hat and sunglasses: Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in 2017. © Susan Walsh/AP Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in 2017.

Stewart Rhodes — founder and leader of the extremist group Oath Keepers, whose members are accused of being key players in the Jan. 6 attack on Congress — has been indicted and arrested, people familiar with the matter said Thursday.

The 56-year-old, who was at the Capitol that day but has said he did not enter the building, is the most high-profile person charged in the investigation so far. He is charged with seditious conspiracy, along with 10 other Oath Keepers members or associates, said the people familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing probe.

Rhodes was arrested Thursday, after a federal grand jury leveled new charges focusing on what prosecutors say is a core group of Oath Keepers adherents who allegedly planned for and participated in obstructing Congress on the day lawmakers certified President Biden’s 2020 election victory.

Charges are expected to be unsealed later Thursday.

In interviews with The Washington Post over the past year, Rhodes — a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law graduate who has become one of the most visible figures of the far-right anti-government movement — has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

He said he was communicating with members of his group in an effort to “keep them out of trouble,” and emphasized that Oath Keepers associates who did go in “went totally off mission.”

An earlier indictment charged 19 of the extremist group’s alleged adherents with conspiracy and aiding and abetting the obstruction of Congress. Two of those individuals have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators. The rest have pleaded not guilty and are preparing for trials later this year.

[Stewart Rhodes: paramilitary commander or couch-surfing grifter?]

In cases in which people have pleaded guilty, defendants acknowledged they were among a group that forced entry through the Capitol’s East Rotunda doors after marching single-file in tight formation up the steps wearing camouflage vests, helmets, goggles and Oath Keepers insignia.

Some defendants also admitted to stashing guns in a nearby Arlington, Va., hotel for possible use by what they called a “Quick Reaction Force.”

The attack on the Capitol occurred as lawmakers were gathered there to formally confirm Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, amid repeated and unfounded allegations of widespread election fraud and as then-President Donald Trump was urging his supporters to “Stop the Steal.”

The certification of the election results was disrupted by the pro-Trump rioters, who injured scores of police officers and ransacked Capitol offices as lawmakers were evacuated from the House floor.

In court filings related to the original conspiracy case, prosecutors alleged that the group came to Washington at Rhodes’ urging. Rhodes began discussing plans to keep Trump in the White House by force as early as Nov. 9, the filings state.

[Garland vows to hold people responsible for Jan. 6 accountable ‘at all levels’]

Seven other alleged Oath Keepers members or associates were previously arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 riot but they were not charged in the large conspiracy case.

a man wearing glasses and looking at the camera: Stewart Rhodes is founder of the Oath Keepers. © Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post Stewart Rhodes is founder of the Oath Keepers.

Prosecutors allege that before and during the riot, Rhodes exchanged dozens of encrypted messages, phone calls and other communications with members of the Oath Keepers group that breached the Capitol. Rhodes has accused prosecutors of trying to manufacture a nonexistent conspiracy.

In interviews with The Washington Post, Rhodes disputed previous government allegations regarding his encrypted posts to a group that included regional Oath Keepers leaders from several states at the scene.

The messages, on the Signal message app, were an attempt to keep the group members “out of trouble,” he said.

In an online interview Wednesday with NorthWest Liberty News, Rhodes said federal agents would “love to put me behind bars.”

But he insisted he had not committed crimes.

“I don’t do illegal activities. I always stay on this side of the line,” he said. “I know where the lines are, and it drives them crazy.

“So they’re, they’re actively hunting me down, they’ve got the DOJ running around sending the FBI out to investigate us, Oath Keepers, and they’re questioning all of our members across the country — even guys that didn’t go to D.C. — about me, and about their relationship with me. And the focus is on trying to build a case against myself and other Oath Keepers to bring us all in jail. But some people aren’t satisfied unless we’re all in jail.”

[Four more indicted in alleged Oath Keepers conspiracy]

Rhodes also said he has grown disillusioned with Trump, accusing the former president of not supporting members of the Oath Keepers charged in the Jan. 6 investigion.

“All of the people that are being unlawfully detained or denied bail, they’re being abandoned by Trump. He’s done nothing for them. You know, he could donate money, he hasn’t even done that. He didn’t pardon anybody while he was still in office, and then when he left, he hasn’t raised money,” Rhodes said. “... I think he has abandoned his base, because he has abandoned the people who were there to protect his other supporters. So yes, I do feel abandoned by him.”

Prosecutors say the Oath Keepers, a loose network of groups founded in 2009 that includes some self-styled citizen militias, seeks to recruit current or former members of law enforcement and the military, promoting an apocalyptic vision of the government careening toward totalitarianism and societal collapse.

Days after the attack on Congress, the Justice Department announced that it was considering charging some of the rioters with seditious conspiracy — a rarely-filed criminal charge for those who use violence to try to hinder the execution of federal law.

In the year since the attack, the Justice Department has charged more than 700 people. The FBI is seeking to arrest more than 200 more.

But some Democrats and lawyers have argued that the department has been too cautious in pursuing more-serious charges, including against individuals who may not have been at the Capitol but may have organized or incited the violence.

In a speech last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland urged his critics to be patient, noting that federal conspiracy investigations typically start with the lesser allegations and work their way toward graver charges.

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