Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes faces sentencing for role in Jan. 6 attack

WashingtonStewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right group known as the Oath Keepers, is set to be sentenced Thursday on numerous felony counts tied to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, including the serious charge of seditious conspiracy. 

Prosecutors have asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to impose a harsh sentence of 25 years in prison, saying Rhodes and his co-defendants planned to impede the peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. Rhodes was convicted by a jury last November.

Rhodes — the first Jan. 6 defendant to be sentenced for the severe seditious charge — “pushed the idea among Oath Keepers members and others that with a large enough mob, they could intimidate Congress and its Members and impose the conspirators’ will rather than the American people’s: to stop the certification of the next President of the United States,” the government alleged in pre-sentencing filings. 

According to prosecutors, he and his fellow Oath Keepers planned for violence ahead of the Capitol breach, communicated via encrypted messages and radios during the attack, and celebrated their actions in its aftermath. 

“These defendants attempted to silence millions of Americans who had placed their vote for a different candidate, to ignore the variety of legal and judicial mechanisms that lawfully scrutinized the electoral process leading up to and on January 6, and to shatter the democratic system of governance enshrined in our laws and in our Constitution,” they wrote. “This conduct created a grave risk to our democratic system of government and must be met with swift and severe punishment.” 

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington on June 25, 2017.
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington on June 25, 2017. 

Susan Walsh / AP

Rhodes is appearing before Judge Amit Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Thursday morning to learn his sentence.

His defense attorneys have argued for a much lighter sentence of time served as he has been in jail since his arrest over a year ago. They have previously argued there was “No plan to storm the Capitol … No plan to breach the Rotunda … No plan to stop the certification of the electors.”

During the eight-week-long trial last year, the government presented evidence that included encrypted chat messages, recorded meetings and social media posts to prove the defendants made detailed plans to head to Washington ahead of Jan. 6, when lawmakers gathered to count the Electoral College votes and formalize Mr. Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. Government lawyers and witnesses said the Oath Keepers’ plans included amassing an arsenal of weapons at a nearby Virginia hotel, coordinating movements in a so-called Quick Reaction Force unit and preparing for violence. 

A Yale Law School graduate, Rhodes was the alleged leader of the conspiracy, prosecutors told the jury and argued in sentencing memos, calling him the “architect” of the plan who penned open letters to Trump urging him to try to hold onto power using an obscure, centuries-old law known as the Insurrection Act. “It will be 1776 all over again,” Rhodes wrote in an Oath Keepers leadership message group. “Force on force is the way to go.” 

He was not accused of actually entering the Capitol on Jan. 6, but admitted to being present near the building that day. 

The plan, according to the government, began in earnest on Dec. 19, 2020, when then-President Trump told supporters to gather for what he said would be a “wild” rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. In the lead-up to the attack, evidence at trial showed Rhodes’ rhetoric growing more extreme, with him discussing revolutions and civil war. 

Defense attorneys argued their clients, including Rhodes, were present in Washington to provide security details to high-profile Trump supporters attending the rally near the White House that preceded the attack on the Capitol. Evidence at trial showed many defendants, only some of whom would be convicted on the seditious charge, marching up into the Capitol building on two separate occasions during the riot. 

Rhodes’ codefendant, Kelly Meggs, was also convicted of the seditious conspiracy charge, with prosecutors alleging he spearheaded the effort to enter the Capitol. He is set to be sentenced Thursday afternoon. 

Three other Oath Keepers who were tried at the same time — Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell, and Kenneth Harrelson — were acquitted of the most severe count, but found guilty of other crimes. During a subsequent trial, four more Oath Keepers were all found guilty of seditious conspiracy. They are scheduled to be sentenced in the coming days. 

Prosecutors alleged Jan. 6 was not the culmination of the Oath Keepers’ alleged conspiracy. It was instead part of a larger plan to oppose Mr. Biden’s presidency, one that did not end with the certification of the Electoral College votes. 

They wrote Rhodes “stands out” among the Oath Keepers because of “the frequency and vehemence” with which he urged his followers to oppose the election results and “retaliate against government conduct.” Rhodes’s actions, prosecutors argued, warranted specific attention and qualified for stricter penalties under anti-terrorism statutes. 

“Rhodes presents a current and unique danger to the community and to our democracy,” they wrote.

Defense attorneys argued at trial that the government failed to prove an actual conspiracy to enter the Capitol building existed, contending their clients spoke in hyperbolic yet constitutionally protected ways that did not amount to criminal conduct. 

Rhodes’ legal team urged Mehta, the judge, to consider his history as a military veteran and founder of the Oath Keepers, which they billed as a “volunteer organization” meant to assist with disaster relief and community protection. 

“The character of the Oath Keepers reflects the character of the man who created it,” the attorneys wrote earlier this month in an attempt to get him a time-served sentence. “Mr. Rhodes gave his life to the Oath Keepers.”  

“None of his protected speech incited or encouraged imminent violent or unlawful acts,” the defense team argued. “Mr. Rhodes was focused at the time on getting President Trump to use his power and authority while still in office.” 

Ahead of Thursday’s sentencing, the court heard from victims who said they were impacted by actions of Rhodes and his co-defendants.

“I’ll never forget how my wife burst into tears and sat down on the floor crying when she saw how bruised, battered and bloody my arms and legs were,” police officer Christopher Owens said of the injuries he incurred during the attack. 

Former U.S. Senate chamber assistant Virginia Brown, who carried the Electoral College votes during the attack, testified she had to kick off her shoes and run through the Capitol to escape the mob. 

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