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Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes gets nearly 2 decades in prison for Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy

Stewart Rhodes and associates

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and associates are identified in this exhibit entered into evidence at his seditious conspiracy trial. (Photo via DOJ)

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes received an 18-year prison sentence on Thursday for seditious conspiracy and other crimes related to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as a federal judge applied a terrorism enhancement for his plot to halt the presidential transfer of power.

“You sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country,” U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta told Rhodes, according to NBC.

The sentence was seven years less than the 25-year term sought by the government.

In an historic verdict late last year, Rhodes and his Oath Keepers Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs were convicted by a jury of that top count, a rarely charged statute punishing attempts to overthrow the U.S. government or forcibly oppose the execution of its laws. Judge Mehta reportedly likened seditious conspiracy to a lesser analog of treason, according to NBC.

The other three co-defendants — Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell, and Kenneth Harrelson — also racked up serious federal convictions that carried the possibility of decades of imprisonment.

Prosecutors said that the Oath Keepers aimed to oppose, by force, the lawful transfer of power from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden. The jury agreed.

At his sentencing, the 58-year-old reportedly gave a full-throated and unrepentant defense of his words and actions.

“I’m a political prisoner like President Trump and my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country,” Rhodes declared, according to independent journalist Brandi Buchman. “I used my protected speech as we had done throughout the Trump administration out of necessity because of systemic violence of the left.”

In a rant rife with references to absurdist writer Franz Kafka and late Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Rhodes railed against what he described as false perceptions of his group as violent and white supremacists; he claimed the group was diverse and didn’t engage in any fighting at the Capitol, and as his remorseless speech reached its coda, Judge Mehta asked him to wrap up, according to multiple accounts from the courtroom from NBC, CBS, Lawfare, and Emptywheel.

Prosecutors described a wide gulf between the Oath Keepers’ branding and their actions since the group’s inception.

Stewart Rhodes

Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes is seen in a still frame of a video played during his seditious conspiracy trial. (Image via DOJ)

Shortly after Barack Obama became the first Black president of the United States in 2009, Rhodes launched the Oath Keepers at a revolutionary time and setting: in Lexington, Massachusetts, on the anniversary of the “shot heard ’round the world.” Rhodes billed his paramilitary group as a service organization for military and law enforcement veterans, who engaged in disaster relief and security at the sites of civil unrest.

Prosecutors showed a jury a far different image of the extremist group, grilling Rhodes about law enforcement and protesters unhappy with the Oath Keepers showing up heavily armed to racial justice protests. The Oath Keepers claimed to have been keeping the peace in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Louisville, Kentucky, in 2020, in response to the death of Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor, respectively. Authorities in those cities believed they had inflamed already combustible situations.

For prosecutors, these actions were preludes to the Oath Keepers descending upon the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a plan months in the making. The government traced internal Oath Keepers communications as far back as Nov. 9, 2020, showing the Oath Keepers’ preparations for the attack on the Capitol.

In Signal chat rooms — like one titled “DC Op: Jan 6” — Oath Keepers leaders and members discussed preparing a so-called quick reaction force, or QRF, to meet at a Comfort Inn in Ballston, Virginia, a short distance from Washington, D.C. Prosecutors showed security footage of Oath Keepers members entering the hotel with firearm-shaped packages and encrypted messages about plans to ferry those weapons across the Potomac River, if former President Donald Trump invoked the Insurrection Act.

Rhodes spoke openly about his belief that such an action would deputize the Oath Keepers and other paramilitary groups as his private security force — and Signal messages showed he grew restless when Trump didn’t do that.

“Now it’s nut cuttin time,” Rhodes wrote on Jan. 6. “Does Trump have balls or not? We’re about to find out.”

Alleged members of the Oath Keepers militia group approached the Capitol in 'stack formation' on Jan. 6, 2021 (left); group leader Elmer Stewart Rhodes III (right).

Oath Keepers members approached the Capitol in ‘stack formation’ on Jan. 6, 2021 (left); group leader Elmer Stewart Rhodes III (right).

Though one member downplayed the group’s heated encrypted chats as “locker room talk,” prosecutors said the Oath Keepers’ actions before, during and after the storming of the Capitol showed they were serious.

Some four days after Jan. 6, Rhodes had a meeting with a man he believed to be an intermediary to Trump at a parking lot of an electronics store in Texas. That man, combat veteran Jason Alpers, secretly recorded Rhodes, became a government witness, and testified that the Oath Keepers leader urged the then-lame duck president to seize power by force.

“You must use the insurrection act and use the power of the Presidency to stop him,” Rhodes told Trump in a typewritten message entered into evidence. “And all us veterans will support you and so will the vast majority of military.”

Alpers testified that Rhodes entered the message directly into his cell phone, to pass on to Trump through a third party. He showed the jury that note along with an audiotape of Rhodes’ heated remarks appearing to predict — if not pine for — civil war.

Those comments, Alpers said, made him bristle as a combat veteran.

“I can tell you right now I don’t wish civil war on anyone,” Alpers said on the tape.

“We’re gonna have it bud,” Rhodes replied, according to the transcript.

Judge Mehta reportedly warned that the threat remains palpable, as another election approaches.

“We all now hold our collective breaths with an election approaching,” said Mehta, according to CBS. “Will we have another January 6th? That remains to be seen.”

Federal prosecutors also requested tough sentences for eight of Rhodes’ convicted co-conspirators, ranging from a decade to 21 years, depending on the gravity of their actions and convictions on Jan. 6.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."