WILMINGTON, Delaware (AP) — Two days after the Nov. 3, 2020 election, oathkeepers were already convinced that victory had been stolen from President Donald Trump, and members of a far-right militia group were planning a march on the US Capitol.
“We can’t get through this without a civil war,” group leader Stuart Rhodes wrote, according to court documents, to his colleagues. “Too late for that. Prepare your mind. body. spirit.”
Four days later, when Democrat Joe Biden was declared the winner by the Associated Press and other news outlets, the documents say Rhodes told Oathkeepers to “refuse to accept this and hold a massive march on the nation’s Capitol.”
The indictment last week of Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, and 10 other members or associates was stunning in part because federal prosecutors, after a year of investigating the January 6, 2021 uprising, charged them with inflammatory conspiracy, a rarely-used Civil War-era statute meant only to for the most serious political criminals.
But the documents also show how quickly Trump’s most vocal and dangerous supporters mobilized to undermine the election results through force and violence, even though there was no massive electoral fraud, and the Trump cabinet and local election officials said the vote was free and fair.
Hundreds of people have been charged with a violent attempt to prevent Congress from confirming Biden’s victory. Many were encouraged by Trump’s speech at a rally outside the White House shortly before the riots, where he said: “We are fighting like hell. And if you don’t fight with all your might, you won’t have a country anymore.”
But for Rhodes and others, there was no need for words of support for Trump. The event has already been scheduled.
Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, 56, founded Oath Keepers in 2009. He and a few friends decided that they would create an organization based on the perception of a “looming tyranny” concerned about the misuse of federal powers and a series of unacknowledged threats to how the government planned to attack its own citizens. He hired current and former military, police and first responders.
Rhodes, after graduating from high school, joined the army and became a paratrooper, but was honorably discharged after he was injured while skydiving at night, according to a biography on the extremism website of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
He went to night school at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. His first job in politics was supervising interns for Ron Paul, who was then a Republican congressman from Texas. Rhodes later attended Yale Law School, graduating in 2004, and worked as a law clerk for Arizona Supreme Court Justice Michael Ryan.
Rhodes moved to Montana and relocated his advocacy practice there, but made a “sharp turn to the right of politics,” said the SPLC, and created the Oathkeepers.
He said that at its peak there were about 40,000 Oathkeepers; one extremism expert estimates the group has about 3,000 members across the country. Rhodes soon neglected his law practice to work with the Oathkeepers. He was stripped of status in 2015.
Members pledge to “fulfill the oath that all military and police officers take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic'” and to defend the Constitution, according to its website.
Their motto is “Not on our watch!”
Oathkeepers were involved in a series of clashes with the government during the years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Most notable was the armed confrontation with the federal government at the Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada.
Then Trump was elected in 2016. Although Rhodes insisted that the oath-keepers were non-partisan, they arrived in the nation’s capital in January 2017, when Trump took office, to protect peaceful “American patriots” from the “radical left.”
“During this time, Rhodes became increasingly a conspiracy theorist, accepting and spreading a number of fringe right-wing conspiracy theories with the help of his friend Alex Jones,” says Oathkeepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in Right-Wing Circles. Wing of the Anti-Government Group,” University of Albany Associate Professor Sam Jackson. Jones is a conspiracy theorist and host of Infowars.
When it looked like Trump would lose the 2020 presidential election to Biden, prosecutors said, the oath-keepers went to work.
On November 9, 2020, Rhodes instructed his followers during a GoToMeeting call to travel to Washington to tell Trump “that the people support him” and expressed his hope that Trump would call the militia to help stay in power, authorities say.
“It will be a bloody and desperate battle,” Rhodes warned. “We will have a fight. This cannot be avoided.”
The oathkeepers worked as if they were going to war, discussing weapons and training. In the days leading up to the attack on the Capitol, one defendant offered in a text message to hire a boat to ferry weapons across the Potomac River to their “waiting troops,” prosecutors said.
According to the documents, on December 14, 2020, as state voters voted, Rhodes posted a letter on the Oath Keepers website “calling for the use of force to end the legitimate transfer of presidential power.”
As this crossing in Washington drew near, the Oathkeepers spoke of an armory they would keep within walking distance and capture if necessary. Rhodes is accused of spending $15,500 on firearms and related equipment, including a shotgun, AR-15, mounts, triggers, scopes and magazines, prosecutors said.
Others also came prepared.
“Every visitor has his own technical equipment and knows how to use it,” wrote Edward Vallejo, who was also accused of conspiracy.
Oathkeepers placed weapons in hotels near the District of Columbia. Rhodes said they were “QRF,” the military term for a rapid reaction force, according to court documents.
On the morning of January 6, 2021, Vallejo and other podcast participants discussed the possibility of armed conflict. Participants came in camouflaged combat uniforms and helmets. They entered the Capitol with large crowds of rioters who broke past police barriers and smashed windows, injuring dozens of officers and forcing legislators to flee.
The indictment against Rhodes alleges that the Oath Keepers formed two teams, or “stacks”, a military term. The first stack split inside the building to follow the House and Senate separately. The indictment states that the second stack collided with officers inside the Capitol Rotunda.
Other Trump supporters have joined the fray.
The building was broken into. Congressional certification has been halted. There were rumors that the antifa left had violated the foundation of American democracy. “Nope. I’m here, it’s the Patriots,” Rhodes wrote to his group of leaders in a secure chat.
“All I see are Trump complaints,” Rhodes wrote, according to prosecutors. “I don’t see any attempts on his part to do anything. So the patriots take it into their own hands. They’ve had enough.”
One of the headquarters hunted for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, California, but could not find her. Members of Congress cowered in fear, and Pelosi was sent to safety. The siege continued for several hours, until law enforcement finally brought the situation under control.
“We act like the founding fathers,” one of them wrote in the agony of hand-to-hand combat. “I can’t stand still.”
The oathkeeper was the first defendant to plead guilty to hand-to-hand combat on 6 January. John Ryan Shaffer also agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation, and the Justice Department has promised to consider placing him in the witness protection program, suggesting that it sees him as a valuable assistant to the investigation.
Other cracks in the group are shown. Prior to his arrest, Rhodes sought to distance himself from those arrested, insisting that the members had gone rogue and they never had a plan to enter the Capitol.
Court documents show divisions between the group as early as the night of the attack. Someone identified only as “Man Eleven” in the records called the group a “terrible fucking joke” and called Rhodes “stupid – I heard you were,” court documents say.
After the riot, the North Carolina chapter of the Oathkeepers said they were separating from the Rhodes group. Its president told The News Reporter that it would not be “part of anything that terrorizes anyone or goes against law enforcement.”
The leader of the Arizona chapter also criticized Rhodes and those facing charges, saying on CBS’ 60 Minutes that the attack “goes against everything we’ve ever been taught, everything we believe in.”
The Oathkeepers also have money problems. The group lost the ability to process credit card payments online after the company demanded that Rhodes disavow arrested members, and he refused, Rhodes said in a March interview with far-right website Gateway Pundit. Instead, people are encouraged to submit applications and contributions by mail.
For a long time, it didn’t look like Rhodes would be charged. Over a dozen of its members were arrested on conspiracy charges, and Rhodes is referred to in their indictments as “the first man”.
But as the months went by, it seemed unlikely that anyone would face anything more serious than a mutiny when two or more people are in the United States. conspire to “overthrow, suppress, or destroy by force” the government, or to declare war on it, or to oppose by force and attempt to obstruct the enforcement of any law.
This is partly because such accusations are rarely used and difficult to defeat. U.S. Attorney’s Office last filed a mutiny conspiracy case in 2010 over an alleged conspiracy in Michigan by members of the Hutari militia to incite rebellion against the government. But a judge acquitted the charge of sedition in a 2012 trial. The last successful prosecution was in 1995, when an Egyptian cleric and nine followers were found guilty of sedition and other charges of conspiring to blow up the United Nations, the FBI building, and two tunnels and a bridge connecting New York and New York. -Jersey.
The January 6 investigation was long and tiring. The FBI is still looking for suspects, and agents have combed through a ton of evidence to link people to images from that day.
More than 700 people have been charged so far. Most of them face lower-level crimes involving entry into a restricted building. About 150 people were charged with assaulting police at the Capitol. And members of another far-right group, the Proud Boys, have been charged on simple conspiracy charges that carry five years in prison if found guilty.
Rhodes was arrested on Thursday and appeared before a judge on Friday, who ordered him to be held in custody. After the hearing, his lawyers said he pleaded not guilty and planned to contest the charges against him.
Jackson, author of Oathkeepers, said Rhodes had managed to stay out of trouble in the past, but his public rhetoric became much more inflammatory, leading to the January 6 attack.
“This is entirely speculation on my part, but perhaps Rhodes felt that he would no longer get the attention he needed if he continued to be moderate and should have become more inflammatory in his rhetoric,” he said.
Associated Press contributors Michael Kunzelman of College Park, Maryland, Jacques Billot of Phoenix, Lindsey Whitehurst of Salt Lake City, Alanna Durkin Reacher of Boston, Jake Blayberg of Dallas, and Michael Balsamo of Washington contributed to this report.