Politics

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes guilty of seditious conspiracy

Founder of the far-right Oath Keepers group Stewart Rhodes and codefendant Kelly Meggs were convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges related to the Jan. 6 2021 Capitol attack on Tuesday.

Three other codefendants, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins, and Thomas Caldwell, were acquitted on the seditious conspiracy charge but found guilty of other crimes related to the Jan. attack.

Rhodes and Meggs now face a maximum of 20 years in prison on the charges.  

Rhodes; attorney James Lee Bright said the defendants thanked the judge but they were disappointed in the verdict and plan to appeal.  

Prosecutors alleged the defendants planned ahead of the Capitol attack to oppose the presidential transition in favor of unlawfully keeping Trump in office, seizing the joint Congress’ certification of the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 as “means to that end.” 

They made the historic decision to oppose the peaceful transfer using “any means necessary,” attempting to upend centuries of lawful presidential transfers, government attorneys argued.

During approximately eight weeks of testimony – plagued by delays that included a Rhodes’ COVID diagnosis – the jury of Washington, D.C. residents witnessed a legal battle between prosecutors and defense attorneys over whether the actions and words of the defendants were seditious calls to action or hyperbolic “bravado.” 

Capitol Riot Seditious Conspiracy
FILE – 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


Government witnesses – including former members of the Oath Keepers group, federal investigators, and law enforcement who served on Jan. 6, 2021 – testified that as soon as the presidential election had been decided in Mr. Biden’s favor, Rhodes and his associates worked to oppose the lawful transfer of power, talking of civil war and ultimately amassing weapons in a Virginia hotel room before some headed to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and breached the building. 

Prosecutors presented evidence including encrypted chat messages, recorded meetings, and social media posts at trial to support its argument that the defendants  had made detailed plans to head to Washington, D.C.,  ahead of Jan. 6. Government lawyers  alleged those plans included coordinating movements and even “executing” traitors. This was not mere rhetoric, they argued. It was dangerous action. 

A Yale Law School graduate, Rhodes was the alleged leader of the conspiracy, prosecutors said, calling him the “architect” of the plan who penned open letters to Trump urging him to try to hold onto power. Rhodes, in a letter and subsequent communications called on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, a centuries-old law that called for the armed defense of the government by a militia.

In the months before the Jan. 6 attack, prosecutors alleged Rhodes’ rhetoric grew more desperate and violent, calling on Trump to invoke the act to enable an armed resistance against a rogue government. 

“It will be 1776 all over again,” Rhodes allegedly 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. 

Trump never invoked the act and none of the defendants were accused of weapons crimes, which were two key defenses employed throughout the trial. 

Two former members of the Oath Keepers who pleaded guilty to charges related to the attack told the jury that they were participants in the alleged conspiracy. Jason Dolan – a member of the Florida contingent – testified he was ready to “take up arms and fight back” against a rogue government and Graydon Young, also from Florida, said that he and three of the defendants who entered the Capitol saw themselves as participants in a “Bastille-type moment,” a “momentous” event in the history of an unfolding revolution.   

Rhodes testified that he believed the 2020 election was “unconstitutional,” but he also claimed that there was no plan to actually enter the Capitol on Jan. 6, another key explanation employed by all defendants. 

A third one-time member of the far-right Oath Keepers told the jury that he had been led to believe that Rhodes had the phone number belonging to a U.S. Secret Service agent and that Rhodes had been in contact with that individual in the months before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

John Zimmerman, a former member of the North Carolina chapter of the militia group and a military veteran, testified that Rhodes told him of the alleged connection with the agent during a September 2020 phone call between Rhodes and the individual who Zimmerman thought was the Secret Service agent ahead of a Trump rally in Fayetteville, N.C. The U.S. Secret Service said it is “aware” that individuals from the Oath Keepers had contacted them but they were not aware of any allegations of criminal wrongdoing among their ranks connected to the Rhodes case. 

“[I]t is not uncommon for various organizations to contact us concerning security restrictions and activities that are permissible in proximity to our protected sites,” a Secret Service statement said at the time of Zimmerman’s testimony. 

The defendants all argued they were in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, to provide security to high-profile, pro-Trump attendees at various rallies and render first aid to protesters when needed. Evidence presented both before and during the trial revealed the Oath Keepers did act as security details to Trump-allied figures like Roger Stone and attended multiple pro-Trump rallies before the election.

Stanley Woodward, Meggs’ attorney, told the jury they did not condone what happened on Jan. 6, but disputed the government’s interpretation of events. 

“What happened to the Capitol building is abhorrent, but these defendants are not charged with causing the events of Jan. 6,” Woodward argued. 

Watkins was one of three defendants who chose to take the stand. She testified that while she was “just another idiot” inside the Capitol that day – admitting to entering the building and interfering with law enforcement – she was not part of a conspiracy to obstruct Congress’ certification. 

Another defendant who decided to testify – 68-year-old Caldwell – dismissed incendiary communications prosecutors said he sent in the days surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol attack as “goofy” and told jurors he played no role in the riot.

Prosecutors confronted the military veteran with some of his most violent messages from the time, discussing topics like “hunting” ANTIFA, whether Oath Keepers had the ability to burn down Congress “if [they] had wanted to,” and “executing some traitors,” all of which Caldwell tried to explained away.

Like Rhodes, Caldwell was not accused of actually entering the Capitol building during the breach.  

Meggs and Harrelson, both of Florida, were allegedly key actors who led the formation of a military-style “stack” with Watkins and others as they breached the Capitol. Although they did not take the witness stand during trial, their defense attorneys contended they were not part of a conspiracy, but instead, a loose organization of like-minded veterans who traveled to Washington, D.C., to provide protection services and exercise the right to protest. 

Prosecutors told the jury the defendants who testified “lied to your face” with the explanations of their actions leading up to Jan. 6 and attempted to sterilize their conduct, a claim the jury agreed with. 

The defendants were “leaders” of a conspiracy to oppose the peaceful transfer of power, and the Jan. 6 Capitol breach was a means to that end, the government said. The alleged conspiracy, the government argued in its closing statement,  was born of the defendants’ “sense of entitlement that led to frustration, followed by rage and then violence.”

Jan. 6 was not the culmination of the Oath Keepers’ alleged conspiracy, but a component of a larger plan to oppose Biden’s presidency that did not end with the certification of the electoral college votes. Caldwell and Rhodes were accused of discussing future plans of rebellion with others. 

Rhodes’ legal team urged the jury to look at the defendants’ records as military veterans and law-abiding gun owners. 

“They engaged themselves legally for 13 years,” said James Lee Bright. By the time the 2020 election came around, he said, they had a “deep-seated fear” for the future of the country, one that ultimately led them to Washington, D.C.

Bright said in closing arguments that the Justice Department had not met its burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt “the big three” crimes alleged: “No plan to storm the Capitol…No plan to breach the rotunda…No plan to stop the certification of the electors,” he argued.  

Other defense attorneys presented evidence that the Capitol building was already breached by the time the Oath Keepers arrived and the defendants entered unimpeded. 

Watkins’ attorney Jonathan Crisp characterized what he said was the prosecution’s selective use of the evidence at trial as “reprehensible” and argued for context. Bradford Geyer, who represented Harrelson, said the evidence did not meet the government’s burden, urging the jury, “If the video doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” And Caldwell’s attorney, David Fischer, urged the jury to clear his client’s name. 

Defense witnesses included neighbors and friends of some defendants, as well as certain FBI agents and experts questioned on their investigatory processes. Others – including individuals connected to the Oath Keepers – were meant to testify in the defendants’ favor, but ultimately did not due to an illness in one case and concerns of exposure to potential criminal liability in the other.

One associate of Rhodes – Michael Greene – waived his Fifth Amendment right aginst self-incrimination and opted to testify in Rhodes’ defense, contending that he was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and knew of no plan to enter the Capitol. Greene faces felony charges stemming from the Capitol breach. 

Judge Amit Mehta, who oversaw the weeks-long trial, will not set a sentencing hearing.

Mehta will soon have to preside over a second seditious conspiracy trial for the defendants’ alleged co-conspirators, accused of taking part in the plan to oppose the peaceful transfer of power and entering the Capitol building in another “stack” formation. 

The Oath Keepers defendants are one of two groups accused of seditious conspiracy, the most serious charge so far alleged in the Justice Department’s probe. Members of the Proud Boys, including leader Enrique Tarrio, will stand trial next month after being charged with that and other alleged crimes. 

As testimony concluded last week, Mehta told the defense attorneys and prosecutors alike they should be “proud” of how they conducted themselves throughout the historic and high-profile proceedings. 

“You have done more to demonstrate to the American people how our government  works and how it is supposed to run in ways that I don’t think you all appreciate,” Mehta said. 

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