WASHINGTON – On Jan. 4, Stewart Rhodes, the founder of Oath Keepers, an anti-government group, went online to summon his army of followers into action.
In an urgent plea on the Oath Keepers website, Rhodes wrote that it is “CRITICAL” that “all patriots” travel to Washington on a “security mission” in support of then-President Donald Trump’s “fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic.”
“We Oath Keepers are both honor-bound and eager to be there in strength to do our part,” Rhodes implored.
This was not the first time Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper, and Yale-educated lawyer, had rallied his troops around the former president. At Rhodes’ direction, members of the Oath Keepers, the militia he founded in 2009, had attended numerous Trump events over the years.
But coming after months of increasing vitriol by Rhodes and others about an imaginary leftist plot against Trump that had to be stopped at all costs, the consequences of his call to action proved deadly.
Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died and more than 100 others were injured when an estimated 800 Trump supporters, including members of the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and other right-wing groups, stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to overturn Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the November 2020 presidential election.
Months in advance
In the two months since the bloody assault, a growing body of evidence has emerged that members of the Oath Keepers and other far-right organizations, determined to stop Biden from becoming president, began plotting the attack months in advance.
To date, the FBI has arrested nearly a dozen people associated with the Oath Keepers, including nine recently indicted on conspiracy charges of forming a military formation known as a “stack” to breach the Capitol. As the FBI investigation proceeds, more arrests involving members of the Oath Keepers are likely, experts say.
While Rhodes himself did not enter the building, he was photographed with members of the stack outside the Capitol both before and after the attack.
Rhodes has not been charged with any crime and denies planning the attack. If he is worried about potential charges, he is not letting on.
“There is going to be resistance,” he told InfoWars’ Alex Jones on Jan. 30. “The only question is, what will be the spark?”
The FBI says it does not investigate groups or ideologies. Still, investigators are examining the role far-right extremist leaders played in planning and coordinating the attack, according to current and former officials.
While members of the Oath Keepers and other far-right groups made up a fraction of the Jan. 6 rioters, they played an “outsize role” in the attack, according to a recent analysis by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
“Without the involvement of experienced militant networks, it is unlikely that the Capitol siege would have succeeded in going as far as it did,” the report said.
Rhodes could not be reached. A VOA request for comment emailed to the Oath Keepers went unanswered.
Rhodes has long denied that the Oath Keepers are “anti-government.” But according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremists, Rhodes leads “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S.” with several thousand members, most current and former members of the military and law enforcement.
The Oath Keepers see themselves as part of a broader “patriot’’ movement. At its core, the movement believes that government is infringing on their rights such as the right to carry firearms. In recent years, they’ve embraced increasingly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Although the organization disavows violence, several members have been convicted of serious crimes over the past decade.
Rhodes, 55, has spent more than two decades in the Libertarian and militia trenches, starting with his first job out of college in the late 1990s as a staffer in the Washington office of then-Rep. Ron Paul, the controversial Libertarian U.S. House member from Texas.
After graduating from Yale Law School in 2004, Rhodes, who identifies as a Mexican American, volunteered for Paul’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in the 2008 presidential campaign, defending the congressman against charges of racism.
Then-Sen.Barack Obama, a Democrat, won the election as the first African American president.
Right-wing fears that Obama would usher in communism drove anti-government activists to create a national movement, according to Hampton Stall, creator of Militia Watch and a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
“It is really kind of the first time that these militia movements went national,” Stall said.
To formally launch the Oath Keepers in 2009, Rhodes picked a historic date: April 19, the anniversary of the start of the American Revolutionary War.
Appearing at a rally in Lexington, Massachusetts, where the first shot in the war was fired, Rhodes administered the “oath” to “defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic,” according to an SPLC account.
Thus was born the Oath Keepers. But the oath was not the only pledge members took. Just as important were 10 “orders we will not obey,” including orders to disarm citizens, conduct warrantless searches and “force American citizens into any form of detention camps.”
Even as the anti-government militia movement grew during the Obama administration, the Oath Keepers went largely unnoticed save their highly publicized support of an armed standoff between a rancher and government agents in 2014.
The group has made exaggerated claims about its membership, at one point saying it had as many as 35,000 dues-paying members. But the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization, puts their membership in the 3,000 to 3,500 range.
While Rhodes has consolidated his power over the Oath Keepers in recent years, the group maintains a largely decentralized organizational structure, according to experts.
“Stewart Rhodes and the national leadership is largely responsible for building the public reputation and image for keepers and setting out what issues or values or types of rhetoric they want a group to be known for,” said Sam Jackson, author of a book about the Oath Keepers and a professor at the University at Albany. “A lot of the activity is left to state and local chapters and that activity includes things like recruiting or engaging in quasi paramilitary training.”
Under Trump, the Oath Keepers — like much of the rest of the militia movement — toned down their anti-government rhetoric and instead aligned themselves with the former president on hot-button issues such as immigration and border security.
Then last year, government lockdowns in response to the pandemic, demonstrations over police brutality, and groundless conspiracies about election fraud led to increased activity by the Oath Keepers and other far-right groups, according to extremism experts.
“What we saw was a decrease in anti-government groups, but we saw a really active and energized anti-government movement as a whole,” said Freddy Cruz, a senior researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In the months leading up to the Nov. 3 election, with Trump falsely sounding the alarm about election fraud, Rhodes embraced increasingly wild conspiracies about a leftist and global plot to steal the election from Trump.
In September, Twitter banned both Rhodes and the Oath Keepers after the group warned about “open warfare against the Marxist insurrectionists by election night.” Marxist insurrectionists are the militia’s shorthand for Black Lives Matter.
In October, Rhodes, echoing Trump, said that a Biden victory would be illegitimate and evidence of fraud, telling Jones, the conspiracy theory peddling host of InfoWars, that members of the Oath Keepers would be “posted” outside Washington to prevent a “Benghazi-style” attack on the White House on election night.
After Trump lost the election, Rhodes repeated his warnings.
“We’ve men already stationed outside D.C. as a nuclear option, in case they attempt to remove the president illegally, we’ll step in and stop,” Rhodes told Jones on Nov. 12, two days before attending a Million MAGA March in Washington.
The following month, at a second MAGA (Make America Great Again) rally in Washington, Rhodes upped the ante, urging Trump to expose the Democratic plot to overthrow him.
“If he doesn’t do it while he is still commander in chief, we’re going to have to do it ourselves later in a much more desperate, much more bloody war,” Rhodes told the crowd on Dec. 12.
Rhodes’ final plea to his followers came on Jan. 4. Beyond his rhetoric, it is unclear what role he may have played in planning or coordinating the attack. Nor is it known how many followers actually responded to his call to arms.
A recent New York Times visual investigation put Rhodes about 21 meters outside the Capitol on the afternoon of Jan. 6. In videos obtained by the Times, several members of the stack that stormed the Capitol are seen talking to Rhodes before and after the attack.
Stall says Rhodes may have purposely stayed outside to avoid culpability.
“I think he’s aware enough to know that that would have landed him in some hot water,” Stall said.
The FBI says it investigates extremist violence, not hateful ideologies. As incendiary as Rhodes’ rhetoric may have been, it alone is not enough to charge him with any crime.
Referring to Rhodes’ Jan. 4 plea, Jordan Strauss, managing director at Kroll and a former Justice Department official, said, “With no other information and with no other context, a defense attorney could argue that that is First Amendment-protected activity.”
In the wake of the Capitol breach, some members of the Oath Keepers have turned on the organization.
Last month, the group’s North Carolina chapter broke away.
“The men of Columbus County and North Carolina will not be a part of anything that terrorizes anybody or goes against law enforcement,” Doug Smith, head of the state group, said in a statement.
Last week, Jessica Watkins, a ringleader of the Oath Keepers stack that breached the Capitol, publicly disavowed the Oath Keepers.
“Given the result of everything on January 6 and everything that has come out … my fellow Oath Keepers have turned my stomach against it. Which is why I’m canceling my Oath Keeper membership,” Watkins said during a court hearing last Friday.