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Oath Keepers leader charged with seditious conspiracy in Jan. 6 investigation

In this Sunday, June 25, 2017, file photo, Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, spoke during a rally outside the White House in Washington.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Stewart Rhodes, the leader and founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, was arrested Thursday and charged along with 10 others with seditious conspiracy for allegedly organizing a wide-ranging plot to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6 last year and disrupt the certification of President Biden’s electoral victory.

The arrest of Rhodes, 56, was a major development in the sprawling investigation of the Capitol attack. The case against him and the other members of his group was the first time that prosecutors have filed charges of sedition against any of the more than 700 people accused so far of taking part in the assault.

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Rhodes was arrested shortly before 1 p.m. at his home in Granbury, Texas, his lawyer, Jonathon Moseley, said.

Beginning only days after the 2020 election, Rhodes oversaw a seditious plot “to oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power by force,” prosecutors said. Some members of the Oath Keepers under his command broke into the Capitol in a military-style formation on Jan. 6 and went in search of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the indictment said. Others, it said, were stationed in a hotel in Alexandria, Va., as an armed “quick-reaction force,” ready to rush into Washington if needed.

In addition to Rhodes, prosecutors charged Edward Vallejo, 63, of Phoenix, for the first time in connection with Jan. 6. The nine other militia members named in the indictment had all previously been charged, although not with sedition. Vallejo was part of the quick-reaction force teams the militia had deployed, which were equipped with firearms and other tactical equipment in case Rhodes called upon them to support the plot, prosecutors said. The teams included Oath Keepers from North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona.

The Justice Department has brought a variety of charges against those being prosecuted in connection with the Capitol riot; it has charged about 275 people with obstructing Congress’ duty to certify the 2020 presidential vote count, for example. But it had not previously brought a sedition charge, with the legal weight and political overtones it carries.

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The charge of seditious conspiracy, which can be difficult to prove, requires prosecutors to show that at least two people agreed to use force to overthrow government authority or delay the execution of a US law. It carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The last time federal prosecutors brought a sedition case was in 2010 when they accused members of a Michigan militia of plotting to provoke an armed conflict with the government. They were ultimately acquitted.

Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper who went on to earn a law degree at Yale, had been under investigation for his role in the riot since at least last spring when, against the advice of his lawyer, he sat down with FBI agents for an interview in Texas. He was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, communicating by cellphone and a chat app with members of his team, many of whom went into the building. But there is no evidence that he entered the Capitol.

Over 48 pages, the new indictment painted a detailed picture of Rhodes’s activities starting only days after the 2020 election. Just two days after Election Day, Rhodes told several members of his group to refuse to accept Biden’s victory, the indictment said.

“We aren’t getting through this without a civil war,” he wrote on the encrypted chat app Signal. “Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit.”

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One month later, after plotting with underlings in several states, the indictment said, Rhodes told members of his group on another encrypted Signal channel that they should use violence to stop Biden from taking office. “It will be a bloody and desperate fight,” he wrote. “We are going to have a fight. That can’t be avoided.”

Through their lawyers, members of the Oath Keepers who are already facing charges have said they converged on Washington just before Jan. 6 not to attack the Capitol, but instead as part of a security detail hired to protect conservative celebrities like Roger Stone, a longtime ally of former president Donald Trump.

In an interview with The New York Times last summer, Rhodes expressed frustration that several members of his group had “gone off mission” by entering the Capitol on Jan. 6, quickly adding, “There were zero instructions from me or leadership to do so.”

But at least four Oath Keepers who were at the Capitol that day and are cooperating with the government have sworn in court papers that the group intended to breach the building with the goal of obstructing the final certification of the Electoral College vote.

With his distinctive black eye patch — the result of a gun accident — Rhodes has been a fixture on the far-right almost from the day in 2009 that he announced the creation of the Oath Keepers at a rally in Lexington, Mass., the site of a famous Revolutionary War battle.

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During the Obama administration, the Oath Keepers repeatedly inserted themselves into prominent public conflicts, often playing the role of heavily armed vigilantes.

After Trump took office, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers pivoted away from their anti-government views and appeared to embrace the new spirit of nationalism and suspicions of a deep-state conspiracy that had taken root among some of the president’s supporters. Like other far-right groups such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers also opposed — often physically — the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis.