Stewart Rhodes, the leader and founder of the extremist far right militia the Oath Keepers, was arrested on Thursday for his role in planning the January 6 attack on the Capitol. He is the first person to be charged with seditious conspiracy in relation to the attack.
Rhodes, an army veteran and former lawyer, founded the extremist militia in 2009. The group specializes in recruiting veterans, soldiers and active police officers. Rhodes and the Oath Keepers played a major role in the coup attempt, as members of the group were among the most heavily equipped with paramilitary gear in the crowd that day.
The Oath Keepers leader was arrested on Thursday, along with 10 others. They join over 700 people who have been arrested in relation to the attack so far, including over 20 suspected members of the Oath Keepers facing January 6-related charges.
Federal agents have been investigating Rhodes since at least last spring, when he participated in an interview with the FBI against the advice of his lawyer. In that interview, he denied his and his organization’s role in the attack, claiming that he didn’t direct Oath Keepers to breach the Capitol threshold.
But federal prosecutors say that they have evidence of deep connections between Rhodes, who prosecutors refer to as “Person One,” and the attack’s planning. This evidence includes communications records showing that Rhodes began sending messages encouraging people to oppose the certification of the election results as early as November, shortly after the election.
“We aren’t getting through this without civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit,” Rhodes wrote in a group chat. “It will be a bloody and desperate fight. We are going to have a fight. That can’t be avoided.”
Documents show that Rhodes continued to incite fellow right-wingers in the following weeks. Two days before the right-wing coup attempt, he posted an article on the Oath Keepers website urging members to “stand tall in support of President Trump’s fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic who are attempting a coup.”
Testimonies from Oath Keepers themselves also cast doubt on Rhodes’s claims. For about six months, Oath Keepers members have been cooperating with prosecutors. According to The New York Times, at least four Oath Keepers have said that the breach of the building was premeditated and that the goal was to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump.
This is in direct opposition to what Rhodes has said in interviews. “We had no plan to enter the Capitol, zero plan to do that, zero instructions to do that, and we also had zero knowledge that anyone had done that until after they had done that,” Rhodes told The Washington Post last year.
Other Oath Keepers leaders who were present at the attack were also involved in its planning. Jessica Watkins, Oath Keepers member and leader of the Ohio State Regular Militia, actively recruited militia members and urged them to stand by Trump in the months before the attack. On November 17, Watkins sent a message saying that she would “fight, kill and die for our rights” if Biden became president. In January of 2021, Watkins became one the first far right militants to be indicted in relation to the attack.
Beyond the January 6 attack, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers have proved to be a loosely organized but dangerous group. During 2020’s movement for Black lives, Oath Keepers members would regularly flock to protests armed; Rhodes has condemned activists in the movement for Black lives and has used the movement to recruit police officers.
Though originally founded on antigovernment sentiments, the Oath keepers shifted toward nationalism when Trump was elected, adopting debunked conspiracy theories that have proliferated on the political right. Recent leaked member rolls have revealed that some supposed Oath Keepers members hold state and local office, indicating that the extremist group may be creeping into the mainstream Republican party.