The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jan. 6 influencer who called for ‘civil war’ sentenced to probation

Brandon Straka’s sentencing illustrates why Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes faces seditious conspiracy charge but Straka doesn’t

Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Many high-profile right-wing voices pushed angry supporters of President Donald Trump to “rise up” to keep him in power despite the 2020 election result, but so far among them only Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the extremist group Oath Keepers, faces charges of seditious conspiracy.

The sentencing to probation Monday of one such pro-Trump social media influencer charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, Brandon Straka, helps explain why.

Straka, 44, is a former New York City hairstylist who promoted himself as a gay former liberal in a #WalkAway social media campaign that encouraged voters to leave the Democratic Party. Rhodes faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years if he is convicted, but Straka on Monday received three months’ home detention, three years’ probation and a $5,000 fine for misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Pro-Trump social media influencer and speaker at Jan. 5 rally pleads guilty to disorderly conduct in Capitol riot

Like Rhodes, recently indicted along with 10 Oath Keepers members and alleged affiliates of conspiring to use violence to try to stop Joe Biden’s certification as president, Straka claimed to have hundreds of thousands of social media followers before Jan. 6, 2021. Neither of the two men actually entered the Capitol building or committed violence or property damage, but as Rhodes is charged with doing, Straka admitted in plea papers to urging angry Trump supporters in public speeches and statements to prepare for battle ahead of the attack.

“Straka stoked the passions of his followers, frequently telling the ‘Patriots’ that it was time to ‘rise up’ as part of a ‘civil war,’ ” and that they “could not allow” a Biden transition, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brittany L. Reed wrote.

“We are in a civil war,” Straka told 600,000 followers on Twitter on Dec. 2, 2020, using rhetoric that echoed Rhodes, addressing Trump supporters online and in Washington at a Jan. 5, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally at Freedom Plaza by urging them to “fight back” and referring to “revolution.”

Straka’s calls “could reasonably have been interpreted by some readers as a call for more than just a figurative struggle,” Reed wrote, before nevertheless advising that Straka serve four months’ home detention and three years’ probation on a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct.

Rhodes’s lead prosecutor Kathryn L. Rakoczy used similar terms in seeking to detain him pending trial, arguing that he methodically prepared his co-conspirators to use force to stop a Biden transition, emphasizing that Rhodes is accused of saying there was no choice but to take up arms.

Rhodes cast the struggle to hold the White House in “existential terms,” regularly using the terms “civil war” and “revolution” between the November 2020 election and January 2021 inauguration, Rakoczy said. A judge said she would rule on Rhodes’s detention status by Wednesday.

But the differences between the cases show how wide the legal gulf is between Rhodes’s alleged conduct and others who used similar rhetoric, and the unusual scope of Rhodes’s alleged conspiracy among more than 700 people federally charged in the Capitol breach. Rhodes has denied wrongdoing, saying he never wanted or told his group to enter the U.S. Capitol.

Rhodes’s indictment goes beyond prosecutors alleging a call to arms in his online and public statements. Instead, it describes a months-long effort to recruit and organize co-conspirators from his organization into teams from several states; purchase, transport and stage firearms near Washington; undergo paramilitary training; and plot for possible action after Jan. 6, 2021, and before Inauguration Day. At the Capitol, some of Rhodes’s co-defendants and members of the Oath Keepers assaulted police and Rhodes and others erased their phones, the indictment charges.

Capitol riot defendants facing jail have regrets. Judges aren’t buying it.

By contrast, Straka was not accused of conspiring with others or taking any other unlawful actions before heading to the Capitol after learning it had been breached, U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich said. Straka, one of several Jan. 5 rally speakers and MAGA influencers to be arrested, became one of the first to plead guilty in October. He also cooperated “fully, truthfully and completely,” said prosecutors, who dropped a felony count of impeding police during civil disorder.

At the Capitol, Straka recorded himself in front of a mobbed entrance, urging a crowd to wrest away a riot shield from a police officer and shouting: “Take it! Take it!” and “Go! Go!” to rioters trying to push their way in at another point, he admitted in plea papers.

While police were still battling rioters, Straka doubled down on “inflammatory rhetoric,” prosecutors said, tweeting 660,000 followers, “Patriots at the Capitol- HOLD THE LINE.”

In Straka’s defense, attorney Bilal A. Essayli said a sentence of community service and the two days he served in jail after his arrest would be sufficient, blasting prosecutors for filing a 30-page sentencing recommendation for a misdemeanor crime that was filled with out-of-context statements “and non-relevant conduct designed to stoke political flames.”

“The government fixates on defendant’s social media following and is apparently attempting to make a public example of a prominent Trump-supporting influencer,” Essayli said. “Prosecutors can’t have it both ways,” by charging Straka of petty misdemeanor while alleging he somehow bears responsibility “for the overall violence that day.”

Straka denied being part of any organized conspiracy with Trump or his allies to disrupt Congress, his attorney said.

Straka apologized to police, lawmakers and the American people for his involvement in an event “that caused shame and embarrassment for our country, and served no purpose other than tear away at our already divided country.” He said his followers would never support him if he was seen as supporting violence.

Friedrich acknowledged Straka’s remorse and cooperation, as well as his First Amendment rights to state his political views and personal beliefs. But the judge said Straka intended to impede Congress and inflamed the riotous mob.

Judges have declined U.S.-proposed sentences in two-thirds of Jan. 6 cases so far

Straka’s “statements and action on and around January 6 indicate he not only anticipated events that unfolded that day, he celebrated them to a degree,” encouraging and defending the unlawful attack on the Capitol, she said.

Straka’s foundation purports to promote peaceful dialogue, Friedrich added, “but his actions on January 6 were anything but. They did not serve his stated mission. Instead, they served to undermine democracy and the rule of law. Election challenges are [pursued] through the courts, not storming the Capitol.”

The government said it would file a sealed addendum in his case, although he did not formally enter a cooperation agreement.

Prosecutors noted that, like Rhodes, Straka made a living from his movement. Straka’s foundation reported $648,464 in revenue from speaking engagements in 2020, and a related political action committee raised $29,101, prosecutors said. Shortly before his plea, Straka addressed 357,000 Facebook followers as “Patriots,” urging them to tune out “negative press … likely coming down the pike” as he took the first meaningful step toward concluding “the perils of the situation I am in.”

“Hang on tight,” Straka wrote on the site, where he had plugged a forthcoming “grand relaunch” of his campaign. “It’s just pointless noise. The best is yet to come. We’re almost there.”

Loading...