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First Jan. 6 defendant pleads guilty to seditious conspiracy in Capitol attack

Joshua James admits to helping lead a group of Oath Keepers that is accused of organizing rioters to disrupt Congress

Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
6 min

A member of the far-right Oath Keepers extremist group has become the first to admit to engaging in seditious conspiracy on Jan. 6, 2021, to keep President Biden from taking office.

Joshua James, 34, of Arab, Ala., pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington on Wednesday to helping lead a group that prosecutors say sent two tactically equipped teams into the Capitol and organized a cache of weapons in a hotel just outside the city. He also pleaded guilty to one count of obstructing an official proceeding, and he may face the stiffest sentence of any Jan. 6 defendant so far, according to preliminary sentencing guidelines.

As part of his plea, James agreed to cooperate with federal investigators, including testifying in front of a grand jury.

James, an Army veteran who was injured fighting in Iraq, was indicted on the sedition charge in January along with 10 others, including Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes. James faced multiple felony counts of obstructing the formal count of the electoral college, as well as assaulting a D.C. police officer during his time inside the Capitol. He was also accused of tampering with documents to destroy his communications with other Oath Keepers. Prosecutors agreed to dismiss the charges other than the seditious conspiracy and obstruction counts. Both charges carry a maximum 20-year prison term. No defendant has yet been sentenced to a maximum term.

James appeared in court virtually from Alabama; he was released on GPS monitoring in April over government objections. U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta said the sentencing guidelines for both the sedition and the obstruction charge were calculated to a range of 87 to 108 months in prison. The range is advisory, and both sides can ask for the judge to go above or below the range at sentencing.

The longest sentence any Jan. 6 defendant has received so far is 63 months for Robert S. Palmer, who admitted to hurling a fire extinguisher, a plank and a long pole at officers.

Fla. man sentenced to 5 years for attacking police, the longest Jan. 6 riot sentence yet

Five other Oath Keepers, apart from the 11 charged with seditious conspiracy, have already pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government. But James is the first to plead to sedition, a rarely used and politically significant crime of conspiring against the U.S. government.

James did not make any statements in court other than to answer the judge’s questions. No sentencing date was set, which Assistant U.S. Attorney Troy Edwards Jr. said was done to enable James to provide his cooperation before the hearing.

The plea marks the first successful use of a sedition charge by federal prosecutors in nearly two decades. Federal law defines seditious conspiracy as two or more people who “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States,” or act “by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States.”

With his conviction on that charge, James gives up his right to military benefits, which could be worth millions of dollars over a lifetime.

James’s defense attorneys, Joni Robin and Chris Leibig, said in a statement that he pleaded not to the first part of the law but only the second part, “preventing, hindering or delaying, by force, a federal law.”

Who is Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers leader arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 riot?

The Post obtained hours of video footage, some exclusively, and placed it within a digital 3-D model of the building. (Video: The Washington Post)

In 2012, a judge dismissed seditious conspiracy charges against members of a far-right militia group in Michigan, saying it was unclear they made concrete plans to attack the government.

Rhodes has said that the Oath Keepers were in Washington on Jan. 6 to protect conservative figures, such as then-President Donald Trump’s confidant Roger Stone, from left-wing attackers. According to court records, James and a fellow Oath Keeper provided security for Stone at Trump’s rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6.

But their preparation for an assault on the Capitol began two days after the Nov. 3, 2020, election, according to federal prosecutors, when Rhodes allegedly told his followers “to refuse to accept the election result and stated: ‘We aren’t getting through this without a civil war.’”

The indictment details two months of communications between Rhodes and other Oath Keeper members, including James, in which “Rhodes outlined a plan to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power, including preparations for the use of force.” Rhodes has pleaded not guilty and said that members who entered the Capitol did so without his authorization.

In the plea agreement, James agreed that Rhodes “instructed [him] and others to be prepared and called upon to … use lethal force if necessary” to keep Trump in office.

James admitted being part of an Oath Keepers leadership group that rounded up participants for the planned insurrection. “SE Region is creating a NATIONAL CALL TO ACTION FOR DC JAN 6TH,” James posted to the “leadership intel chat” on Dec. 21, 2020. Ten days later, James wrote, “we have a....load of QRF [quick reaction force] on standby with an arsenal.”

At about 2:30 p.m. on Jan, 6, 2021, prosecutors say, James and other Oath Keepers, outfitted in tactical vests, hard-knuckle gloves, goggles and other battle apparel, learned the Capitol had been breached and raced over in golf carts to join the fray.

While one “stack” of Oath Keepers, including four of James’s co-defendants, marched up the Capitol steps and entered, another co-defendant messaged that the “quick reaction force” was “standing by at hotel. Just say the word,” according to the indictment. The first group went in, encountered police, searched for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and then left, the indictment states.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes pleads not guilty to seditious conspiracy in Jan. 6 attack on Capitol

James and at least two other Oath Keepers then entered the Capitol through the east side and joined a mob jostling with police. He admits grabbing a police officer’s vest and pulling him toward the mob, shouting, “Get out of my Capitol! Get out! Get out of my Capitol!”

James was sprayed with chemicals and pushed out of the building by officers, prosecutors said. He joined Rhodes and others for a celebration dinner in Vienna, Va., later that night, the plea agreement states.

James admitted meeting Rhodes again at a restaurant in Alabama two days later, where he showed him a video of his confrontation with the police officer inside the Capitol. “Rhodes expressed gratitude for James’s actions and told James to alter his physical appearance to conceal his identity,” according to the plea agreement.

He then spent several weeks with Rhodes in Texas, where he said they gathered weapons, burner phones and tactical gear, the plea agreement said. James then returned to Alabama, where according to the agreement he “awaited Rhodes’s instructions.”

Rhodes’s defense attorney James Lee Bright declined to comment. In court filings, Bright said his client “ceased all preparation and communication” after Jan. 20, when Trump left office without a fight. Rhodes maintains that he planned to use his arsenal only if Trump called on his group for help staying in power, which he believed would be legal under the Insurrection Act.