The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oath Keepers founder draws scrutiny from federal officials and followers

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, in Fort Worth in February. (Aaron Davis/The Washington Post)

It depends on who’s talking.

To some, Stewart Rhodes is a paramilitary commander enlisting thousands of foot soldiers to overthrow the government.

To others, he’s a couch-surfing grifter — and the most shocking thing about the involvement of his Oath Keepers group in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol was that some members actually showed up.

 To federal prosecutors, Rhodes, 56, is “Person One,” which is how he is referenced in court filings for roughly 22 Oath Keepers associates charged in connection with the Capitol attack, including 18 who are accused of conspiracy in the largest single indictment of the probe. Five have pleaded guilty.

In the prosecution’s timeline, Rhodes coordinated with participants, allegedly giving advice about what weapons to bring and speaking with one who was part of the “stack” formation implemented moments before the group charged into the Capitol — one of the most salient images of the day.

 Still, Rhodes stayed outside the building. And for all his fiery words, there is no public evidence that shows him giving direct orders for Oath Keepers to enter. Eight months later, he remains free and uncharged.

 “This is where I think he used his legal training to think about: ‘What’s the line? Where can I go? What’s safe, what’s not safe?’ ” said Sam Jackson, an extremism scholar whose book “Oath Keepers” traces Rhodes’s path from Army paratrooper to Yale Law graduate to one of the most visible figures of the far-right anti-government movement.

Rhodes did not respond to an interview request. He repeatedly has denied any plans to enter the Capitol and previously told The Washington Post that Oath Keepers associates who did go in “went totally off mission.”

As the weeks tick by with no indictment, theories swirl: Did Rhodes outfox the authorities by staying just inside legal bounds? Are prosecutors still gathering evidence from Oath Keepers defendants — including a self-described founding member — who have agreed to cooperate? Or, as his detractors within the anti-government movement have alleged, is there something suspicious about the fact that Rhodes has not been charged?

“The only reason Stewart Rhodes is not in jail *right now* is because of a deliberate decision by the Justice Department to protect him,” the right-wing outlet Revolver declared in a June 30 article that accuses Rhodes of working with authorities.

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At least part of the disconnect is that Rhodes’s image as the powerful outlaw leader of a self-styled militia is exaggerated, according to interviews with extremism researchers, his estranged wife and former associates, as well as a review of court documents, news reports and other materials.

 The Oath Keepers never were a real paramilitary group in the sense of a top-down coordinated force that answers to Rhodes. He seldom mustered much of a turnout, even at his own events. There are not really tens of thousands of Oath Keepers, extremism trackers say, but a tiny fraction of that number, and “chapters” often operate with loose, if any, ties to Rhodes. Meanwhile, younger militants from rival far-right groups mock Oath Keepers as being too old to fight; one joke is that they carry oxygen tanks instead of rifles.

An analysis released in June by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a watchdog group that monitors political violence, said that the Oath Keepers have “an outsized media impact for a group without a major presence in the physical space.”

 The prosecution’s understanding of the Oath Keepers also has evolved from initial descriptions in court papers. In FBI arrest affidavits filed in January, investigators labeled the group “an organization that characterizes itself as a militia” or “a large but loosely organized collection of militia.” By spring the government was giving a more restrained description, downgrading it to a “large but loosely organized collection of individuals, some of whom are associated with militias.”

This month, Kellye SoRelle, an attorney for the Oath Keepers who was with Rhodes outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, said the FBI seized an iPhone from her. A related search warrant stated that investigators are continuing to probe whether Rhodes’s associates conspired to subvert the election results or violate seditious-conspiracy laws.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

None of that mitigates Rhodes as a danger, researchers say, but it offers a more nuanced understanding of his role. They say the threat he poses is less from his command of a ragtag group of veterans and retired police officers and more from his spreading of violent anti-government ideology. Marching alongside Oath Keepers on Jan. 6 were hundreds of people who did not wear tactical gear or hold membership cards yet were animated by the same agenda, according to an analysis by the Project on Extremism at George Washington University.

 “If you have 10,000 people who start using this language of calling sitting congresspeople ‘oath breakers’ or saying military members have the right to refuse vaccination because that’s an unlawful order,” Jackson said, “well, Oath Keepers . . . are still having some sort of effect.”

Domestic-terrorism analysts warn that too much attention on established groups such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys obscures the hard-right turn of millions of conservatives, a phenomenon some have described as a “mass radicalization.”

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin that included baseless far-right conspiracy claims — especially around coronavirus restrictions and allegations of voter fraud — as domestic threats. The mainstreaming of once-fringe views, analysts say, is driving pop-up activists throughout the country to target schools, hospitals and local government offices with protests and, increasingly, violence.

 Rhodes — with his cowboy hat, guns and signature eye patch — is a useful avatar, analysts say, but the movement has evolved well beyond the old guard he represents.

“From the prosecution perspective, it helps to have someone who has been visible, who looks like the militia movement to the general public, regardless of how powerful or meaningful he really was,” said Amy Cooter, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who studies militant groups. “I think that if you target someone like him, it makes it easier to look like you’re doing something about the morass that we have.”

'He looks the part. He talks the part.' 

As a shy 18-year-old working at a dance studio in Las Vegas, Tasha Adams yearned for a more adventurous life.

 She said she found it — though not exactly as imagined — the day Elmer Stewart Rhodes III came in for ballroom dancing lessons. He was 25 at the time, a valet parker and thrill-seeker from a big family with White, Mexican and Filipino branches.

 “The first thing I noticed is that he was very assertive,” Adams said. “He was just out of the military after a back injury, and he was hang gliding. And I knew he was really smart.”

 The couple married and stayed together until 2018. Adams said the thrill wore off early, when she realized the extent of what she described as her husband’s paranoid views about the government. She cared for their young children while Rhodes studied the Constitution and served as an aide to libertarian congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.). Over time, analysts say, Rhodes’s views hardened and he got deeper into the anti-government movement, which re-energized after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.

 The next year, Rhodes introduced the Oath Keepers concept at a rally on April 19 in Lexington, Mass. — the date and place of the first shots of the American Revolution. The mission, according to Rhodes, was to prevent “a full-blown totalitarian dictatorship” from taking root in the United States. He urged members to arm themselves and prepare for war.

 “He swore to me there would never be any actual militia training,” Adams recalled. “He said this is about pushing the First Amendment to the absolute limit and that’s it. We called it the libertarian version of the ACLU.”

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 Adams said the family suffered as Rhodes traveled the country fashioning himself into “the next George Washington.” Because of her husband’s mistrust of the government, she said, they lived largely off the grid, with no cellular service and a landline that was to remain unplugged unless Rhodes needed to use it.

 “We were just in middle-of-nowhere Montana, no car, and he would be gone all the time for Oath Keepers,” said Adams, who has blogged about her ongoing struggle to divorce Rhodes. “Any money he ever had was just in guns. We have no property. We own absolutely nothing.”

 To drive recruitment in the early days, Rhodes often wore a suit to public appearances, name-dropped Yale and spoke in lofty terms of patriotism and duty. In 2013, he raised enough money to sponsor an Oath Keepers car at a NASCAR-sanctioned race — it was driven by the grandson of racing legend Dale Earnhardt.

 Back then, Jackson said, the idea was, “The way to grow my organization is to be more moderate.”

 That changed over time, Jackson said, accelerated by the rise of Donald Trump, the first presidential candidate widely embraced by the anti-government movement. Rhodes was one of dozens of far-right figures who came out of the shadows with a perceived ally in the White House.

 The group’s anti-government focus shifted to targeting leftists and making what were false claims of voting fraud — before Twitter and Facebook banned the Oath Keepers last year for violating guidelines against inciting violence, with posts that said, “Civil war is here, right now,” and predicted “open warfare with Marxist insurrectionists by Election Day.”

 Jason Van Tatenhove, 47, was national spokesman for the Oath Keepers and a close aide to Rhodes from around 2014 to 2018 — an era he said Rhodes considered “the golden years.” The job involved trying to get him on Fox News or Infowars, an online trafficker of conspiracy claims. Rhodes was an easy sell for far-right audiences — a compelling speaker with a look straight out of central casting.

 “He’s wearing a cowboy hat and the eye patch, dressing up in tactical gear like a costume,” Van Tatenhove said. “It’s much like a stage performance. He looks the part. He talks the part.”

 Those appearances helped craft “the mythology” of Rhodes as a paramilitary leader even though he commanded no real forces, said Van Tatenhove, who left the Oath Keepers and the anti-government movement in 2018 and is writing a book about the experience. Now the editor of a local news outlet in Colorado, Van Tatenhove said he is still “atoning,” wrestling with his complicity in giving the Oath Keepers a national platform.

 Van Tatenhove said it did not matter to Rhodes that his force was largely imaginary — the goal was to generate dues-paying armchair extremists.

 “It’s the masses of people who are never going to get up off the chair or off the Internet,” Van Tatenhove said. “He appeals to their sense of needing to do something, their patriotism, and fighting that good fight against an evil government. By stoking that emotion, he’s able to wring out donations.”

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 Rhodes racked up tens of thousands of social media subscribers and, he claimed, paid members, though researchers say it is impossible to separate fact from fiction with Oath Keepers numbers. Extremism monitoring groups say there were never more than 5,000 members nationwide, and far fewer likely to respond if Rhodes ordered them to action. Former associates said it was a big deal if a dozen showed up when the national group asked; typically only a handful answered the call.

 In essence, Rhodes was the Oath Keepers — effectively president for life with full control of donations, according to researchers and the group’s bylaws. Adams and former associates said newly recruited board members typically spent about three months “thinking they had this honored position” before figuring out they had joined a cult of personality.

 Long before Jan. 6, members were going public with allegations that Rhodes misused the organization’s funds for personal expenses such as fancy steak dinners and hair dye. A Wall Street Journal report based on Oath Keepers bank records showed expenditures that included thousands of dollars in gun-shop purchases and auto repairs, along with hundreds spent at a bar, a lingerie shop and a perfume outlet.

Rhodes told the Journal that the claims were “petty, stupid and salacious” and defended the purchases as legitimate expenses for the organization.

 Chapter leaders complained that Rhodes was impossible to reach in times of crisis and was a roadblock to local fundraising. When board members quit in disgust, Van Tatenhove said, Rhodes simply moved on, seeking replacements who might be more supportive of his spending and increasingly incendiary speeches.

 “Several times there have been coups d’etat, people trying to get him to step down and step aside and let other leadership rise up, but Stewart is very intelligent,” Van Tatenhove said. “In the end it just became this revolving door.”

'Nowhere to be found'

On July 12, Angel Harrelson, whose husband was arrested for participating in the Jan. 6 riot, appeared by video on a right-wing Web show, sitting in front of a banner of the Constitution and a homemade sign that read “Free the Patriots.” The hosts had invited Harrelson because she had a bone to pick with their main guest: Rhodes.

“I do have one question for you, though, Stewart,” Harrelson said. “I’m concerned why you all haven’t called and checked on us?”

 Harrelson was referring to Rhodes’s radio silence since her husband, Kenneth “Kenny” Harrelson, and other Oath Keepers were slapped with federal charges. The families of the men, she told Rhodes, are “concerned that you don’t care.”

 “No, I just don’t want to screw up their defense, and I don’t want to be accused of tampering with witnesses,” Rhodes replied. He spoke by video while going about his errands, outdoors under a clear blue sky, as Harrelson described the struggles of his jailed members.

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 To people who know or monitor him, this was classic Rhodes. In showdowns with the federal government, in protests countering racial-justice activists, on Jan. 6 at the Capitol, the pattern has been the same: Rhodes makes impassioned pleas for an uprising of “patriots,” then takes care to avoid the fallout.

 “He sets the stage for other people to very quickly make the decision for themselves to engage in criminal or violent behavior,” Jackson said.

 That pattern has made Rhodes enemies within the anti-government movement, a collection of far-right armed groups that share unfounded claims about a tyrannical government that seeks to disarm and subjugate citizens.

 Eric Parker, leader of the far right Real 3%ers Idaho, said he felt a sense of deja vu when he watched the clip of Angel Harrelson confronting Rhodes.

Five years ago, Parker issued a similar statement asking why Rhodes was “nowhere to be found” when prosecutors filed charges related to a high-profile standoff with federal authorities in Bunkerville, Nev. The event was a magnet for anti-government agitators, including Rhodes, Parker and others still active today. Parker, who leveled a rifle at federal authorities during the standoff, was among the 19 men who were charged in federal court. Rhodes was not.

“When it got real in the field, he was gone. And when we defended our actions in a court of law, he was gone,” said Parker, who spent 19 months in custody before pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor when the government’s case collapsed after two federal trials.

For many far-right militants, the idea that Rhodes might evade prosecution again has rekindled longtime suspicions that he has turned informant. Absent a deal with investigators, they say, it makes no sense that “Person One” in a sprawling conspiracy case can pop up at the Mexico border in March, or attend the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, in July.

Extremism analysts say the informant theory underestimates Rhodes’s familiarity with federal law and how far to push it.

“With just a couple of exceptions, he has generally been really, really careful not to cross some line to expose himself or the Oath Keepers organization to any sort of serious legal investigation, much less criminal charges,” Jackson said.

 In April, FBI agents stopped Rhodes in Texas, where he is said to be living now. They confiscated his cellphone and served him a search warrant that sought information on tactical training and other preparations for Jan. 6, Rhodes has said. On the Web show, Rhodes scoffed at the idea that he was working with federal authorities, saying that he could not be coerced and was “not for sale.”

 When the hosts asked why he had not been indicted, Rhodes gave a simple answer: “I didn’t go inside.”

 Whether he is prosecuted or not, Rhodes’s brand within the anti-government movement is tarnished. Remaining Oath Keepers chapters are scrambling to distance themselves, said Hampton Stall, who monitors far-right groups with ACLED.

 “There are machinations right now to take an insurgency that’s been within the organization for a while and use it to create new parallel structures,” Stall said. “Beyond Rhodes.”

An analysis released in June by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based security think tank, suggested that the movement’s extreme ideology made it dangerous despite its “dysfunction and incompetence.”

“Although the Oath Keepers’ force structure is debatable and their organizational unity questionable, they have enough capability and boldness — even in small, isolated numbers — that they continue to pose a potentially significant threat,” the report stated.

 Stall, citing the ACLED research from June, said the Oath Keepers’ largest chapter — with around 100 members in Arizona and known as the Yavapai County Preparedness Team — has won recruits since Jan. 6, suggesting the brand can outlast its beleaguered founder. The chapter publicly broke with Rhodes, though members continue to use the Oath Keepers logo.

 “As far as we know, Stewart Rhodes has not been arrested. I have not gotten any hard data on that,” Jim Arroyo, an Arizona chapter leader, said in a June 12 meeting that was recorded and posted online. “Actually, he’s kind of in the wind. We have not heard anything solid in months. So I don’t really know where he’s at or what the situation is.”

 For now, Stall said, Rhodes still has the support of people on the periphery of the movement — those who approve of his stances but are not privy to his actions. As ineffective as he is at running a paramilitary group, Stall said, Rhodes should not be ruled out as a figurehead, “a thought leader,” for the extreme right.

 “If there’s any sort of accountability that ever comes to him, it will have been after years of him basically telling people to take up arms and shoot people,” Stall said. “His role within the Oath Keepers environment is less about coordinating specifics and more about creating the fertile ideological soil for violence.”