Stewart Rhodes — founder and leader of the extremist group Oath Keepers — was arrested Thursday on a charge of seditious conspiracy, accused of guiding a months-long effort to unleash politically motivated violence to prevent the swearing-in of President Biden that culminated in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The 56-year-old, who was at the Capitol that day but has said he did not enter the building, is the most high-profile person charged in the investigation so far. The indictment filed against Rhodes and 10 other Oath Keepers or associates marks the first time the historically rare charge of seditious conspiracy has been leveled in connection with the wide-ranging Jan. 6 probe.
“Rhodes and certain co-conspirators ... planned to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power by January 20, 2021, which included multiple ways to deploy force,” the indictment reads. “They coordinated travel across the country to enter Washington, D.C., equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, donned combat and tactical gear, and were prepared to answer Rhodes’ call to take up arms at Rhodes’ direction.”
Most of the individuals facing the seditious conspiracy charges were arrested previously, but one, 63-year-old Edward Vallejo of Phoenix, is also a new defendant in the case. Officials said Rhodes was arrested Thursday morning in Little Elm, Tex., and Vallejo was taken into custody in Phoenix.
The most damaging evidence in the 48-page, 17-count indictment comes from the defendants’ own words, often shared in the encrypted messaging app Signal. The indictment alleges that a core group of Rhodes’s most strident adherents planned for and participated in obstructing Congress on the day lawmakers certified Biden’s 2020 election victory.
The attack on the Capitol came after a rally outside the White House, at which President Donald Trump urged his supporters to march to Congress. The pro-Trump rioters injured scores of police officers and ransacked Capitol offices, halting the proceedings as lawmakers were evacuated from the House floor.
According to the indictment, the plotting for violence began just after Biden won the election.
On Nov. 5, Rhodes told an invitation-only message group of Oath Keepers leaders: “We aren’t getting through this without a civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit,” Five days later, he published a call to action titled, “WHAT WE THE PEOPLE MUST DO,” suggesting his organization follow the example of an anti-government uprising in Serbia, the court filing says.
On Christmas Day in 2020, Rhodes sent a message to a similar group, saying he doubted Congress would keep Trump in the White House. The president had spent weeks making unfounded allegations of election fraud and pressing state election officials to pursue those allegations.
But even his own attorney general, William P. Barr, said there was no evidence of anything that would cast doubt on Biden’s win.
“The only chance we/he has is if we scare the s--- out of them and convince them it will be torches and pitchforks time. ... But I don’t think they will listen,” Rhodes wrote.
Six days later, on New Year’s Eve, he sent a message in an encrypted group chat to other Oath Keeper leaders, saying, “There is no standard political or legal way out of this.”
In interviews with The Washington Post over the past year, Rhodes — a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law graduate who has become one of the most visible figures of the far-right anti-government movement — has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
He said he was communicating with members of his group on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to “keep them out of trouble,” and emphasized that Oath Keepers associates who did go into the Capitol “went totally off mission.”
That mission, he and other Oath Keepers have argued, was to provide personal protection for, among others, longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone. A number of the individuals charged as part of the alleged Oath Keeper conspiracy were involved in guarding Stone in the days and hours leading up to the attack on Congress. Stone has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
An attorney for Rhodes, Jonathon A. Moseley, did not respond to a request for comment, but in a tweet asked another lawyer for Oath Keepers to call him urgently saying, “Immediate need for ‘perfect’ bail hearing.”
Rhodes is scheduled to appear before a U.S. magistrate judge in Plano, Tex., at 2:30 p.m. Central time on Friday.
An earlier indictment charged 19 alleged Oath Keepers adherents with conspiracy and aiding and abetting the obstruction of Congress. Two of them have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators. The rest pleaded not guilty and are preparing for upcoming trials.
In one of three new indictments unsealed Thursday, Rhodes and 10 others were charged with seditious conspiracy, a charge related to the use of violence to hinder the execution of federal law and punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Seven others, who are not alleged to be ringleaders or organizers, remain charged with conspiracy and obstruction of Congress. The conspiracy charge against one individual, Jonathan Walden, 57, of Birmingham, Ala., was dropped, though he still faces other charges.
In splitting up the largest charged case into smaller groups of defendants, prosecutors effectively drew a distinction between two alleged conspiracies: one by Oath Keepers associates who worked together and breached the Capitol that day with angry Trump supporters, as initially charged; and a second, allegedly led by Rhodes, to thwart the results of the election and the transfer of power, starting immediately after the 2020 presidential election.
The defendants who have already pleaded guilty acknowledged they were among a group that forced entry through the Capitol’s East Rotunda doors after marching single-file in tight formation up the steps wearing camouflage vests, helmets, goggles and Oath Keepers insignia.
Some defendants also admitted to stashing guns in a nearby Arlington, Va., hotel for possible use by what they called a “quick reaction force.”
In an interview with The Washington Post last February, Rhodes acknowledged that effort, saying the quick-reaction force was “only if the president calls us up.”
“We thought antifa might try to storm the White House,” he said, without evidence. If such a thing happened, he posited, D.C. gun laws would no longer apply, because “we would have been part of the military.”
Rhodes has accused prosecutors of trying to manufacture a nonexistent conspiracy. In an online interview Wednesday with NorthWest Liberty News, he said federal agents would “love to put me behind bars” but insisted he committed no crimes.
“I don’t do illegal activities. I always stay on this side of the line,” he said. “I know where the lines are, and it drives them crazy.”
Rhodes also said he has grown disillusioned with Trump, accusing the former president of not supporting members of the Oath Keepers charged in the Jan. 6 investigation.
“All of the people that are being unlawfully detained or denied bail, they’re being abandoned by Trump. ... He didn’t pardon anybody while he was still in office,” Rhodes said, adding that he also thinks the former president should have helped with the Jan. 6 defendants’ legal defense.
“I do feel abandoned by him,” Rhodes added.
In interviews last winter, Rhodes seemed focused on putting distance between himself and the people who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6. He showed photos on his phone to illustrate where he was at different points that day — always outside, always with people acting peacefully, he said.
“Just so we’re clear on this: We had no plan to enter the Capitol, zero plan to do that, zero instructions to do that,” Rhodes said.
He said any government claim that he did more than ask his members to meet outside the building would be “complete garbage.”
The indictment charges that Rhodes and eight others tampered with evidence by deleting files, messages or photographs on their electronic devices.
But the charging document shows FBI agents recovered a great deal of their communications — including discussions after the riot in which Rhodes’ followers voiced enthusiasm for continued rebellion.
“We got food for 30 days,” Vallejo allegedly said in a leadership Signal chat the night of Jan. 6, adding, “We have only [begun] to fight!”
On Jan. 11, the charging papers allege, another Oath Keeper suggested they adopt tactics similar to the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War. “We’ve been organizing a bugout plan if the usurper is installed,” the person’s Facebook message said. “... Something like 20+ Oath Keepers going to Kentucky mountains on hundreds of acres apparently. ... Be like the NVA and network tunnels.”
The federal government last brought sedition charges in 2010, against members of the self-described militia Hutaree in Michigan who were accused of plotting to rise up against the government. A judge dismissed the charges, saying the government failed to prove the group had firm plans to launch attacks.
The last successful federal sedition prosecution came 26 years ago, when Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the “blind sheikh,” and nine others were convicted of plotting to blow up the United Nations, the FBI building and bridges and tunnels between New Jersey and New York, part of an effort to change U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
Over the past year, the Justice Department has charged more than 700 people in connection with the Jan. 6 attack. The FBI is seeking to arrest more than 200 more.
But some Democrats and lawyers say the department has been too cautious in pursuing more-serious charges, including against individuals who may not have been at the Capitol but may have organized or incited the violence.
In a speech last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland urged his critics to be patient, noting that federal conspiracy investigations typically start with the lesser allegations and work their way toward graver charges.
Aaron C. Davis, Rachel Weiner and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.