Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers, was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison for his involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — the longest sentence handed down to date and the first for a charge of seditious conspiracy.
“You, sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country, to the republic and to the very fabric of our democracy,” said U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta, characterizing Rhodes as a uniquely powerful driver of the threat to democracy that day. “You are smart, you are compelling, and you are charismatic. Frankly, that is what makes you dangerous.”
Rhodes, 58, is the first of 14 Jan. 6 defendants, including nine Oath Keepers, to face sentencing after being convicted of — or pleading guilty to — seditious conspiracy. Enrique Tarrio, who was the national chairman of the far-right Proud Boys on Jan. 6, was convicted of the charge earlier this month.
Prosecutors say Rhodes masterminded a weekslong effort to derail the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, marshaling dozens of allies across the country to descend on Washington on Jan. 6. Rhodes and his allies spent weeks pressing Trump to forcibly prevent Congress from certifying the election — and girded for violence even if Trump refused. Rhodes also encouraged Oath Keepers to assemble an arsenal of weapons just outside of Washington that could be deployed to the city if necessary.
Ultimately dozens of members of the Oath Keepers surged with the pro-Trump mob into the Capitol, while Rhodes rallied them from outside the building.
It was a brazen attack that threatened the most important and vulnerable part of American democracy, prosecutors said, urging Mehta to issue a sentence of at least 25 years.
Mehta largely agreed with prosecutors’ characterization of Rhodes’ role as a leader of the Jan. 6 attack and agreed to classify his crimes as an act of terrorism against the government, a categorization that sharply increased his ultimate sentence.
“What we cannot have — we absolutely cannot have — is a group of citizens who because they didn’t like the outcome [of the 2020 election] were then prepared to take up arms in order to foment a revolution,” Mehta said. “That’s what you did.
As he prepared to be sentenced, a defiant Rhodes lashed out at the case against him, casting himself as a martyr in a war for the survival of America — the same message prosecutors say Rhodes used to dupe his followers into preparing for battle on Jan. 6.
“I am a political prisoner,” Rhodes said, comparing his plight to Trump’s. “I feel like I’m the lead character in Kafka’s ‘The Trial.’ I feel like it was a preordained guilt from Day One. … My goal will be to be an ‘American Solzhenitsyn’ to expose the criminality of this regime,” Rhodes said, invoking the Soviet dissident and author of the “Gulag Archipelago.”
Mehta sharply rejected Rhodes’ characterization, saying the evidence in the trial convinced a jury of his peers to convict him of seditious conspiracy — and that Jan. 6., one of the “blackest” days in American history.
“People should not forget that,” Mehta said.
Thursday’s sentencing was a pivotal moment in the Justice Department’s efforts to punish those who planned and led the violent assault on the Capitol, stoking the mob of supporters that Trump himself assembled in Washington with his exhortation to “stop the steal.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy described Rhodes’ sentencing as the most significant step yet toward holding the leaders of the Jan. 6 attack accountable.
Mehta has, in previous sentencing hearings for misdemeanor defendants, lamented that those who duped or radicalized “ordinary, hard-working Americans” to commit crimes on Jan. 6 had yet to be held accountable. He has specifically identified Trump’s own role in perpetuating lies about the election results as a driver of the riot. Rakoczy said that the sentencing of Rhodes and his co-conspirators is the start of the accountability Mehta said he has sought.
Rakoczy also emphasized that Rhodes has continued to profess the views that led his supporters to Washington on Jan. 6 — even just four days before his sentencing when he addressed a gathering of supporters outside the D.C. jail. Rhodes told the group that the election could be stolen in 2024 and that the government was leading a “terror campaign” against its political adversaries.
“Most of us, across the political spectrum and throughout this great nation, desperately want to believe that Jan. 6 was an outlier,” Rakoczy said. “Not defendant Rhodes.”
During an eight-week trial last fall, prosecutors revealed thousands of messages sent between Rhodes and other Oath Keepers leaders in advance of Jan. 6, painting a picture of a group bent on violence and prepared to do whatever it took to prevent Trump from leaving office. Rhodes tried repeatedly to contact Trump and urge him to invoke the Insurrection Act, which Rhodes contended would empower him to deputize the Oath Keepers as a government-sanctioned militia. But Trump never acknowledged his outreach and ultimately declined to invoke the Civil War-era law.
Nevertheless, prosecutors say Rhodes galvanized his allies, orchestrated their travel to Washington and directed their movements toward — and eventually into — the Capitol.
Rhodes and Florida Oath Keeper leader Kelly Meggs were convicted of seditious conspiracy in that trial, while three others — Florida’s Kenneth Harrelson, Ohio’s Jessica Watkins and Virginia’s Thomas Caldwell — were acquitted of the charge but convicted of other significant felonies. Four other Oath Keepers were convicted as part of Rhodes’ seditious conspiracy in a second trial that ended in January, and three more pleaded guilty to the charge over the past year.
Throughout his pretrial incarceration and since his conviction, Rhodes has remained defiant, contending that the group is being punished for incendiary speech despite little evidence that its members engaged in or encouraged violence that day. He contended that the group didn’t intend to interrupt the transfer of power — they were in Washington, he claimed, to perform security details for speakers at Trump’s rally — and that the weapons the Oath Keepers amassed at a Comfort Inn in Arlington, Virginia, were meant to be a “reactive” force in case violence broke out on the streets.
“If you want to put a face on J6, you put it on Trump, right-wing media, politicians,” Rhodes’ attorney Phillip Linder said.
Mehta swept aside those claims, citing messages and trial testimony showing that Rhodes repeatedly contemplated taking steps to disrupt the transfer of power from Trump to Biden and that the firearms arsenal had dual purposes.
“If he doesn’t use the Insurrection Act to keep a ChiCom puppet out of the white house, then we will have to fight a bloody revolution,” Rhodes told allies in a Dec. 14 message to Georgia Oath Keepers.
Similarly, Rhodes told an associate on Jan. 10, 2021 — four days after the attack — that he regretted not bringing arms to the Capitol.
“We could’ve fixed it right then and there,” Rhodes said in a conversation that was recorded and played for jurors. “I’d hang Pelosi from the lamppost.”
Mehta repeatedly emphasized that Rhodes — a Yale Law graduate and military veteran who ran the Oath Keepers with a hierarchical discipline — clearly knew about and approved of the actions of his co-conspirators. He said the evidence underscores that Rhodes would have known about or foreseen that two dozen Oath Keepers would go inside the Capitol as part of an effort to disrupt Congress’ counting of Electoral College ballots.
When that occurred, the group split into two, with half charging toward then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and the rest surging toward the Senate chamber. Outside Pelosi’s office, the group — led by Meggs — confronted Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, who testified in the trial about his encounter.
Mehta said their presence outside Pelosi’s office coincided with a frantic effort by security officials to evacuate staffers who were cowering in a locked conference room from the mob assault.
Other officers have ascribed injuries — both physical and emotional — to the conduct of the Oath Keepers, including two who were stationed at the Columbus Doors when the mob broke into the Capitol, two in the rotunda who were assaulted by Oath Keeper Joshua James, and one in the Senate hallway who was part of a police line that pushed against Watkins and other members of the mob.
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