By Associated Press
WILMINGTON, Del. — Two days after the election on Nov. 3, 2020, the Oath Keepers were already convinced that victory had been stolen from President Donald Trump and members of the far-right militia group were making plans to march on the U.S. Capitol.
“We aren’t getting through this without a civil war,” the group’s leader, Stewart Rhodes, wrote fellow members, according to court documents. “Too late for that. Prepare your mind. body. spirit.”
Four days later, when The Associated Press and other news outlets declared Democrat Joe Biden the winner, the documents say Rhodes told Oath Keepers to “refuse to accept it and march en-masse on the nation’s Capitol.”
The indictment last week of Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers , and 10 other members or associates was stunning in part because federal prosecutors, after a year of investigating the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, charged them with seditious conspiracy, a rarely-used Civil War-era statute reserved for only the most serious of political criminals.
But the documents also show how quickly Trump’s most fervent and dangerous supporters mobilized to subvert the election results through force and violence, even though there was no widespread election fraud and Trump’s Cabinet and local election officials said the vote had been free and fair.
Hundreds of people have been charged in the violent effort to stop the congressional certification of Biden’s victory. Many were animated by Trump’s speech at a rally near the White House, just before the riot, where he said: “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
But for Rhodes and others, there was no need for Trump’s words of encouragement. Action was already planned.
Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, 56, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009. He and some friends decided they would form an organization around the perception of “imminent tyranny,” concerned about federal overreach and a series of unrecognized threats, like the government was planning to attack its own citizens. He recruited current and former military, police and first responders.
Rhodes, out of high school, joined the Army and became a paratrooper, but was honorably discharged after he was injured during a night parachuting accident, according to a biography on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website on extremism.
He went to night school at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. His first job in politics was supervising interns for Ron Paul, who was then a Republican congressman from Texas. Rhodes later went to Yale Law School, graduating in 2004 and clerking for Arizona Supreme Court Justice Michael Ryan.
Rhodes moved to Montana and relocated his defense practice there but took a “hard right turn away from politics” the SPLC said, and launched the Oath Keepers.
He has said there were about 40,000 Oath Keepers at its peak; one extremism expert estimates the group’s membership stands at about 3,000 nationally. Before long, Rhodes was neglecting his law practice to work on the Oath Keepers. He was disbarred in 2015.
Members pledge to “fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,’” and to defend the Constitution, according to its website.
Their motto: “Not on our watch!”
The Oath Keepers engaged in a series of confrontations with the government during years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The most notable was an armed standoff against the federal government at Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada.
Then Trump was elected in 2016. While Rhodes insisted the Oath Keepers were nonpartisan, they came to the nation’s capital in January 2017, when Trump took office, to protect peaceful “American patriots” from “radical leftists.”
“During this time, Rhodes became increasingly conspiratorial, adopting and peddling a number of fringe right-wing conspiracy theories with the assistance of his friend Alex Jones,” according to the book “Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group,” by University at Albany assistant professor Sam Jackson. Jones is a conspiracy theorist and Infowars host.
When it looked like Trump was going to lose the 2020 presidential election to Biden, the Oath Keepers got to work, prosecutors said.
On Nov. 9, 2020, Rhodes instructed his followers during a GoToMeeting call to go to Washington to let Trump know “that the people are behind him,” and he expressed hope that Trump would call up the militia to help stay in power, authorities say.
“It will be a bloody and desperate fight,” Rhodes warned. “We are going to have a fight. That can’t be avoided.”
The Oath Keepers worked as if they were going to war, discussing weapons and training. Days before the attack on the Capitol, one defendant suggested in a text message getting a boat to ferry weapons across the Potomac River to their “waiting arms,” prosecutors say.
On Dec. 14, 2020, as the electors in the states cast their votes, Rhodes published a letter on the Oath Keepers’ website “advocating for the use of force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power,” according to the documents.