Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers militia who has been convicted of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, said his case is a harbinger of what the Justice Department has in store for former President Donald Trump.
The former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate turned militia leader warned that his conviction on the rare Civil War-era charge has set an ominous precedent that should alarm conservatives.
“Their success in my trial is paving the way for them to keep rolling through other people building up to Trump,” Rhodes told The Washington Times. “It was a warmup for what they’re going to do. That’s what that was: a political show trial.”
The Justice Department charged 11 members of the Oath Keepers with seditious conspiracy in connection with the riot. Prosecutors said the group coordinated travel to Washington with the intent of interrupting the peaceful transfer of power after the November 2020 presidential election.
Rhodes, who spoke to The Times on the phone from a detention facility in Virginia, plans to appeal the verdict, but he said the conviction has already set a dangerous precedent.
“Seditious conspiracy now is the most dangerous weapon that the deep state and the establishment have to use against dissent,” Rhodes said. “There’s no requirement, no element of that charge that includes an act in furtherance of a conspiracy.
“It wipes out the free speech of the American people,” he said. “If it is used against anyone, the jury will be free to use their speech against them in a criminal proceeding.”
He suspects the Justice Department has others in its sights, including the former president.
“They’re going to do the exact same thing to President Trump,” Rhodes said. “That’s my prediction. They’re going to prosecute Trump.”
Seditious conspiracy is defined as two or more people conspiring to “overthrow, put down, or destroy by force” the U.S. government. The charge also applies to those attempting to “levy war” against the government or “oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law.”
After an eight-week trial in Washington capped by three days of jury deliberations in late November, Rhodes and Kelly Meggs, the leader of the Oath Keepers Florida chapter, were convicted of sedition by way of plotting to oppose the authority of the government and block the transfer of presidential power.
Three other members of the Oath Keepers were found not guilty of the charges.
Seditious conspiracy, a felony that carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, is the most serious charge against the more than 780 people prosecuted in connection with the Capitol riot.
“As this case shows, breaking the law in an attempt to undermine the functioning of American democracy will not be tolerated,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said after the verdict was reached in the Rhodes trial. “The FBI will always uphold the rights of all citizens who peacefully engage in First Amendment-protected activities, but we and our partners will continue to hold accountable those who engaged in illegal acts regarding the Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the U.S. Capitol.”
The November trial marked the first time in more than a decade that the Justice Department had tried a case of seditious conspiracy.
In 2010, the government charged seven members of the Michigan-based Hutaree militia with seditious conspiracy. The militia members were accused of plotting to incite an uprising against the government.
Those charges were dropped in 2012 after a federal judge argued that the prosecutors relied on speech protected by the First Amendment in building their case and failed to prove that the militia had detailed plans to spark a rebellion.
The last time the Justice Department successfully tried a seditious conspiracy case was in 1995. Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and nine followers were convicted of plotting attacks on the United Nations, an FBI building and tunnels linking New York and New Jersey.
Rhodes was also convicted of less-serious charges, including obstruction of an official proceeding and tampering with documents and proceedings. He said the seditious conspiracy conviction was a violation of the First Amendment.
“In my case, there was no other evidence other than my constitutionally protected free speech,” he said. “They found me guilty based on my open letters to Trump, I’m guessing, which were completely protected political speech and advocacy.”
Members of the Oath Keepers attended the Capitol riot wearing military-style gear such as tactical vests and helmets, according to charging documents.
Charging documents said members of the group staged firearms on the outskirts of Washington in the lead-up to the events of Jan. 6, 2021. The weapons were distributed among a “quick reaction force” that was “prepared to rapidly transport firearms and other weapons into Washington,” prosecutors said.
Rhodes said his group was in the nation’s capital to provide security for pro-Trump rallies scheduled throughout the day. He said he did not enter the Capitol or direct anyone in his group to enter the Capitol.
Although he did store weapons outside Washington during his trip, he said he did not violate any laws. He said members of the group commonly wear military-style gear to rallies and that doing so does not violate the law.
He stressed that he never had communications with Mr. Trump or Trump associates.
The House Jan. 6 committee voted unanimously this month to urge the Justice Department to charge Mr. Trump with four crimes: inciting an insurrection or rebellion against the U.S. government, obstructing an official proceeding of Congress, conspiracy to defraud the government and making false statements on fake presidential electors.
In its final report, the Democratic-led panel said Mr. Trump was the “central cause” of the attack and that the riot would never have happened without him.
The recommendations mark a rare escalation by Congress against a former president for actions taken while he was in office. The final decision to pursue charges rests with the Justice Department, which is conducting its own investigation into the Capitol riot and has appointed a special counsel.
The former president would face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of inciting or assisting an insurrection, the most serious charge proposed by the committee. It also would bar Mr. Trump, who has announced a bid for the White House in 2024, from becoming president again or holding any other federal office.
Mr. Trump said the committee’s criminal referral was intended to derail his 2024 campaign, but he predicted the move wouldn’t harm him.
“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” Mr. Trump said in a statement. “These folks don’t get it that when they come after me, people who love freedom rally around me. It strengthens me.”
He said Democrats “are out to keep me from running for president because they know I’ll win and that this whole business of prosecuting me is just like impeachment was — a partisan attempt to sideline me and the Republican Party.”
The referral against Mr. Trump, especially on charges of inciting or assisting an insurrection, places the Justice Department in uncharted territory, said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Brien.
“The Justice Department has an obligation to determine for itself whether the evidence warrants an indictment,” said Mr. O’Brien, who now specializes in white-collar criminal defense as a partner at Ford O’Brien Landy LLP. “And those standards are quite high.”
The Justice Department could also pursue charges against Mr. Trump outside of those recommended by the committee.
Rhodes said he has little doubt that Mr. Trump would be convicted, especially if he is tried in the nation’s capital.
“And, of course, a D.C. jury will find him guilty,” he said. “It blows my mind that anyone thinks otherwise. What kind of fair trial are you going to get in a politically charged environment like Washington, D.C.?
“I think it will destroy what little credibility the Department of Justice has left,” he said.
He said the Justice Department could tear at the seams of a country that is already fractured.
“This country is so incredibly divided at this point, it’s like you’re living in two different countries because the animus is so bad,” Rhodes said. “I think that is how it’s going to be across the country. One-half of the country will love it, and the other will consider it the death of the republic.
“What happens after that? I have no idea,” he said. “All it’s going to do is show that I was correct in my assessment of where we’re headed in this country. We’re headed into a police state where you are charged because of who you are, not because of what you did.”