Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the right-wing group the Oath Keepers, and 10 others were charged by federal prosecutors Thursday with “seditious conspiracy” linked to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
The rare sedition charges handed down by the Department of Justice come as an increasing number of Republicans have expressed doubts about the severity of the attack.
A seditious conspiracy conviction is punishable by up to 20 years behind bars.
Mr. Rhodes, 56, of Granbury, Texas, was arrested Thursday along with Edward Vallejo, 63, of Phoenix. The nine other members or affiliates of the Oath Keepers listed in the indictment were already facing charges for their roles in the Capitol attack.
Prosecutors say Mr. Rhodes conspired with others to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.”
Although he did not physically enter the Capitol during the riot, prosecutors say, the Texas man helped instigate the violence that temporarily paused Congress’ certification of the presidential election.
Justice Department investigators say that two days after Joseph R. Biden won the 2020 election, Mr. Rhodes sent a message in an encrypted Signal chat urging “his followers to refuse to accept the election result.”
“We aren’t getting through this without a civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit,” the message reportedly said.
The following month is when authorities say the accused conspirators began to coordinate plans to travel to Washington on or around Jan. 6 — the day Congress was set to certify the election.
“Rhodes and several co-conspirators made plans to bring weapons to the area to support the operation,” the Justice Department said in a press release.
On Jan. 6, authorities say, Mr. Rhodes told the group over Signal: “All I see Trump doing is complaining. I see no intent by him to do anything. So the patriots are taking it into their own hands. They’ve had enough.”
The accused Oath Keepers “equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, donned combat and tactical gear, and were prepared to answer Rhodes’s call to take up arms at Rhodes’s direction,” according to the indictment.
Members reportedly split into two teams that marched in a military-style “stack” formation up the Capitol stairs before storming the building.
Authorities say the first stack entered the building about the same time Mr. Rhodes sent a photo to the group showing the southeast side of the Capitol with the caption “South side of US Capitol. Patriots pounding on doors.”
“At the top of the steps, Stack One pushed forward as part of a mob that aggressively advanced toward the Rotunda doors, assaulted the law enforcement officers guarding the doors, threw objects and sprayed chemicals toward the officers and the doors, and pulled violently on the doors,” the indictment states.
While inside the Capitol, some of the Oath Keepers tried to push past a line of officers protecting the Senate chamber, while others walked toward the House of Representatives “in search of” Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
At about the same time, authorities say, members of the second stack “aggressively berated and taunted” officers outside the Capitol before pushing past them and joining a mob “confronting and jostling” a line of officers standing between the lobby and the Capitol Rotunda.
“Some co-conspirators also amassed firearms on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., distributed them among ‘quick reaction force’ (‘QRF’) teams, and planned to use the firearms in support of their plot to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power,” the indictment states.
Mr. Rhodes’ attorney Jonathan Moseley told The Washington Times on Thursday that they were on the phone discussing the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot when his client was arrested.
Mr. Rhodes was supposed to testify in front of the committee on Thursday, but Mr. Moseley said the deposition was postponed.
The Oath Keepers leader has denied in media interviews that there was a plan to break into the Capitol, and he insisted that the members who did so had gone rogue.
Meanwhile, other Oath Keepers have argued in court that their only plan was to attend the rally before the riot and provide security or protect themselves from potential attacks by far-left Antifa activists.
Mr. Rhodes is a former U.S. Army paratrooper who graduated from Yale Law School. He founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 and is the highest-ranking member of an extremist group to be charged in connection with the Capitol riot.
More than 725 people have been charged in connection with the Capitol attack, with about 40 of those charged with conspiracy to obstruct a congressional proceeding and/or obstruct law enforcement — charges that are also punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The seditious conspiracy indictments come one week after the first anniversary of the attack.
Sedition charges in the U.S. are uncommon. One of the most recent high-profile cases involved an alleged 2010 plot by members of the Hutaree militia to incite a government uprising in Michigan.
A judge issued acquittals in a 2012 trial and said federal prosecutors relied too heavily on hateful diatribes protected by the First Amendment and failed to prove they had planned a rebellion.
In a 1995 sedition case, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called “Blind Sheikh,” was convicted of seditious conspiracy among other charges for plotting terrorist attacks in New York City.
The other accused conspirators charged Thursday were Thomas Caldwell, 67, of Berryville, Virginia; Joseph Hackett, 51, of Sarasota, Florida; Kenneth Harrelson, 41, of Titusville, Florida; Joshua James, 34, of Arab, Alabama; Kelly Meggs, 52, of Dunnellon, Florida; Roberto Minuta, 37, of Prosper, Texas; David Moerschel, 44, of Punta Gorda, Florida; Brian Ulrich, 44, of Guyton, Georgia and Jessica Watkins, 39, of Woodstock, Ohio.
In a prepared speech on the eve of the anniversary, Attorney General Merrick Garland said “there is no higher priority” for the department than charging those responsible.
“The Justice Department remains committed to holding all Jan. 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law — whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy,” he said. “We will follow the facts wherever they lead.”
The attorney general made the comments amid criticism that he and his investigators are focusing too much on rioters rather than those who instigated the attack.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.
• Emily Zantow can be reached at email@example.com.
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