Oath Keepers leader convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role in Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the far-right extremist group the Oath Keepers, was convicted Tuesday of seditious conspiracy for a violent plot to overturn Democrat Joe Biden's presidential win, handing the Justice Department a major victory in its massive prosecution of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Stewart Rhodes, co-defendant found guilty of rarely used charge, which calls for up to 20 years behind bars

In this 2017 photo, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington. Rhodes was convicted Tuesday of seditious conspiracy for his role in the U.S. Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was convicted Tuesday of seditious conspiracy for a violent plot to overturn Democrat Joe Biden's presidential win, handing the Justice Department a major victory in its massive prosecution of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

A Washington jury found Rhodes guilty of sedition after three days of deliberations in the nearly two-month-long trial that showcased the far-right extremist group's efforts to keep Republican Donald Trump in the White House at all costs. Rhodes was acquitted of two other conspiracy charges.

The verdict marks a significant milestone for the Justice Department and is likely to clear the path for prosecutors to move ahead at full steam in upcoming trials of other extremists accused of sedition.

It is also likely to embolden investigators, whose work has expanded beyond those who attacked the Capitol to focus on others linked to Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland recently named a veteran prosecutor, Jack Smith, to serve as special counsel to oversee key aspects of a probe into efforts to subvert the election and a separate investigation into the retention of classified documents at Trump's Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago.

Using dozens of encrypted messages, recordings and surveillance video, prosecutors made the case that shortly after the 2020 election, Rhodes began to prepare an armed rebellion to stop the transfer of presidential power.

Over seven weeks of testimony, jurors heard how Rhodes rallied his followers to fight to defend Trump, discussed the prospect of a "bloody" civil war and warned that the Oath Keepers may have to "rise up in insurrection" to defeat Biden if Trump didn't act.

Five defendants on trial

One of Rhodes' co-defendants — Kelly Meggs, the leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers — was also convicted of the sedition charge, while three other co-defendants were cleared of the charge.

Jurors found all five defendants guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding: Congress's certification of Biden's electoral victory.

Rhodes and Meggs are the first people in nearly three decades to be found guilty of sedition, a rarely used Civil War-era charge. Seditious conspiracy calls for up to 20 years behind bars.

In this courtroom artist sketch, Rhodes, centre, is seated alongside co-defendants Thomas Caldwell, seated front row left; Jessica Watkins, seated third from right; Kelly Meggs, seated second from right; and defendant Kenneth Harrelson, seated far right, at their trial in Washington on Oct. 6. (Dana Verkouteren/The Associated Press)

Rhodes intends to appeal, defence attorney James Lee Bright told reporters. Another Rhodes lawyer, Ed Tarpley, described the verdict as a "mixed bag," adding: "This is not a total victory for the government in any way, shape or form."

"We feel like we presented a case that showed through evidence and testimony that Mr. Rhodes did not commit the crime of seditious conspiracy," Tarpley said.

On trial alongside Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, and Meggs, were Kenneth Harrelson, another Florida Oath Keeper; Thomas Caldwell, a retired navy intelligence officer from Virginia; and Jessica Watkins, who led an Ohio militia group.

Jury selection for a second group of Oath Keepers facing seditious conspiracy charges is scheduled to begin next week. Several members of the far-right Proud Boys, including the former national chairman Enrique Tarrio, are also scheduled to go to trial on sedition charges in December.

Attack a 'means to an end,' prosecutor says

Defence attorneys accused prosecutors of twisting their clients' words and insisted the Oath Keepers came to Washington only to provide security for figures such as Roger Stone, a longtime Trump ally. The defence focused heavily on trying to show that Rhodes's rhetoric was just bluster and that the Oath Keepers had no plan before Jan. 6 to attack the Capitol.

Rhodes testified that he had no idea his followers were going to join the mob and storm the Capitol and said he was upset after he found out that some did. Rhodes said they were acting "stupid" and outside their mission for the day.

Prosecutors said the Oath Keepers saw an opportunity to advance their plot to stop the transfer of power and sprang into action when the mob started storming the Capitol. The Capitol attack was a "means to an end" for the Oath Keepers, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy told jurors in her closing argument.

The exterior of the U.S. Capitol is seen, with dozens of pro-Trump supporters on each level, holding flags and signs.
A mob loyal to Donald Trump, who was still the president at the time, breaches the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

Jurors heard how Rhodes spent thousands of dollars on an AR-platform rifle, magazines, mounts, sights and other equipment on his way to Washington ahead of the riot.

They watched surveillance footage from the Virginia hotel where some Oath Keepers stashed weapons for "quick reaction force" teams prosecutors said were ready to get weapons into the city quickly if they were needed. The weapons were never deployed.

On Jan. 6, Oath Keepers wearing combat gear were seen on camera shouldering their way through the crowd and into the Capitol. Rhodes remained outside like a "general surveying his troops on the battlefield," a prosecutor said.

After the riot, Rhodes and other Oath Keepers went to an Olive Garden restaurant to celebrate, according to prosecutors.

Pressure on Trump

The trial revealed new details about Rhodes's efforts to pressure Trump to fight to stay in White House in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6.

Shortly after the election, in a group chat that included Stone, called "FOS" or "Friends of Stone," Rhodes wrote, "So will you step up and push Trump to FINALLY take decisive action?"

Another man testified that after the riot, Rhodes tried to persuade him to pass along a message to Trump that urged the president not to give up his fight to hold onto power.

The intermediary — a man who told jurors he had an indirect way to reach the president — recorded his meeting with Rhodes and went to the FBI instead of giving the message to Trump.

"If he's not going to do the right thing and he's just gonna let himself be removed illegally then we should have brought rifles," Rhodes said during that meeting, according to a recording played for jurors.

"We should have fixed it right then and there. I'd hang [expletive] Pelosi from the lamppost," Rhodes said, referring to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Three other Oath Keepers previously pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy. The last time the Justice Department had secured such a conviction at trial, though, was in the 1995 prosecution of Islamic militants who plotted to bomb New York City landmarks.

LISTEN | Who are the Oath Keepers? 
The Oath Keepers are a far-right militia, founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes. He’s one of five members currently on trial in Washington, facing charges of seditious conspiracy and other felonies related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Prosecutors say they planned to stop the peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden following the 2020 election. Explosive, secretly recorded, audio from an alleged insurrection planning meeting was played last week in court. Today, we’re joined by Andy Campbell, senior editor at HuffPost and author of the new book We Are Proud Boys. He explains who the Oath Keepers are and what’s been revealed at the trial about how the deadly attack may have been prevented.