Who Are the Oath Keepers?

Eleven members of far-right militia the Oath Keepers, including their leader Stewart Rhodes, have been charged with seditious conspiracy for Jan. 6.
An Oath Keeper, brought on to provide security, stands guard during a pro-Donald Trump rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, California on April 27, 2017.
An Oath Keeper, brought on to provide security, stands guard during a pro-Donald Trump rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, California on April 27, 2017. (Photo by Philip Pacheco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Congress is still uncovering the events that took place during the Jan. 6 insurrection. But 11 members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, including their leader Stewart Rhodes, have been charged with seditious conspiracy for their role.

The federal indictment unsealed on Jan. 13, 2022, marked the first time serious sedition charges had been brought against any of the hundreds of accused Capitol rioters. Prosecutors allege that Rhodes and 10 co-conspirators intended to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden that day. 

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Rhodes’ trial, especially, will help shed light on the motivations and plans for the Capital riot, as his presence and personality permeate the organization. It’s scheduled to begin July 11.

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a "Save America Rally" near the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. Trump's months-long effort to toss out the election results and extend his presidency will meet its formal end this week, but not without exposing political rifts in the Republican Party that have pitted future contenders for the White House against one another. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Oath Keepers have been a major player in America's far-right patriot movement since the group formed in 2009, during a resurgence of anti-government ideology around that time. The original patriot movement came together in the early 1990s, and its core ideas were center-stage during deadly standoffs between armed civilians and the federal government, like in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.

According to prosecutors, the Oath Keepers crafted their plan to storm the Capitol over the course of two months, starting just days after Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. 

On Nov. 5, 2020, Rhodes sent a message through an encrypted chat group entitled “Leadership intel sharing secured.” The group was secure and VIP (invite-only).

According to court documents, that was just one of several encrypted chats that Oath Keepers participated in during the months leading up to Jan 6. In those chats, they discussed which weapons were legal and available in Washington, D.C. Some Oath Keepers were allegedly training in preparation.

Jessica Watkins, a former Army infantry soldier, allegedly held a “Basic Training” class in Columbus, Ohio. Watkins wanted the recruits to be “fighting fit by the inauguration,” according to the indictment. The indictment also mentions another training session in North Carolina.

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Meanwhile, retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Caldwell reached out to Rhodes to collaborate on an upcoming “op,” according to prosecutors. Caldwell was ready to dish about a recent “reconnaissance mission” he took to Washington.

Nearly a week before the Capitol riot, Rhodes bought approximately $7,000 worth of firearms and related weapons, as well as night-vision devices. He had these materials shipped to Virginia in preparation for the main event.

Rhodes was extremely public about his threats to take violent action against the government. He wrote an open letter to Trump on the Oath Keeper site that stated: “If you fail to act while you are still in office, we the people will have to fight a bloody civil war and revolution.”

He made several more public statements like this on his platform.

Rhodes, however, has denied that he played any role in coordinating the attack and never instructed any members of his group to enter the Capitol. His attorneys, Philip Linder and James Bright, have also requested his trial be moved out of D.C., arguing that their client won’t receive a fair trial, especially while the Jan. 6 hearings are going on in Congress. 

The insurrection

The insurrection seemed like pure chaos. But federal prosecutors argue there’s evidence that shows some participants had deliberate goals and plans of attack.

Prosecutors say some of the Oath Keepers facing charges brought paramilitary equipment and chemical spray to the Capitol on Jan. 6. All the named defendants are charged with a plethora of crimes, including sedition.

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The federal sedition conspiracy charges marked a dramatic escalation in the government’s handling of the case and shook up the right-wing narrative for Jan. 6, which claims that it was nothing more than a riot.

At least one of the Oath Keepers currently facing sedition charges was also photographed acting as security for political strategist and Trump ally Roger Stone hours before he was seen inside the Capitol.

Who are the Oath Keepers?

The Oath Keepers is a far-right citizen militia and anti-government group that sprang into existence as the Tea Party Movement powered up its reform-blocking machine and the racist birther conspiracy about former President Barack Obama began to take hold in the minds of many Americans.

The group officially formed on April 19, 2009, at a rally in Lexington, Massachusetts. The date and location were chosen to commemorate the 234th anniversary of “the shot heard round the world” that’s poetically credited as the beginning of the Revolutionary War—one of many parts of the American mythos that the Oath Keepers have twisted and co-opted.

The rally, with its 2,000 participants and handful of impassioned speakers, was barely a blip on the nation’s radar. But just like the rest of the far-right, the Oath Keepers grew into a national presence whose actions reverberate throughout the U.S.

Steward Rhodes, the founder

The Oath Keepers was founded in 2009 by Elmer “Stewart” Rhodes III, an anti-government conspiracy theorist, former U.S. Army paratrooper, and disbarred trial lawyer. Rhodes continues to be the outspoken mouthpiece for the group. His politics and ideological beliefs permeate throughout the organization.

After serving in the U.S. army, Rhodes worked as a commercial sculptor and then went to college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. After graduating, he dabbled in politics. He landed a job supervising interns in the office of then-Republican Rep. Ron Paul in Washington, D.C.

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Rhodes later went to Yale Law School and graduated in 2004. He then worked in the Arizona Supreme Court as a clerk.

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Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, told The Washington Post via Getty Images, February 28, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas, that the government is trying to inflate the rogue actions of a few members into an alleged conspiracy committed by the organization on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo by Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As the 2008 elections approached, Rhodes’ now-estranged wife, Tasha Adams, noticed her husband becoming increasingly militant. Adams has been one of Rhodes’ most outspoken critics. She became increasingly concerned when Rhodes began to believe he could be the next George Washington.

That was the same year that Rhodes reunited with Rep. Paul and volunteered on his presidential campaign. Paul’s campaign fell apart after accusations from his political opponents that he had ties to hate groups and racists. (Journalists fact-checking those claims unearthed a slew of racist statements published in the congressman’s newsletter, the Ron Paul Report, over the course of several decades. Paul claimed that he was unaware of those statements and never wrote them.)

The campaign experience left Rhodes bitter. He went on a tirade online that the accusations of racism were nothing but a “political smear” against an anti-establishment candidate.

Rhodes made a name for himself through similarly fiery online tirades and political rants. He infamously referred to Hillary Clinton as "Hitlery” and said that Sen. John McCain should be “hung by the neck until dead” for going “along with the program of the destruction of this country.” (Rhodes was referring to McCain’s role in increasing the security state apparatus for the war on terror. Rhodes also held a grudge with McCain for defeating Ron Paul in the 2008 Republican presidential primary.)

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Rhodes’ unfiltered diatribes against “establishment” politics earned him a spot on the conservative media circuit and won the praise of conservative personalities like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck. Ultimately, Rhodes’ time with Paul’s anemic presidential campaign that ended the would-be militia leader’s flirtations with electoral politics. Rhodes ended up carving his own path through grassroots organizing, eventually leading to the founding of the Oath Keepers.

How many Oath Keepers are there?

Rhodes and fellow Oath Keeper leaders seek out active and former military, law enforcement, and emergency first responders as recruits. The Oath Keeper website is awash with testimonials by veterans of all types pledging allegiance to the group's anti-government ethos. The organization has approximately 38,000 members, according to membership rolls leaked by Distributed Denial of Secrets, a nonprofit whistleblower website. Though the rolls do not distinguish who are active due-paying members, the Oath Keepers are among the biggest far-right militias in the nation.

What is the oath?

The Oath Keepers name is derived from the oath that all service members take upon entering service. An oath to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The Oath Keepers believe that the federal government is among those “enemies.”

Members of the group subscribe to conspiracy theories claiming the government is engaged in nefarious plots to subjugate American citizens and leave them unable to defend themselves. Their anti-government rhetoric contains echoes of the “New World Order” conspiracy, which was originally popular in the 1990s.

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The Oath Keepers see both Democrats and establishment Republicans as betraying the Constitution. They compare their cause to that of the first revolutionaries of the United States, steeping every level of their organization in patriotic mystique and framing the U.S. government as the tyrannical British.

The group acts as a citizen militia ready to take on what they view as federal tyranny, actively recruiting members whose skills and experience can contribute to their growing militarism.

Bundy Standoff: The Oath Keepers gain national attention

Cliven Bundy, a Nevada farmer, garnered the attention and support of the Oath Keepers during his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2014.

Bundy had a large herd of grazing cattle in the Gold Butte region. He’d paid grazing fees to BLM for 20 years, beginning in 1973. In 1994, BLM ordered Bundy to significantly reduce the herd size to 150 and restrict where the cows could graze. Bundy stopped paying BLM for years, despite their demands. The battle went on, culminating in the infamous 2014 Bundy Standoff.

The BLM issued a notice of their intent to seize Bundy’s cattle. They began rounding up the cattle on April 5, 2014. On April 9, 2014, Ammon Bundy, Cliven’s son, was shot with a stun gun by BLM agents. Militia members from all parts of the United States assembled on the Bundy ranch in response.

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The Bundy standoff drew the attention of many organizations, including the Oath Keepers. Word of what was going on at the Bundy ranch reached the Oath Keepers and Rhodes himself. The group headed over to the ranch to support Bundy during the standoff.

More than 300 cattle were rounded up but eventually released on April 12. The BLM stopped the operation due to safety concerns for their employees. There were active demonstrations, and the threat of violence to organization members was too significant.

Bundy and his cohorts' blatant disregard for governmental regulations empowered the Oath Keepers to keep their efforts going. They weren’t alone in their resistance to federal laws.

Ferguson unrest: The Oath Keepers in Ferguson

On Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson went to trial and was found not guilty of murder. The verdict provoked protests that went on for several weeks.

A year later on the anniversary of Michael Brown's death, protesters congregated to express their outrage about the shooting and subsequent lack of court conviction.

Invited by fellow members in Ferguson, the Oath Keepers came heavily armed and were ominously organizing on the city's streets and rooftops. They claimed they were there to protect local property and businesses, but citizens and police alike found their presence in the distraught city inflammatory.

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Ultimately, the Ferguson police chief stated that the Oath Keepers were not licensed security guards, and their presence was unhelpful and made demonstrators more upset.

Oath Keepers and the Oregon Gold Mine dispute

“We are calling on all miners, loggers, farmers/ranchers and freedom lovers everywhere who are tired of government abuse to tell the BLM that the people of this country that they are sick to death of the way that they have been conducting themselves,” wrote Kerby Jackson, spokesperson for the Sugar Pine Mine in southern Oregon, on Facebook.

Jackson was responding to an earlier incident where federal officials served co-owner Rick Barclay with a stop-work order for failing to submit the mine to a federal oversight process, a process they claimed the law exempted them from.

Jackson and Barclay were determined to fight back and defend their claim to the mine. They put out a call to the Oath Keepers for backup.

The gold mine incident ended without bloodshed, and only seemed to embolden the organization.

Operation Sabot and the 2016 election

It was the 2016 presidential election and Trump was convinced that it was going to be rigged. Trump urged U.S. citizens to be on the lookout for voter fraud. The Oath Keepers were up for the challenge.

“[W]e call on you to form up incognito intelligence-gathering and crime-spotting teams,” Rhodes instructed. “And go out into public on Election Day, dressed to blend in with the public … with video, still camera, and notepad in hand, to look for and document suspected criminal vote fraud or intimidation activities.”

Rhodes announced “Operation Sabot” on the group’s main website. Though the organization claims to be nonpartisan, there are several instances of Rhodes making derogatory remarks about liberal or left-leaning parties.

“We are, indeed, most concerned about expected attempts at voter fraud by leftists, but we will spot, document, and report any apparent attempt at vote fraud or voter intimidation by anyone, of whatever party,” Rhodes said.

He urged members of the Oath Keepers to go “undercover” and make sure that nothing fishy was going on with the ballots, which was the basis for Operation Sabot.

Operation Sabot helped this extremist group get one step closer to the epicenter of government: the U.S. Capitol.

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