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Antifa, Election Fraud and 1776: Messages Provide Window Into Oath Keepers

Antifa, Election Fraud and 1776: Messages Provide Window Into Oath Keepers

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the militia group known as the Oath Keepers, speaking at a rally outside the White House in 2017. Texts featured at his trial paint a portrait of an organization in thrall to conspiracy theories.Credit...Susan Walsh/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — At times he could be grandiose, comparing his efforts to challenge the results of the 2020 election with George Washington’s army fighting at the Battle of Long Island.

At other times, he could issue ideological screeds, calling the Democrats “America-hating,” “totalitarian” Marxists bent on the destruction of the country.

Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, was a prolific writer of encrypted text messages, many of which have been featured this week as evidence at his trial on seditious conspiracy charges in Federal District Court in Washington.

The government has used the messages to build its case that Mr. Rhodes and four other members of the group plotted to stop the transfer of power and keep President Donald J. Trump in office. But they have also provided a window into the mind-set of Mr. Rhodes and others in the far-right organization during a period when Mr. Trump was stoking outrage among his supporters.

That mind-set, in the days between the election and the mob attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, veered between fear, aggression and apparent self-delusion as the Oath Keepers increasingly viewed themselves as the final hedge against Mr. Trump losing power. The messages, which were seized during the government’s investigation of the Capitol assault, paint a portrait of an organization in thrall to conspiracy theories and willing to use extreme measures to fight for what they saw as a country in apocalyptic decline.

Mr. Rhodes and four subordinates are the first of nearly 900 people arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol attack to go on trial for seditious conspiracy.Credit...Kenny Holston for The New York Times

The day after the election, for instance, Mr. Rhodes called for the creation of an armed “quick reaction force” of military and law enforcement veterans to be on hand for pro-Trump demonstrations in Washington and other cities. In a message to his subordinates, he suggested the importance of the force by quoting George Washington speaking to his troops in 1776: “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.”

Three days later, when several media organizations called the race for Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Rhodes wrote a message to one of his associates, declaring “Trump must NOT concede.” Encouraging the Oath Keepers to stand up against both “GOP Congress-critters” and “communists in the street,” Mr. Rhodes proposed a plan: He wanted his members to “march en-mass on the nation’s Capitol.”

That same evening, Mr. Rhodes sent an almost identical message to a group chat titled “F.O.S.,” for Friends of Stone, a reference to Mr. Trump’s longtime political adviser Roger J. Stone Jr. At the end of the message, Mr. Rhodes added yet another call to arms.

“Trump has one last chance, right now, to stand,” he wrote, “but he will need us and our rifles too.” Phillip Linder, one of Mr. Rhodes’s lawyers, told the jury during his opening statement on Monday that his client’s messages, while clearly bombastic, were still examples of legal speech protected by the First Amendment.

Lawyers for some of Mr. Rhodes’s co-defendants — Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell — noted in their own opening statements that government investigators have never found in the thousands of Oath Keepers messages they have examined any that laid out a specific plan to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Mr. Rhodes and his subordinates are the first of nearly 900 people arrested in connection with the Capitol attack to go on trial for seditious conspiracy, the most serious charge the government has brought so far against any of the defendants. The five Oath Keepers are facing two other conspiracy counts, one accusing them of plotting to obstruct the certification of Mr. Biden’s victory on Jan. 6 and another alleging they worked together to stop federal officers from discharging their duties at the Capitol that day.

Edward Tarpley, left, and Phillip Linder, center, lawyers for Mr. Rhodes, leaving the federal courthouse on Monday in Washington. Linder argued that Mr. Rhodes’s texts were bombastic examples of legal speech.Credit...Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

On Tuesday, the trial continued as one of the F.B.I.’s lead agents in the case, Michael Palian, led the jury through several messages from Mr. Rhodes; Mr. Meggs, a car dealer who ran the Oath Keepers’ Florida chapter; and Ms. Watkins, a former Army Ranger and Ohio bar owner. Mr. Palian testified that when federal agents searched Mr. Caldwell’s farm in Virginia they found a map showing the route to the Capitol from a hotel in Virginia where the armed “quick reaction force” was staged on Jan. 6.

Mr. Palian also showed the jury several clips from a virtual meeting on Nov. 9, 2020, during which Mr. Rhodes urged his members to “fight” on behalf of Mr. Trump. Mr. Rhodes went on during the meeting to make baseless claims about foreign interference in the election and said that he would welcome violence from leftist antifa activists because that would give Mr. Trump an excuse to invoke the Insurrection Act and call upon militias like his own to quell the chaos.

The messages released so far suggest that Mr. Rhodes’s obsessions, including antifa and election fraud, were not unlike those of dozens, even hundreds, of other Jan. 6 defendants. Like many others, he appeared to be consumed as well with the Revolutionary War, encouraging his followers in the days leading up to the Capitol attack to “build up armed local militia and minutemen companies.”

“We are now where the founders were in March, 1775,” he wrote on the Friends of Stone group chat on Nov. 8.

Mr. Rhodes also had a deep animus for Mr. Biden, describing him in the messages with epithets such as “illegitimate usurper” and “Chi com puppet.” That last description was a reference to yet another one of Mr. Rhodes’s fixations: the Chinese Communist Party.

He was not alone among the Oath Keepers in evincing fear and loathing of Mr. Biden. Ms. Watkins, too, seemed to believe that if Mr. Biden took power, it would be a cataclysmic event.

One of the Oath Keepers on trial, Jessica Watkins, second from left, marching outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. “I feel we need to make sacrifices to stop this Coup,” she wrote to a friend after the election.Credit...Jim Bourg/Reuters

“We are literally going to lose America, our democracy, our way of life if we don’t stand up,” Ms. Watkins wrote to a friend on Facebook just before news organizations called the election for Mr. Biden. “I feel we need to make sacrifices to stop this Coup. If we don’t, we lose this country forever.”

The idea that American politics after the election were so irremediably dire that extreme measures, even violence, might be needed appeared repeatedly in the Oath Keepers’ messages. Late on Election Day, for instance, Mr. Meggs and his wife, Connie, were talking by text about the vote results on a family group chat.

“Trump wins Kentucky I’m so nervous,” Ms. Meggs wrote.

Mr. Meggs responded with a violent threat against Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I’m gonna go on a killing spree,” he wrote. “Pelosi first.”


(c) 2022 The New York Times



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