By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, ALANNA DURKIN RICHER and LINDSAY WHITEHURST (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON (AP) — Oath Keepers extremist group founder Stewart Rhodes was sentenced on Thursday to 18 years in prison for orchestrating a weekslong plot that culminated in his followers attacking the U.S. Capitol in a bid to keep President Joe Biden out of the White House after winning the 2020 election.
Rhodes, 58, is the first person charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack to be sentenced for seditious conspiracy, and his sentence is the longest handed down so far in the hundreds of Capitol riot cases.
It’s another milestone for the Justice Department’s sprawling Jan. 6 investigation, which has led to seditious conspiracy convictions against the top leaders of two far-right extremist groups authorities say came to Washington prepared to fight to keep President Donald Trump in power at all costs.
In a first for an insurrection case, the judge agreed to apply enhancement penalties for “terrorism.” That decision could foreshadow lengthy sentences down the road for other far-right extremists, including former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who have also been convicted of the rarely used charge.
Before announcing Rhodes’ sentence, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta described a defiant Rhodes as a continued threat the United States who clearly “wants democracy in this country to devolve into violence.” Mehta expressed fear that what happened on Jan. 6 could be repeated, saying Americans will “now hold our collective breaths every time an election is approaching.”
“The moment you are released, whenever that may be, you will be ready to take up arms against your government,” Mehta told Rhodes.
Rhodes did not use the chance to express remorse or appeal for leniency, but instead claimed to be a “political prisoner,” criticized prosecutors and the Biden administration and tried to play down his actions on Jan. 6.
“I’m a political prisoner and like President Trump my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country,” Rhodes told Mehta.
It was one of the most consequential cases brought by the government, which has sought to prove that the riot by right-wing extremists such as the Oath Keepers was not a spur-of-the-moment protest but the culmination of weeks of plotting to overturn Biden’s victory.
Prosecutors had urged 25 years for Rhodes. They said he was the architect of a plot to forcibly disrupt the transfer of presidential power that included “quick reaction force” teams at a Virginia hotel to ferry weapons into the nation’s capital if they were needed. The weapons were never deployed.
The judge agreed to the department’s request for the “terrorism enhancement” under the argument that the Oath Keepers sought to influence the government through “intimidation or coercion.” Judges had previously rejected such requests in Jan. 6 cases, but Rhodes’ was unlike any others so far that have reached sentencing.
Prosecutors argued that a lengthy sentence was necessary to deter future political violence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy pointed to interviews and speeches Rhodes has given from jail repeating the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and saying it would be again in 2024. In remarks just days ago, Rhodes called for “regime change,” the prosecutor said.
People “across the political spectrum” want to believe that Jan. 6 was an “outlier,” Rakoczy said. “Not defendant Rhodes.”
Rhodes, of Granbury Texas, plans to appeal his conviction.
Defense lawyer Phillip Linder told the judge that prosecutors were unfairly trying to make Rhodes “the face” of Jan. 6, adding that Rhodes could have had many more Oath Keepers come to the Capitol “if he really wanted to” disrupt Congress’ certification of the Electoral College vote.
“If you want to put a face on J6 (Jan. 6), you put it on Trump, right-wing media, politicians, all the people who spun that narrative,” Linder said.
Another Oath Keeper convicted alongside Rhodes in November — Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs — was expected to receive his sentence later Thursday. More Oath Keepers are expected to be sentenced on Friday and next week.
The convictions were a major blow for the Oath Keepers, which Rhodes founded in 2009 and grew into one of the country’s largest far-right anti-government militia groups.
Rhodes’ sentence may signal what prosecutors will seek for Tarrio and other Proud Boys leaders also convicted of seditious conspiracy. They will be sentenced in August and September.
The Oath Keepers said there was never any plan to attack the Capitol or stop Congress from certifying Biden’s victory. The defense tried to seize on the fact that none of the Oath Keepers’ messages laid out an explicit plan to storm the Capitol. But prosecutors said the Oath Keepers saw an opportunity to further their goal to stop the transfer of power and sprang into action when the mob began storming the building.
Messages, recordings and other evidence presented at trial show Rhodes and his followers growing increasingly enraged after the 2020 election at the prospect of a Biden presidency, which they viewed as a threat to the country and their way of life. In an encrypted chat two days after the election, Rhodes told his followers to prepare their “mind, body, spirit” for “civil war.”
In conference call days later, Rhodes urged his followers to let Trump know they were “willing to die” for the country. One Oath Keeper who was listening was so alarmed that he began recording the call and contacted the FBI, telling jurors “it sounded like we were going to war against the United States government.”
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, 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. Rhodes told the man during that meeting that the Oath Keepers “should have brought rifles” on Jan. 6.
Before Thursday, the longest sentence in the more than 1,000 Capitol riot cases was 14 years for a man with a long criminal record who attacked police officers with pepper spray and a chair as he stormed the Capitol. Just over 500 of the defendants have been sentenced, with more than half receiving prison time and the remainder getting sentences such as probation or home detention.
Richer reported from Boston.