Facing intensifying criticism from Democratic lawmakers, journalists, and even some federal judges for not seeking harsher punishment against January 6 protesters, Attorney General Merrick Garland finally produced charges to appease his detractors. Last week, more than a year after the so-called insurrection, Garland charged 11 members of the Oath Keepers with seditious conspiracy.
The star of the new indictment, handed down by a grand jury on January 12, is Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the alleged militia group. (His co-defendants were charged with several other offenses months ago.)
Rhodes, described only as “person one” for nearly a year in numerous criminal indictments related to his organization, has been a free man since January 6, 2021, raising plausible suspicions that he may have been a government informant at the time. After all, the FBI has a longstanding pattern of infiltrating fringe groups such as the Oath Keepers and moving them to commit indictable crimes.
Under the definition of “seditious conspiracy,” prosecutors allege Rhodes and his co-defendants conspired to halt the “lawful transfer of presidential power by force” including not just the Electoral College certification but the inauguration, which was 14 days away.
The flagrantly political move will give the Justice Department a temporary reprieve from its loud chorus of critics on the Left. January 6 propagandists boast that the new charges finally offer some support to the heretofore baseless claim that the events of that day amounted to an “insurrection.” Beryl Howell, the chief judge of the D.C. court handling every January 6 case, recently expressed her dismay at the “petty offenses” sought by prosecutors; she undoubtedly will be thrilled with the news.
Corporate media also commend this apparently sweeping indictment. “It’s hard to underemphasize (sic) how significant this is,” former FBI official and MSNBC contributor Frank Figliuzzi told Nicolle Wallace after the indictment was announced. CNN legal analyst Asha Rangappa concluded that “even if Trump wasn’t directly involved in their ‘plan,’ his [exhortation] to his lunatic mob to head to the Capitol definitely helped them execute their operation.”
But the real question is whether the government can make the charges stick. As my book, January 6: How Democrats Used the Capitol Protest to Launch a War on Terror Against the Political Right, details, the case against the Oath Keepers is weak. Out of the 20 people tied to the Oath Keepers (three have accepted plea deals), only one is accused of assaulting or impeding a police officer. No Oath Keeper is charged with carrying or using a weapon; the only property charge is “aiding and abetting” the destruction of government property. None are charged with directly inflicting any damage.
So what did these seditious conspirators do? For weeks, Rhodes led several group chats on an encrypted app to make plans to travel to Washington. Defendants discussed the deployment of “quick reaction forces” to the capital if necessary. Some allegedly brought guns but left them at hotels in Virginia rather than violate D.C.’s strict gun control laws. A lot of the chatter was harmless; in one exchange, a few defendants discussed whether to wear jeans or khakis.
Rhodes’ communications were by far the most inflammatory. On November 5, 2020 in a Signal group chat he initiated, Rhodes warned of a “civil war” and encouraged the participants to “prepare mind, body, spirit.” In a December 2020 interview, Rhodes declared, “we will have to do a bloody, massively bloody revolution against them,” if Biden assumed the presidency.
At 1:30 p.m. on January 6, Rhodes predicted the day would lead to “our Lexington.”
But despite all the bluster and threats, the Oath Keepers committed no violent crimes on January 6. Two separate groups of Oath Keepers entered the building in a “stack” formation used in the military. (Nearly all of the defendants are veterans.) None broke windows or tore down barriers to get inside.
Dressed in military garb, they walked around the Rotunda. According to prosecutors, the first group joined others in pushing against a line of police in an attempt to access the Senate chambers. After cops sprayed the first group with a chemical irritant, the group retreated and left. That attempt to “overturn democracy” lasted less than 25 minutes.
About a half hour later, the second group—referred to as “Stack Two” by prosecutors—went inside. Two defendants confronted police officers and one screamed, “this is my fucking building!” That failed “coup” lasted less than five minutes before Stack Two exited the building.
Three of the men, including Rhodes, never even went inside. One man, Edward Vallejo, stayed behind in a Virginia hotel to manage what is described by the defendants as a “quick reaction force” or QRF to transport firearms and ammunition if needed. (There is speculation this was intended to respond to an attempted attack by Antifa or Black Lives Matter activists that day, not to seize the Capitol.) The QRF never materialized and guns were never illegally brought into D.C.
Not exactly Bunker Hill.
So, for a few weeks of boasting on Signal private chats and for LARPing on January 6, these Americans are now branded seditionists. In a motion seeking Vallejo’s imprisonment until his trial, Biden’s Justice Department claimed the Arizona man had participated “in a plot to oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power in the United States.” Even if true, which it isn’t, there is no law that specifically criminalizes an attempt to interfere in the transfer of power; to the contrary, Americans gather every four years in the nation’s capital, sometimes violently such as in 2017, to protest and, if possible, halt the inauguration of a president for whom they did not vote.
Charging these men with seditious conspiracy is a new low for a vengeful attorney general and a Justice Department that has just opened a domestic terror unit to expand its prosecutorial and surveillance grip over Democrats’ political foes.
The charges are not only opportunistic but cynical as well. As the government well knows, there is less than zero chance the sedition charge will see the light of day in a courtroom. The last time the Justice Department prosecuted anyone for seditious conspiracy was in 2010 and the charges were tossed by a federal judge.
A much bigger question is why, if Rhodes is such a threat to the nation, did the Justice Department wait over a year to arrest him when nearly two dozen other Oath Keepers already have been charged for a conspiracy he orchestrated?
According to the indictment, Rhodes purchased tens of thousands of dollars worth of firearms, ammunition, and rifle scopes before and after January 6, making him by far the greatest threat of all the Oath Keepers. It’s unlikely investigators just recently discovered these purchases. So why was he a free man for the past 12 months, charged seemingly in response to aggressive questioning in Congress that threatened to upend the liberal insurrection narrative?
Something doesn’t add up.
Is it still likely Rhodes worked in some capacity as an informant? Yes. Is the government announcing these bombshell charges now to deflect mounting suspicions that the FBI and other agencies used numerous informants and agents to instigate violence on January 6? Yes. Will these new charges succeed in delaying the first trial in the Oath Keepers case, set for April? Yes.
What they will not do is serve to establish in court that anything like an insurrection took place on January 6. Instead, step by step, this carefully crafted narrative will crumble, eventually taking with it the last shreds of credibility for the Democrats, the Justice Department, and the liberal press.