Shortly after federal agents confronted him outside a boutique hotel in Lubbock, Texas in May and confiscated his cell phone with an arrest warrant, Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, made a bold decision: despite having just become indisputable evidence for being investigated, he agreed to be questioned about his – and that of his militia – role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Against the advice of a lawyer, Mr Rhodes spoke freely with the agents about the attack on the Capitol for almost three hours, he said in an interview on Friday. Rhodes said he denied that he or any other oath-holder intended to disrupt the certification of the electoral college by Congress – the main charge the government has brought against 16 members of the group charged with conspiracy.
He also said he told agents that members of his militia did not enter the building until they learned that someone inside was shot and tried to provide assistance. (A visual examination by the New York Times of the January 6th events found no evidence to support Mr. Rhodes’ claims.)
“I expressed my frustration that some of my people went in,” Rhodes said, noting that he told the FBI that those who broke through the Capitol had “left the mission.” But then he quickly added, “There were no instructions from me or the leadership to do this.”
For months, the government has tacitly admitted that investigators were scrutinizing the role Mr Rhodes played in the January 6 attack, but the fact that he voluntarily submitted to an FBI interview was a new step in that Examination. Mr. Rhodes was identified as Person 1 in court files related to his staff’s case and prosecutors described how he was in direct communication with some suspects before, during and after the attack.
They also said he sent encrypted messages to members of the group to assure them that “well-stocked QRFs” – or rapid reaction forces – would be ready “in the worst case” outside of Washington on Jan. 6.
Speaking to investigators in the middle of a criminal investigation is a risk, even though Mr. Rhodes had a lawyer, Kellye SoRelle, with him. Mr Rhodes said he was not the only Oath Keeper chief who had spoken to federal agents in the past few weeks. After questioning, one of his top lieutenants, a man he identified as Whip (and who is known as Person 10 on court records), also volunteered to speak to the FBI
“We have nothing to hide,” explained Mr. Rhodes. “We didn’t do anything wrong”
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not want to comment on the interviews.
The revelation that two Oath Keeper leaders – who have not been charged – have been questioned by the FBI comes at a sort of turning point in the Oath Keepers case, one of the most prominent indictments of the Capitol attack.
Earlier this month, most of the defendants questioned the sustainability of the government’s charges, and one called on the presiding judge, Amit P. Mehta, to move his trial from Washington because too many local residents suffered from “Trump Derangement Syndrome” . Judge Mehta issued an order on Tuesday that the 16 defendants would be tried in two groups, one of which is to begin provisionally in January and the other three months later.
At the same time, however, at least three Oath Keepers pleaded guilty to the case and agreed to cooperate in the government’s extensive investigation into the group. At a recent hearing, prosecutors told Judge Mehta that they were in pleading negotiations with several other members and could not rule out further charges.
Despite the hectic activity, prosecutors overseeing the investigation against Mr Rhodes have long admitted they tried to bring proceedings against him. Its activities appeared to remain within the limits of the First Amendment, said an official with knowledge of the matter.
Known for his blue eye patch – the result of a gun accident – Mr. Rhodes, who attended Yale Law School after completing his military service, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, following the election of former President Barack Obama. For years he has earned a reputation as the leader of the right-wing “patriot” movement and often spits out inflammatory rhetoric.
But following the election of Donald J. Trump, he and his members seemed to turn away from their anti-government views and embrace the new spirit of nationalism and suspicions of a deep state conspiracy that had taken root in the Trump administration.
Mr Rhodes was particularly vocal in support of the former president’s repeated lies that the 2020 election was tarnished by fraud and that President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory was illegitimate.
For example, a week after election day, Rhodes told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones that he had men stationed outside Washington ready to act on Mr Trump’s orders. And at a rally in the city on December 12th, he urged Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act.
Then, two days before the Capitol attack, Mr. Rhodes posted a “call to action” on the Oath Keepers website urging “all patriots who may be in DC” to “join President Trump’s fight to defeat the.” To support enemies upright ”. Foreigners and domestic people attempting a coup. “
In the same communiqué, he announced that the Oath Keepers would be sending “security teams” to protect “VIPs” at events around the political rallies in Washington on the day before and on the day of the uprising. Members of the group, including some who have been charged, worked as guardians for Mr. Trump’s close ally and advisor, Roger J. Stone Jr.
Mr Rhodes long predicted his own arrest and, speaking on the Texas-Mexico border in March, indicated that he could face charges in connection with the January 6 attack.
“I could go to jail soon,” he told the crowd. “Not for what I did, but for fabricated crimes.”