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The leader of the Oath Keepers is charged with conspiracy for Jan. 6 riot

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What did Stewart Rhodes do? And what did he intend to do in the attack on the United States Capitol one year ago? Prosecutors have charged Rhodes with sedition. He is the leader of the Oath Keepers, a self-styled militia whose members talk of defending themselves against their own government and have also armed themselves. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering this story. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is Stewart Rhodes?

LUCAS: So Rhodes is a former Army paratrooper and a graduate of Yale Law School. He's got a very distinct look. He's got a black eye patch because of an accident several years ago. But he founded the Oath Keepers more than a decade ago. And this is, as you mentioned, a loosely organized, self-styled militia that tries to recruit former members of the military, former police, folks like that. In Rhodes' telling, his group defends Americans from a tyrannical government. But in the telling of researchers and watchdogs, they say the Oath Keepers is really just a far-right extremist group.

Now, as for this indictment, Rhodes faces several charges. But the big one here that stands out is seditious conspiracy. It's a charge that prosecutors rarely use, but it is a serious one. It carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. We've known for a long time that the Justice Department was looking at potentially using this charge in relation to January 6. But this case, this marks the first time they've actually brought it in the Capitol riot investigation. And they've brought it against Rhodes and 10 others in his group.

INSKEEP: Ten others - how does Rhodes fit in with them?

LUCAS: So as I said, there are 11 defendants charged in this indictment. Nine of them were already facing charges in connection with January 6. They're part of a large case that the Justice Department brought last year against around 20 Oath Keepers or peoples with ties to the group. Rhodes and one other defendant are the only ones who hadn't previously been charged. That said, we've known for a long time that prosecutors were scrutinizing Rhodes. He's come up in court papers in that previous case that I mentioned. All of that said, he's said publicly over the past several months that he believes he did nothing wrong.

INSKEEP: He says he did nothing wrong. But what does the Justice Department say that he did?

LUCAS: Well, prosecutors say that Rhodes and the others here conspired to stop, by force, the transfer of presidential power to Joe Biden. The indictment includes one message from right after Trump's election loss, in which Rhodes wrote to other Oath Keepers, quote, "we aren't getting through this without a civil war. Too late for that." And prosecutors say Rhodes wasn't just talking, he was also organizing. He and other defendants recruited members to take part in trainings. They planned travel to Washington, D.C., for January 6. They organized into teams. They brought paramilitary gear to D.C. Some of them even brought guns. And they stashed them at a hotel across the river in Virginia in case things got messy downtown around the Capitol. On January 6 itself, several suspected Oath Keepers did enter the Capitol. There's no evidence that Rhodes did. Although, he was on the grounds of the Capitol. Court papers say that Rhodes was communicating with the other Oath Keepers in a chat group as the Capitol attack was taking place, as the mob was storming the building. So his role was really more of a leadership and coordinating one, according to prosecutors.

INSKEEP: Which makes this very interesting because it seems to me that most of the people charged so far are what you might describe as front line rioters or front line attackers, people who charged into the Capitol. Now they're moving up the chain a little bit here.

LUCAS: That's right. That's right, you know? More than 700 people have been arrested so far in connection with January 6. A lot of them face misdemeanor charges - those are the folks that you're referencing there. Now, hundreds have been charged with assaulting police officers or obstruction. Some face conspiracy charges. But this indictment against Rhodes and other Oath Keepers is the first, as I said, to charge seditious conspiracy. And that's a big deal. It's important because of the charge but also because, as you said, it's against the leader of a big anti-government militia group, one of the biggest in the country. So this is probably the most serious case so far to come out of this big investigation into the Capitol riot.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thanks, as always, for your careful reporting, really appreciate it.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.