Oath Keepers extremist group founder Stewart Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years in prison for orchestrating a weekslong plot that culminated in his followers attacking the US 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 convicted of seditious conspiracy in the January 6, 2021, attack to receive his punishment, 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 a January 6 case, the judge agreed with the Justice Department that Rhodes' actions should be punished as “terrorism,” which increases the recommended sentence under federal guidelines. 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, US District Judge Amit Mehta described a defiant Rhodes as a continued threat to the United States and democracy.
The judge expressed fear that what happened on January 6 could be repeated, saying Americans will “now hold our collective breaths every time an election is approaching”.
“You are smart, you are charismatic and compelling and frankly that’s what makes you dangerous,” the judge told Rhodes. “The moment you are released, whenever that may be, you will be ready to take up arms against your government.”
Rhodes did not use his chance to address the judge to express remorse or appeal for leniency, but instead claimed to be a “political prisoner,” criticised prosecutors and the Biden administration and tried to play down his actions on January 6.
Mehta fired back that Rhodes was not prosecuted for his political beliefs but for actions the judge described as an "offense against the people of the country”.
“You are not a political prisoner, Mr Rhodes," the judge said.
Another Oath Keeper convicted of seditious conspiracy alongside Rhodes - Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs - was sentenced later Thursday to 12 years behind bars.
Meggs said he was sorry he was involved in the riot that left a “black eye on the country," but maintained that he never planned to go into the Capitol.
The judge found Meggs doesn’t present an ongoing threat to the country the way Rhodes does, but told him “violence cannot be resorted to just because you disagree with who got elected".
Other Oath Keepers are expected to be sentenced Saturday and next week.
Rhodes’ case was one of the most consequential Capitol riot cases brought by the government, which has sought to prove that the attack 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.
His January 2022 arrest was the culmination of a decades-long path of extremism that included armed standoffs with federal authorities at Nevada’s Bundy Ranch.
After founding the Oath Keepers in 2009, the Yale Law School graduate built it into one of the largest far-right anti-government militia groups in the US, though it appears to have weakened in the wake of the Oath Keepers' arrests.
Rhodes’ sentence may signal the punishment prosecutors will seek for Tarrio and other Proud Boys leaders convicted of seditious conspiracy. They will be sentenced in August and September.