WASHINGTON (AP) — The founder of the Oath Keepers extremist group was sentenced 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 the 2020 election.
Stewart Rhodes is the first person charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack to be sentenced for seditious conspiracy, and his sentence is the longest that has been handed down so far in the hundreds of Capitol riot cases.
It's another landmark in the Justice Department's sweeping Jan. 6 investigation, which has led to convictions against the top leaders of two far-right extremist groups that authorities say came to Washington prepared to fight to keep President Donald Trump in power at all costs.
Prosecutors had urged the judge in Washington's federal court to put Rhodes behind bars for 25 years, saying he remains a threat to American democracy.
In remarks before the judge handed down his sentence, Rhodes called himself a "political prisoner" and said his only crime is opposing those who are "destroying" the country.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP's earlier story follows below.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes will be sentenced Thursday after a landmark verdict convicting him of spearheading a weekslong plot to keep former President Donald Trump in power, culminating in far-right extremists attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Prosecutors are seeking 25 years behind bars for Rhodes, who will be sentenced in the federal court in Washington that sits less than a mile from the Capitol. He will be the first Jan. 6 defendant convicted of seditious conspiracy to receive his punishment, which will set the standard for a slew of extremists group members' sentencings to come.
Prosecutors say Rhodes remains a threat to American democracy more than two years after he led a plot to forcibly block the transfer of power from Trump to President Joe Biden after Trump lost the 2020 election.
At Thursday's hearing, in a first for a Jan. 6 case, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta agreed with prosecutors to apply enhanced penalties for "terrorism," under the argument that the Oath Keepers sought to influence the government through "intimidation or coercion." Judges in previous sentencings had shot down the Justice Department's request for the so-called "terrorism enhancement" — which can lead to a longer prison term — but Mehta said it fits in Rhodes' case.
"Mr. Rhodes directed his co-conspirators to come to the Capitol and they abided," the judge said.
Defense lawyer, Phillip Linder denied that Rhodes gave any orders for Oath Keepers to enter the Capitol on Jan. 6. Linder told the judge 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.
Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, was found guilty in November of seditious conspiracy alongside Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs, and four other Oath Keepers were convicted of the rarely used charge during a second trial in January. Three of Rhodes' co-defendants were acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted of other crimes.
It was one of the most consequential cases brought by the Justice Department as it has sought to prove that the riot for right-wing extremists like the Oath Keepers was not a spur-of-the-moment protest but the culmination of weeks of plotting to overturn Biden's election victory.
Rhodes' sentencing comes just weeks after former Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio was convicted of seditious conspiracy alongside other leaders of his far-right group for what prosecutors said was a separate plot to block the transfer of presidential power. The Proud Boys will be sentenced in August and September.
Rhodes' lawyers say he should be sentenced to the 16 months he has already served behind bars since his January 2022 arrest. In seeking leniency for Rhodes, his lawyers cited his military service and told the judge that Rhodes' writings and statements were all "protected political speech." Rhodes' attorneys plan to appeal his conviction.
Meggs is expected to be sentenced after Rhodes later Thursday and two other Oath Keepers will be sentenced Friday. Four other defendants convicted of seditious conspiracy will be sentenced next week.
The judge canceled the sentencing hearing scheduled this week for another defendant — Thomas Caldwell of Berryville, Virginia — as the judge weighs whether to overturn the jury's guilty verdict against Caldwell for obstruction and a documents tampering charge.
The convictions were a major blow for the Oath Keepers, which Rhodes founded in 2009 and grew into one of the largest far-right anti-government militia groups. Recruiting past and present members of the military and police officers, the group promotes the belief that the federal government is out to strip citizens of their civil liberties and paints its followers as defenders against tyranny.
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 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 a 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.
The longest sentence so far in the more than 1,000 Capitol riot cases — 14 years in prison — was handed down this month 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.