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Oath Keepers Leader Stewart Rhodes Says He’s a Political Prisoner. Are Republicans Listening?

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Tasha Adams won her divorce from Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes last month. Three days later, she turned her attention to the Washington, D.C., courtroom where he was set to be sentenced for seditious conspiracy. Prosecutors had asked the judge to give him 25 years in prison for his role in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6; his attorneys had requested time served. Adams was on the government’s side. She’d been with Rhodes as he’d gone from a 25-year-old Army veteran with a high school education to a Yale-educated lawyer and then founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, which she’d helped him build. Now she considered him a threat to the nation, as well as to herself and their six children. She’d recorded a statement for the prosecution to include with their sentencing request. In it, Adams described Rhodes using a backhoe to dig escape tunnels in the yard, grabbing a daughter by the throat, and precariously waving a loaded handgun in the air before pointing it at his head. (Rhodes has denied similar allegations from Adams in the past.) “I think the best thing for Stewart is to be in a place where he can’t harm anyone, or he can’t manipulate more people,” Adams had said in the statement. She hoped the judge would give Rhodes as long a sentence as possible.

As she watched his hearing, though, she wondered if that wasn’t what Rhodes wanted too. She’d expected him to express some conciliation — support, perhaps — for police affected by the riot at the Capitol. Instead, he attacked his trial as rigged and antagonized the judge who’d decide his fate. “A steep sentence here won’t help or deter people,” he said. “It will make people think this government is even more illegitimate than before.” He called himself “a political prisoner.”

Adams was considering how the harsher a sentence Rhodes received, the greater a cause célèbre he’d become on the right. This, she told me, as she followed the hearing on Twitter, would increase his chances for a pardon in a future Republican administration. In fact, Rhodes’s sentencing was playing out as one skirmish in a larger battle to determine how the history of January 6 will be written. From behind the bench, District Judge Amit Mehta, a Barack Obama appointee who also sits on the powerful Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, told Rhodes, “You, sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country, to the Republic, and the very fabric of our democracy.” In his remarks beforehand, Rhodes, 58, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, had already issued his reply: “My only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country.”

Mehta sentenced him to 18 years in prison, the longest term handed down in a January 6 case to date.

The version of Rhodes that Adams described in her statement and divorce filing is a man driven by a will to control and influence, feeding off the adulation of crowds in public while keeping a tight grip on his family in their remote Montana home. These impulses are twisted inextricably with real fear in her stories: that stronger forces are coming for him, disaster is inevitable, his control is slipping. He imagines erecting tripwires outside the house that will trigger a blast of AC/DC music to alert him to the start of a federal raid. He leaves his children bruised from trainings in martial arts and knife fighting designed to teach them to fend off attack and rape. He warns darkly of apocalypse. The power goes out, and he outfits his teenaged son with a rifle and body armor and rustles his family out into the night.

The 2018 divorce filings were unsealed last month. Rhodes responded to Adams’s allegations, in a sworn affidavit, by saying that she and her attorney had “twisted over 23 years of facts in an attempt to accomplish Tasha’s true goal of keeping the children from me.” He noted that her request for a temporary protection order had been denied and claimed his infidelity was the real cause of the rift in their marriage. Yet Adams’s portrayal of Rhodes as someone engaged in a long-running and complicated dance with power offers one way to interpret the contradictions he embodied at his sentencing. He expressed deeply held fears of tyrannical government power, yet he’d also grabbed for it: In open letters before January 6, Rhodes urged Donald Trump to overturn the election and volunteered the Oath Keepers to help enforce this. He was declaring himself a dissident and preparing to begin a very long prison term. He also seemed to be appealing to those powerful enough to one day free him of it.

Trump, who has a commanding lead in Republican primary polls, has made clear in recent months that support for those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 will be not just part of his campaign, but its essence. In March, he held his first official campaign rally in Waco, Texas, home to a deadly 1993 standoff between the federal government and an armed Christian sect whose bloody end has long been a defining event for right-wing militant groups like the Oath Keepers. Standing on a stage at the start of the rally, Trump held his hand over his heart as loudspeakers played a rendition of the national anthem that had been recorded from jail by people arrested in connection with January 6. The recording, which is overlaid with Trump’s voice reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, is credited to the “J6 Prison Choir” and had reached No. 1 on iTunes two weeks before the rally. As Trump and the crowd stood in reverence, video of the attack on the Capitol played above him on a pair of jumbotrons.

It’s the most revealing question for every candidate in the primary just beginning to take shape: If you’re elected president, will you pardon people who’ve been convicted for January 6?

In the first year after January 6, Trump had expressed sympathy for the rioters, but his backing wasn’t full-throated. When I met with Rhodes in January 2022, a week before his arrest, he told me he wouldn’t in the future vote for Trump, who he said had failed to support January 6 defendants and had used the Oath Keepers as “cannon fodder.” After his arrest, Sidney Powell, Trump’s onetime lawyer and a close ally, reportedly stepped in to fund the defense of Rhodes and three other Oath Keepers via her legal foundation, which had raised more than $16 million in the year following the 2020 election. Now Trump has made pardons for January 6 convicts a central promise of his campaign. “I hope Trump wins in 2024,” Rhodes said at his sentencing, adding that many on the right view January 6 defendants as “political prisoners” and “patriots.” For Republicans, the issue of pardons may become a litmus test showing not just the extent to which they’re willing to downplay or excuse what happened on January 6, but also how enthusiastically they’ll embrace it. It’s the most revealing question for every candidate in the primary just beginning to take shape: If you’re elected president, will you pardon people who’ve been convicted for January 6?

On the day Rhodes was sentenced, Ron DeSantis, currently Trump’s top challenger, was asked this question in a radio interview. “On Day One, I will have folks that will get together and look at all these cases, who are people who are victims of weaponization or political targeting,” he replied. “And we will be aggressive at issuing pardons.”

This artist sketch depicts the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and four others charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, in Washington, Oct. 6, 2022. Shown above are, witness John Zimmerman, who was part of the Oath Keepers' North Carolina Chapter, seated in the witness stand, defendant Thomas Caldwell, of Berryville, Va., seated front row left, Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, seated second left with an eye patch, defendant Jessica Watkins, of Woodstock, Ohio, seated third from right, Kelly Meggs, of Dunnellon, Fla., seated second from right, and defendant Kenneth Harrelson, of Titusville, Fla., seated at right. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy is shown in blue standing at right before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta. U.S. Army veterans Watkins and Harrelson are scheduled to be sentenced on Friday, May 26, 2023 (Dana Verkouteren via AP)

This artist’s sketch depicts the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and four others charged with seditious conspiracy in the January 6 Capitol attack in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6, 2022.

Sketch: Dana Verkouteren via AP

In his testimony at sentencing, Rhodes compared himself to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian dissident writer, who spent eight years incarcerated in Soviet prisons.

It reminded me of my first conversation with Rhodes in early 2020. I said I thought his frequent invocations of civil war were dangerous and that civil war is the worst thing in the world. He disagreed, saying the totalitarian nightmares that had unfolded under Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and other dictators showed the need to fight a repressive government before it’s too late. He cited a passage from “The Gulag Archipelago,” Solzhenitsyn’s acclaimed book about his imprisonment:

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests […] people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood that they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?

FBI agents approached Rhodes outside a Texas hotel in May 2021 to serve a warrant for his phone. He handed it over, volunteered the passcode, advised the agents that he had a gun in his backpack, and told them that, if they ever needed to arrest him, they could call and he’d turn himself in. He went peaceably when the FBI eventually showed up to take him to jail. So perhaps he realizes that America is nowhere near the kind of dictatorship about which Solzhenitsyn was writing.

Or maybe he’d argue that, as it had been for all the prisoners Solzhenitsyn met in the gulag, submission was the only feasible choice, at least in the moment of arrest.

Rhodes has long considered himself a dissident, even at times on the right. He drew criticism from his group’s own members over his support for Edward Snowden and Julian Assange at a time when they were still heroes of the left. (“Your banner stating ‘Snowden honored his oath’ is sickening and infuriating,” read one letter of resignation I found in a cache of leaked Oath Keepers files. “I have honored my oath for 27 years and will not be associated with an organization that supports a traitor.”) During the George W. Bush administration, when his only claim to public notice was as a blogger, Rhodes was writing about the post-9/11 assault on civil liberties and the growth of the national security state and warning that America could be on a path to tyranny. His talk about dictatorship went into overdrive during Obama’s presidency — though by then it was infused with the blunter and dumber rhetoric of the Tea Party — and hyperdrive under Trump. His open letters to the then-president after the 2020 election called the day of its certification in Congress the last chance to stop the coming tyranny. He urged Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, overturn the vote, and call up “the militia,” saying he and the Oath Keepers would be in D.C. to help.

Instead, Trump gave an incendiary speech near the White House and returned to the Oval Office. Protesters descended on the Capitol, and two columns of Oath Keepers joined the crowd as it surged into the building. Rhodes remained outside, comparing the rioters to America’s founding patriots in group messages on the encrypted app Signal. He was convicted of seditious conspiracy and two other charges after a trial in which prosecutors didn’t show that there’d been a plan among Rhodes and his members to storm the Capitol or that they’d played a role in the initial breach.

Defense attorneys often refer to the conspiracy charge as a prosecutor’s “darling” because it requires the government to show only that defendants agreed to carry out an illegal act and then took a step to further it. In Rhodes’s case, prosecutors argued that he’d given his members the idea that they needed to do something to stop the transfer of presidential power, and when the riot at the Capitol commenced, they’d seized the opportunity. They focused on the guns the Oath Keepers had stashed in Virginia as a contingency and on the kind of incendiary language I’d critiqued on our first call. They pulled from his Signal messages: “We aren’t getting through this without a civil war.” They also cited passages from his open letters to Trump: “If you fail to do your duty, you will leave We the People no choice but to walk in the founders [sic] footsteps, by declaring the regime illegitimate, incapable of representing us, destructive of the just ends of government — to secure our liberty. And, like the founding generation, we will take to arms in defense of our God-given liberty.” Those letters had been published on the Oath Keepers website, which, along with their accounts on Twitter and Facebook, has since been purged from the internet.

The Russian writer didn’t have the tacit backing of potential future leaders of his country and a political movement with a near-even chance to soon retake power.

Among the many differences between Solzhenitsyn’s situation and Rhodes’s is this: The Russian writer didn’t have the tacit backing of potential future leaders of his country and a political movement with a near-even chance to soon retake power. Yet I imagine that Rhodes has kept in mind how Solzhenitsyn was arrested for political opinions expressed in letters to a friend. Afterward, as Solzhenitsyn recounts in “The Gulag Archipelago,” his writings were cast into a prison furnace and incinerated. “I had expressed myself vehemently,” he writes, “and had been almost reckless in spelling out seditious ideas.” At one point in his miserable imprisonment, he laments, “Only one life is allotted us, one small, short life! And we had been criminal enough to … drag it with us, still unsullied, into the dirty rubbish heap of politics.” Elsewhere, he takes solace in the fact that without his prison sentence, “I would not have written this book” and recounts how “very early and very clearly, I had this consciousness that prison was not an abyss for me, but the most important turning point in my life.”

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers at the foot of the Washington Monument, April 19, 2010. Washington D.C.

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, at the foot of the Washington Monument on April 19, 2010.

Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

The first time I spoke with Adams, in the summer of 2020, she asked me to keep the conversation off the record. (She’s since lifted that request.) “I don’t want anyone to know I talked with you,” she said, adding that her divorce proceedings were under seal and a gag order was in effect.

Her separation from Rhodes was only two years old. He’d left their small Montana community for Texas at the start of the year, and Adams was reassessing her views of him and the Oath Keepers after years writing blog posts for the group and helping with its administration.

It was always going to be a right-wing organization, she told me, but at its outset, it existed at the edge of mainstream politics. She and Rhodes had been die-hard supporters of the libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, volunteering on his 2008 campaign, and many of the group’s early members were drawn from those circles. Others came over from a web forum called the Mental Militia, whose mission statement held that “Mentalitians are people who believe that ‘consciousness works!’, and who prefer the art of reason over violence … And we are concerned about the direction of today’s industrialized, militarized, economized, high-tech, post-Atomic, government-controlled world.” Some, Adams said, had even been supporters of the anti-war liberal politician Dennis Kucinich.

She told stories in that conversation and others about the paranoia that had prevailed in the family’s remote Montana household: their fears that the home was bugged, waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and tripping over piles of guns. At first, Adams found Rhodes’s conviction that the government was hunting him hard to take seriously, but after the Oath Keepers got involved in standoffs with federal agents at Bundy Ranch in Nevada and elsewhere, the FBI really did summon Rhodes to a meeting, and he really did find himself on what seemed to be a no-fly list, even as his group edged closer to the heart of Republican politics. By the second half of 2020, the Oath Keepers and other right-wing militants were patrolling racial justice protests and aligning with Trump over fears of antifascists and a stolen election. Adams struggled to say how much of his own dystopian talk Rhodes really believed: “Sometimes I think he did and sometimes he didn’t.” She noted the times he’d become convinced that “a world-changing event” was approaching and that he’d emerge as a leader within it.

Now Rhodes is living out the role he wrote for himself long ago, caught in the contradiction of someone both on the fringe and at the core of America’s power structure. As his sentencing approached, he kept up the drumbeat of his political prisoner narrative and at times, seemed to be working at cross-purposes with his own attorneys, who cast Rhodes as a beacon of community service, focusing on his time in the Army and the periodic disaster relief operations the Oath Keepers had conducted and urging that he be judged by those actions. Meanwhile, Rhodes wrote a 46-page letter from jail that was excerpted in the Epoch Times, a pro-Trump news outlet. In it, he said he had been convicted for “who I am” and “what I said.” He warned conservatives that his conviction was “only the beginning of a political persecution campaign aimed at all of you.” He concluded, “They can take my liberty and imprison my body, but they cannot imprison my mind.”

Before Rhodes’s sentencing, Thomas Massie, the iconoclastic, up-and-coming congressional Republican from Kentucky, tweeted, “Stewart Rhodes never entered the Capitol and didn’t commit acts of violence or destruction, yet he’s going to be sentenced Thursday for ‘seditious conspiracy’ … Weaponization of speech?” The idea taking hold on the right that people charged over January 6 are political prisoners feeds on real problems, such as the fact that many of them have been jailed for more than two years without trial, and on the embrace of tools such as censorship and conspiracy charges in the name of protecting democracy. It also feeds on the fervor of the Trump era and the election lie.

Part of the falsity of this movement is that it exists within its own sphere of power and on the coin-flip edge of controlling the country; they talk about the gulag as they set their sights on the presidency. I think about how, under Trump, the Justice Department used a conspiracy charge to threaten more than 200 people who’d protested against the inauguration with decades in prison because a smaller group of them had rioted. The charges against most were ultimately dropped, but only after they spent more than a year in legal jeopardy. I think about how the governor of Texas has vowed to pardon a man who shot a Black Lives Matter demonstrator dead in the street, the celebration of the Kenosha shooter, and laws like the one passed by the Republican statehouse in Iowa in 2021 that shields drivers who run their vehicles over protesters. I think about a country that, after the post-9/11 construction of a domestic surveillance and national security state, has facets of dictatorship already in place and how it always seems primed to tilt further down that path. I think about real dissidents and how badly we need them.

The post Oath Keepers Leader Stewart Rhodes Says He’s a Political Prisoner. Are Republicans Listening? appeared first on The Intercept.