Following an encounter with federal agents outside a Lubbock boutique hotel in May in which they seized his cellphone with a warrant, Oath Keepers militia leader Stewart Rhodes made the bold decision to be interviewed about his and his militia’s role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol:
Mr. Rhodes spoke freely with the agents for nearly three hours, despite the advice of a lawyer, he said in an interview on Friday. The government has accused 16 members of the Oath Keepers group of conspiring to obstruct Congress’ certification of the Electoral College vote, but Mr. Rhodes said he denied this.
After hearing that someone had been shot inside, members of his militia entered the building to help, he told the agents. (The claims of Mr. Rhodes were not corroborated by a New York Times visual investigation of the events of January 6).
Rhodes acknowledged that he had complained to the FBI about the intrusion, saying that he believed the intruders had “gone off mission.” Nevertheless, he quickly added, “There were zero instructions from me or leadership to do so.”
Mr. Rhodes has been the subject of investigation by the government for months, but the fact that he agreed to an interview with the F.B.I. was an entirely new development in the investigation. Prosecutors have described how Mr. Rhodes was in contact with some of the suspects before, during, and after the assault in court documents related to the case of his associates, identifying him as “Person 1.”
“Well-equipped Q.R.F.s,” or quick-reaction forces, will be on standby outside of Washington on Jan. 6 “in the event of worst-case scenarios,” he reportedly assured the group members in encrypted messages.
In the middle of an investigation, even with a lawyer by his side (Kellye SoRelle), Mr. Rhodes still took a risk by speaking with investigators. Mr. Rhodes claimed that he was not the only Oath Keeper leader to have met with federal agents in recent weeks. The F.B.I. also got information from one of his top lieutenants, a man he called Whip (and who is also known as Person 10 in court documents).
Mr. Rhodes clarified, “We’ve got nothing to hide.” It was our fault, not yours.
According to a Justice Department spokeswoman, no further comment will be made on these interviews.
An inflection point in the case of Oath Keepers, one of the most prominent prosecutions from the Capitol assault, has been revealed by the F.B.I. questioning of two Oath Keeper leaders.
Amit P. Mehta, the judge presidening the trial, was asked to move one defendant’s case out of Washington because of the “Trump Derangement Syndrome” that he claimed affected too many local residents. On Tuesday, Judge Mehta issued an order stating that the 16 defendants would be tried in two groups, the first of which would begin trial in January and the second of which would begin trial three months after the first.
Oath Keepers have also agreed to cooperate with the government’s wide-ranging investigation into the group by pleading guilty to charges. If additional charges are brought against other members, the prosecutors told Judge Mehta, they cannot rule them out at this time.
Though the investigation into Mr. Rhodes has been extremely active, prosecutors in charge have long admitted that they are having difficulty building a case against him. According to a government official with direct knowledge of the situation, his actions appeared to be within the bounds of the First Amendment.
A Yale Law School graduate with a black eye patch from a gun accident, Mr. Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, following the election of former President Barack Obama. As a leader in the right-wing “patriot” movement, he’s been known for years to spew incendiary rhetoric.
As a result of Donald J. Trump’s election, he and his members seemed to change their anti-government views and embrace a new nationalist spirit and suspicions of a deep-state conspiracy that had taken root in Trump’s administration.
The former president’s repeated claims that the 2020 elections were tainted by fraud and that President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory was illegitimate were supported by Mr. Rhodes.
After Election Day, Rhodes told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, “I have people stationed outside Washington who are ready to act on Trump’s command,” he told Jones. And on the 12th of December, at a rally in the city, he urged Trump to use the Insurrection Act.
He also urged “all patriots who can be in D.C.” to “stand tall in support of President Trump’s fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic that are attempting a coup” two days before the attack on the Capitol.
His message also announced that Oath Keepers would be sending “security teams” to provide security for Washington’s political rallies the day before and the day of rioting, which he described as events for “V.I.Ps.” They worked as bodyguards for Trump ally and adviser Roger J. Stone Jr., some of whom have been charged.
As far back as March, Mr. Rhodes predicted his own arrest, noting that he might be charged in connection with the January 6 attack in a speech at the Texas-Mexico border.
There is a good chance that I’ll end up in prison soon, he said to the crowd. For “made-up crimes” rather than “actually committed” infractions,