Courts

Under Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers Militia Built a Sprawling Network of Political Allies

His ideas and tactics are eyebrow-raisers. But that didn't stop Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes from making deep political inroads and embedding himself and his group in law enforcement agencies.
His ideas and tactics are eyebrow-raisers. But that didn't stop Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes from making deep political inroads and embedding himself and his group in law enforcement agencies. Jacob Vaughn
Before he landed in a North Texas jail last month on seditious conspiracy charges for allegedly trying to overthrow the U.S. government, then Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes pushed a dark and apocalyptic vision of what lay in store for the U.S.

According to Rhodes, it’s only a matter of time before the federal government imposes martial law, herds dissenters into concentration camps, and then joins up with a coalition of other global elites to form a sinister "New World Order," an old conspiracy theory with anti-Semitic undertones.

The way Rhodes sees it, it’s the righteous duty of groups like his to defend America against this looming tyrannical threat. For years before he allegedly helped orchestrate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Rhodes prophesized “an ongoing war on the West to flood us with Third World people and then overwhelm us," as he described it in December 2019.

Rhodes’ now-estranged ex-wife says Rhodes took extraordinary measures to plan for the impending government crackdown, including building a tunnel from their family home in Montana to a nearby forest if authorities launched a surprise attack, and leaving an unregistered car at the other end to flee the feds.

Even Rhodes’ defense attorney, James Lee Bright, admits that the steps Rhodes and his followers took to prepare themselves for the supposedly coming doom are beyond his understanding. “Look, these guys are survivalists. And I’m not saying I understand it, and I’m not saying it’s anything I’m interested in,” Bright told the Observer.

"Look, these guys are survivalists." - James Lee Bright, attorney

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There were at least 169 active antigovernment militias active in the U.S. in 2020, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project.  These groups are united by their opposition to the unfounded notion of an impending "New World Order" controlled by transnational global elites.

The movement ballooned in the 1990s, then gained additional steam after Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, fueled by racist conspiracies that cast the country's first Black president as a symbol the nebulous threat that immigrants and nonwhites posed to the U.S. 

Stewart Rhodes, an ex-Army paratrooper and 2004 Yale Law School graduate, capitalized on that momentum and founded the Oath Keepers in 2009. 

His extreme tactics and anti-government ideology didn't stop him and his members from entrenching themselves in some government and law enforcement agencies at a remarkable rate.

"Part of the way the far-right militant community works is that when an organization or framework gets a negative connotation, they just rebrand to avoid any liability for what their predecessors have done," said Michael German, a former FBI special agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Rhodes, with his esteemed legal training and military background, was well-equipped to rebrand the more overtly white supremacist militias that preceded the Oath Keepers, German explained. In doing so, he made them more palatable to cops and sheriffs across the U.S.

Just west of Dallas in Hood County, Rhodes' group embedded themselves within the upper echelons of local law enforcement’s ranks long before Donald Trump took office.

In 2009, then Hood County Constable Chad Jordan of Granbury, where Rhodes lived for a year and a half before he was arrested by the FBI last month, circulated an Oath Keepers recruitment email to officers from the Fort Worth Police Department and the Hood County Sheriff’s Department. “All should join,” Jordan wrote.

Their foothold in Hood County remained strong. Current Hood County Constable John Shirley attracted a flurry of media attention last year when emails revealed that he’s a longtime Oath Keepers member. By 2019, Rhodes had even found his way into the VIP section at then President Trump’s reelection rallies.

Among the most prominent of Rhodes political allies outside Texas is former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. As sheriff, Arpaio gained notoriety in the early 2010s for targeting Latino drivers and over-policing Latino neighborhoods in Arizona's most populous county at such a drastic rate that the U.S. Justice Department intervened.

"They don't think [Rhodes] was overthrowing the United States. They think he was defending America, defending the duly elected president, Donald Trump." - David Levine, University of California Hastings College of Law

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Arpaio was eventually convicted of contempt of court for refusing to change his department’s blatant racial profiling practices. Trump pardoned him in 2017 and later called him a “patriot.”

In 2013, Rhodes and Arpaio both signed a letter to sheriffs across the U.S., urging them to resist a Democrat-proposed gun control bill they claimed was part of a larger attempt to “fundamentally change America into another socialistic regime.”

Arpaio is part of the leadership of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, or CSPOA. Richard Mack, the group’s founder, proclaimed in 2013 that “the greatest threat we face today is not terrorists, it’s our own federal government.” Surprise, surprise: Mack is also a longtime member of the Oath Keepers’ leadership.

For an anti-government group, Rhodes and his crew grew uncomfortably cozy with some elements of the federal government: They eventually found their way into the very highest echelons of Trump’s inner circle, too.

Roger Stone, a longtime Republican political operative, was convicted in November 2019 of lying to federal investigators and attempting to sway witnesses in connection with the federal government’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison. Like Arpaio, Stone was pardoned by Trump.

Stone, who served as an adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign, was released in July 2020. Four years before, he coined the rallying cry “Stop The Steal,” which became a unifying slogan for Trump loyalists in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

The basic premise behind “Stop The Steal” was the same in 2016 as it was in 2020: if Trump doesn’t win, the only explanation is that someone rigged the election. He first used the phrase during the 2016 Republican primaries, claiming that then Trump’s opponents were colluding to steal the nomination from Trump.

In the runup to the 2020 election, the phrase caught on. But after Trump lost, it caught fire. Stone started a “Stop The Steal” Facebook group the day after the election. It amassed 300,000 followers within 24 hours. #StopTheSteal went viral on Twitter on election day itself, after prominent conservative figures from Anne Coulter and Donald Trump Jr. to Rudy Giuliani and Dinesh D’Souza fired off tweets using the hashtag and discrediting the results before they were even finished coming in.

Meanwhile, Stone was out of prison, attending rallies and court appearances. Photos and video show Stone at Trump’s rally in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, not long before the storming of the Capitol, with a gaggle of masked Oath Keepers watching over him.

These photos came back to haunt Stone and the militia members that flanked him on Jan. 6. In the wake of the U.S. Capitol riot, hundreds have been indicted, including a handful of Oath Keepers. But when two Oath Keepers appeared in federal court in March 2021, U.S. prosecutors drew specifically on photos of the pair guarding Stone to establish their connection to the militia. They also presented text messages showing the militia members discussing their plan to guard Stone on the day of the rally.
Stone has denied any knowledge of a plan to attack the Capitol and obstruct certification of election results.

David Levine, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, says that in the eyes of his followers in North Texas and across the U.S., federal prosecutors have Rhodes all wrong. “They don’t think he was overthrowing the United States. They think he was defending America, defending the duly elected president, Donald Trump.”

Despite his apparent ties to Trump’s inner circle, Rhodes has indicated that his loyalty lies more with antigovernment conspiracies than with Trump himself.

"It’s just amazing that Trump let the election be stolen out from under him and to let our country be stolen like this, our government,” Rhodes told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on InfoWars. “So we have an opportunity to walk the path of the Founding Fathers and declare your independence from that illegitimate regime.” 

But Rhodes' statements don't necessarily indicate a broader defection from Trump within the militia movement. "It's not going to be that simple," German said. "I think you will see some rebranding and some differentiation" from Trump before the election, said German.

Earlier this week, the Republican National Committee declared the Jan. 6 events "legitimate political discourse." Party leadership voted to punish two prominent Republicans who have made a point of denouncing the attacks.

"Immediately after Jan. 6, the Republican National Committee came out strongly condemning the violence," German said. "A little more than a year later, it's legitimate political discourse."
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Michael Murney is a staff writer at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney