Elmer Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the right-wing extremist group known as the Oath Keepers, has been arrested and charged with seditious conspiracy for his role in the 6 January attack on the US Capitol, according to the Department of Justice.
A District of Columbia grand jury on Wednesday indicted Mr Rhodes and ten other members of the group with forming a conspiracy “to oppose the lawful transfer of power by force, by preventing, hinder, or delaying by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of power” that was set to take place at the expiration of former president Donald Trump’s term in office on 20 January.
According to the indictment, Mr Rhodes and his co-conspirators allegedly “coordinated travel across the country” to Washington, DC, where Oath Keepers members “equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, donned combat and tactical gear,” and prepared to storm the US Capitol to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral college victory.
It further alleges that Mr Rhodes began organising what would become the worst attack on the Capitol since it was set ablaze by British troops in 1814 on an encrypted messaging application just two days after the 3 November 2020 Presidential Election.
On 7 November, the day most news organisations projected Mr Biden as the winner of the 2020 election, Mr Rhodes allegedly told members of an Oath Keepers encrypted “leadership intel chat” that they must “refuse” to accept Mr Biden’s victory and “march en-mass on the nation’s Capitol”.
The indictment also alleges that Oath Keepers conducted reconnisanse and stockpiled firearms for a “quick reaction force” to bring to the Capitol if necessary.
Mr Rhodes is also accused of unlawfully entering restricted areas on the Capitol grounds and directing Oath Keepers members while they assaulted police officers and broke into the building itself. He and his co-conspirators also allegedly continued to “plot … to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power” even after Congress certified Mr Biden’s victory on the morning of 7 January.
Seditious conspiracy is a crime laid out in a little-used section of the United States Code which requires “two or more persons” to conspire to “overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof”.
It is punishable by not more than 20 years in federal prison.
The charges against Mr Rhodes and his co-conspirators are the most serious that have been levied against anyone with any alleged involvement in the events of 6 January, and indicate that the Department of Justice has been endeavoring to hold those ultimately responsible for the violence that day accountable under the law.
Many prominent Democrats and legal experts have complained that the department has not aggressively pursued anyone involved with the 6 January attack apart from those who’ve faced charges for entering the Capitol or assaulting police officers.
Last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland offered a tacit response to those critics in remarks delivered to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack.
“The Justice Department remains committed to holding all January 6th perpetrators – at any level – accountable under law, whether they were present that day, or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault. on our democracy,” he said. “We will follow the facts, wherever they lead”.
Members of the House select committee investigating the attack have said the nine-member panel may issue criminal referrals of high-level Trump administration officials — including Mr Trump himself — if it discovers criminal wrongdoing in the course of the investigation.
The select committee’s vice chair, Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, said last month that the panel specifically hopes to address the “key question” of whether Mr Trump “through action or inaction, corruptly [sought] to obstruct or impede Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes”.
Ms Cheney’s remarks were a clear reference to a section of the US code which makes it unlawful to “corruptly obstruct an official proceeding”.
While Mr Garland has not said whether the Justice Department would act on any such referral, he told department employees last week that the US “cannot” have “different rules for the powerful and the powerless”.
“There is only one rule: We follow the facts and enforce the law in a way that respects the Constitution and protect civil liberties … and we adhere to those norms, even when, and especially when the circumstances we face are not normal,” he said.