Sedition Sentence for Oath Keepers’ Stewart Rhodes Marks Moment of Accountability
Hours after Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison for his role in an insurgent plot to incite pro-Trump violence on Jan. 6, Matthew M. Graves, the federal prosecutor overseeing the investigation of the government on the attack on the Capitol, issued a statement with a fact that underlined the historic nature of the moment.
“More people were convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the siege of the Capitol on January 6, 2021,” wrote Mr. Graves, “than any other criminal event since the passage of the statute during the Civil War.”
Nearly two and a half years after supporters of President Donald J. Trump stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent a peaceful transfer of power, the conviction of Mr. a dark place in American history and remains a flashpoint in American politics.
Among the more than 1,000 criminal cases filed so far by the Justice Department against those who played a role in the attack, Mr. “, the judge who sentenced him, Amit P. Mehta, somehow stood out in court on Thursday.
“Mr. Rhodes, you are convicted of seditious conspiracy; you are a lawyer, you understand what that means,” said Judge Mehta. Seditious conspiracy is among the most serious crimes an individual in America can commit.
Perhaps for this very reason, sedition charges have been used only rarely over the decades, reserved for select groups of defendants whom prosecutors argued posed a unique threat to the government.
There have been cases of insurrection against communists, Islamic terrorists and white nationalists. Some of the cases have been successful. But given that the statute requires prosecutors to prove an agreement to use violent force to defy laws or government authority — a difficult hurdle to overcome — many of the cases have failed.
The January 6 sedition trials all took place just a short walk from where the attack itself took place — at the federal courthouse located just a few blocks down Constitution Avenue from the Capitol.
Scholars of political violence have widely viewed the proceedings as a major effort by the Justice Department to respond to the attack with significant indictments and to go as far as the law will allow to hold extremists’ feet to the fire and protect the foundations of the democratic system.
So far there have been three separate trials for the January 6 uprising, which have resulted in a total of 10 convictions for sedition and four acquittals for sedition. Four other people pleaded guilty to sedition and avoided trial. All these defendants were members of either the organization of Mr.
But even the crowd of insurgent convictions has done little to stem the tide of far-right radicalism. Just this month, a Texas man obsessed with Nazi ideology shot dead eight people at a mall outside Dallas. In late April, while one of the sedition trials went to jury, a neo-Nazi group holding a swastika flag protested a drag show in Columbus, Ohio.
At the same time, the two leading Republican presidential contenders — Mr. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — have both suggested they might pardon many of those convicted of taking part in the January 6 events. Rhodes himself said at his sentencing hearing that the defendants in the Capitol riots are increasingly seen by many on the right not as violent criminals but as “patriots” and “political prisoners.”
On Friday, the two Oath Keepers who were on trial with Mr. uprising. Four members of the Proud Boys convicted of rebellion — including their former leader, Enrique Tarrio — are scheduled to be sentenced in August with a fifth member of the group pleading guilty to lesser conspiracy charges.
Throughout the trials — two involving the Oath Keepers and one that focused on the Proud Boys — defense attorneys repeatedly asserted that prosecutors only made their case by expanding, or even distorting, the traditional understanding of conspiracy law.
The government, lawyers pointed out, was never able to find a smoking gun showing that either group had created a clear plan or reached a clear agreement to use force to stop the January 6 legal transfer of power. collected hundreds of thousands of internal messages and turned several members of the groups into cooperating witnesses.
The lawyers also argued that the defendants who went to trial were not as violent on January 6, especially compared to other rioters. Mr. Tarrio, for example, was 50 miles from Washington in a hotel room in Baltimore at the time of the attack.
In response, prosecutors argued that all of the defendants had ties to associates who had committed violence at the Capitol or were hiding an arsenal of weapons ready in Virginia. They also asserted that criminal conspiracies are rarely hatched in broad daylight and that agreements by the Oath and the Proud Boys to subvert the democratic process were reached implicitly and unspoken.
“It can be a mutual understanding reached with a wink and a nod,” Conor Mulroe, a prosecutor in the Proud Boys trial, told the jury during closing arguments.
That judges and juries in Washington seem to accept this broad definition of conspiracy has given the Justice Department notable victories in prosecuting the rioters who were on the ground on January 6.
But prosecutors have done little to resolve another question: What legal responsibility does Mr. Trump bear for an attack aimed at keeping him in office despite his election loss?
That case is the focus of an investigation by Jack Smith, special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. It is not clear what charges, if any, Mr. Smith might bring against the former president in the Jan. 6 inquiry, but the outcome of the prosecution of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys has some lawyers and legal experts questioning whether an approach the like could be used in building a case of sedition against Mr. Trump.
If all it takes is a wink or a nod, the theory goes, to join conspirators in a conspiracy to violently oppose government authority, then might it be possible to construct an insurrectionary conspiracy that binds god Trump with the crowd that attacked the Capitol through his inflammatory speeches and posts?
More than a year ago, Judge Mehta himself issued a ruling in three civil lawsuits seeking to hold Mr. Trump responsible for the violence of the Capitol attack, suggesting there was evidence that the former president had in fact entered into a conspiracy. with the Oath. Holders and proud boys on January 6th.
Crucially, Judge Mehta also said it was plausible that Mr Trump – largely based on his own words – had aided and abetted the ordinary rioters who threatened or attacked police officers that day.
But Alan Rozenshtein, a former Justice Department official who now teaches at the University of Minnesota Law School and has written extensively about the rebellion, cautioned that it may be difficult to use the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys cases as any kind of precedent to build a rebellion. case against Mr. Trump.
“Trump is a unique defendant in a league of his own,” Mr. Rosenstein. “He’s also an agent of chaos, and pinning down his actions in a way that shows he’s done some sort of planning has always been the tricky part.”
Zach Montague contributed reporting.