CNN  — 

The FBI is investigating some of his followers. Others are already in custody and facing decades in prison if convicted of federal charges connected to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. But the national leader of the extremist Oath Keepers group is carrying on as before. He might even be emboldened.

“You gotta declare this regime to be illegitimate,” Stewart Rhodes said on Infowars on January 30 – 24 days after the riot amid the violence that left five dead and delayed the certification of President Joe Biden’s election win. “You gotta to declare everything that comes out of King Biden’s mouth as illegitimate – null and void from the inception because he is not a legitimate president.” 

Rhodes is still peddling the falsehood that the election was illegitimate. He says Biden’s administration and supporters in Congress should be seen as an occupying enemy force and issues warnings about what he claims are 365 million armed patriots ready to “rise up.”

“There is going to be resistance. The only question is what will be the spark,” Rhodes said in a January 30 interview on Infowars, a media organization that is one of the leading purveyors of conspiracy theories in the US. “They keep pushing,” he said of who he calls “leftists.” “That is why it’s important… Let them be the ones who draw first blood. Then you defend.” 

Stewart Rhodes served in the Army and seeks other veterans to bolster the ranks of the Oath Keepers.

Rhodes spoke to CNN in the days after the violent invasion of the Capitol, but did not return multiple calls and emails to comment on the future of the Oath Keepers for this story.

But his rhetoric after the insurrection in interviews and postings reviewed by CNN mirrors what he urged his followers beforehand when he encouraged them to attend the January 6 rally.

“All Patriots who can get to DC need to be in DC. Now is the time to stand. It’s not too late to go. Jump on a plane! Jump in your car! Just get there,” Rhodes said on his group’s website on January 4.  “Stand now, or kneel forever.” 

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New Capitol riot video shows extreme levels of coordination
01:48 - Source: CNN

Oath Keepers inside the Capitol

Rhodes’ call was apparently heard and heeded by a number of people who entered the Capitol on that bloody day, including former members of the military who the Oath Keepers group actively recruits for membership

Jessica Watkins, confirmed by Rhodes as being an Oath Keeper, has emerged as one of the central figures in the government’s case against the insurrectionists.

She was photographed with Rhodes – a figure made distinctive by a black eye patch – in November during a “Stop the Steal” and “Million Maga March” event in Washington, DC.

Rhodes, center in eye patch, marches with Oath Keepers through Washington, DC last November. Watkins is visible behind him to his right, wearing jeans and goggles on her ballistic helmet.

Watkins, who served in the Army, is charged along with two other military veterans and alleged Oath Keepers Donovan Crowl and Thomas Caldwell, with conspiracy and other charges related to the attack.

“We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it,” Watkins said on a walkie talkie app, according to federal prosecutors. They say she was coordinating with others.

“We’re in the f**kin’ Capitol, Crowl!” Watkins, rear, is said to have yelled to Crowl as Crowl shot selfie video, according to the complaint against them

Watkins and Crowl are both being held in jail and neither had an assigned lawyer at the time this story was published. Caldwell is accused of coordinating with Watkins and Crowl before, during and after the assault. His lawyer says Caldwell denies involvement with the Oath Keepers.

He also says Caldwell has worked for the FBI. An FBI spokesperson said it was “policy not to comment on personnel matters and CNN is unable to confirm Caldwell’s work for the FBI. But a source with inside knowledge of how the Oath Keepers operate told CNN there are members who are in federal law enforcement, but kept off the official member database for plausible deniability. 

Watkins, center, and Crowl, left, were among alleged Oath Keepers who wore body armor and the group's insignia at the Capitol on January 6.

The FBI is trying to identify a group of between 8 and 10 people wearing military tactical gear emblazoned with the Oath Keepers’ paraphernalia on the Capitol Steps. One photo shows a few Oath Keepers inside the Capitol rotunda.

Rhodes, who is not facing charges in connection to January 6, says he did not enter the Capitol building. But he was seen after the assault with the men in Oath Keepers gear now being sought by the FBI.

The FBI has appealed for information on the group in the FBI photos.

The FBI has posted several photos of men in Oath Keepers garb and asked for more information as they investigate the Capitol attack.

Rhodes told CNN shortly after the insurrection that he was not anti-government but that he “didn’t trust the FBI right now.”

Inflammatory rhetoric and offers of help 

Rhodes, now 55, is an Army veteran and disbarred lawyer who incorporated the Oath Keepers in 2009, after the group rose to prominence during the first election campaign of Barack Obama.

“Our role is not to be obedient to whoever happens to be the leader. Our role is to defend the Constitution and the republic,” Rhodes told CNN in 2009. 

Rhodes and other militia groups began denouncing the government as tyrannical, according to Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League.

Rhodes boasted about trying to recruit active and retired military and law enforcement personnel. The “oath” in the group’s name refers to the pledge to defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic, with the subtext that they were not necessarily beholden to obey orders from a government they believe is illegitimate.

Armed Oath Keepers went to Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 and again, pictured, a year later.

He found ways to insert his group into national flashpoints, positioning members as protectors of society while continuing to use charged rhetoric. Members of the Oath Keepers were in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 during the months-long protests in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown. They said they were there to protect businesses. Their presence was applauded by some owners and shunned by others.  Some Oath Keepers were involved in armed participation in disputes at the Bundy ranch in Nevada, according to the ADL. Rhodes also told people to flock to Washington DC after a standoff at the Bundy ranch.

During the Obama years, the Oath Keepers were openly an anti-government in their views, according to the ADL and other groups tracking extremism.

But the rise of political outsider Donald Trump brought a change. Trump’s calls to “Drain the Swamp” and his policy views were now more parallel to Rhodes’ rhetoric than the campaigns of previous presidential nominees.

Donald Trump's candidacy and 2016 election win saw Rhodes and the Oath Keepers adjust their declared mission from anti-government to focus on specific issues.

In the 2016 election, Rhodes issued a “call to action” dubbed “Operation Sabot” in which he told members and supporters to look for voter fraud or intimidation at polling locations. Rhodes also frequently wrote and referred to Hillary Clinton who he vehemently opposed as “Hitlery.”

Even then, he used the language of making sure the election was not “stolen from the citizens.” 

When Trump came to power, Rhodes moved away from criticizing the political leadership and targeted issues on which he and the then-President shared similar feelings – anger about illegal immigration, China and those on the left, and protection for Second Amendment rights. He often spoke of deploying Oath Keepers to the US-Mexico border. He called on Oath Keepers to stand lawfully armed in front of schools after the Parkland school massacre of February 2018.

Rhodes said his group provided security for VIPs who were attending Trump rallies. And he went further, saying they would help the “average American” prepare if they were to be “called out by the president of the United States to serve as a militia of the United States to secure the schools, protect our borders, or whatever else he asks them to do to execute our laws, repel invasions and suppress insurrections” which he claimed falsely was being carried out by the left.  

“We want to see a militia, basically, reestablished in this country and trained up,” he added. 

Preparing for a ‘steal’

As Trump ramped up his bid for re-election, Rhodes and other extremist groups started to fan the flames of what could come if he lost, making frequent mention of a “civil war.” As early as July 2019, Rhodes told Alex Jones on Infowars that if Trump was not re-elected “we won’t accept the results” and will have “no choice but to fight.” 

He boasted his group had veterans who were well trained.  

“If this kicks off into a civil war, a bloody one, they will instantly go to work and take it to the left,” he said.

A man wearing an Oath Keepers hat yells in the hallways of the Capitol during the invasion by rioters on January 6.

After Biden won the election, Rhodes wrote an open letter to Donald Trump on December 23, urging him among many things to invoke the Insurrection Act, noting “there are millions of American patriots standing ready.” The Act allows, under certain limited circumstances involved in the defense of constitutional rights, the President to deploy troops unilaterally.

“Do not forsake them. Do not leave them to have to do it all themselves. Keep your promise. Drain the Swamp. Do it now!” Rhodes wrote. “We will help you at every step of the way.” 

After the siege

The way words turned to action did not altogether surprise those who have been monitoring groups like the Oath Keepers for years.

“In late 2020 we saw a sharp uptick in Stewart Rhodes’ violent rhetoric,” Friedfeld, of the ADL told CNN. “He started to frame the election as a line in the sand where if the Democrat won, it would be the imposition of tyranny.”  

Rhodes was outside the Capitol on January 6. He said he did not enter the building.

Rhodes told CNN after the violence that he and his members were in Washington, DC, as part of their broad mission of protection. Watkins’ boyfriend told CNN last month she traveled to the capital to “help protect some Trump VIP members” and a man in Oath Keeper garb was seen apparently guarding Trump confidant Roger Stone on the morning of January 6.

Roberto Minuta
Oath Keeper joined Capitol mob after appearing with Trump ally Roger Stone
03:03 - Source: CNN

Rhodes has lost some followers after January 6. The North Carolina chapter quit Rhodes’ group though it said it still supported the mission and would be rebranding, in a letter to their local sheriff that they agreed to share with CNN.

“We could see the mayhem and wanted no part of it,” wrote Doug Smith, who said he was in Washington DC that day but did not enter the Capitol.

“The men of North Carolina believe that the National leadership (of Oath Keepers) could have stopped this and did nothing. The men and myself included can no longer be affiliated with Oath Keepers after this sad event in our nation’s history.” 

But there are many other chapters and members of the group. Accused leaders like Watkins are being held in jail or hunted down for their alleged involvement in the January 6 insurrection. And Rhodes is still preaching and issuing orders to anyone willing to listen.