Capitol riot probes home in on Oath Keepers

Federal prosecutors appear to be zeroing in on the Oath Keepers following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, making the paramilitary group a priority among the more than 400 people facing criminal charges over the rampage.

A dozen co-defendants reportedly affiliated with the right-wing militia organization are facing conspiracy and other charges over their alleged roles in the storming of the Capitol.

Last week, another member of the Oath Keepers, Jon Ryan Schaffer, became the first defendant following Jan. 6 to plead guilty and agree to cooperate with law enforcement.

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Legal experts believe that cooperation will be essential for federal prosecutors to build upon their cases against other members who are facing charges or go after bigger fish who may have played a role in instigating the mayhem, which overran the Capitol and included at least five deaths.

The conspiracy charges could indicate a focus on the organization as a whole — which could lead to charges against Oath Keeper members who never made it to the Capitol that day.

“It means they’re not treating these people as individuals anymore. They’re trying to go after networks and organizations, which is a totally different strategy and also reflects the recognition that this is no longer a problem of random lone wolves being radicalized on the internet. We’re talking about groups engaging in violent activities that they are going to pursue, and that is fascinating,” said Katrina Mulligan, a national security expert with the Center for American Progress.

“This allows you to go after not just individuals and leaders that weren't there but the entities themselves, so you can go after their money,” she added.

Schaffer’s plea comes as the group, which includes Jessica Marie Watkins, Thomas Caldwell and Donovan Crowl, is facing some of the most serious charges that have been brought against any of the accused rioters, with prosecutors alleging that the 12 conspired to "stop, delay and hinder Congress's certification of the Electoral College vote."

The New York Times reported last month that the Justice Department is also considering adding sedition charges against the group.

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Christopher Macchiaroli, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and Florida, says that building those cases will require a similar approach to what the Department of Justice (DOJ) uses to take on organized crime.

"This organization isn't anywhere close to a kind of criminal organization like the Mafia, MS-13 or anything like that," Macchiaroli said. 

"This is really an organization that, you know, has engaged allegedly in a criminal act. And they are therefore establishing the conspiracy for that criminal act, which makes it much more important to have a cooperator from the inside to kind of explain what was being done for this specific crime in the sense of planning or knowledge or intent or anything like that because you have an organization that is not criminal at its core but engaged in a criminal act," he added.

Federal prosecutors say that the group of alleged conspirators coordinated an operation on Jan. 6 intended to disrupt the Electoral College certification. Court documents allege that they donned “paramilitary gear” and suggested in online communications that they had arranged an armed “quick reaction force” to be ready nearby.

The Oath Keepers is a right-wing militia organization with chapters across the country that espouses anti-government beliefs. It claims to have about 30,000 members, though that number is disputed, and to be comprised primarily of current and former military, law enforcement and first responders.

The group began garnering national attention over the past decade when its members showed up, often heavily armed, at right-wing demonstrations and to "provide security" in cities facing protests against police brutality.

Its leaders and members have broadly expressed loyalty to former President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE and rallied in support of him following last year's election, helping spread baseless claims of widespread electoral fraud that delivered the White House to President BidenJoe BidenFord to bolster electric vehicle production in multi-billion dollar push Protesters demonstrate outside Manchin's houseboat over opposition to reconciliation package Alabama eyes using pandemic relief funds on prison system MORE.

Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, urged people to flock to the Capitol for pro-Trump rallies in the days leading up to the riot, promising to "help keep Trump supporters safe."

"It is CRITICAL that all patriots who can be in DC get to DC to stand tall in support of President Trump’s fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic who are attempting a coup, through the massive vote fraud and related attacks on our Republic," Rhodes wrote in Jan. 4 blog post on the group's website. "We Oath Keepers are both honor-bound and eager to be there in strength to do our part."

Freddy Cruz, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, says Rhodes has a lot of influence in the right-wing anti-government movement. According to Cruz, Rhodes has helped imbue the Oath Keepers with conspiracy theories about the federal government and used them to motivate and recruit members.

“What Stewart Rhodes tries to do is recruit former veterans with this idea that they're upholding their oath to the Constitution by challenging laws and policies that they consider unconstitutional,” Cruz told The Hill.

“What Rhodes often says is that they are defenders of the Constitution and therefore they are able to challenge laws that are in his view unconstitutional,” he added.

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The New York Times reported last month that the DOJ is investigating Rhodes, though he has not been charged with anything. He apparently did not enter the Capitol during the riot, but according to court documents filed by federal prosecutors, he was in contact with Oath Keepers members, including at least two who have been charged with conspiracy, throughout the insurrection.

Rhodes did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Some of the group’s members are already trying to distance themselves from him.

"I want to congratulate Stewart Rhodes and his 10 militia buddies for winning first place in the ultimate dumbass contest because that's what it was," Jim Arroyo, the vice president of the Oath Keepers Arizona chapter, told "60 Minutes" last week. "That goes against everything we've ever taught, everything we believe in. It was preplanned. It was prestaged. Ten guys go and do something stupid, and suddenly we're the devil."

Schaffer’s cooperation carries other practical implications for the investigation, particularly as prosecutors have complained that encrypted messaging apps can make it difficult to follow internal communications.

“From the outside, if you’re trying to get into a closed network — drug conspiracy, the mob, the Proud Boys — you can try to intercept communications, you can try to tap a phone and get text messages, but you might not be getting it, because you don't know what form of communication they’re using,” said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

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“And that's something a cooperator will tell you, how and what form of communications they were using, which will allow you to go get those through warrants or subpoenas,” he added.

Schaffer's flip could also spur other Oath Keepers members to cooperate with investigators, though Osler warned they may want to hurry. Deals are cut only with those who can provide “substantial assistance” to the government, a factor that tends to diminish with additional witnesses.

Observers are also curious about whether the plea deal and any subsequent flips reveal further ties between the Oath Keepers and other far-right groups.

“What will be truly illuminating as things progress forward, and as evidence gleaned from Mr. Schaffer no doubt results in some of his colleagues entering into similar cooperation plea deals to save their own skin, is whether sedition charges ultimately are pursued against the senior players in these groups,” Bradley Moss, a national security law expert, told The Hill by email.

It remains unclear whether federal prosecutors intend to bring charges against any additional Oath Keepers members and how the scrutiny will impact the group.

Cruz said that the group was very active throughout 2020, with members showing up to Trump rallies and counterdemonstrating against Black Lives Matter rallies, “but since January, since we haven't seen any sort of organized or coordinated Oath Keepers event calling on members to descend upon the city or try and put some kind of counterprotest together.”

Macchiaroli, the former federal prosecutor, said that federal law enforcement investigations can have a damaging effect on organizations under scrutiny, and that effect could be amplified for a group that’s as conspiracy-minded as the Oath Keepers.

“If I was a member, the first thing I would do is disappear,” he said. “I'd stop attending meetings. I'd stop communicating with people.”