National Security

Oath Keeper charges renew attention on Trump orbit

The Justice Department’s (DOJ) leveling of seditious conspiracy charges against the founder of the Oath Keepers has renewed interest — and in some cases faith — in DOJ and whether its investigation could yield charges against other high-level figures involved in the attack on the Capitol, including those in former President Trump’s orbit.

Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right militia group, was never in the Capitol on Jan. 6, but he’s been charged alongside other members who used a military “stack” formation to enter the building.

The escalation in the DOJ’s investigation came as Democrats have become increasingly critical of the department and Attorney General Merrick Garland for what they viewed as a failure to go after those who helped plan and organize the mayhem that day.

The indictment raises questions over whether other far-right groups, like the Proud Boys, might also face similar charges.

But the Oath Keepers’ connection to members of Trump’s circle, including confidant Roger Stone, has left observers wondering how far the investigation might stretch.

“These charges are encouraging to me because it suggests that they are working their way up the chain, they are getting more serious. Oath Keepers have some overlap with Trump associates. One of these men was associated with Roger Stone, some of them were providing security for him on Jan. 5,” said Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney.

“So now that these folks are facing 20 year felonies, might they be inclined to cooperate and talk about where did they get the money for all these weapons? Were they coordinating with anybody else about this particular aspect of it? Why was this the plan — the certification — why this? There’s some talk that they were even thinking about the inauguration as a point of attack. I think it opens some doors to possible investigative steps to others who are higher in planning,” McQuade said.

In a defensive speech ahead of the anniversary of the attack, Garland suggested it was too early to judge the depth of the department’s investigation, vowing prosecutions “at any level.”

“We build investigations by laying a foundation. We resolve more straightforward cases first because they provide the evidentiary foundation for more complex cases. Investigating the more overt crimes generates linkages to less overt ones. Overt actors and the evidence they provide can lead us to others who may also have been involved and that evidence can serve as a foundation for further investigative leads and techniques,” he said.

“Those involved must be held accountable. And there is no higher priority for us at the Department of Justice.”

Kristy Parker, a former DOJ prosecutor who has been critical of Garland’s willingness to side with the Trump administration in some major cases, said that bringing the sedition charges against the Oath Keepers leader sent an important message that the department will not shy away from tougher cases against those who may have played a role in instigating or organizing the attack on the Capitol.

“I think it’s important to demonstrate the investigation is moving up the chain,” said Parker, now an attorney at the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy. “It is looking at people who organized things, but did not themselves directly march into the Capitol.”

McQuade said the Oath Keeper indictment’s reliance on communications over encrypted messaging apps also suggests the Justice Department has been doing just that.

“Those are not communications they can get through normal legal process with the providers. They can’t go to Signal, into that data, because they don’t have it. The only way they got that was from other people who had them on their phones. And so that says to me there are people who are cooperating who said, ‘Yeah, here’s all the stuff I got from Stewart Rhodes. Here are all the text messages.’ So that’s where they’re getting the stuff,” she said. 

“So they are, as Garland said, working with lower-level people who are cooperators, charging them, they’re pleading guilty, getting information from them, and using that information to build cases. So if they’ve been able to charge this group, perhaps they’ve also been able to obtain other types of similar information using the same tactics to build cases against other groups who may have been there.”

Lawmakers who have been losing patience with the Justice Department have stressed the investigation must lead to major players and should consider financial backers and others involved in strategizing for how to overturn the election. 

“Seditious conspiracy charges against the Oath Keepers are serious. But the investigation as known remains confined to those present at the Capitol, not the funders and planners at the very highest levels of the insurrection. Clearly, more work remains,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a statement to The Hill. 

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has subpoenaed other far-right groups in its own investigation, issuing demands to both the Proud Boys and a lesser known group, the First Amendment Praetorian. 

“​​I expect there to be more conspiracy charges coming. Because the Oath Keepers was just one of many groups. There were Three Percenters, there were Proud Boys, there were all kinds of militia groups, there were the Q Anon networks,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the committee, told reporters this week.

“All of those people arrived with particular plans and assignments for the day.”

But Enrique Tarrio, head of the Proud Boys, recently told reporters he is “absolutely not” worried that DOJ may come after him next. 

Like Rhodes, Tarrio was not in the building that day, as he had been arrested in connection with burning a Black Lives Matter flag stolen from a church. 

Brad Moss, a national security law expert, said those eager to see more high-level convictions may need to curb their enthusiasm.

“It’s easy and enticing to assume the charges against the Oath Keepers are a prelude to charges against other militant groups, if not even members of Trump’s inner circle. Caution requires acknowledging that much of what occurs in the MAGA world is disorganized and decentralized. It is entirely possible these groups were talking a big game publicly about coordination that did not in fact exist in any substantial way in reality,” he told The Hill via email. 

“Look no further than the grandiose plans in the text messages in the Oath Keepers’ indictment to get a sense of just how overinflated the egos were of these folks before rushing to the assumption Trump world will be indicted any moment now.”

McQuade likewise cautioned that the investigation may not lead directly to Trump or even other associates that became household names during his administration. 

“I imagine that people at the highest levels use very careful operational security and use cutouts to communicate and so I doubt you’re gonna find a text message from Rudy Giuliani or Donald  Trump,” she said, adding that messages would likely be handled by lesser-known actors. 

“But you may find [communications] for people who are linked to them, people who are organizing the rally on the Ellipse, for example, people connected with the Willard Hotel.”

Parker said that Garland would be right to exercise caution and to move slowly if he were investigating Trump’s role in the riot.

“People should not undersell the difficulties that would surround putting a former president on trial,” she said. 

“You’re talking about an incredibly enormous undertaking that will test the ability of our justice system in ways that it has never been tested before. But having said all of that, the bottom line is if this is going to be a rule-of-law society, if we have evidence that a former president of the United States violated criminal statutes while trying to overturn an election, then we have to pursue accountability for that.”

National Security