A federal jury this week convicted Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes of seditious conspiracy, concluding that he and Kelly Meggs, another member of the right-wing militia, plotted to keep Donald Trump in office "by force." This is the first time that a jury has convicted participants in the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol of that crime, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The hundreds of Trump supporters who have been arrested in connection with the riot typically have faced misdemeanor charges such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, and unauthorized demonstrating.
Rhodes stands out from those other defendants because he was the leader of an armed organization that was allegedly determined to keep Joe Biden out of the White House by any means necessary. Yet Rhodes' seditious conspiracy conviction is rather puzzling given the jury's rejection of two other conspiracy charges against him. The jury acquitted Rhodes of conspiring to obstruct the congressional certification of Biden's victory on January 6 and of conspiring to prevent members of Congress from discharging their official duties by completing that process.
The eruption of "Stop the Steal" violence on January 6 delayed the electoral vote count, thereby obstructing the peaceful transfer of power, which was the alleged object of the seditious conspiracy. The Oath Keepers' actions that day, when several participated in the riot while others stood by at a nearby hotel where they had stashed weapons, were the most striking steps they took to advance that scheme. Yet the jury was not persuaded that Rhodes, the group's ostensible leader, planned to disrupt the congressional ratification of the election results.
Rhodes was on the Capitol grounds during the riot but, unlike several of his codefendants, did not enter the building itself. One of the prosecutors, Jeffrey Nestler, likened Rhodes to "a general surveying his troops on the battlefield." The jurors evidently did not accept that characterization. While they concluded that Rhodes did in fact obstruct an official proceeding, they found him not guilty of conspiring to do so.
By contrast, two Oath Keepers who did enter the Capitol, Meggs and Jessica Watkins, were convicted of conspiring to interrupt the electoral vote count. Meggs, Watkins, and Kenneth Harrelson, who also entered the building, were convicted of conspiring to interfere with legislators' official work. Yet Harrelson, Watkins, and Thomas Caldwell, who trespassed on a Capitol balcony during the riot, were acquitted of participating in the seditious conspiracy, while Meggs was convicted of that charge along with Rhodes.
Three Oath Keeper defendants—Joshua James, Brian Ulrich, and William Todd Wilson—had previously pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy. Two other members of the group, Jason Dolan and Graydon Young, pleaded guilty to other riot-related charges and testified during the trial of the five remaining defendants. "Dolan testified that he hoped to scare members of Congress and that he was part of a group that 'would be willing to fight' to keep [Trump] in office," NBC News notes. "Young testified that he was 'acting like a traitor' on Jan. 6, 2021, and that he thought he was part of an event similar to the 1789 storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution."
Contrary to the picture painted by the prosecution, however, this week's confusing combination of verdicts does not suggest that the Oath Keepers acted as a unified force under Rhodes' command. Judging from the jury's conclusions, Rhodes was not in on the plan to disrupt the electoral vote count, while Meggs, Watkins, and Harrelson were. Conversely, Rhodes and Meggs were bent on using force to keep Trump in power, while Watkins and Harrelson somehow were not. Caldwell likewise was not part of the seditious conspiracy, despite his role in coordinating and arming the "quick reaction force" (QRF) that remained at a Comfort Inn in Arlington, Virginia, during the riot.
The jury "made the confusing decision to acquit Mr. Rhodes of planning in advance to disrupt the certification of the election yet convict him of actually disrupting the certification process," The New York Times notes. "That suggested that the jurors may have believed that the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 erupted more or less spontaneously, as Mr. Rhodes has claimed." But if so, it is hard to make sense of the other defendants' conspiracy convictions in connection with the riot. Why didn't the jury conclude that they also acted "more or less spontaneously"?
The Oath Keepers indictment lists 10 elements of the seditious conspiracy, most of which are related to what happened on January 6. They include, for example, "preparing for and coordinating travel to Washington, D.C., to use force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power"; "bringing and contributing firearms, ammunition, and related equipment to the QRF staging areas outside Washington, D.C."; "bringing and contributing paramilitary gear, weapons, and supplies…to the Capitol grounds"; and "breaching and attempting to take control of the Capitol grounds and building on January 6, 2021, in an effort to prevent, hinder, and delay the Certification of the Electoral College vote."
The indictment also accused Rhodes et al. of "continuing to plot, after January 6, 2021, to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power." But compared to that day's dramatic events, the aftermath was pretty weak tea. "The co-conspirators discussed the need to continue fighting to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power," the indictment says. There was a lot of bold talk, and Rhodes spent about $18,000 on ammunition, magazines, and various other firearm accessories. But nothing came of those discussions and preparations.
As the jury instructions explained, the seditious conspiracy charge did not require a successful plot, or even one that had any plausible chance of succeeding. The plans described by the indictment, including those leading up to January 6, were half-baked at best, and the defense argued that they were little more than bluster and fantasy. Although the jurors clearly did not buy that argument, the mixed verdicts make it hard to say exactly which narrative they accepted.
According to the Times, "the sedition convictions marked the first time in nearly 20 trials related to the Capitol attack that a jury had decided that the violence that erupted on Jan. 6, 2021, was the product of an organized conspiracy." That gloss does not seem consistent with the fact that Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy yet acquitted of the riot-related conspiracy charges.
Then again, Meggs was convicted of all three conspiracy charges, so maybe he was the real ringleader. But it's not clear how big that ring was. Counting the three defendants who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy, five people were involved. Yet Harrelson, Watkins, and Caldwell were acquitted of that charge even though they participated in much of the talking and planning that was allegedly at the heart of the conspiracy.
In any case, it clearly goes too far to say that the verdicts mean the Capitol riot was "the product of an organized conspiracy." The Oath Keepers accounted for a tiny share of the rioters, most of whom do seem to have acted "more or less spontaneously." The group's tough talk and grandiose plans ultimately amounted to little more than a sideshow in a much broader spasm of vandalism and violence that was itself utterly futile, since it succeeded only in delaying the certification of Biden's victory until that night. When former President Jimmy Carter claimed the assault on the Capitol "almost succeeded in preventing the democratic transfer of power," he was giving blowhards like Rhodes way too much credit.