WASHINGTON -- Oath Keepers extremist group founder Stewart Rhodes was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison for orchestrating a weekslong plot that culminated in his followers attacking the U.S. Capitol in a bid to keep President Joe Biden out of the White House after winning the 2020 election.
Rhodes, 58, is the first person convicted of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack to receive his punishment, and his sentence is the longest handed down so far in the hundreds of Capitol riot cases.
It's another milestone for the Justice Department's sprawling Jan. 6 investigation, which has led to seditious conspiracy convictions against the top leaders of two far-right extremist groups authorities say came to Washington prepared to fight to keep President Donald Trump in power at all costs.
"The Justice Department will continue to do everything in our power to hold accountable those criminally responsible for the January 6th attack on our democracy," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
In a first for a Jan. 6 case, the judge agreed with the Justice Department that Rhodes' actions should be punished as "terrorism," which increases the recommended sentence under federal guidelines. That decision could foreshadow lengthy sentences down the road for other far-right extremists, including former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who have also been convicted of the rarely used charge. His and other Proud Boys' sentencings are set for August and September.
Before announcing Rhodes' sentence, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta described a defiant Rhodes as a continued threat to the United States and democracy. The judge expressed fear that what happened on Jan. 6 could be repeated, saying Americans will "now hold our collective breaths every time an election is approaching."
"You are smart, you are charismatic and compelling and, frankly, that's what makes you dangerous," the judge told Rhodes. "The moment you are released, whenever that may be, you will be ready to take up arms against your government."
Rhodes did not use his chance to address the judge to express remorse or appeal for leniency, but instead claimed to be a "political prisoner," criticized prosecutors and the Biden administration and tried to play down his actions on Jan. 6.
"I'm a political prisoner and like President Trump my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country," said Rhodes, who appeared in Washington's federal court wearing orange jail clothes.
Mehta fired back that Rhodes was not prosecuted for his political beliefs but for actions the judge described as an "offense against the people of the country."
"You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes," the judge said.
Another Oath Keeper convicted of seditious conspiracy alongside Rhodes -- Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs -- was sentenced later Thursday to 12 years behind bars.
Meggs said he was sorry he was involved in the riot that left a "black eye on the country," but maintained that he never planned to go into the Capitol.
The judge found Meggs doesn't present an ongoing threat to the country the way Rhodes does, but told him "violence cannot be resorted to just because you disagree with who got elected."
Convicted of seditious conspiracy in addition to Rhodes and Meggs were Roberto Minuta of Prosper, Texas; Joseph Hackett of Sarasota, Fla.; David Moerschel of Punta Gorda, Fla., and Edward Vallejo of Phoenix.
All are to be sentenced over the coming nine days.
A Washington, D.C., jury found Rhodes guilty of leading a plot to forcibly disrupt the transfer of presidential power. Prosecutors alleged Rhodes and his followers recruited members, amassed weapons and set up "quick reaction force" teams at a Virginia hotel that could ferry guns into the nation's capital if they were needed to support their plot. The weapons were never deployed.
It was one of the most consequential Capitol riot cases brought by the government, which has sought to prove that the attack by right-wing extremists such as the Oath Keepers was not a spur-of-the-moment protest but the culmination of weeks of plotting to overturn Biden's victory.
Rhodes' January 2022 arrest came after a decades-long path of extremism that included armed standoffs with federal authorities at Nevada's Bundy Ranch. After founding the Oath Keepers in 2009, the Yale Law School graduate built it into one of the largest far-right anti-government militia groups in the U.S., though it appears to have weakened in the wake of the Oath Keepers' arrests.
The judge agreed to prosecutors' request for a so-called terrorism enhancement -- which can lead to a longer prison term -- under the argument that the Oath Keepers sought to influence the government through "intimidation or coercion." Judges in less serious Jan. 6 cases had previously rejected such requests.
U.S. prosecutors asked for up to 25 years in prison and the longest sentence by far in the rioting to deter future acts of domestic terrorism, arguing that Rhodes played a significant role in spreading doubt about the 2020 presidential election and led more than 20 other Americans to seek to use violence against the government to thwart the transfer of power from Trump to Biden.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy pointed to interviews and speeches Rhodes has given from jail repeating that the 2020 election was stolen and saying it would be again in 2024. In remarks just days ago, Rhodes called for "regime change," the prosecutor said.
Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, plans to appeal his conviction.
Defense lawyer Phillip Linder told the judge that prosecutors were unfairly trying to make Rhodes "the face" of Jan. 6, adding that Rhodes could have had many more Oath Keepers come to the Capitol "if he really wanted to" disrupt Congress' certification of the Electoral College vote.
"If you want to put a face on J6 [Jan. 6], you put it on Trump, right-wing media, politicians, all the people who spun that narrative," Linder said.
Attorneys for Rhodes asked for time served -- about 16 months -- for the former Army paratrooper and Yale law graduate. They played down Rhodes' repeated threats of "civil war," "bloody revolution" and participation in armed standoffs with federal authorities, highlighting instead his far-right, anti-government group's response to hurricanes and civil unrest since its founding in 2009.
The Oath Keepers said there was never any plan to attack the Capitol or stop Congress from certifying Biden's victory. The defense tried to seize on the fact that none of the Oath Keepers' messages laid out an explicit plan to storm the Capitol. But prosecutors said the Oath Keepers saw an opportunity to further their goal to stop the transfer of power and sprang into action when the mob began storming the building.
Rhodes's defense said he and co-defendants came to Washington as bodyguards for Republican VIPs including Roger Stone and a relative of Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander. The Oath Keepers said some brought firearms only to help act as "peacekeepers" in case Trump met their demand to invoke the Civil War-era Insurrection Act and mobilize a private militia to stop Biden from becoming president, and none carried them to the Capitol.
But prosecutors presented evidence that after networks declared the election for Biden on Nov. 7, 2020, Rhodes asked a "Friends of Stone" chat group -- that included Stone and Tarrio -- "What's the plan?" and shared a Serbian academic's proposal for storming Congress. Over the next two months, Rhodes amplified Trump's stolen election claims and used his platform as one of the extremist anti-government movement's most visible leaders to urge followers to be ready for an "armed rebellion," including in two open letters to Trump and a personal message intended for him that pressed the president to use the military to hold on to power against Democratic opponents.
Rhodes and co-defendants testified that their plans did not include entering the Capitol, describing it as a spur-of-the-moment decision made without consultation after the building had been breached by others.
But prosecutors said their words and actions demonstrated tacit agreement to take advantage of the riot to further an illegal plot proposed in public and private by Rhodes, who warned repeatedly before Jan. 6 that "bloody civil war" was necessary if the election results were not overturned, with or without Trump.
Before Thursday, the longest sentence in the more than 1,000 Capitol riot cases was 14 years for a man with a long criminal record who attacked police officers with pepper spray and a chair as he stormed the Capitol. Just over 500 of the defendants have been sentenced, with more than half receiving prison time and the remainder getting sentences such as probation or home detention.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael Kunzelman, Alanna Durkin Richer and Lindsay Whitehurst of The Associated Press and by Spencer S. Hsu, Tom Jackman and Rachel Weiner of The Washington Post.