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Oath Keepers Founder Is Under Scrutiny, Court Documents Show

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Authorities investigating the attack on democracy January 6 are interested in the founder of the Oath Keepers. Stewart Rhodes started the far-right militia group. So who is he really? Here's NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: In April of 2009, a barrel-chested man with a goatee and wire-rimmed glasses took the stage before a small crowd in Lexington, Mass.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oorah (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oorah.

STEWART RHODES: Oorah. All right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Unintelligible).

RHODES: I'm Stewart Rhodes. I'm the founder of Oath Keepers.

LUCAS: That event served as a coming-out party for Oath Keepers and for Stewart Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate. Over the past 12 years, the group has tried to recruit military and law enforcement. It has established chapters across the country and claims to have tens of thousands of members, although researchers estimate the real number is probably no higher than 5,000. But even that would make it one of the biggest groups in America's far-right militia movement. Rhodes says Oath Keepers is dedicated to defending the rights of Americans from what he calls a tyrannical government. But watchdog groups and researchers have a different view.

SAM JACKSON: I refer to Oath Keepers as an anti-government extremist group.

LUCAS: Sam Jackson is a professor at the University at Albany and the author of a book about the Oath Keepers. He says the group first made national headlines in 2014 after gun-toting Oath Keepers took part in the standoff with federal authorities at the Bundy ranch in Nevada. Rhodes frequently warned that the U.S. government and so-called globalists were trying to strip Americans of their constitutional rights. And yet, despite its anti-government extremism, the group threw its support behind Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Again, Jackson.

JACKSON: They see Donald Trump as their ally in a fight against a corrupt elite, which you can see in rhetoric about the deep state or about drain the swamp, those sorts of things.

LUCAS: As Oath Keepers embraced Trump, Rhodes was increasingly embracing far-right conspiracy theories about a deep state cabal. After the 2020 election, Rhodes pushed Trump's false claims that the vote was rigged. Days after the election, Rhodes addressed a small stop-the-steal rally in Virginia, urging people not to accept the results.

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RHODES: And what do you have right now if nothing but a communist insurrection attempt on overthrowing our Constitution?

LUCAS: He called Joe Biden a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party and called on Trump to use the U.S. military to put down the alleged communist globalist insurrection. Fast-forward to January 6, and a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, including, prosecutors say, Oath Keepers. A dozen alleged members or associates of the group are now facing conspiracy charges in connection with the Capitol attack.

Rhodes himself has not been charged, although he is referred to as Person 1 in court papers. Those documents show that Rhodes was in contact with some of the defendants for months ahead of January 6 and on the day itself was in direct communication via phone and text as the attack progressed. Rhodes stood outside the Capitol that day, but never entered the building. In a speech late last month in Texas, Rhodes claimed the Justice Department is persecuting his group for its political beliefs.

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RHODES: I may go to jail soon, not for anything I actually did, but for made-up crimes.

LUCAS: He also denied the Oath Keepers made plans to storm the Capitol on January 6.

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RHODES: We were there to protect Trump supporters from antifa. That's why my guys were wearing helmets and body armors and goggles.

LUCAS: The evidence prosecutors have presented so far suggests the government is looking at a possible case against Rhodes. Tom Firestone is a former federal prosecutor.

TOM FIRESTONE: They're saying in a public filing that he participated in communications showing that they were actively planning to use force and violence. So if they've got that evidence, that seems to me pretty good to - pretty strong evidence on which to charge him.

LUCAS: What would it mean for Oath Keepers if Rhodes were to face criminal charges? It could lead to the group's unraveling, since Rhodes is its public face and voice. But Jackson argues that the impact would be limited because as large as Oath Keepers is, it's only one part of the broader anti-government militia movement.

JACKSON: If Oath Keepers were to disappear tomorrow, that would not change the movement. That would not change the landscape of anti-government extremism in the U.S.

LUCAS: Researchers say that militia membership is flexible. People can float from group to group without changing any of their beliefs. Allegiance is more to the ideology than to a specific organization. In other words, if Oath Keepers were to fold, its members would just find a new home among the country's other self-styled militias on the extreme right.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSSK'S "THE REVERIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.