Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years behind bars Thursday, six months after being convicted of seditious conspiracy in federal court for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta delivered a searing and lengthy reproach to Rhodes shortly before handing down his sentence, telling him, “You, sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country and to the republic and to the very fabric of this democracy,” according to NBC News.
Earlier, Rhodes recited a 20-minute-long diatribe to the courtroom in which he called himself a “political prisoner” and said his only crime was trying to stop politicians from “destroying” America.
Mehta responded to his claims directly: “You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes.”
The judge said it was clear that Rhodes wanted “democracy in this country to devolve into violence.” He also expressed concern that another incident like Jan. 6 could be on the horizon, saying Americans “hold our collective breaths every time an election is approaching,” The Associated Press reported.
“The moment you are released, whenever that may be, you will be ready to take up arms against your government,” Mehta said, per the AP.
Although prosecutors had sought a 25-year term for the 58-year-old, his sentence is still the longest of any Capitol riot defendant so far. More than 1,000 people have been charged in connection to the insurrection.
Another leader in the far-right anti-government group, Kelly Meggs, was sentenced to 12 years behind bars on similar charges later Thursday.
The Oath Keepers’ trial last fall was a watershed moment in the federal government’s massive effort to prosecute the mob that had stormed the Capitol and terrorized the police and lawmakers inside in the name of former President Donald Trump.
Due to the large number of defendants ― nine ― they were split into two groups for trial; jurors convicted six of them on seditious conspiracy charges. Rhodes and Meggs are the first to face sentencing.
As the ringleader of the Oath Keepers, Rhodes was accused of preparing for a potentially large-scale gunfight at the Capitol on Jan. 6, having stockpiled a cache of high-powered weapons at a hotel just outside Washington.
The nation’s capital has strict gun control laws, but prosecutors said the Oath Keepers wanted to have firearms nearby just in case Trump signaled that he wanted them to use force to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory. Rhodes believed that Trump could achieve his goal by invoking the Insurrection Act, which gives a president the authority to send in the military to “suppress insurrection.”
While Rhodes did not enter the Capitol himself, prosecuting attorneys said at trial that he had primed his followers to engage in conflict at the Capitol, observing the chaos from a hill like a “battlefield general.”
Meggs entered the Capitol leading what prosecutors called a “stack” formation of other Oath Keepers clad in military-style tactical gear.
Scores of text messages displayed in court, along with audio recordings, helped to paint a picture of the planning that had gone into the Oath Keepers’ decision to show up on Jan. 6, the day Congress was officially certifying the results of the 2020 election.
One recording revealed how Rhodes told an acquaintance just a few days after the riot that he regretted not bringing rifles to Capitol Hill.
“I’d hang fuckin’ Pelosi from the lamppost,” Rhodes was heard saying in the audio.
Rhodes defended himself in part by saying he was bloviating when he used strong language. He also argued that he and his Oath Keepers were actually just trying to help law enforcement, despite not being asked to do so. Prosecutors said the Oath Keepers as a group have a history of providing unasked-for “security.”