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Oathkeeper outside U.S. Capitol

Oath Keeper on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Who are the Oath Keepers?

Most Americans hadn’t heard of the Oath Keepers before the attack on the U.S. Capitol, when founder Stewart Rhodes and other members plotted to keep then-President Donald Trump in power.

But for those who have followed the Oath Keepers’ path to becoming one of the nation’s largest anti-government groups, there were clear warning signs leading to that fateful day.

Rhodes started the Oath Keepers in 2009, stoking conspiratorial fears of elites trampling Americans’ rights after Barack Obama was elected president.

A Yale-educated lawyer and former Army paratrooper, Rhodes aggressively recruited servicemen, cops and first responders to join his crusade against perceived government overreach. Oath Keepers are urged to disregard official orders the group has deemed unlawful and believes could lead to tyrannical rule, like seizing guns and imposing martial law.

The launch of the Oath Keepers was followed by a series of alarming arrests. Perhaps most notably, an Oath Keeper from Georgia was convicted in a 2010 plot to take over a Tennessee courthouse and detain officials after a grand jury refused to indict Obama, who the Oath Keepers claimed was not the legitimate U.S. president — the central claim of the debunked “birther” conspiracy theory.

In 2014, the group’s focus shifted to an armed standoff with federal authorities at a ranch in Nevada, which raised its profile but also led to criminal charges against members of the group.

Unlike many other extremist groups, the Oath Keepers’ membership rules bar anyone advocating “discrimination, violence, or hatred toward any person based upon their race, nationality, creed, or color.” But Jason Van Tatenhove, a former spokesman for the group, said there’s been a “creep” toward bigotry and division that started with the demonization of Muslims and undocumented immigrants.

Van Tatenhove said he grew exceedingly concerned after the group made “a hard right turn” and Rhodes began associating with people like Richard Spencer, a well-known white supremacist. Van Tatenhove ultimately left the group that year after hearing another member “discussing how the Holocaust had been a hoax and never happened,” he said.

“I don’t think Stewart’s a racist guy, but I think that the embrace of people who hold racist beliefs is accelerating and started during that period of time,” said Van Tatenhove, author of “The Perils of Extremism.”

The Oath Keepers backed Donald Trump as he and his allies spent months claiming the 2020 election had been stolen. Two days after the election, Rhodes urged other Oath Keepers to reject the results, using the same ominous rhetoric that helped him become one of the country’s most powerful militia leaders.

“We aren’t getting through this without a civil war,” he wrote in an encrypted chat, according to federal court records. “Too late for that.”

Rhodes and his allies recruited members, organized paramilitary training and set up teams to shuttle guns from a Virginia hotel to the nation’s capital, though the weapons were never delivered. The plot culminated with some followers attacking the Capitol to stop Congress from confirming President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

Dozens of Oath Keepers and affiliates have now been charged with federal crimes, along with members of other extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Three Percenters. Rhodes is among the defendants who have already been convicted of seditious conspiracy for orchestrating the attack.

He was sentenced in May to 18 years in prison, one of the harshest terms handed down so far in the sprawling federal probe of the insurrection. Federal prosecutors have since appealed, seeking a significantly longer sentence.

Other Oath Keepers have cooperated with federal authorities as the group’s future hangs in the balance.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Tom Schuba covers police for the Sun-Times.

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