Elmer Stewart Rhodes
Yale Law School graduate Stewart Rhodes in 2009 founded the far-right Oath Keepers, a fiercely antigovernment, militaristic group that claims more than 30,000 law enforcement officers, soldiers and military veterans as members.
About Elmer Stewart Rhodes
The core idea of Elmer Stewart Rhodes’ group, the Oath Keepers, is that its members vow to support the oaths they took on joining law enforcement or the military to defend the Constitution forever and the group’s own list of 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey.” The list is a compendium of perceived, unrealized threats from the government – orders, for instance, to force Americans into concentration camps, confiscate their guns or cooperate with foreign troops in the United States.
These supposed threats are, in fact, part of the central conspiracy theory advocated by the antigovernment movement of which the Oath Keepers is a part – the baseless claim that the federal government plans to impose martial law, seize Americans’ weapons, force those who resist into concentration camps and, ultimately, push the country into a one-world socialistic government known as the “New World Order.” In 2013, the group announced the planned formation of “Citizen Preservation” militias meant to defend Americans against the New World Order.
With Rhodes at the helm, the group continued to promote their own version of vigilante justice by providing voluntary and sometimes illegal security during tense situations in America, after a terrorist attack and during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and by taking part in multiple standoffs against the government. Rhodes had his group patrol the polls in an activity they called Operation Sabot during the 2016 presidential election. Rhodes and Oath Keepers supported Donald Trump during his presidency.
During this time, Rhodes became increasingly conspiratorial, adopting and peddling a number of fringe right-wing conspiracy theories with the assistance of his friend Alex Jones. These ideas included making false claims that a large illegal voting operation was coordinated ahead of the 2016 general election and that immigrants from Central and South America were evidence of a war on the “the West to flood us with Third World people,” and mobilizing his followers to take part in the January 2021 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
At least 17 members of the Oath Keepers have been charged with taking part in the insurrection that left five people dead and several Capitol police officers injured. Among those members who have been identified as having played a role in the insurrection, charges have varied but include “conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding and entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds.”
On Jan. 12, 2022, a grand jury indicted Rhodes, along with 10 other Oath Keepers, in the District of Columbia for plotting to obstruct a legal turnover of presidential power. Nine defendants were already facing other charges related to their alleged participation in the insurrection.
Rhodes was charged with seditious conspiracy; conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding; obstruction of an official proceeding and aiding and abetting; conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging any duties; and tampering with documents or proceedings and aiding and abetting. He was arrested Jan. 13 at his Texas home and pleaded not guilty in a Jan. 25, 2022, virtual court hearing.
In their own words
“So you just refuse to acknowledge that anything [President Joe Biden] does is constitutional. Because it wouldn’t be constitutional anyway. Even if he were duly elected, he would still by violating his oath in passing unconstitutional nonsense. But he was not duly elected. It’s just amazing that Trump let the election be stolen out from under him and to let our country be stolen like this, our government. So we have an opportunity to walk the path of the Founding Fathers and declare your independence from that illegitimate regime.”– Stewart Rhodes, as quoted in “Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes calls for Militia members to prepare for violence against ‘illegitimate’ Biden administration,” Media Matters, Jan. 20, 2021
“You needed to be raising local militias in your towns and counties, and like the Founders did, you need to then nullify, refuse to comply, and when they come for you, you defend yourselves. But you’ve got to do it together. Don’t be isolated and alone. Do it together as a united community.” Stewart Rhodes on Infowars, January 2021
“This election was stolen and this is a communist/Deep State coup, every bit as corrupt and illegitimate as what is done in third world banana republics. We must refuse to EVER recognize this as a legitimate election, and refuse to recognize Biden as a legitimate winner, and refuse to ever recognize him as the President of the United States. This election was stolen by corrupt, law-breaking Democrat partisans on the ground, and by the manipulation of the CIA created HAMMR (“Hammer”) and Scorecard programs.” – Stewart Rhodes, “Call to Action! March on DC, Stop the Steal, Defend the President, & Defeat the Deep State,” Oath Keepers, Nov. 10, 2020
“If Biden wins, I think a civil war is very likely because what do you do when you’ve got millions of people who reject our history, reject our constitution and want to impose Marxism on the country. We’re heading for conflict.” – Stewart Rhodes, as quoted in “Primed by Trump, Militias Gear up for ‘Stolen’ US Election.” The Times, June 29, 2020
“We’ll go undercover and look for people we think are committing voting fraud. We’re looking for indicators that they’ve got people who aren’t US citizens voting; then we can go and suppress that behaviour by letting it be known that we’re watching. We’ll videotape them and turn it over to law enforcement.” – Stewart Rhodes, as quoted in “Primed by Trump, Militias Gear up for ‘Stolen’ US Election.” The Times, June 29, 2020
“This last week, Veterans On Patrol (VOP), out of Tucson, Arizona, released some disturbing video footage showing an obvious ‘rape tree’ with restraints set at child height, and a very suspicious buried water/septic tank used as a ‘shelter’ (see photo above) with the concurrent presence of children’s toys and children’s clothing, in combination with porn magazines. In response, Oath Keepers sent some of our most experienced Arizona LEO leaders to the site to inspect it and interview witnesses.” – Stewart Rhodes, “Oath Keepers Call to Action: Operation Child Shield in Tucson, Arizona.” Oath Keepers, June 6, 2018
“GO ARMED. Screw their stupid, unlawful orders, edicts, and pretend legislation. Go armed, at all times, as free men and women, and be ready to do sudden battle, anywhere, anytime, and with utter recklessness. That IS the price of freedom.” – Stewart Rhodes, “Chattanooga Shootings Show We’re Up to Our Necks in It,” on the Oath Keepers’ website, July 17, 2015
“It is the height of Orwellian perversion of language and logic to say that disarming you of the most effective arms for combat that you still have is somehow not really disarming you, because you still have hunting rifles and shotguns. And you can bet that if you let them take away your military semi-autos, next on their list will be bolt action rifles, which they will call ‘sniper rifles’ (and by God, that is certainly what they are good for!)” – Stewart Rhodes, “My Personal Pledge of Resistance Against Any Attempt to Disarm Us by Means of an ‘Assault Weapons Ban,’” on the Oath Keepers’ website, Dec. 19, 2012
“When the Federal Reserve created fiat money system collapses, when the ship sinks, they will then ‘rescue us’ by sweeping us all onboard the U.N.N. Global Leviathan – their ‘final solution’ of a world-wide version of the ‘Fed’ along with ‘world governance.’ That has been their plan all along.” – Stewart Rhodes, “Oath Keepers Operation Sleeping Giant: Awakening Veterans to Get off the U.S.S. Economic Titanic and Back Onboard the U.S.S. Constitution,” post on the Oath Keepers’ Operation Sleeping Giant website, April 17, 2011
Stewart Rhodes grew up in the Southwest and joined the Army after finishing high school. He became a paratrooper, receiving an honorable discharge due to an injury in a night parachuting accident. He attended college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, graduating in 1998. Rhodes claims he taught rape prevention at the college women’s center during his time there. He also bounced around to a number of other jobs, including working as a certified concealed-carry firearms instructor and a valet driver.
After college, his first political job was supervising interns in Washington, D.C., for Libertarian Ron Paul, then a Republican congressman from Texas. Rhodes subsequently attended Yale Law School, graduating in 2004, and clerked for Arizona Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Ryan. He later volunteered on Paul’s failed 2008 presidential campaign.
Following his experience with the Paul campaign, Rhodes published one of his first political diatribes. Appearing on his blog in January 2008, the post blasted political opponents’ charges that Paul was linked to hate groups and racists. (The congressman’s Ron Paul Report, in fact, did contain many racist statements over the years, but Paul has claimed that he did not write or read them). Using the fevered language that would become his trademark, Rhodes railed against the “full-blown smear campaign.” Calling it a “lame attempt at guilt by association” and “stupid,” he added, “This only tells me that Ron Paul is a real threat to the political establishment, and they are pulling out all the stops in an attempt to stop the Ron Paul Revolution.” Rhodes went on to disclose that his maternal ancestors were Hispanic and “American-Indian,” and made the argument that because he was “mixed-race” and saw no indication of racism, the claims against Paul had no merit.
Rhodes then took a hard-right turn away from electoral politics in 2009, forming the Oath Keepers, a Nevada nonprofit organization. He began recruiting current and former military officers, veterans and police officers, and started the Oath Keepers blog. At a 2009 rally in Lexington, Massachusetts, he officially launched the Oath Keepers before a large crowd of first responders.
Rhodes moved from Nevada to Montana, relocating his law practice and joining a growing movement presence in the Big Sky state.
By 2011, the Oath Keepers had members in every state, Rhodes said, and the group was claiming to have more than 30,000 people on its membership rolls, although that is an unverifiable and highly unlikely number.
Rhodes’ fervent call to resist perceived government overreach has been amplified with frequent media appearances on platforms offered by megaphone-wielding demagogues such as radio conspiracy-monger Alex Jones, and through alliances with right-wing groups, including extreme Tea Party factions.
In recent years, Rhodes’ actions have vividly revealed the danger of his conspiracy-inflamed convictions as the mouthpiece for the Oath Keepers organization.
Daniel Knight Hayden, an Oklahoma man and self-identified Oath Keeper, was indicted by a federal grand jury after posting Twitter messages threatening to unleash a violent attack on Oklahoma state government officials on April 15, tax day. Hayden was sentenced to eight months in prison in 2010. Another troubling example: Matthew Fairfield, a suburban Cleveland man described by prosecutors as the president of a local Oath Keepers chapter, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for storing bombs at his home and for obstructing justice.
And, in a widely publicized case, another Oath Keeper was sentenced to 30 years in prison for raping his own 7-year-old daughter. After failing to appear for trial in 2010, Charles Dyer, an ex-Marine, led police on a multi-state chase and began issuing threats against law enforcement, warning that they’d better not catch up to him. Although Dyer had spoken on behalf of the Oath Keepers and online videos identified him as the group’s liaison to the Marines, Rhodes claimed he really wasn’t part of the group.
In 2011, Oath Keepers stormed into Quartzsite, a small Arizona town, to defend local residents who were ejected after refusing to leave a Town Council meeting on alleged government corruption. Led by Rhodes, the Oath Keepers marched into town, and the group’s website called Quartzsite a pivot point for Americans to finally see the looming danger of the “New World Order.” The upshot: The Oath Keepers left town rapidly, and the State Bar of Arizona later censured Rhodes for practicing law without a state license because he wrote letters threatening a lawsuit on behalf of the ejected residents. He was fined $600.
Rhodes has appeared at antigovernment-themed organizing rallies, joining forces with antigovernment extremist groups such as the Tenth Amendment Center and the Northwest Patriots. He falsely contends that states have the right to disregard federal laws and that any form of gun control is a noxious attack on freedom that should trigger resistance. When gun control efforts ratcheted up in early 2013, shortly after the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre, Rhodes announced Oath Keeper rallies at statehouses across the nation to send lawmakers the message that “they will be held accountable if they choose to dishonor” their constitutional oaths. He’s appeared on shows such as “Coast to Coast AM,” the most listened-to overnight radio program in North America, and the radio show of Alex Jones, an uber-conspiracy theorist who maintains a 24/7 livestream of far-right shows on his platform.
That same year Rhodes said he planned to create local militia units, organized along the lines of U.S. Special Forces teams and filled with Oath Keepers, to provide security “during crisis” and help train local militias. “They can fight, of course,” said the email announcement in October. “But they are most dangerous as a force-multiplier by helping an entire community to fight.” It was the first time Rhodes had ventured beyond words into practical preparations for dealing with the government-created apocalypse he fears so deeply.
These fears fueled Rhodes’ desire to engage in activities that directly challenged the government, and in 2014, the Oath Keepers ramped up their antigovernment activities when they joined the infamous Bundy family to take part in a standoff against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Initially the Bundy family, known for their contempt of federal authority, rallied antigovernment supporters that April to support Cliven Bundy’s ongoing dispute with the BLM over grazing rights. Cliven, head of the Bundy family, and his sons Ryan and Ammon adhere to the antigovernment belief that the federal government has no right to own public lands. The dispute escalated when Cliven continued to graze his cattle in an area known as Gold Butte, Nevada, without paying grazing fees.
Rhodes seized the opportunity to mobilize his followers and Mike Vanderboegh, founder of the antigovernment Three Percenter movement, to join him at the Bundy ranch.
At one point, Rhodes claimed to be serving as the messenger for Ammon Bundy, relaying instructions for all those who wished to support their movement in person. It wasn’t long before the camp was overrun by baseless conspiracy theories that eventually served as the catalyst for much of the infighting among extremists. Oath Keepers peddled the idea that Eric Holder, then attorney general for former President Barack Obama, was in the midst of ordering a drone strike on the Bundy encampment. This, of course, was nothing but a wild rumor. Regardless of the facts, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers eventually retreated from the Bunkerville ranch.
After the rumored drone strike never occurred, a disgraced Rhodes and the Oath Keepers went on to be labeled traitors and deserters in antigovernment circles. The events at Bunkerville were just the beginning of Rhodes engaging in borderline illegal activities. Not long after the Bundy incident, Rhodes took part in the Ferguson, Missouri, protests in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, a Black man who was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Protests broke out after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson in November 2014. Oath Keepers capitalized on the events and descended on Ferguson, armed and ready to confront protesters in what they claimed was a move to protect businesses.
Oath Keepers showed up not only brandishing firearms but also taking to business rooftops as a way to make their presence known. The stunt resulted in local authorities issuing a statement and calling on the Oath Keepers to step down and cease their activities, even going as far as to characterize their actions as illegal.
About a year after the events in Ferguson, Rhodes once again made news when he tried to insert the Oath Keepers into the tenuous discussion surrounding gay marriage. That year, anti-LGBTQ Kentucky clerk Kim Davis received national attention when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in direct defiance of the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. Davis was arrested for refusing to adhere to the ruling and subsequently released with the expectation that she would adhere to the court’s decision.
In the aftermath of her release, Rhodes claimed to have personally reached out to Davis’ legal team to “offer protection to Kim, to ensure that she will not be illegally detained again.”
As Hatewatch reported, Rhodes alleged the Oath Keepers fixation with Davis’ case was purely out of concern for her rights, arguing that “Federal District Court Judge David Bunning grossly overstepped his bounds and violated Mrs. Davis’ right to due process, and in particular her right to a jury trial.”
Davis’ legal team ultimately declined Rhodes’s offer for “protection,” but that didn’t stop Rhodes and his group from echoing their support for Davis. In a post shared just a few days after Davis declined the offer, Rhodes announced the cancellation of a planned security detail and instead reminded his followers that the U.S. was still a “free country” and members still had the right to “assemble to express your support for her due process rights and your opposition to arbitrary arrest if you want to.”
These performative shows of force continued that year when Rhodes and Oath Keepers once again organized to oppose the Bureau of Land Management. The events around Sugar Pine Mine in Josephine County, Oregon, kicked off after BLM officers assessed the mining property of Rick Barclay and George Backes and concluded that the appropriate paperwork had not been filed for the type of activity that was taking place on the property. According to a report by High Country News, The Surface Resources Act of 1955 “allowed the federal government to manage claims filed after 1955 for uses other than mineral development.” In the case of Sugar Pine Mine, although the mine was situated on land administered by the BLM, Barclay and Backes argued that because their claim was filed before 1955, they didn’t have to adhere to the BLM’s regulations.
Soon after, Barclay and Backes called on Rhodes and the Josephine County chapter of the Oath Keepers for support, urging antigovernment extremists to descend on Oregon. The move reignited the longstanding feud between the antigovernment movement and the federal government. As for Rhodes, it was later reported that he had dialed in for calls with the Josephine County chapter, and according to Mary Emerick, the chapter spokesperson at that time, Rhodes claimed his goal was “to turn this group into a model nationally.”
Tension eventually subsided after a judge ordered the BLM to halt the enforcement of federal regulations while the dispute over Sugar Pine Mine was being adjudicated. Rhodes and the Josephine County chapter interpreted the judge’s orders as a sign of victory and took to online platforms to express their joy at the supposed success of their operations. The incident at Sugar Pine Mine became a lightning rod for Oath Keepers, sympathizers and other extremist groups such as Three Percenter organizations, and marked the start of a growing trend that emboldened radical insurgents to test the limits of federal authority.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Rhodes once again made headlines when he announced plans to monitor polling locations, a stunt he called “Operation Sabot 2016.” Unfazed by previous demonstrations against the federal government, Rhodes called on the Oath Keepers to patrol polling stations with the goal of ensuring the election was not “stolen.” Although he refrained from expanding on how Oath Keepers would carry out their operation, Rhodes expressed concern over what he believed were credible threats to voter integrity. These perceived threats were attributed to “leftists,” and the entire stunt was rooted in far-right conspiracy theories. Although Rhodes claimed that photo and video documentation would be at the core of Operation Sabot 2016, no evidence of large-scale fraud ever emerged.
Although Rhodes likes to claim that the Oath Keepers is a nonpartisan organization, Donald Trump’s inauguration marked the first trip the Oath Keepers would take to Washington, D.C., in support of the Trump administration. In January 2017, Rhodes launched what he called “Operation DefendJ20,” a coordinated effort by Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and the far-right Bikers for Trump group, to descend on the Capitol under the guise of protecting peaceful “American patriots” from supposed “radical leftist groups.”
As Rhodes continued to embrace fringe right-wing conspiracy theories and solidify his allegiance to Trump, his closest allies began to drift from his side. Almost two years after the event at Sugar Pine Mine, the Josephine County Oath Keepers chapter founder, Joseph Rice, told Hatewatch he would be stepping away from the organization. According to Rice, he had a long list of concerns that included a history of poor Oath Keepers leadership and a lack of trust in Rhodes. Although the events around the mine in Oregon ended in a celebratory mood with Oath Keepers claiming victory after fending off the Bureau of Land Management, members in the Josephine County chapter later refused to align themselves with Rhodes, saying that he obsessively “self promotes.”
In early 2018, Rhodes was once again hit with another major blow when his wife at the time, Tasha Vonn Adams Rhodes, filed a petition for protection in Lincoln County, Montana, accusing him of violent behavior toward their family. In the document, Vonn Adam Rhodes claimed Rhodes previously choked their teenage daughter and had a history of recklessly waving his handgun in the direction of their neighbors’ home, as well as pointing the gun at his own head, during disputes. Included in the petition, which was filed on Feb. 20, 2018, Vonn Adam Rhodes stated she filed for divorce just a few days prior and was “terrified.”
The family drama didn’t stop Rhodes from pursuing far-right conspiracy theories. In what then-President Trump dubbed an “invasion” by the supposed migrant caravan from Central and South America, antigovernment extremists turned their attention to the American Southwest. That year Rhodes and the Oath Keepers teamed up with the QAnon militant group known as Veterans on Patrol (VOP), led by Michael “Lewis Arthur” Meyer, to track down and expose what they believed were child sex-trafficking rings operating near the border.
According to Meyer, VOP found child remains and remnants of campsites during their border recon missions. Their unsubstantiated claims, which had been debunked a number of times by law enforcement and forensic experts, didn’t stop Rhodes from issuing a call to action for Oath Keepers to provide support for Meyer and his group.
In his call to action, Rhodes urged followers to travel to Arizona to “provide security” for VOP, as well as to donate cash and help fund the expenses for those who would be taking on the endeavor. Their joint operation ultimately yielded no evidence of child sex trafficking rings.
At the height of the Trump presidency the antigovernment movement frequently politicized mass tragedies. In the wake of the 2019 New Zealand mosque shootings that left 51 people dead, Rhodes immediately took to Infowars to justify some of the killers’ motives. In his interview with Alex Jones, Rhodes said he shared the same concerns as the shooter, both peddling fears of a supposed imminent “threat to the West” from immigrating Muslims.
As the 2020 general election approached, Rhodes continued to perpetuate talking points around the looming threat of increased immigration, which in his mind would lead to an “invasion” that would favor Democrats at the polls. The uncertainty around the election only increased Rhodes’ extreme rhetoric.
As noted by the news site Media Matters for America, just days before the official election, Rhodes returned to the internet conspiracy program Infowars to proclaim a “second civil war” was on the horizon. He also touched on a number of wild conspiracy theories ranging from the idea that a “Benghazi style” attack might be launched against the White House on election night, telling viewers that the Democratic party had been “bought” by the Chinese government.
It was the general election that ultimately appears to have pushed Rhodes and the Oath Keepers over the edge. As a retaliatory move against the Democratic process that ultimately elected Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, the Oath Keepers and other far-right extremists gained infamy on Jan. 6, 2021, when they are alleged to have stormed the U.S. Capitol building. In the weeks leading up to the insurrection, Rhodes continued to push the idea that election had been stolen from Trump and called on Oath Keepers to continue rallying to “Stop the Steal, Defend the President, & Defeat the Deep State.”
On the day of the insurrection, Rhodes could be seen with his fellow Oath Keepers outside the Capitol. The group was providing security for longtime Infowars ally Roger Stone. They were also, as the indictment against Rhodes revealed, actively attempting sedition, according to prosecutors.
Rhodes is alleged to have plotted, with other Oath Keepers members, to use force to oppose the 2020 legal transfer of presidential power. This is according to the indictment, which was unsealed on Jan. 13, 2021, and shared the following information about the part Rhodes played in the conspiracy.
The coordination took place over a series of chats and messages and an online meeting held by Rhodes on Nov. 9, 2020, where the group made plans and prepped for use of force. Rhodes, in a Dec. 11 Signal chat, declared to his members that if Biden won the presidential election “It will be a bloody and desperate fight. We are going to have a fight. That can’t be avoided.” Rhodes doubled down on Dec. 21, 2020, telling a regional Oath Keepers leader, “We will have to do a bloody, massively bloody revolution against them. That’s what’s going to have to happen.”
The indictment alleges that Rhodes began traveling to D.C. on Jan. 3. Rhodes spent $6,000 on an AR rifle and firearms equipment while passing through Texas. In Mississippi, he purchased more equipment, totaling approximately $4,500. Other Oath Keepers were also allegedly transporting weapons and ammunition to D.C. over the course of that week, initially storing them in Virginia.
While attending Stop the Steal on Jan. 6, Rhodes told his fellow Oath Keepers, “All I see is Trump complaining. I see no intent by him to do anything. So the Patriots are taking it into their own hands. They’ve had enough.” Shortly after Rhodes entered a restricted portion of the Capitol and directed his members to join him.
The indictment describes a meet-up by Rhodes and Oath Keepers members later that evening, in Virginia “to celebrate their attack on the Capitol and discuss next steps.” After dinner Rhodes told the Signal chat, “Patriots entering the Capitol to send a message to the traitors is NOTHING compared to what’s coming.”
Following Jan. 6, Rhodes spent the next month purchasing $17,500 in additional firearms parts and equipment. He also deleted information on his cellphone related to his part in the insurrection, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
During this time, even as his members faced charges for their part in the insurrection, Rhodes continued to put forward antigovernment conspiracy theories to rile up his base. In late March, he gave a speech in Laredo, Texas, at a March 26 border event titled, “We the People For Border Security,” which the Daily Beast reported “was advertised as being hosted by ‘Patriots at Large’ and ‘Women Fighting for America.’” At this event, Rhodes reportedly resurfaced the idea that China was responsible for Trump’s loss in the general election, citing Biden’s presidential win as a move by the Chinese government to insert a puppet leader. Rhodes also used the opportunity to claim that he “may go to jail soon” for what he called “made-up crimes.”
Rhodes was correct about going to jail, although it was many months later. He was arrested at his home on Jan. 13 and pleaded not guilty to the charges leveled against him on Jan. 25, 2022. He will stand trial later in the year. The seditious conspiracy charge alone, which has been historically hard to prove, carries a potential maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.