The conviction of Stewart Rhodes on charges of seditious conspiracy is a significant achievement for the US department of justice.
Rhodes, a Yale University law graduate and a former US paratrooper, founded the right-wing Oath Keepers militia in 2009. The membership includes former police and military personnel. Armed members are often present at protests and political rallies. He is the most high-profile figure to be convicted in relation to the events surrounding January 6th last year when supporters of Donald Trump attacked the US Capitol building in an attempt to hinder the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election.
Rhodes did not go into the Capitol on that day. However, prosecutors maintained that he was central to a plot to keep Trump in power.
The jury finding on Tuesday will also be seen as a vindication of the department of justice’s decision to charge the Oath Keepers with seditious conspiracy – a rare charge which goes back to the Civil War era in the United States.
There will be more cases involving seditious conspiracy charges in the near future. Other Oath Keepers as well as members of another right-wing group, the Proud Boys, will face similar charges in trials scheduled for December.
The conviction of Rhodes and one of his subordinates of seditious conspiracy will also undermine attempts by some on the right in US politics to play down the events of January 6th. Democrats and a small number of Republicans such as Liz Cheney have contended that the attack was just one element of a multipronged attempt by Trump and his supporters to hold on to power after losing the election. In other words, there was an attempted coup.
On the other hand, last February the Republican Party, while formally censuring Cheney, described January 6th and the events that led to it as “legitimate political discourse”. Other right-wing organisations have contended that those arrested in connection with January 6th were “patriots” or “political prisoners”. Trump has said he would pardon and apologise to those convicted in relation to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol if re-elected to the White House.
Five people died in connection with the assault on the Capitol Building by Trump supporters and more than 140 police and security officials were injured.
Rhodes, in his defence, argued that there was no specific plan to attack the US Capitol to try stop the joint session of the US Congress certifying Biden’s win, and therefore no conspiracy.
He criticised some of his Oath Keeper associates who did break into the Capitol Building.
Rhodes maintained that his focus was on lobbying Trump to invoke legislation known as the Insurrection Act, which would facilitate calling out military forces and private militia to keep his hold on power.
However, prosecutors contended that following the election in 2020 Rhodes and his subordinates had “concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bed rock of American democracy” – the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next.
Rhodes could face up to 20 years in prison. His associates who were also convicted on various counts on Tuesday will also likely face time in jail. This has led to speculation in US media on whether some could possibly seek to make deals with the department of justice for lighter sentences in return for testimony regarding the roles of others.
Closing arguments in the Oath Keeper case earlier this month came just as US attorney general Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel, Jack Smith, to take over the investigation into efforts to interfere with the lawful transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election and related matters.
Whether that process could yet lead to charges against Trump or any of his supporters remains to be seen.