Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, was sentenced to 18 years in prison on Thursday for leading a far-reaching plot to keep then-President Donald Trump in power after he lost the 2020 election.
A second Oath Keepers member, Kelly Meggs, the leader of the Florida contingent of the group, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The sentences are the first handed down in over a decade for seditious conspiracy.
“What we absolutely cannot have is a group of citizens who – because they did not like the outcome of an election, who did not believe the law was followed as it should be – foment revolution,” District Judge Amit Mehta said before handing down the sentence. “That is what you did.”
“I dare say, Mr. Rhodes – and I never have said this to anyone I have sentenced – you pose an ongoing threat and peril to our democracy and the fabric of this country,” Mehta said.
The judge added: “I dare say we all now hold our collective breaths when an election is approaching. Will we have another January 6 again? That remains to be seen.”
Mehta said Rhodes, 58, has expressed no remorse and continues to be a threat.
“A seditious conspiracy, when you take those two concepts and put it together, is among the most serious crimes an American can commit,” the judge said. “It is an offense against the government to use force. It is an offense against the people of our country.”
Earlier on Thursday, Mehta ruled that Rhodes’ actions amounted to domestic terrorism.
“He was the one giving the orders,” Mehta said. “He was the one organizing the teams that day. He was the reason they were in fact in Washington DC. Oath Keepers wouldn’t have been there but for Stewart Rhodes, I don’t think anyone contends otherwise. He was the one who gave the order to go, and they went.”
Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy by a Washington, DC, jury in November in a historic criminal trial that was a test of the Justice Department’s ability to hold January 6 rioters accountable and validated prosecutors’ arguments that the breach of the Capitol was a grave threat to American democracy.
The seditious conspiracy charge has rarely been brought in the century and a half that the statute and its forerunners have been on the books.
US Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, who testified earlier this week about his experience on January 6, told CNN that Donald Trump should be “next.”
“It is a step towards full accountability,” Dunn said. “His lawyers argued that Donald Trump is the root of the problem, and I totally agree. Let’s get him next.”
“I have a hard time finding joy or celebration in a sentence of 18 years,” Dunn said. “I believe that justice shouldn’t be celebrated – it should be expected.”
CNN National Security Analyst Juliette Kayyem said the sentencing should have a “chilling effect on these groups,” especially as the presidential election season begins.
“This tough sentence is going to make the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, all these organizations, it’s going to make them more difficult for them to recruit and, as important, for them to raise money,” Kayyem said.
Meggs receives 12 years
Prosecutors had asked for Meggs to be sentenced to 21 years in prison, saying that “with the possible exception of Stewart Rhodes, Meggs was the intellectual and moral center of this conspiracy.”
Mehta addressed Meggs and the larger issue of how the Capitol attack happened.
“You don’t take to the streets with rifles,” Mehta said. “You don’t hope that the president invokes the Insurrection Act so you can start a war in the streets … you don’t rush into the US Capitol with the hope to stop the electoral vote count.” If we do, he added, “we will slowly but surely descend into chaos.”
“It is astonishing to me how average Americans somehow transformed into criminals in the weeks before and on January 6,” the judge said. “Regrettably, Mr. Meggs, everything you worked for, everything you built … vanished in a couple of months.”
He added: “For reasons that are unclear to me, planning and scheming to bring rifles to Washington, DC, became more important than maybe even your own family.”
Unlike Rhodes, Meggs showed contrition for his actions on January 6 and apologized to his family members in the courtroom through tears.
“I am sorry to be involved in an event that put such a black mark on our country,” Meggs told the judge.
Explaining the differing sentences Thursday, Mehta said Rhodes was a more dangerous person.
“He is not Mr. Rhodes. He’s just not,” the judge said of Meggs. “He does not pose the same kind of threat as Mr. Rhodes. He is not the intellectual and spiritual leader.”
Prosecutors sought 25 years for Rhodes
Prosecutors had asked Mehta to sentence Rhodes to 25 years behind bars, and to apply the enhanced terrorism sentencing penalties.
“This is terrorism,” prosecutor Kathryn Rakoczy said Thursday.
“It is not blowing up a building directly or telling someone to blow up a building, but in light of the threat of harm and historic nature of attempting to stop the certification of an election for the first time in American history,” Rhodes and other Oath Keepers leaders should be punished more harshly, she said.
Rhodes, who was accused of leading dozens other individuals in a coordinated plot that culminated in the January 6 siege, was also found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding and tampering with documents.
Of those that Rhodes led, 22 have already been convicted of various federal crimes by a jury or guilty plea. Eight, including Rhodes’ codefendant Meggs, were convicted of seditious conspiracy.
Rhodes repeats false allegations about 2020 election
Rhodes, before he was sentenced, said he was a “political prisoner” and vowed to continue to “expose the criminality of the regime” in prison.
“I’d like to start by just saying that I’m a political prisoner, and like President Trump, my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country,” Rhodes told Mehta in court.
For 20 minutes, Rhodes relitigated allegations that the 2020 presidential election was unconstitutional and shouted that he was “not able to drop that under my oath” during his military service and “not able to ignore the Constitution.”
The leader repeatedly defended his and his followers’ actions on January 6, saying that “no Oath Keeper took part in any of the fighting” and that the violence at the Capitol was “all done by other people.”
“I believe this country is incredibly divided, and this prosecution – not just mine but all the J6ers – is making it worse,” Rhodes said.
He continued, “I believe every J6er is a political prisoner and all of them are being grossly overcharged. It is going to make people feel like this government is even more illegitimate than they did before.”
Pardons for rioters?
Trump said during a recent CNN town hall that if elected to a second term he would pardon many rioters who were convicted for their roles in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Though he said he would not be able to pardon all January 6 rioters, Trump vowed to pardon “a large portion of them.”
Michael Fanone, a former Washington, DC, police officer who was attacked on January 6, called the prospect of Rhodes potentially getting pardoned by Trump “outrageous.”
“It should outrage all Americans,” Fanone said on CNN’s “News Central” Thursday. “Stewart Rhodes was convicted by a jury of his peers for his actions, which resulted in the injuries sustained by myself and hundreds of other police officers on January 6. Not to mention the fact that America became a national and international embarrassment on the world stage.”
Fanone said it was “sickening” that Trump has “aligned himself” with people like Rhodes via the statements he made during the CNN town hall and what he continues to say “on a daily basis.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Sydney Kashiwagi contributed to this report.