Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, was sentenced on Thursday to 18 years in prison for his conviction on seditious conspiracy charges for the role he played in helping to mobilize the pro-Trump attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The sentence, handed down in Federal District Court in Washington, was the most severe penalty so far in the more than 1,000 criminal cases stemming from the Capitol attack — and the first to be increased for fitting the legal definition of terrorism.
It was also the first to have been given to any of the 10 members of the Oath Keepers and another far-right group, the Proud Boys, who were convicted of sedition in connection with the events of Jan. 6.
For Mr. Rhodes, 58, the sentence was the end of a tumultuous and unusual career that included Army service, a stint on Capitol Hill and a law degree from Yale. His role as the Oath Keepers’ founder and leader thrust him into the spotlight and will now send him to prison for what is likely to be the better part of his remaining days.
At a dramatic, nearly four-hour hearing, Judge Amit P. Mehta chided Mr. Rhodes for seeking for years through his leadership of the Oath Keepers to have American democracy “devolve into violence.”
“You, sir,” Judge Mehta went on, directly addressing the defendant, “present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country, to the Republic and the very fabric of our democracy.”
As the hearing opened, prosecutors urged Judge Mehta to sentence Mr. Rhodes to 25 years in prison, arguing that accountability was needed for the violence at the Capitol and that American democracy was on the line.
Kathryn L. Rakoczy, one of the lead prosecutors in the case, told Judge Mehta that Mr. Rhodes had been calling for attacks against the government for more than a decade and that his role in the Jan. 6 attack was part of a longstanding pattern.
The Oath Keepers leader, Ms. Rakoczy said, exploited his talents and influence to goad his followers into rejecting the results of the 2020 election and ultimately mobilized them into storming the Capitol in two separate military-style “stacks” in a violent effort to keep President Donald J. Trump in office.
“It is conduct that threatened — and continues to threaten — the rule of law in the United States,” she said.
Ms. Rakoczy also noted that Mr. Rhodes had shown no remorse for undermining the lawful transition of power and continued to advocate political violence. Just four days ago, she said, Mr. Rhodes gave an interview from jail, repeating the lie that the election had been marred by fraud and asserting that the government was “coming after those on the political right.”
“It’s not going to stop until it’s stopped,” Mr. Rhodes said during the interview, adding that the country needed “regime change.”
As if to prove the government’s point, Mr. Rhodes — in an orange prison smock and his trademark black eye patch — gave a defiant address to the court, blaming the news media for demonizing the Oath Keepers for leading the Capitol attack. He also compared himself to the Soviet-era dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and to the beleaguered main character in the Kafka novel “The Trial.”
“I am a political prisoner,” Mr. Rhodes said.
The hearing opened a week of sentencing proceedings for eight other members of the Oath Keepers who were convicted at two separate trials — in November and January — of charges that included not only seditious conspiracy but also the obstruction of a congressional proceeding to certify the 2020 election. One of Mr. Rhodes’s deputies, Kelly Meggs, who once led the group’s Florida chapter, was sentenced to 12 years in prison at a separate proceeding later on Thursday.
The process for sentencing all the defendants began on Wednesday, when some police officers and congressional staff members testified about the horror they experienced on Jan. 6.
Several spoke through tears on the witness stand, describing lasting symptoms of post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, particularly after many of their colleagues resigned and some died by suicide in the months after the attack.
“I am an introverted, depressed shell of my former self,” said Harry Dunn, a Capitol Police officer who encountered members of the Oath Keepers in the Capitol rotunda. When Mr. Dunn referred to the officers who were injured on Jan. 6 as “real oath keepers,” he shot an angry glance toward Mr. Rhodes and other members of the group in the courtroom.
In court papers filed this month, prosecutors dwelled on the importance of severely punishing Mr. Rhodes and his subordinates, stating that the acceptance of political violence was on the rise in the United States and that lengthy prison terms were needed to serve as a deterrent against future unrest.
“As this court is well aware, the justice system’s reaction to Jan. 6 bears the weighty responsibility of impacting whether Jan. 6 becomes an outlier or a watershed moment,” the prosecutors wrote. “Left unchecked, this impulse threatens our democracy.”
In court on Thursday, prosecutors persuaded Judge Mehta to increase Mr. Rhodes’s sentence by arguing that his repeated calls for violence against the government and his plan to stage an arsenal of weapons outside Washington in case of an emergency on Jan. 6 should be punished as an act of terrorism.
“This wasn’t blowing up a building,” Ms. Rakoczy said. But “organizing an armed force” and advocating “bloody civil war” came “pretty close,” she said.
The government had asked to apply the terrorism enhancement in four previous Jan. 6 cases, but judges — including Judge Mehta — had denied the requests each time.
From the outset of the hearing, Mr. Rhodes’s lawyers — Phillip Linder and James L. Bright — were constrained in their efforts to ask for leniency, unable to fully claim that Mr. Rhodes was remorseful or no longer presented a threat to the government, knowing that his stemwinder statement to the court was coming.
Mr. Bright decided not to say anything. When Mr. Linder spoke, he simply said that the government had tried to make Mr. Rhodes “the face of Jan. 6,” but that figures like Mr. Trump were more responsible for the chaos and violence at the Capitol that day.
In the end, Judge Mehta said he had imposed a harsh sentence because seditious conspiracy was “among the most serious crimes an individual in America can commit.”
He also scolded Mr. Rhodes, telling him that he had not been prosecuted because of his political beliefs but rather because he had “prepared to take up arms and foment revolution” simply because he did not like the results of an election.
“That’s what you did,” Judge Mehta said. “You’re not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes. You’re here because of your actions.”
The trial of Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Meggs and three other defendants — Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell — was a milestone in the Justice Department’s sprawling investigation of the Capitol attack. The convictions of Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Meggs on seditious conspiracy charges were the first time that federal prosecutors had won a sedition case since 1995, when a group of Islamic militants was found guilty of plotting to bomb several landmarks in New York.
At the beginning of the month, four members of the Proud Boys — including their former leader, Enrique Tarrio — were also convicted of sedition and are scheduled to be sentenced in a series of hearings in August.
Jeffrey S. Nestler, one of the prosecutors, opened Mr. Rhodes’s trial by telling the jury that in the weeks after Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the election, the Oath Keepers leader and his subordinates “concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy”: the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
In closing the government’s case, Mr. Nestler declared that the Oath Keepers had plotted against Mr. Biden, ignoring both the law and the will of the voters, because they hated the results of the election.
At the trial, prosecutors showed the jury hundreds of encrypted text messages by Oath Keepers members, demonstrating that Mr. Rhodes and some of his followers were in thrall to outlandish fears that Chinese agents had infiltrated the U.S. government and that Mr. Biden — whom they called a “puppet” of the Chinese Communist Party — might cede control of the country to the United Nations.
Prosecutors also sought to demonstrate how throughout the postelection period, Mr. Rhodes was desperate to contact Mr. Trump and persuade him to take extraordinary measures to maintain power.
In December 2020, for example, Mr. Rhodes posted an open letter on his website urging Mr. Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. He believed that the law, which is more than two centuries old, would give the president the power to call up militias like the Oath Keepers to suppress the “coup” — purportedly led by Mr. Biden and Kamala Harris, the incoming vice president — that was seeking to unseat him.
As part of the plot, prosecutors maintained, Mr. Rhodes placed a “quick reaction force” of heavily armed Oath Keepers at a Comfort Inn in Arlington County, Va., ready to rush their weapons into Washington if their compatriots at the Capitol needed them.
Zach Montague contributed reporting.