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Oath Keepers Leader Sentenced to 18 Years in Prison. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired May 25, 2023 - 13:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: All right, two prominent members of the Oath Keepers are being sentenced for their actions on the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 of 2021.

The judge saying that the actions of Stewart Rhodes, the founder and the leader of the far right group the Oath Keepers, amounted to domestic terrorism, that he is going to be sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Kelly Meggs also being sentenced today. They were both found guilty, you may recall, of seditious conspiracy.

We have CNN senior crime and justice reporter Katelyn Polantz joining us now.

Katelyn, this just broke. Tell us the very latest.


So, the judge has just delivered the sentence to Stewart Rhodes. He will be spending 18 years in federal prison for the crimes he committed, up to and including on January 6, as he gathered those Oath Keepers to Washington, D.C., and then they went inside the Capitol, and when he was leading the organization and wanting to essentially foment violence in the United States because of what the government was doing, because of the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

The judge, Amit Mehta, is just finishing his speech to Rhodes and delivering that sentence right now. And he is fully aware, you can tell by what the judge is saying, how worried he is for the ongoing threat that -- this political extremism that Stewart Rhodes espouses even today.

He -- the judge just asked: "I dare say we now hold our collective breath when an election is approaching. Do we have another January 6? It remains to be seen."

And then he pointed out to Rhodes how much Rhodes is not showing any remorse at all, and that how he is believing, fro what Stewart Rhodes just said in the courtroom to him today, that Rhodes is ready to take up arms the moment he is released from prison, that now we know that will be many, many years from now; 18 years is what the sentence is at this time -- Brianna.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: The judge's words here, in terms of making this decision -- quoting here -- "This is an additional level of calculation," speaking of Rhodes.

"This is an additional level of planning. This is an additional level of targeting an institution of American democracy at its most important moment, the transfer of power," that informing the judge's decision here, saying that here was the time when the U.S. was -- was -- when the Congress, the U.S. Congress, was certifying the election.

And that's when Rhodes and his group, in the judge's view, struck. And that's informed the judge's decision to describe this as, in effect, domestic terrorism.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Judge Amit Mehta also getting to the root of the planning and organization that went into this attack, saying -- quote -- "He was the reason they were, in fact in Washington, D.C. Oath Keepers wouldn't have been there but for Stewart Rhodes. I don't think anyone contends otherwise."

Katelyn, if you're still with us, bring us up to speed on the situation with his accomplice who's also facing a sentence today.


That man is named Kelly Meggs. He's from Florida. And he is essentially the number two, the person that Rhodes was giving direction to and who was leading others on January 6 in Washington, D.C. Now, the judge has already indicated that Meggs would not have been doing those things if it were not for Rhodes.

And so there is the possibility that he could get a much lighter sentence, or at least a lighter sentence, than Stewart Rhodes today. We know that 18 years for Stewart Rhodes. The Justice Department was asking for more than that. We know too that Kelly Meggs, the Justice Department wants 21 years for him.

It doesn't look like he would get that much amount of time, but we don't know yet exactly how his sentencing will go. That is not until 1:30 this afternoon. But Judge Mehta really does have some harsh words for Stewart Rhodes today and how much of a threat seditious, conspiracy and what these men did, what the Oath Keepers did on January 6 did to shake the foundation of democracy and the transfer of power.

SCIUTTO: Katelyn, you have been covering this for some time.

The judge said that Rhodes did not express remorse for this. And the judge stated that -- feared that, if freed, he'd attempt this again. What exactly did Rhodes say through the course of this trial that gave the judge that concern?


POLANTZ: Right. Well, the judge's words specifically was that: "As we heard you speak

today, the moment you are released, you will be prepared to take up arms against our government."

He's quoting back to him. And that's because Stewart Rhodes spoke for about 20 minutes today and essentially revealed how extreme he still is. He believes that the election of 2020 was illegal. He believes that there is a criminal regime governing the United States. He believes he is a political prisoner.

But Judge Mehta said to him: No, you are not. It is not because of your political beliefs that you are here today. It is because you believe violence was the way to achieve the outcome of the election that you preferred. And that is not the way that American democracy works.

KEILAR: There was so much -- there's so much evidence, too, Katelyn, here about not just what Rhodes did in the lead-up to January 6 and during in terms of coordination, but what he did afterwards, right?

You had some who were facing charges who were trying to make an argument that this was something that got out of hand. His actions right afterwards, in the weeks and months that followed, made it very clear, no, this was the entire point of what he was trying to do.

POLANTZ: Right. He was still sending messages even after January 6.

And that became a key piece of why this was a seditious conspiracy case. I mean, they had been waiting. The Oath Keepers and Rhodes were waiting for President Trump at the time to basically call them and invoke the Insurrection Act to take over the Capitol and block the transfer of power.

And when they failed on January 6, Rhodes continued to send messages to his group essentially saying that maybe they should consider -- maybe they should regroup and continue to figure this out. So that is really part of what this case is.

And, yesterday, whenever the Justice Department was beginning to lay out some of their arguments for this sentencing today, they were reading back to back many of the things that Stewart Rhodes was saying and brought it up again today, that how often he talked about fighting, about bloody revolution, about civil war.

And then, after that, the judge acknowledged today that there had -- was no documented message of Stewart Rhodes ever expressing regret after January 6 in the many, many messages that he sent.

SANCHEZ: We want to get some legal perspective now. Katelyn, please stand by.

Let's go to Dave Aronberg, who's been watching this case very closely.

Dave, your reaction to this sentence, 18 years for Stewart Rhodes, the prosecutors asking for 25?


The prosecutors asked for something within the sentencing guidelines. And the judge, after hearing Rhodes' diatribe, still gave him under what the prosecutors asked for. But it's still significant, because you rarely see anyone convicted for this, seditious conspiracy.

And when I heard the words that Stewart Rhodes said, it made it clear to me that he is playing for a pardon. He knows he's going to be serving years in prison, and he thinks his best chance to get out of prison is not by showing remorse. It's not on appeal. It's by hoping that Donald Trump becomes president again and then getting a pardon from him.


Well, we should note, during the CNN town hall, President Trump said that he would be inclined to pardon many of the January 6 rioters. He said that in a public forum.

Evan Perez, you have covered the Justice Department a long time. As you know, the FBI has said for years that domestic extremists, right- wing extremists...


SCIUTTO: ... are the number one terror threat in this country, which I think folks at home might not be aware of.

In an age, the last decade or two, when Islamist, international terrorism has been such a threat, the FBI has said explicitly, both under the Biden and Trump administrations, that this is the biggest terrorism threat

PEREZ: Right.

And it's a really complex threat that the FBI, the Homeland Security Department, they grapple with, because these groups, they recruit from former military members. They recruit former police, people who are essentially trained to protect us, protect the Constitution, protect our institutions.


PEREZ: And they adopt this ideology that essentially takes the view that the institutions need to be brought down, that the U.S. government is the enemy.

And so this -- this has appealed to a lot of people around the country. And this group, the Oath Keepers, in particular, are very tricky for the FBI to deal with, because, as you can tell, there's a lot of sympathy for some of these guys, depending on where you are in the country.

And, again, because of the fact that they have this past in the U.S. military, it's often a very difficult thing for them to try to infiltrate these groups, for them to try to figure out, where does the threat lie, right?


A lot of times, especially in the last couple of years with some of the racial justice protests, these guys would show up to try to essentially instigate things.

And so that's one of the difficulties here for the FBI, is to try to figure out how to go at these groups without violating their First Amendment rights. You have a right, by the way, to say that the U.S. government is wrong, and you have a right to protest all of that.

Where it crosses the line is, of course, what these men are accused of doing, which is to try to essentially use that moment on January 6 to try to block the transfer of power.

KEILAR: To remind people who are just joining us now what is happening as we're following this breaking news, the leader of the Oath Keeper sentenced to 18 years for his actions around January 6.

A judge in the sentencing process -- he's been convicted of seditious conspiracy, but a judge sentencing him decided that his actions amounted to domestic terrorism, that Stewart -- Stewart Rhodes' actions on and around January 6 amounted to domestic terrorism.

And this is significant, because this is the longest sentence handed out as it pertains to the actions of anyone on January 6. But let's just also rewind a little bit just to remind people. I think people have become a little familiar with Stewart Rhodes, the name, the Oath Keepers. They remember the column of people walking up the steps to the Capitol.

But just take us back, Evan, through what he did, where he actually was or was not on January 6, but his involvement.

PEREZ: Yes, look, his -- his involvement here was, he was the ringleader for the members of this group who -- that day, as Katelyn just pointed out, they were anticipating that the president was going to declare this -- essentially call them out for help because of declaring the Insurrection Act.

And so they were -- they were anticipating that they were going to be foot soldiers to essentially help stage a coup of the U.S. government that day.

SCIUTTO: And foot soldiers, it's notable, right, because they came dressed the part, right?

PEREZ: They came...

SCIUTTO: They came wearing the tactical vests. They came with plastic cuffs and so on.

And just reading again from the judge's decision here, to your point about his involvement and to Brianna's point about his leadership: "He was giving the orders," Judge Mehta said. PEREZ: Yes.

SCIUTTO: "He was the one organizing the teams that day. He was the reason they were in fact in Washington, D.C. Oath Keepers wouldn't have been there but for Stewart Rhodes. I don't think anyone contends otherwise. He was the one that gave the order, and they went."

PEREZ: Right.

So he was the one that was the ringleader of this entire operation. They viewed it as kind of a military operation. Again, they believed that the president was the lawful one, that he had won the election and that he was being robbed. They believed -- or they say they believed that they were trying to save the country.

And so that's the reason why, early on, after this -- after January 6, the U.S. attorney at the time, who is a Trump appointee, they focused on him and the actions of this group. Very early on, they thought that they should bring a seditious conspiracy case, despite the fact that, as you know, this is something very rarely brought in the United States.

It's politically charged for a reason. And so that was one of the -- he was one of the earliest focuses of the investigation, certainly from the federal standpoint, from the FBI, from the U.S. attorney. Again, a Trump appointee viewed Stewart Rhodes as sort of the cog in the wheel here who was trying to bring forth what was going to be a coup d'etat that day.

SANCHEZ: Let's get some security analysis now from Juliette Kayyem, who joins us over the phone.

Juliette, getting back to a point Evan made just a moment ago about the federal government's challenge in taking on these kinds of groups, the DHS just put out a bulletin..


SANCHEZ: ... warning about activity from...


SANCHEZ: ... neo-Nazi, white supremacist, white nationalist groups.

And we have seen in the last several weeks, you and I have had conversations...


SANCHEZ: ... about these kinds of attacks in Texas and just apparently a few hundred feet away from the White House just several days ago.

Does this sentencing perhaps have a chilling effect on these groups and their attempts to recruit?

KAYYEM: It -- overall, it will have a chilling effect on these groups.

But make clear what's happened here is, of course, the terrorism enhancement is what's putting Rhodes behind bars well into his 60s. This is a good thing. At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security has said, as of this morning, there's a heightened threat environment, so nothing specific, but just lots of folks are going to start to get animated as more candidates begin to say that they're going to run for president, as the former President Trump uses his platforms to agitate and to go after some of these candidates.


And so those things combined, obviously, are going to increase the possibility that people might be animated or incited for violence, so that's individuals will clearly respond to this.

But the bigger fear and what the was talking about was the conspiracy part of this. This is what Rhodes is responsible -- it wasn't just Rhodes upset. He organized something. He planned it. He -- he was essentially, as the judge said, ready to bring down an institution of United States democracy.

In this sense, 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 importantly, for them to raise money. It's the money that matters to them, because, one, they're greedy. People like Rhodes make a lot of money off of this violence, but, also, they can't organize and amplify their messages.

I want to just point out one other thing that's interesting in what Rhodes said. Rhodes spoke in court today. Rhodes said that the Oath Keepers deter violence. And then he points to the Proud Boys, and he says, they're the violent ones.

So what you're now starting to see, in a good counterterrorism way, is these groups go against each other. That is good. If they are not unified, that means that they are distracted by each other. I was shocked when Rhodes said this, but -- but you want the enemy of the state to be in disarray, disorganized and going against each other.

So we shouldn't forget that Rhodes threw the Proud Boys under the bus and said the Oath Keepers, his group, were the peaceful ones. So, I think that's good news, actually.

SANCHEZ: Rhodes saying that they deter violence, as we're watching video from January 6 of Capitol Police...


SANCHEZ: ... officers being assaulted and mauled by a mob.

Juliette, Dave, Evan, Katelyn, please stand by.

We're going to have much more on this, the leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, sentenced to 18 years behind bars.

Stay with CNN NEWS CENTRAL. We're back in just moments.



KEILAR: A federal judge has just sentenced Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes to 18 years in federal prison.

I want to get straight to Katelyn Polantz, who is outside of the courthouse following this for us.

This is the longest sentence handed down to someone for their involvement in January 6, Katelyn. Tell us the very latest here.


So, Stewart Rhodes has been sentenced to 18 years in federal prison by a federal judge today, after he was convicted of multiple crimes related to January 6, including seditious conspiracy. So, Stewart Rhodes was the leader of the Oath Keepers.

And the judge today said that he did not believe that the Oath Keepers would have gathered, even in Washington, D.C., on January 6 had it not been for Rhodes and his organization. He also expressed quite a bit of fear of Rhodes' political extremism.

So, Stewart Rhodes spoke for about 20 minutes before he was -- he received his sentence from the judge. And he essentially repeated many of the things that he felt back in 2020, that the election was illegal, that he believed that this was an illegal regime of the U.S. government that Joe Biden would be president.

And then the judge reacted quite strongly to that today and said that: "I dare say we now -- all now hold our collective breath when an election is approaching. Will we have another January 6? That remains to be seen," and that he believed that Stewart Rhodes, even when he emerges from prison many years from now -- 18 years is the total sentence -- that Judge Mehta believes that he may be an ongoing threat or pose another threat to the United States, because Rhodes still is pledging that, even when he finishes his sentence, he will feel the same way -- Brianna.

SCIUTTO: We should note -- we should note that the former president was asked about the people who were charged for attacking the Capitol on January 6 and how he would treat them if he were reelected president.

As a reminder, we're going to play some of that sound here. Apologies. We don't have the sound, but I'm going to read what the president said in answer to that question.

He was asked directly by a member of the town hall: "My question to you is, will you pardon the January 6 rioters who were convicted of federal offenses?"

Trump said: "I am inclined to pardon many of them. I can't say for every single one, because, a couple of them, probably, they got out of control." Later, he went on to say that, in Washington, D.C., you cannot get a fair trial.

Evan Perez, you have covered these groups for some time, particularly in the wake of January 6. How do they take the former president's words when he expresses support like that for them in public?

PEREZ: Well, I mean, it -- certainly, it boosts their profile. I mean, the former president, those comments are not alone.

I mean, he's -- went to a campaign event in New Hampshire recently with a former...


PEREZ: ... member of the Oath Keepers who has already been sentenced and is unrepentant.

And he calls them political prisoners. He has addressed rallies outside of the jail where some of these people, some of the people who are still awaiting trial or serving sentences there. So, he has served as sort of like the -- he's used his bullhorn, essentially, to help propel these groups.

And to listen to what the FBI says they were doing, for weeks before January 6, they went and did some training in North Carolina, preparing for that day. So there was a lot of things that the former president was doing when he was in office to encourage them to show up that day.


And he continues to encourage them. He continues to find ways to propel them, because he believes that -- obviously, he believes what they did was not wrong at all.

SANCHEZ: And we have to remember some of the terminology that was used before this unfolded at the Capitol on January 6 by the president and others on the Ellipse during that speech.

I was there. I recall them talking about hand-to-hand combat and having to fight to save the democracy.

We still have Dave Aronberg with us.

And, Dave, you alluded to, a few moments ago, Rhodes being unrepentant as a legal strategy, hoping that he may be pardoned by the former president if he is indeed reelected.

And, obviously, we know that there's a special counsel currently weighing an indictment of the former president over his role in the violence we saw that day.

ARONBERG: Yes, I don't think this sentence makes it or -- and this conviction makes it more likely that Trump will be indicted for January 6. It's going to be based on the facts on the ground. And it's tougher to indict Trump, because there were many layers

between him and the violence on that day. And, also, the case with the Mar-a-Lago documents, that's a clear-cut one. That is easy for prosecutors.

But you know what? This was a risk that paid off for Merrick Garland, and it could make Jack Smith more confident and emboldened to go for it and charge the former president. One interesting tie between the defendants, the Oath Keepers, and Trump's inner circle is that one of the Oath Keeper defendants was in a separate group providing security for Roger Stone on January 6.

So, if they're going to continue to flip these -- these individuals, that could lead to Trump's inner circle and then eventually perhaps to Trump himself. But, as far as today, this is a good day for democracy. I don't think it immediately has an effect on Donald Trump, but stay tuned.

SCIUTTO: Dave Aronberg, Evan Perez, Katelyn Polantz, thanks so much. Please stand by.

If you're just joining us now, we can report that the leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for his actions leading up to and on January 6, the judge noting in giving his sentence of 18 years that he has had -- Rhodes has had no remorse and, in the judge's words, he remains a threat to this country, to its democracy -- to its democracy, for having attacked American democracy at its most important moment, the transfer of power.

He went on to say, this is terrorism, qualifying those attacks and the Oath Keepers' role in those attacks, not just on the Capitol itself, but on the process, in attempting to disrupt the certification of the election of President Joe Biden, the judge -- the judge calling that an act of domestic terrorism.

We want to listen in to now Stewart Rhodes' lawyers speaking outside the courthouse now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... has he ever had the opportunity to look at a pending defendant and say: I consider you a future danger to the future of the country.

And when I heard that, not unlike Phillip just stated, I anticipated much higher than an 18-year sentence, not that I agree with the sentence, but I anticipated much more, based on the way that he was leading up to it.


QUESTION: Can you -- did the judge have much to say about (OFF-MIKE) Can you also tell us how Rhodes is feeling? Have you talked to him since the sentence (OFF-MIKE)


I think the judge is speaking to the fact that Rhodes continually, continually gets on the radio, continually speaks about these things, I mean, just recently as four days ago, and I think the judge is referencing those things. Rhodes is not going to be quiet. Rhodes has an opinion. He's going to get it out there.

There's a lot of people that believe his opinions are correct. The judge does not.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we have never tried to silence Stewart at all.


QUESTION: What about the First Amendment? Doesn't Stewart have the right to the First Amendment, freedom of speech?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is way too -- this is not the...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clearly -- clearly, that will be part of appellate issues. Yes, absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. This is not...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we have never tried to silence Stewart.

QUESTION: What do you think, Ed? Speak up, Ed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I think that this case was all about the weaponization of speech by the Department of Justice.

And I think that, essentially, they have used Stewart Rhodes' words against him. It was not what his actions were, but it was his words. I mean, Mr. Bright and Mr. Linder and I all argued that he never went into the Capitol, he never assaulted anyone, he never destroyed any property.

We argued all those matters during the trial and post-trial. And, clearly, the words of Stewart Rhodes is what the judge returned to time and time again, what he had said over a long period of time.

And, just as Mr. Linder said, had he been in Austin, Texas, on January 6, and not in Washington, D.C., would he have been indicted?