By Marshall Cohen, CNN
The Justice Department on Thursday announced the first sedition charges related to the January 6 insurrection, a watershed moment in the year-long investigation.
The case revolves around the Oath Keepers, a far-right extremist group, and its leader Stewart Rhodes. Many of the defendants were already facing charges for storming the US Capitol building and deny wrongdoing. But the new indictment raises the stakes significantly and made public new details about their alleged plans for violence.
Attorney General Merrick Garland had balked at the earlier efforts to bring the seditious conspiracy charge. But in the months since, people briefed on the matter say FBI investigators and DC federal prosecutors have spent much time building the case, at least in part with the help of cooperators and the benefit of internal communications among the Oath Keepers.
Here are the key takeaways:
DOJ went there on sedition
Federal prosecutors have been slammed — by legal experts, Democratic lawmakers, Donald Trump critics, and media pundits — for going easy on the rioters. That criticism has now been answered in a big way with the charges of “seditious conspiracy.”
Garland said in a major speech last week that prosecutors would go after the January 6 perpetrators “at any level… whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy.” Thursday’s indictment puts some meat on the bones.
Sedition is difficult to prove in court, and an indictment is only the very beginning of a legal case. There are many hoops that prosecutors will need to jump through before they win convictions. But this is a critical first step.
It destroys, once and for all, the talking point from those downplaying the events of January 6 that the attack on the Capitol wasn’t an insurrection because nobody has been charged with sedition.
It took a while to reach this point in the investigation. Last March, it seemed like former US Attorney Michael Sherwin, who initially led the investigation, got out ahead of his skis when he said there should be sedition cases. Months passed without anything materializing to back up his assertions. With the new indictment, Sherwin has been vindicated.
Extent of preparation for January 6
One of the most debated questions about January 6 has been over how much planning there was to invade the Capitol.
Thousands of Trump supporters breached Capitol grounds, and a couple thousand got inside the building. But was there a plan? And who knew about the plan?
It’s clear from court filings that for many of the rioters, there was no organized plan. But that’s not the full story. The sedition case against the Oath Keepers highlights that there were hardened groups of alleged criminals within the mob that essentially planned for war.
Rhodes, the Oath Keepers’ leader, is quoted as telling his supporters that they should prepare for a “bloody” operation and that they would need to “fight” in a “war.”
One defendant allegedly took an early November trip to Washington to conduct recon for an upcoming “op.” Communications about the “bloody” “fight” and “revolution” were accompanied by logistical planning, prosecutors alleged, with defendants discussing obtaining and bringing weapons to the Washington area.
It could have been worse
The indictment provided yet another reminder that January 6 could have been so much worse.
Shortly after getting inside the Capitol, one group of Oath Keepers tried to make a coordinated move on the Senate chamber, seemingly as if they were executing a mission. According to the indictment, they “tried to push their way through” a line of police, but the officers “forcibly repelled their advance.” (Other rioters eventually breached the Senate floor and gallery.)
Prosecutors added more details of how the Oath Keepers allegedly stockpiled weapons at a nearby hotel in Virginia, just in case they needed to deploy a “quick reaction force” into DC.
The charging documents say one defendant, Joshua James, got a message from a friend saying, “I have friends not far from DC with a lot of weapons and ammo if you get into trouble.” James replied, “that might be helpful, but we have a s***load of QRF on standby with an arsenal.”
Rhodes also amassed weapons and other gear on his way to Washington, DC, before January 6, prosecutors said. He allegedly bought a rifle, a magazine, and other firearms equipment, including sights, mounts, triggers, slings, and an optic plate. Rhodes was on the Capitol grounds on January 6 but hasn’t been accused of entering the building, though prosecutors have said he “directed” his supporters to do so.
The plot was bigger than Jan 6
Up to this point, federal prosecutors had been accusing conspiracy defendants of aiming to block Congress’ vote to certify the election.
But Thursday’s case ups the ante, widening the conspiracy past January 6. The indictment says the Oath Keepers aimed for more than disruption of Congress. This group, prosecutors say, wanted to stop the transfer of presidential power from Trump to Joe Biden.
After the insurrection, they gathered to celebrate, then continued talking.
“We aren’t quitting!! We are reloading!!,” one of the defendants wrote in a Signal chat.
In the week after the riot, Rhodes allegedly spent more than $17,500 on weapons, equipment, and ammunition. One member, according to the filings, said Rhodes should stay “below the radar,” while another brought what he called “all available weapons” to Rhodes’ home in Texas.
Around Inauguration Day, January 20, Rhodes allegedly told associates to organize local militias to oppose the Biden administration. Another member allegedly said, “After this… if nothing happens…its war…Civil War 2.0.”
“Rhodes and certain co-conspirators … planned to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power by January 20, 2021, which included multiple ways to deploy force,” the indictment says.
Hunting for the bigger fish
The Justice Department spent all of 2021 rounding up nearly two dozen alleged members of the Oath Keepers. They secured the cooperation of a few people charged in the original Oath Keepers conspiracy case — the one without the sedition charges — which was a significant breakthrough.
Now we know that prosecutors were building a bigger case, and moving up the chain, to the leader of the extremist organization. Rhodes has previously denied any wrongdoing regarding January 6.
The big question is: Is this the end of the road? Could Rhodes have information that implicates anyone else higher up?
It has been widely reported that his organization was providing security for Trump surrogates like Roger Stone and Ali Alexander while they were in DC around January 6. A major criminal case obviously ramps up the pressure on people like Rhodes to cut a deal with prosecutors and become a government witness, if they have a story to tell.
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CNN’s Katelyn Polantz, Evan Perez and Tierney Sneed contributed to this report.