Internal Secret Service emails obtained by CREW show special agents in close communication with Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, while failing to acknowledge the group’s ties to white nationalists and clashes with law enforcement.
In September 2020, a Secret Service agent sent an email to others within the agency, informing them that he had just spoken to Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes about an upcoming visit by then-President Trump to Fayetteville, NC. The agent, who referred to himself as “the unofficial liaison to the Oath Keepers (inching towards official),” described the group as “primarily retired law enforcement/former military members who are very pro-LEO [law enforcement officer] and Pro Trump. Their stated purpose is to provide protection and medical attention to Trump supporters if they come under attack by leftist groups.” He went on to say that Rhodes, “had specific questions and wanted to liaison [sic] with our personnel” and shared Rhodes’s cell phone number.
The emails obtained by CREW as part of an ongoing public records request offer only a snapshot of the communication between the Oath Keepers and the Secret Service. As they focus solely on the time period around the Fayetteville event, the extent of the contact Stewart Rhodes had with the agency remains unknown. The agent “inching towards” being the “official” liaison for Oath Keepers suggests a more longstanding relationship with Rhodes.
Another Secret Service agent spoke to Rhodes and informed the other agents that “their desire is to assist those attending the event make it to and from their cars safely. They are NOT there to demonstrate or push a political agenda.” In October 2022, a former member of the Oath Keepers testified that Rhodes had spoken to the Secret Service to coordinate around the rally, but an agency spokesman told CNN that, “The US Secret Service doesn’t have enough information to say whether or not this call actually took place.” These emails show that it did.
When one agent requested intelligence about the Oath Keepers another responded: “General searches revealed news articles that touched on the background of the founder Stewart Rhodes and the group. Rhodes has denounced White Nationalists ideals while sharing his dislike for ANTIFA…The group claims it is a local community response team for natural or civil disorders.” Agents also noted that a Facebook account associated with the group “contained pro-gun content, commentary on racism in the US, and news articles about politics,” but failed to find anything else.
There was plenty of other publicly available information about Rhodes and the Oath Keepers at the time that should have easily raised alarm.
In 2014, Oath Keepers traveled to Ferguson, Missouri with assault rifles claiming they were providing security for businesses in the area after the grand jury decision not to indict the white police officer who killed Michael Brown. The St. Louis County Police Department had to demand that the Oath Keepers stop patrolling the city, explaining in a statement that members were walking on rooftops of businesses holding semi-automatic rifles, breaking the county’s ordinance regulating security officers and guards. The police reportedly threatened arrest, and the Oath Keepers began protesting the authorities.
On the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting, Oath Keepers again arrived in Ferguson with assault rifles and flak jackets, apparently intending to “protect” businesses and right-wing journalists, including an employee from InfoWars. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called their presence “both unnecessary and inflammatory.” This was also covered extensively by national media.
The group has also compared Hillary Clinton to Hitler on its website, and on May 5, 2015, Rhodes was recorded saying that then-Sen. John McCain should be tried for treason, convicted and “hung by the neck until dead.” A long list of former Oath Keepers allegedly cut ties with the group by 2017, citing concerns with Rhodes’s leadership.
Rhodes’s conduct outside of the Oath Keepers had also repeatedly come into question. In October 2015, the Montana Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel recommended that Rhodes be disbarred for violating his attorney oath following a number of ethics and conduct complaints against him, joining Arizona, which admonished Rhodes in 2012 for practicing without a license.
While the nearly all-white Oath Keepers themselves are purportedly not a white nationalist organization, and Rhodes may have “denounced” white nationalist ideals, Oath Keepers have repeatedly worked alongside white supremacist and white nationalist groups. In 2016, as neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups such as the National Socialist Movement, factions of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Freedom Party deployed members at polling sites, the Oath Keepers advised its members to do the same undercover. The Washington Post reported in 2017 that white supremacists in the alt-right scene “seem to have a lot in common with the Oath Keepers,” but that the Oath Keepers were not as racist or radical as certain far-right white nationalists would “prefer.” The Oath Keepers have repeatedly been highlighted in national articles as part of the landscape of white supremacist militias, and are often tied to their public ally the Proud Boys, a group that has been categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Proud Boys similarly are allied with the American Guard, a white nationalist group according to SPLC.
Rhodes is now best known for his role in organizing significant turnout of insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, just a few months after he was in contact with the Secret Service. Rhodes and other Oath Keepers planned to participate in violence at the Capitol—against Secret Service protectees, no less—and he gave followers instructions like “stay fully armed” and “get ready to fight” leading up to the attack.
In November 2022, Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy by a jury for his role in the attempt to keep Donald Trump in power, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison in May—the longest of any convicted January 6th defendant so far. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta found that Rhodes’s role in January 6th amounted to terrorism and said that he presents “an ongoing threat and peril to this country.”
Stewart Rhodes photo by Gage Skidmore under a Creative Commons license.