In a major development in the investigations of the January 6 insurrection, the U.S. Department of Justice announced on Thursday that it has charged Stewart Rhodes, founder of the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers, of seditious conspiracy alongside 10 other defendants.
Until now, other defendants in the insurrection have faced lesser charges involving trespassing or disrupting government proceedings, after the violent mob attempted to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s election win over then-President Donald Trump. And so, the new indictments pose a serious challenge for right-wing media outlets that have waged a long propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of the event and downplay its significance.
Aaron Blake at The Washington Post gathered a whole set of examples from Fox News hosts and commentators who had argued that because no one had yet been charged with sedition, that meant there had not been a real insurrection and the event’s significance had been vastly exaggerated.
“And that’s the point here: It takes time to build such cases,” Blake wrote. “Declaring the lack of big, early charges to be anything other than a symptom of the slow-moving cogs of justice and working small-to-big is a recipe for having egg on your face later on.”
So, now that there are some genuine charges of sedition, here’s how Fox News and other right-wing personalities are responding.
The new line: This clears Trump!
On Fox’s purported “straight news” program Special Report with Bret Baier, law professor and Fox News contributor Jonathan Turley remarked that there seemingly few sedition charges: “Out of over 700 people indicted, thousands investigated, there really is only 11 thus far that have been tagged with a sort of seditious charge.”
Furthermore, he argued, Republicans might “make a big deal out of the fact that the indictment seems to sort of clear Trump in one respect” on the grounds that Rhodes complained in some messages that Trump was not doing anything more than just talk. “That may be played back by the other side to combat a broader conspiracy of sedition,” Turley added.
Turley was referring to the messages, included in the indictment, that Rhodes allegedly sent at just before 1:30 p.m. EST that day. “Pence is doing nothing. As I predicted,” Rhodes wrote, referring to Trump’s unconstitutional demand that then-Vice President Mike Pence unilaterally oppose Electoral College votes for Biden. Rhodes then added: “All I see Trump doing is complaining. I see no intent by him to do anything. So the patriots are taking it into their own hands. They’ve had enough.” (About an hour after that, as the riot continued at the Capitol, Trump tweeted a continued verbal attack on Pence. Trump would later defend rioters who chanted for Pence to be lynched.)
But with that said, a significant part of the political (and potentially legal) case against Trump is precisely that he wasn’t doing anything. Reportedly, Trump initially resisted deploying the National Guard to defend the Capitol from the rioters and also “gleefully” watched the riot coverage twice.
Some continue to deny there was an insurrection at all
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has pushed an extensive propaganda campaign around the events of January 6, claiming that the attack on the Capitol was the result of a false-flag operation stirred up by government elements, in order to justify putting conservatives in gulags. (On other occasions, though, he has actively defended the rioters and claimed that they made some “correct” points about the 2020 election.)
On the Thursday night edition of his show, Carlson claimed that the indictment was suspiciously timed to deal with political embarrassment about the lack of sedition charges “48 hours after” such questions from Republicans during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Just to illustrate the absurdity of such a claim, the indictment document is 48 pages long and contains extensive allegations of evidence and investigations, which could not have been cobbled together from nothing just to satisfy a sudden political need.
Later in the program, Carlson gave a sympathetic interview to one of the other people charged with seditious conspiracy, Thomas Caldwell from Virginia, who is alleged to have coordinated the Oath Keepers’ so-called “quick reaction force” to storm the Capitol. Carlson tried to brush off the charges, commenting that Caldwell was “pushing 70” and classified as a disabled veteran, and yet “this indictment paints you as the leader of a crack commando unit trying to stage a sort of D-Day invasion on the banks of the Potomac.” The next day, Carlson praised Caldwell explicitly: “In fact, if anyone seems like a thoroughly loyal American it's Thomas Caldwell. There's no question he likes this country much more than Susan Rice does, or Tony Blinken.”
Fox News host Mark Levin repeated an argument on his radio show that “the part of the statute they're using, again, is the statute’s inclusion of efforts to oppose or delay the execution of the law, not to conspire to overthrow, put down or to destroy by force the government of the United States or levy war against them. So, it's still not an insurrection, just so you understand.”
This sort of semantic nitpicking is simply laughable, because the indictment’s language offers multiple explanations like the following: “The purpose of the conspiracy was to oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power by force, by preventing, hindering, or delaying by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of power.”
As an example of how this conspiracy would work, the indictment includes a message that Rhodes allegedly sent to a Signal chat group on December 25, 2020, about using the threat of force to make Congress hand the election to Trump: “I think Congress will screw him [President Trump] over. The only chance we/he has is if we scare the shit out of them and convince them it will be torches and pitchforks time [if] they don’t do the right thing. But I don’t think they will listen.”
In short, delaying the execution of the laws was the means toward an end — and overthrowing the government of the United States was the clearly stated end.
Rhodes boasted that January 6 wasn’t committed by antifa. Fox’s “straight news” reaction: What about antifa?
The indictment describes an incident that occurred at just before 1:30 p.m. EST on January 6, in which Rhodes responded to a suggestion that the people storming the Capitol were anti-fascist activists orother left-wing elements by dispelling the notion. “Nope. I’m right here,” he messaged. “These are Patriots.”
On Friday morning, Fox’s purported straight news program Americas Newsroom ran a report about this exchange, and Fox correspondent David Spunt used it as an opportunity to play up the supposed equivalence between unrest that occurred in 2020 over issues of police violence and racial justice and the attempt to overthrow American democracy in January 2021. He said officials say antifa wasn’t part of January 6, but then he noted that there have been investigations into the loose network of anti-fascist collectives: “You remember courthouses under attack, people were stomped, people were trampled, businesses absolutely destroyed. Just this week on Capitol Hill, Republicans pressed DOJ and FBI officials about what's being done.”
Tired: Not charging Rhodes means there’s a conspiracy. Wired: Charging Rhodes means there’s a conspiracy.
One of the key figures in spreading conspiracy theories that the entire Capitol attack on January 6 was a false-flag operation by government elements has been Darren Beattie, who has worked extensively with Carlson. (Beattie was also a Trump White House staffer who left his job after reports surfaced that he had attended a white nationalist conference.)
On his website Revolver News, Beattie has published lengthy posts arguing that Rhodes was under “federal protection” by not having been indicted, and that this “breaks the entire Capitol ‘insurrection’ lie wide open.” Beattie argued in June 2021 that Rhodes’ career of far-right public statements and potential incitement amounted to “fedposting,” or trafficking in incendiary rhetoric in order to attract followers for the government to target.
Indeed, Beattie argued in June 2021 that such a conspiracy applied to Rhodes’ entire tenure as founder of the Oath Keeper could be a government operation: “And this is what we believe the Oath Keepers is at the highest organizational level, and we believe the overwhelming share of evidence indicates that Stewart Rhodes’s primary purpose is to fulfill this deceptive function on behalf of elements within the government.”
Beattie made similar allegations about Rhodes being a federal asset in September and October. “So if Rhodes is a fed, that would mean the government used a fake anti-government front group to ‘attack’ itself and frame the sitting President and his supporters for the crime,” Beattie wrote. “Imagine that coming out in ‘Discovery.’”
So, what is Beattie saying now? He claimed Thursday on his Twitter account, “The questions surrounding Rhodes only intensify in light of recent arrest,” because it had taken this long for charges to be filed and that he had not been arrested for a lesser charge. Beattie is also implying that the indictment of Rhodes could be a ploy to keep him from having to testify as a defense witness in the trial of another Oath Keepers defendant. (Just to quickly address this point, Rhodes could have just as easily asserted his 5th Amendment rights in somebody else’s trial even if he hadn’t been facing his own trial.)
Beattie appeared Thursday on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s show, and laid out these claims.
As to the fact that Beattie was making these claims on Bannon’s show, keep in mind that Bannon has his own record of incitement leading up to the January 6 insurrection, and he is also currently indicted for contempt of Congress over his total refusal to speak with or provide documents to the House select committee investigating January 6.
So perhaps the people most eager to allege a grand conspiracy by the government over the events of January 6 might be doing so in order to distract from something.