Journalist Discusses the Head of the Oath Keepers

In Washington, D.C., the investigation into the January 6th insurrection continues. In Mike Giglio’s latest piece for The Intercept, he profiled Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, a U.S. paramilitary group that took part in the insurrection. Giglio joins Michel Martin to discuss who he is and what drives him.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now, we turn to Washington as the investigation into the January 6th insurrection continues. Details continue to emerge about efforts made by Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the election. Donald Trump who used to support Vladimir Putin throughout his own presidency. Now, Mark Giglio is a journalist who’s focusing on war, terrorism, and national security. In his latest piece for the “Intercept,” he profiled Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers a U.S. military group that took part in the attack. Giglio joins Michel Martin now to discuss who he is and what drives him.


MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: Thanks, Christian. Mike Giglio, thanks so much for talking with us.


MARTIN: Let’s go back to January 6th, I think many people who saw what was unfolding will remember this kind of column of men, many of them seemingly dressed in what looked like tactical gear, heading up the steps of the capitol, they clearly seemed to be in some sort of order. And it emerges that a lot of these folks were part of a group called the Oath Keepers. Now, this is a group that you have been following for years. How would you define this group, and how did it start?

GIGLIO: So, the Oath Keepers started in 2009 right after Barack Obama’s election when you saw a big rise in right-wing militant groups in America, and they are one of the largest, if not the largest such groups in the country. And I think the number one thing that defines them is their focus on recruiting members of police and military who are either still serving or retired.

MARTIN: And what’s their purpose? What’s the goal?

GIGLIO: They say that they’re there to defend against tyranny and to protect the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. What that has meant in practice, especially since Donald Trump became president, is participating as a force supporting Trump and the Republican Party, and that’s what you saw on January 6th.

MARTIN: You’ve interviewed the founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, more than a dozen times in the past couple of years. And, again I venture to say, until January 6th, and maybe even now, most people will have never heard that time. So, tell me about him. What’s his story?

GIGLIO: So, he was raised by his mother namely. She comes from a family of Mexican migrant laborers. He joined the military right out of high school hoping to join the Green Beret Special Forces. Instead, he never deployed. He was injured during a training jump when you train to be a paratrooper. He was a really hardline libertarian, big Ron Paul supporter. And after he was injured in the military, when he was in his like mid-to late 20s, he went back to school and started community college, went to UNLV, and graduated with honors there, and then, ultimately, graduated from Yale Law School. And so, this guy could have had a career as a, you know, lawyer or, you know, successful in politics, something like that with his educational background but instead, he went down a much darker path, obviously. And after Obama’s election, he found the Oath Keepers. And his career has been as the leader and figure head of the Oath Keepers ever since.

MARTIN: You say they want to defend the constitution. You know, I’m sorry, I can’t help but notice that this deep concern about the constitution seems to have coincided with the election of the first black president of the United States. So, you can’t help but think that there’s a deep strain of white supremacy involved here. What is the world that they see, that they feel they are defending, agitating for or defending against?

GIGLIO: So, with Rhodes particularly, especially because of his libertarian background, he was a guy that in very obscure blogs and places where he was writing, you know, in the 2000s is someone that was writing about the constitution. He was very alarmed by the war on terror. He criticized the Bush administration for the constitutional overreach. You know, that being said, there is no way the Oath Keepers or any of these militant groups, they’re not the only group that serves after Obama’s election, there is no way that they would have existed in the numbers they did if it weren’t for Obama’s election. And I think the best way to understand the group is through the Tea Party. They were embedded in the Tea Party wave. And so, that was an entire reactionary wave to Obama’s presidency. I think it’s undeniable that race fueled a lot of that, but not all of it. And so, they exist in that space, you know, where the Tea Party as — and was sort of welcoming or bringing what we would normally consider the far-right into the mainstream Republican politics, and I think that’s really the trend that you need to track if you want to understand the Oath Keepers. And just, you know, you’re raising a really important question, just in general, when they talk about the constitution, and they want to defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic, but I think it raises the question always of, well, who is defining the enemies? If you’re doing this outside the structure of the police and military, who is defining who the enemy is? And obviously, we saw like during the presidency of Donald Trump, they defined the enemy as Black Lives Matter protesters, Antifa, they called them insurgents, they said that Trump should deploy troops to stop them. And so, they were very much part of this culture war that I think has engulfed, you know, a much larger segment of the right.

MARTIN: But it doesn’t seem as though they have any kind of coherent agenda, a coherent specific desire for how American society should be different other than that they’re mad.

GIGLIO: I think it’s a drive for power at this point. And I think an overarching fear that their way of life, which they would not in conversation with me or anyone else define on race. And, you know, obviously when they’re speaking, like they try to move away from that. But it’s more their — the conservative values, as they define them. You know, and I really think like that is something that Trump fed, consciously. Like telling — you know, if you look at the speech with which Trump launched his reelection campaign, it is100 percent geared toward this viewpoint, you are under threat. Your way of life, however you define it, is going to be taken away from you. Liberals are going to change every facet of the America you know and make it something different. I think the echoes of race in that are obvious, and I think so do you, but they’re not — that’s not what they’re talking about when they talk about this stuff. It’s painted as a much larger societal threat. And that’s why, I think, the lie about the election is so dangerous because the way that this is — these are people that have believed, again, for years that there’s a threat of tyranny and that the country is on the cusp of going past this point of no return. Now, they have been told that the election has been stolen. Now, they have been told it has perhaps has reached the point of no return. What is the recourse available to you if there’s not elections? And these are groups that have defined themselves on the potential for political violence, you know, with being armed being so adamant about the second amendment, and saying that, if necessary, if it comes to it, you know, that’s how they’ll couch it, we will fight. And now, you’re in the moment – – now, you have Trump and the entire apparatus of the Republican Party, in one way or another, telling people that, maybe this moment is here.

MARTIN: So, tell me about January 6th, what was their role on January 6th?

GIGLIO: So, according to prosecutors, the Oath Keepers had two columns of members, as you’ve transcribed, break into the capitol with the other rioters. So, I think that they were — they’re being portrayed, at least, by prosecutors as a major part of the breach of the capitol, not the ring leaders of it, as far as prosecutors said so far, but just a part of it, and an organized part of it. I think it’s important, and I spent a lot of time in this in my recent article, to understand that they were seeing themselves as potentially having a much bigger role than that, and that they were — Stewart Rhodes, in particular, a (INAUDIBLE) the Oath Keepers as waiting to respond to Trump’s call to potentially take up arms. You know, they had stashed weapons in Virginia, and they were — you know, he had written these open letters saying, we ready if called upon to act as an armed enforcer, you know, for the president. And, you know, it seems like they thought that was a real possibility. I haven’t found anything to say why they thought that would be a possibility, but I think it’s really telling that they thought this could really happen and that they were ready to do that as they portrayed themselves. And that’s, again, as being an armed wing of a party, you know, one part of the spectrum and really one person if that had actually come true.

MARTIN: So, what happened afterwards? I mean, first of all, the former president had many days in which he, you know, pardoned his — some, you know, former associates of his, he chose not to pardon any of them, he could have, but he didn’t. What — you know, what now? How many of them are in custody? In fact, Stewart Rhodes is in custody now, isn’t he?

GIGLIO: Yes. So, he was arrested in January, and denied bail, and he’s supposed to go on trial, I think, in July or it could get pushed to this fall. And he’s facing charges of seditious conspiracy, and that could be at least two decades in prison. I spoke to him after January 6th a few times and I noted, you know, a sense of betrayal on his part, you know, feeling like Trump had left him out to dry. He mentioned the pardons issue saying, you know, he didn’t even pardon us on his way out of office. He could have, you know. And I find it telling that Trump recently has been saying, if he gets reelected, he’ll consider pardons for January 6th people. You know, he’s — I think he’s hearing the critiques from this segment of the right, and he’s trying to respond to it. You know, the last time I spoke to Rhodes — the last time I met with Rhodes was in early January, like right on the eve of January 6th, I wanted to speak to him about anniversary and his expectations, and he was really adamant in complaining about not receiving support from Trump or from any big players in the Stop the Steal movement. It came out in a report in Buzz Feed recently that after Rhodes was arrested, Sidney Powell stepped in with the money that she had raised and began funding his legal defense. And I think that’s a major, you know, development, you know, as far as him actually now seeming to receive at least some support from the Stop the Steal players.

MARTIN: So, just for the record, I need to note that Rhodes has pleaded not guilty to the charges of seditious conspiracy. His lawyers describe his actions on January 6th as not criminal, not extreme, and not serious, and they insisted there’s no compelling or legal reason to continue to detain him. The fact that all of the other levers (ph) of government have — do not adhere to the point of view that the election was stolen, has any of that penetrated his consciousness?

GIGLIO: I was really struck by the fact that he could feel so betrayed by Trump, which he did, at least, in my interviews with him, yet still so convinced that the election was stolen. That that idea, like this sort of movement of January 6th can even be independent of Trump, that, you know, they could just take on a life of its own. And you know, I say in the piece, like, something like this, like whether you’re Rhodes or whether — even whether you’re Trump, but to think that you can know where it’s going or that you can control and influence it, I think is really probably foolish.

MARTIN: Well, to your point about how these sympathies are sort of so deeply felt at the highest levels of our government, in fact, society, there’s been news this week about the extensive conversations that the wife of one of the Supreme Court justices, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, Virginia or Ginni Thomas, the constant communication she was in with the chief of staff, Former Chief Of Staff Mark Meadows, she made the point earlier that what is worrisome is that this is no longer a fringe, but there are sympathies of these groups at the highest levels of Republican Party and indeed, because of that, in the government. So, what do you make of that?

GIGLIO: Yes. It’s — you know, I try to, like, use the case of like someone like Stewart Rhodes to tell this story of what has happened to the conservative movement writ large. So, you take a guy like him, before Obama’s election, would have been considered fringe, far right, you know, libertarian, you know, Ron Paul movement, which never has any chance of power, right? He has watched his world view and his mindset, which is, you know, conspiratorial word view, the idea of that — of that, you know, fight against tyranny, being reinforced to him and to anyone who thinks this way by the power centers in the Republican Party, by senators, by the president, the wife of the Supreme Court justice. You know, what would that tell rank and file conservatives, you know, if this is what’s being presented to them from the top down? These views that have always been there, but are becoming much more widespread, and it’s, at this point, being fueled from the top down. What Sidney Powell — if you look at Sidney Powell’s press conference where she announced her master theory of election fraud, it echoes so clearly with the theory of a new world order that militant type groups have always believed. She’s 100 percent hitting all the notes of deep state conspiracies, foreign Marxists, collaborating with traitors in the United States, domestic enemies, to take over America.

MARTIN: You’ve reported extensively around the world. I mean, you’ve reported on — you prefer the term militant groups, others would call them extremist groups. I’m not — maybe you want to tell me what you think the difference is. But you’ve covered ISIS overseas, you’ve covered, you know, militant movements all over the world. Do you see a relationship between — or do you see similarities between the kinds of movements that you have reported on overseas and this group, and others like it that you’ve reported on in the United States?

GIGLIO: Yes. So, I have lived overseas as a war correspondent for six or seven years, and then was getting ready to move back to the United States in 2017, you know, around the last election. And I noticed people were threatening civil war and all this really militant talk that did remind me of places that I had covered where the social fabric has just completely decayed and people are threatening violence and all the rest that is now kind of common place. But when I decided to, you know, at least, consider covering these groups, I did sort of a thought experiment which was, what in my experience covering civil wars overseas could tell me whether to take these groups seriously or not? Because I don’t want to just give them oxygen if they’re ultimately just — don’t matter and they are just kind of like a media show. And for me, you know, the number one thing that would make a militant group successful overseas is if they have sympathy in the military and law enforcement, in active members and also in veterans, because that gives you a know-how and also gives you kind of a foothold in the people who know how to fight, and any kind of really kind of calm (ph) situation who would be countering your group. And, you know, that was what put me onto the Oath Keepers. And, you know, I do think it’s really important to understand just the extent to which these groups or do have sympathy among law enforcement and military. You know, it’s not as widespread as they would like me to portray to say that there has been, you know, 10-headed monster, and we should all be cowering fear over them. But I do think it points to a much larger problem in American society, where you have a not insignificant portion of people with real military and law enforcement experience who are taking these groups seriously, who see them ideologically as on the same wave length, and also, you know, they have sympathy among a broader population. And those — I don’t — you know, I don’t think that we’re going to have necessarily some sort of civil war situation in the United States, but I just think we are way too close to that, you know, we have way too many echoes of those situations, and I think we should be comfortable with, and I think we should raise an alarm over any step in that direction. And that’s what I’m trying to spotlight in my coverage of militant groups in the United States.

MARTIN: Mike Giglio, thank you so much for talking with us today

GIGLIO: Thank you very having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Poland’s prime minister gives an exclusive interview on the war in Ukraine. Chef José Andrés discusses the World Central Kitchen’s efforts to distribute hundreds of thousands of hot meals to Ukrainians. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili compares the situation in Ukraine to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. Journalist Mike Giglio discusses the ongoing January 6 investigation.