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How the far-right Oath Keepers militia planned for violence on Jan. 6

PolitiFact | Their leaders sent top-down messages ordering members to protest and fight.
Joshua James, a 33-year-old Arab man and a member of Oath Keepers, was indicted on a conspiracy charge after previously being charged with obstruction of an official proceeding, aiding and abetting and being in a restricted building or grounds.
Joshua James, a 33-year-old Arab man and a member of Oath Keepers, was indicted on a conspiracy charge after previously being charged with obstruction of an official proceeding, aiding and abetting and being in a restricted building or grounds.
Published Sep. 23

Editor’s Note: PolitiFact has reviewed court filings and other information for hundreds of defendants facing charges related to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in an ongoing effort to document what role misinformation played. This report reflects some of our findings about the way that hundreds of false claims about the 2020 election being stolen contributed to the events of that day. Our reporting will continue; read a previous report here. To comment on this story, please go to our Facebook page. Send feedback or tips via email to truthometer@politifact.com.

The moment showed unexpected order in what was otherwise the chaotic invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

A group of about 11 people snaked single-file through the crowd toward the building’s east side. They wore helmets and olive-green combat gear, vests and backpacks. Each stretched one arm forward to clasp the shoulder of the person in front of them.

An FBI investigator recognized the configuration when he saw it unfold in one of the hundreds of videos that surfaced from that day. It was “a tactical formation used by infantrymen in the military,” the investigator later wrote in a federal complaint charging the people involved with federal crimes, including conspiracy. “The purpose of maintaining direct physical contact with one another is to efficiently communicate, especially in crowded or noisy areas.”

A photo contained in federal court documents shows Oath Keepers militia members moving up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in a military stack formation.
A photo contained in federal court documents shows Oath Keepers militia members moving up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in a military stack formation. [ Court filing ]

The group soon forced its way to the front of a crowd gathered around a set of Capitol doors. It didn’t take long for them to make it inside.

Court records show that of the more than 500 people charged in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection, no one was more coordinated in their efforts to disrupt the congressional certification of the U.S. electoral votes than individuals like these.

The people in the Capitol steps formation were Oath Keepers, militarily-trained people who spoke with one another about commitment to their “oath” — one to “uphold the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Their ranks included active-duty military, veterans and some with law enforcement experience, people who had joined up with the organization since its founding in 2009. The group’s motto, “not on our watch,” emphasized a level of vigilance against a perceived threat that could strike at any time.

Their leaders sent top-down messages ordering members to protest and fight. Some trained before they came and brought armor, tools and weapons. They raised money for protective gear and travel to D.C. Some attacked police. In many cases, prosecutors say, members of far-right groups helped escalate the rally into a full-on attack.

Of approximately 40 people facing conspiracy charges as of early September, 19 were associated with the far-right Oath Keepers militia, according to PolitiFact’s review of court files. Another 17 were affiliated with the Proud Boys extremist group. As part of PolitiFact’s ongoing look at how misinformation fueled the events of Jan. 6, we examined the case files of defendants associated with Oath Keepers and found they tell a story of preparation, communication and structure.

Jan. 6 was, in the words of one Oath Keeper affiliate, “everything we f--king trained for.”

‘Awaiting direction’

Jessica Watkins was a 38-year-old former Army Ranger and veteran of the war in Afghanistan. She joined right out of high school in 2001 and completed airborne training before being deployed, according to reporting by BuzzFeed.

Watkins was forced out of the military “after her sexual orientation was discovered,” her attorney wrote in a motion for home detention.

She later joined a nonprofit working on HIV prevention and took a job as a full-time firefighter and EMT when she returned to civilian life.

Watkins formed a small paramilitary group called the Ohio State Regular Militia, of which she described herself the commander. Her partner told Buzzfeed she was motivated to organize the group after a string of tornadoes left thousands of people without power in Dayton, Ohio. Prosecutors have referred to the militia in court documents as a “dues-paying subset of the Oath Keepers.”

Most recently, Watkins was working at The Jolly Roger, a small bar in Woodstock, Ohio, that she owned and operated with her boyfriend.

But it wasn’t long until COVID-19 started to take a toll on the business.

“My small business is a bar,” Watkins wrote on the conservative social media platform Parler just days before the Capitol riot. “Empty on a Saturday. ... Guess I am going to go pack for DC now. See you there.”

The pandemic continued to worsen, protests against lockdowns and police brutality sprang up in cities and towns across the country, her militia started to patrol the protests and Watkins started to fall in with the Oath Keepers.

By the fall of 2020, she was in direct contact with the organization’s leadership about plans to travel to D.C. to overturn the results of a presidential election that she believed was stolen.

In one Nov. 9 text, she told someone that she was “awaiting direction” from Trump following the results of Joe Biden’s victory. She recruited and trained people who expressed interest in joining the militia, according to prosecutors, telling one, “I need you fighting fit by the inauguration.”'

On Nov. 17, when a recruit asked her for her predictions for 2021, Watkins replied, “I can’t predict. I don’t underestimate the resolve of the Deep State. Biden may still yet be our President. If he is, our way of life as we know it is over. Our Republic would be over. Then it is our duty as Americans to fight, kill and die for our rights,” court documents show.

Donovan Crowl, then a 50-year-old former Marine corporal who held occasional jobs in construction, had frequented Watkins’ bar and eventually joined her militia and the Oath Keepers organization.

Crowl, prosecutors said, traveled with Watkins to the Capitol for the insurrection. As he marched up the Capitol steps with the stack he donned a combat helmet, ballistic goggles and a handheld radio, photo and video evidence showed.

When authorities later searched Watkins’ Woodstock, Ohio, home after the riot, they recovered what appeared to be instructions on how to make explosives with bleach.

They also found camouflage hats and jackets, a black tactical kit with medical supplies, radios, helmets and “numerous” firearms, according to court records. The clothing and gear, prosecutors said, matched the attire worn by members of the stack.

‘Trump said it’s going to be wild’

On Nov. 9, days after the 2020 presidential election showed Biden winning, Oath Keepers from across the country met virtually on GotoMeeting video conferencing service. The organization’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, called on members to go to Washington, D.C.

“We’re going to defend the president, the duly elected president, and we call on him to do what needs to be done to save our country,” Rhodes said. “Because if you don’t, guys, you’re going to be in a bloody, bloody civil war, and a bloody — you can call it an insurrection or you can call it a war or fight.”

Rhodes, a former U.S. Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate, added that the group would be awaiting the president’s orders: “We hope he will give us the orders. We want him to declare an insurrection, and to call us up as the militia.”

The Oath Keepers is a large but loosely organized paramilitary group that recruits current or former military and law enforcement and emphasizes military training. The organization’s leaders, like Rhodes, as well as its members have shared misinformation about so-called government plots since its founding in 2009, months after President Barack Obama was sworn in. The organization, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has grown into one of the largest radical anti-government groups in the country.

The modern militia movement came into focus in the U.S. in the mid 1990s and largely consists of right-wing, armed paramilitary groups with anti-government or conspiracy-orientated ideologies. Militia groups began to form not long after the deadly standoff at Waco, Texas, in 1993, and by the spring of 1995, they had spread to almost every state, according to the Anti- Defamation League.

Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator in the Oklahoma City bombing at a federal building that killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others in 1995, was a veteran of the Gulf War and sympathizer with the U.S. militia movement who sought to retaliate against the federal government for its role in Waco. McVeigh’s act was the worst act of domestic terrorism by a U.S. citizen.

Anti-government groups like the Oath Keepers aren’t typically picky about membership, experts said, but military experience is considered a plus.

“The Oath Keepers have a specific motivation to reach out to veterans in regards to their motto to honor their oath, but their reasoning is also functional,” said Samuel Jackson, an assistant professor and expert on the militia movement at the University at Albany, New York. “Many of these people have experiences in combat but also intelligence and psychological operations. There’s a huge variety of skills that would be useful for an organization that perceives, anticipates and, at times, might want to bring about violence.”

Members believe that the U.S. government has been “co-opted” by a “cabal of elites” who are actively trying to strip American citizens of their rights, prosecutors argue in their court filings.

Rhodes, 56, has frequently appeared on Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory-laden show InfoWars, and members have served as security at prominent GOP events and for Trump allies like Republican operative Roger Stone.

Rhodes warned his followers during that Nov. 9 meeting to come prepared to fight antifa, a left-wing, anti-fascist movement, according to court documents that show he asked some to come fully armed.

“If the fight comes, let the fight come. Let antifa — if they go kinetic on us, then we’ll go kinetic back on them,” Rhodes said, according to court documents that show he asked some to come fully armed.

Kelly Meggs, a 52-year-old car dealership manager from Dunnellon, answered the call. As the self-described leader of the Florida Oath Keepers, Meggs told others on Facebook that he was in touch with the far-right extremist Proud Boys group, and another right-wing militia organization known as the Three Percenters.

“We have decided to work together and shut this s--t down,” he wrote Dec. 19, court filings show. The coordination made sense he said in another message a few days later: “They always have a big group. Force multiplier.”

The Proud Boys would get in front of antifa and then police officers would try to separate the two groups, he said. That’s when Oath Keepers would come in.

“We will come in behind antifa and beat the hell out of them,” he wrote.

Screenshot from federal court documents.
Screenshot from federal court documents. [ Court filing ]

A few days later Meggs predicted they would have at least 50 to 100 Oath Keepers in D.C.

“Trump said it’s going to be wild!!!!!!!...He wants us to make it WILD, that’s what he’s saying,” Meggs wrote on Facebook.

By Dec. 31, Watkins, Meggs and others had joined an invitation-only encrypted group on the messaging app Signal, court documents show. They titled their group “DC OP: Jan 6 21.” They participated in online meetings and used that channel as well as other encrypted communications to coordinate their plans.

One man pledged in the encrypted chat that he would bring an assault rifle and a backpack full of ammunition if “s--t truly” hit the fan.

When another offered to help with weapons, someone on the chat responded that they already had a “s--tload of QRF on standby with an arsenal.” In the military, a QRF, or a quick reaction force, is an armed unit capable of rapidly responding to developing situations, typically to assist allied units.

On Jan. 1, Thomas Caldwell — a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer and FBI official from Virginia in his mid-60s who helped plan with the Oath Keepers — replied to a Facebook comment, writing: “I accept that assignment! I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” filings show. “I did the former, I have done the latter peacefully but they have morphed into pure evil even blatantly rigging an election and paying off the political caste. We must smite them now and drive them down.”

Watkins, Crowl and others drove together to Washington on Jan. 4.

Meggs, who traveled separately from Florida with his wife, announced a plan for a 3 p.m. rally. He instructed others to bring mace, gas masks and batons because “D.C. is no guns.”

“If you have armor,” he added, “that’s good.”

Before they got there, they discussed secured parking areas and posted maps of D.C., pinpointing various water and land access areas. One defendant sent a text suggesting they get a boat to transport “heavy weapons” across the Potomac River. Another reached out to a company seeking “ultimate training munitions rifle class” for Oath Keepers.

They chatted about guns — should they bring them or not? Should they stage them somewhere else? How about stashing them at a “farm location”? Some people reported they planned to bring “long rifles” and sidearms, according to court documents. Watkins said she was eager to drop off and secure weapons with the QRF before what she termed “the Op.”

It’s not clear exactly how many firearms or other weapons were present at the Jan. 6 riot, but we know that they were there. Overwhelmed, police arrested and had direct contact with only a fraction of those who lay siege on the Capitol that day. But court records and news reports show that many insurrectionists were armed, with several being charged with having firearms on Capitol grounds or stashed nearby while in D.C.

Video plainly shows the mob using all manner of makeshift weapons to attack police and force their way in, including clubs, hockey sticks, flagpoles, pepper and bear spray, knives, brass knuckles, fire extinguishers, a stun gun, and a police shield stolen from an officer.

‘Patriots are taking it into their own hands’

When Jan. 6 arrived, the group prepared themselves for battle, equipped with communication devices and various tactical items including vests, helmets, ballistic goggles and hard-knuckle gloves, prosecutors said.

Between around 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Rhodes exchanged roughly 10 phone calls with members, court documents show, including several with Meggs. He also messaged the Leadership Signal Chat at 1:25 p.m.

“Pence is doing nothing. As I predicted,” he wrote, referencing Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to approve the certification of Biden’s win in spite of pressure from Trump and others to refuse. “All I see Trump doing is complaining,” he wrote about 15 minutes later. “I see no intent by him to do anything. So the patriots are taking it into their own hands. They’ve had enough.”

The situation outside of the Capitol quickly deteriorated. A crowd gathered outside the east side doors threw objects, sprayed chemicals at police, and pulled violently on the doors to forcibly push their way into the Capitol, the indictment said.

The Oath Keepers traveled in its military stack up the Capitol steps. Video shows them pushing into the mob and advancing toward the Rotunda doors.

“Who’s our president?” someone is heard shouting off-camera.

“Trump!” the crowd responds.

“Who’s our president?”

“Trump!”

As the doors open and people start to enter, someone sends up a cheer, “Oath Keepers!”

Another man is heard registering his amazement: “We’re the first wave, man! This has never been done.”

Inside, the stack remained in formation and told Oath Keepers outside that they made it in.

“We’re in the f--king Capitol!” Watkins said in a video after they made it into the Capitol rotunda. Watkins and Crowl turned the camera around for a selfie.

Screenshot from federal court documents shows a selfie Oath Keepers Donovan Crowl and Jessica Watkins posed for inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Screenshot from federal court documents shows a selfie Oath Keepers Donovan Crowl and Jessica Watkins posed for inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. [ Court filing ]

Once inside, members of the stack swept through the Capitol, and Watkins got a shout-out on the group chat:

“Get it, Jess. Do your f--king thing. Everything we f--king trained for.”

After Watkins was arrested, her attorneys argued that Trump’s rhetoric helped mislead and inflame supporters, especially ones with military backgrounds like Watkins. They believed Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act to use the military to keep himself in office, despite the election results.

“While some of the rhetoric she allegedly engaged in is troubling,” her attorneys wrote in a motion for bond, “she fell prey to the false and inflammatory claims of the former president, his supporters, and the right wing media.”

Anti-government extremists thrive on misinformation

Experts who study and track extremist and anti-government militia organizations said most members of these types of far-right groups have been immersed in conspiracy theories for years and employ misinformation to get people angry and recruit them to their causes.

“The concept of a new world order, a tyrannical government, of entities wanting to take away their guns. Those are tried-and-true narratives that have animated people within the broader anti-government movement,” said Oren Segal, the vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “And, they found a friend in QAnon that approached this from a different, semi-incoherent space, but that was making some of the same allegations.”

One way that manifested was in the group’s apparent belief that it would be fighting antifa on Jan. 6. As Crowl wrote on Facebook the day prior, they were going “tifa hunt’in.”

“We expect good hunting,” he wrote.

The reality was far different. In court files of more than 550 people arrested in connection with the storming of the Capitol as of early September, PolitiFact found only one who mentioned an association with far-left causes, a man who identified himself as a journalist but who had no press credentials. While some in conservative circles pointed to defendant John Sullivan as “known antifa,” PolitiFact and other fact-checkers have found no evidence of that based on interviews and reviews of public records.

Most of those present that day were pro-Trump allies who believed their candidate’s false assertion that the election had been stolen. Yet Trump allies, including some associated with Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, baselessly called the attack an antifa set-up, a claim that PolitiFact and others have repeatedly debunked.

“I think many of the people who were there were planning on engaging in that conflict with antifa,” said Jackson, the militia expert. “They believed someone needed to be ready to push back against antifa violence ... and this ties into how much they believe that antifa is a well-formed group for which violence is really central.”

The 2020 election wasn’t the first time the Oath Keepers expressed mistrust in the country’s oldest democratic process.

Many were ordered to station themselves at polling locations across the country during the 2016 presidential election to “watch out” for voter fraud. The group believed that if Trump didn’t win the popular vote by a landslide, Jackson told us, it was the work of Democrats deliberately undermining the votes.

They organized their call to action shortly after Trump started prophesying that the election would be rigged.

“I hear these horror shows, and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us and is not taken away from us,” Trump said in October 2016 to a crowd in Pennsylvania. “And everybody knows what I’m talking about.”

Post-Jan. 6 reckoning leaves uncertainty

This isn’t all about the past. Nine months after the nation watched hundreds of people enter and ransack the U.S. Capitol, the Oath Keepers and groups like the Proud Boys remain active.

In the face of federal charges and national spectacle, experts say, members of these groups — whether they are defendants who were there that day or not — find themselves grappling with the gravity of what transpired.

Watkins, in a February court hearing disavowed Oath Keepers and rescinded her membership, saying she was “humbled” and “humiliated” by the charges against her.

Her attorneys told the federal government that Watkins has disbanded her militia, and rid herself of all firearms.

“She has declared she is sickened by what happened in the Capitol on Jan. 6,” they wrote in a motion arguing for bond, saying she wants to return home to a simple life.

Watkins’ lawyers argue that her intention all along was simply to provide security to the speakers of the rally and to safely escort protestors away from the Capitol to their vehicles — not to be an insurrectionist. They said she was given a VIP pass to the rally and even “met with secret service agents.”

But her comments shortly after the riot paint a different picture.

“Me after forcing entry into the Capitol building,” read one of Watkins’ posts on Parler after the riot.

“Yeah we stormed the Capitol today. Teargassed, the whole 9. Pushed our way into the Rotunda. Made it into the Senate even. The news is lying (even Fox) about the Historical Events we created today.”

PolitiFact reached out to the attorneys for Watkins, Crowl, Meggs and Caldwell, as well as representatives for other defendants belonging to the Oath Keepers. Some declined to comment. We didn’t hear back from others.

Intelligence agencies warned in March of the ongoing threat that racially-motivated extremist groups might carry out mass-casualty attacks on civilians, while militia organizations like the Oath Keepers would target police and government personnel and buildings.

Fallout from the Jan. 6 riot, as well as conspiracy theories and the election lie, “will almost certainly spur” some domestic extremists “to try to engage in violence this year,” read the assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Segal of the ADL’s Center on Extremism said that the instability these groups are experiencing can create its own threat as people splinter off into smaller, less visible groups.

“I think with time it’s going to be clear that either the events of the 6th, or the narrative that animated people to action on the 6th, will continue into the near future,” Segal said. “Jan. 6th may very well be the incubator for plots of the future, and we don’t have the luxury to assume otherwise.”

PolitiFact reporters Bill McCarthy and Gabrielle Settles and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.