WASHINGTON - "They were dumb asses," Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes wrote on the encrypted app Signal in early March, blasting members of his anti-government militia group who breached the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
The rebuke came during a newly disclosed March 6 exchange between Rhodes and Kenneth Harrelson, one of 12 members of the Oath Keepers indicted in connection with the Capitol attack.
Seven of the 12 are accused of forming a military-style "stack" formation to breach the Capitol to disrupt the congressional certification of President Joe Biden's election win.
At the time of his exchange with Rhodes, Harrelson had not yet been arrested and was taking steps to "falsely distance" himself from the Oath Keepers, prosecutors wrote in a late Monday filing. But secretly, he remained involved with the group, prosecutors say.
On March 6, Harrelson apologized to Rhodes on Signal for failing to watch over Kelly Meggs, the senior Oath Keepers leader who led the stack into the Capitol.
"Not your fault," Rhodes wrote. "My fault. I should have made sure an actual veteran was in charge."
From "now on," Rhodes continued, "I WILL NOT presume that all know better than to do stupid s---. That will mean treating them like dumb ass privates, but hey that's how they acted. So be it."
The exchange came as federal investigators were building a conspiracy case against a dozen members of the Oath Keepers who breached the Capitol. Harrelson was arrested in Florida on March 10, becoming the 10th member of the group to be indicted in the attack. Two others were added to the case on March 31.
The rioting left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer, and more than a hundred other officers injured. So far, more than 400 rioters have been charged, including several dozen members of far-right groups such as the Oath Keepers.
'Totally off mission'
Rhodes, who has led the Oath Keepers since founding it in 2009, has not been charged. But as prosecutors have homed in on him, he has sought to distance himself from what he has cast as an operation gone off track.
"They went totally off mission," Rhodes said in a March interview with The Washington Post.
Rhodes is a former Army paratrooper and a graduate of Yale Law School. Last month, he told a Republican rally in Texas that he might go to jail "not for anything I actually did, but for made-up crimes."
Criminal defense lawyers and legal experts say Rhodes' decision to remain outside the Capitol during the riot and his subsequent attempts to distance himself appear aimed at avoiding criminal culpability.
"Any intercepted texts post-offense can be self-serving and even tactically ambiguous for defendants, but they can also be a double-edged sword when they show a level of coordination, even if imperfect," a criminal defense lawyer and extremism expert said.
Whether Rhodes will eventually be charged remains uncertain. But in court filings involving the 12 members of the Oath Keepers, prosecutors have alleged that he mobilized his followers to travel to Washington on January 6 to "stop the steal," and then directed them as they overran the Capitol.
In a damning piece of evidence disclosed last month, prosecutors said Rhodes posted a photo of the southeast side of the Capitol on Signal during the Capitol breach, urging his followers to that side of the building "on steps." Less than half an hour later, he posted another photo of the building with the caption, "South side of US Capitol. Patriots pounding on doors(.)"
In the three months since the attack, Rhodes has sought to portray the breach as a well-intended operation gone bad. But hours after the breach, he depicted it as a patriotic act of which he was a part.
"Look, I WAS THERE. I WAS RIGHT OUTSIDE. Patriots stormed in," he wrote on Signal.
But to Meggs, the Oath Keepers leader who led the "stack," the mission had failed.
"Ok who gives a damn who went in there," she responded. "If it's Obama himself it doesn't matter(.) What matters is where we are now and decisions that have to be mad (sic). We are now the enemy of the State."