Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes testifies in Alaska Rep. Eastman’s defense

a man with an eye patch and glasses talks into a microphone
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers speaks during a rally outside the White House in 2017. Rhodes was convicted Nov. 29, 2022 of seditious conspiracy for a plot to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential win. (Susan Walsh/AP file photo)

Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes, who is awaiting sentencing for seditious conspiracy, was a witness for the defense Monday at a civil trial challenging whether Rep. David Eastman can serve in in the Alaska Legislature.

Eastman, R-Wasilla, is a member of the Oath Keepers, which experts in domestic terrorism describe as an anti-government militia that made itself appealing to white supremacists and antisemites. Rhodes, though, presented them as dedicated to peacekeeping and the U.S. Constitution.

“We had, thankfully, very few — but a few people who joined were actually racist,” Rhodes testified, “who, we found out later, discriminate along racial lines. And we kicked them out once we identified them.”

Rhodes testified by phone from a jail near Washington, D.C. He said he never ordered Oath Keepers to enter the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He said he told the members who did it was a stupid move, for two reasons.

“One, it was not our mission that day. And two, them doing that exposed us to persecution by political enemies, who have taken advantage of that to prosecute us,” Rhodes said. “And this is what’s happened to me. That’s where I’m at. That’s why I’m here in jail.”

Just then, the witness had to get off the phone.

“Hold on one second. The guard is here. Hold on …. I gotta get back to my cell,” he said.

Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy last month for his role leading up to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. His actions, and the ideology of the Oath Keepers, are relevant to whether Eastman can hold office because of a previously untested disloyalty clause in the Alaska Constitution. It forbids anyone from holding office who belongs to a group calling for the violent overthrow of the government.

First Amendment issues abound in the case, brought by a former Eastman constituent and supporter, Randall Kowalke.

If the lawsuit is successful, the voters of Eastman’s district would not get the legislator a majority of them chose in the November election.

Eastman admits he has a lifetime membership in Oath Keepers. So the question Superior Court Judge Jack McKenna has to decide is whether the Oath Keepers advocated for concrete action intended to overthrow the government by force.

Eastman’s attorney, Joe Miller, asked Rhodes what he meant by some of his more incendiary comments.

“There’s been much ado made about some words that you’ve used in your communications, including the words ‘bloody civil war,’ and the prediction that that could come,” said Miller. “Did that have anything to do with the Insurrection Act or the invocation of the Insurrection Act?”

“Well,” Rhodes responded, “it’s my opinion that the left was engaged in open insurrection throughout 2020.”

Rhodes’ testimony from his cell was often hard to hear. He likened it to a concrete echo-chamber. His answer was that he wasn’t calling for “bloody civil war.” He said he meant that the action of leftists would require a serious government response.

Rhodes sought at every turn to portray his group as law-abiding. He said they provided security to speakers at then-President Trump’s rally on Jan. 6.

If he loses the appeal of his criminal conviction, he said he’ll have to resign from the group he founded because the bylaws say felons can’t be members.

His testimony continues on Tuesday.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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