Oath Keeper Founder’s 18-Year Prison Sentence Scores 5.9 On The Messenger Scale

The Messenger's ratings system helps readers decipher the daily influx of news — focusing on Thursday's prison sentence for a January 6 defendant.


The Messenger Scale measures the magnitude of any singular news event, like the Richter scale does for earthquakes. It assigns a simple 1-10 number based on input from our panel of more than 80 "news seismologists" from the worlds of politics, policy, law, history, academia and media. They come from across the entire political spectrum in order to provide readers with a balanced response to major news events. 

(You can read more about The Messenger Scale by going here.)

Our expert panel gave Oath Keeper leader Stewart Rhodes’ 18-year prison sentence a 5.9 out of 10. 

What happened?

Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right group the Oath Keepers, was sentenced on Thursday to 18 years in prison for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. A jury convicted him last November.

The context:

This is the harshest of the prison sentences yet for a Jan. 6 participant. Rhodes, 58, is also the first of nine members of the Oath Keepers to be sentenced for seditious conspiracy after being convicted or pleading guilty to that specific charge. In handing down Rhodes' sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta said seditious conspiracy is “among the most serious crimes an individual American can commit. It's an offense against the government, to use force. It's an offense against the people of the country."

What are the experts saying?

The names of the organizers will live in infamy. And, they will definitely wind up as a trivia question within a generation.

Kalee Kreider, president of Ridgely Walsh and former aide to Al Gore

While there are other sentencing rulings for other Proud Boys and Oath Keeper associates that have also yet to be handed down on the same seditious conspiracy charge, the one for Rhodes raises the bar. It may also serve as a deterrent for other like-minded individuals thinking about plans to disrupt the 2024 elections.

Javed Ali, University of Michigan professor and former National Security Council official

On the one hand, it pushes the Capitol riot closer to, though still short of, the harshness of sentences imposed in terrorism cases, and thus is grist for the Democratic narrative that domestic terrorism is a serious threat. On the other hand, it will get the attention of the appellate courts, which are apt to scrutinize the Justice Department’s theory of seditious conspiracy, which is vulnerable. Prosecutors took the position that President Trump was not a conspirator or a participant of any kind in the violence, because to convict they needed to prove that the defendants were forcible opposed to the government — as opposed to acting at the behest of the government’s chief executive.

Andrew McCarthy, former federal prosecutor and National Review columnist

Of course it will only be 2 years once Trump gives him the pardon.

Former Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.)

In an age of social media conspiracies and echo chambers, where white nationalism presents a greater security threat than foreign terrorism, this sentence sends a clear message. However, that message may be different to different audiences. For traditional conservatives it speaks to law and order. For MAGA Republicans it speaks to Trump’s rhetoric of a witch-hunt and persecution by the government. This not only enhances the divide amongst Republicans but provides more impetus for Trump Republicans to vote in the hope of potential pardons.

Laura Smith, presidential historian, University of Oxford

What’s next?

Other members of the Oath Keepers who have been convicted or pleaded guilty related to the Jan. 6 insurrection are slated to be sentenced this week and next week.

To compare:

Our panel gave Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign announcement snafu on Twitter a 4.2 out of 10. "Might be higher if SNL wasn’t in rerun season," said Jay Hakes, a historian and former director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

Panelists scored the letter former President Trump's lawyers sent on Tuesday to Attorney General Merrick Garland seeking a meeting about Special Counsel Jack Smith's investigation a 3.6 out of 10. "The letter, while childish and intemperate, is an obvious precursor to a federal indictment of a former president of the United States," said Andrew Weissmann, a former federal prosector who served on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigative team.

The release of the Durham Report came in at a 4.4 out of 10. "It is damaging because it can be used as a cudgel by Republicans when many of Trump's real scandals are raised," said Arun Chaudhary, the former Obama White House videographer.

And the jury verdict on May 9 finding that Trump had sexually abused and defamed E. Jean Carroll is currently a 6.1 out of 10. "Not an earthquake but another nail in Trump’s coffin with suburban, independent women," said David Tamasi, a GOP lobbyist and donor who backed Trump in 2016 and 2020 but isn't supporting his 2024 campaign.

Our ‘news seismologists’: Allan Lichtman, Allison Gill, Andrew McCarthy, Andrew Weissmann, Anthony Coley, Arun Chaudhary, Barbara Perry, Becky Bond, Brendan Buck, Carah Ong Whaley, Carol Browner, Carolyn Maloney, Charlie Cook, Chris Frates, Chris Shays, Dan Schnur, David S. Bernstein, David Doniger, David Cay Johnston, David Litt, David McIntosh, David Pepper, David Tamasi, David Weinstein, Edwin Chen, Eric Wilson, Fred Upton, Gilda Daniels, Gordon Sondland, Gwenda Blair, Isaac Saul, Javed Ali, Jay Hakes, Jed Shugerman, Jeffrey Engel, Jeff Roe, Jeff Smith, Jenna Lowenstein, Jennifer Mercieca, Jesse Ferguson, Jim Messina, Joe Trippi, John Q. Barrett, John Dean, John Fleming, Julie Myers Wood, Kalee Kreider, Keith Appell, Ken Spain, Laura Smith, Lilliana Mason, Mark Zaid, Mary Bono, Matthew Rhodes-Purdy, Michael Czin, Michael Podhorzer, Michael Toner, Michael Vachon, Mindy Finn, Noah Bookbinder, Patricia Taft, Patrick Cotter, Patti Solis Doyle, Paul Rosenzweig, Philip Allen Lacovara, PJ Crowley, Randall Samborn, Reed Galen, Richard Tofel, Rick Boucher, Rick Wilson, Robert Luskin, Rodell Mollineau, Sam Martin, Sam Nunberg, Sarah Longwell, Sean Spicer, Shannon O’Brien, Stephen Moore, Steven Groves, Susan Liebell, Ty Cobb, and William Jeffress.

*The following individuals have all agreed to receive and share responses to this question: On a scale of 1-10, how much do you think this event matters?

Respondents for this survey are in bold.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes face is projected on a big screen above the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, got sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
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