Claims that Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes said he was allegedly in contact with the Secret Service before the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, is likely to increase scrutiny of the agency, according to political experts.
Rhodes is currently standing trial, along with four other Oath Keepers, who are charged with seditious conspiracy. A former member of the militia group, John Zimmerman, testified this week that Rhodes had claimed to have a contact in the Secret Service and that he had heard Rhodes speaking to someone whom he believed to be a member of the agency.
That alleged conversation took place in September 2020 in the form of a call before a Trump rally in North Carolina. The Secret Service told NBC News in an article published on Thursday that members of the Oath Keepers had sometimes contacted the agency in relation to events where there is a Secret Service protectee.
The Secret Service spokesperson told the news outlet that “it is not uncommon for various organizations to contact us concerning security restrictions and activities that are permissible in proximity to our protected sites.”
Political experts who spoke to Newsweek said the testimony could lead to scrutiny of the agency, particularly from the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot.
The committee has reportedly subpoenaed thousands of Secret Service records after the panel raised concerns earlier this year about deleted text messages from agents’ devices from January 5 and 6, 2021, in what was described as a “pre-planned, three-month system migration.”
The recent testimony in the Rhodes trial shows there are still unanswered questions when it comes to the select committee’s investigation.
“The charge that Oath Keepers’ Stewart Rhodes was in contact with the Secret Service in advance of January 6—although still an unproven allegation—raises exigent questions about who knew what and when about the militia group’s violent intentions at the Capitol,” Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London’s Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek.
“While it’s important to stress there’s no evidence at this point implicating Secret Service agents in illicit activity related to the Rhodes case, any potential dialogue will need to be closely scrutinized,” he added.
Gift said that the January 6 committee has “uncovered mountains of evidence proving that much of the violence at the Capitol was premeditated.”
“Yet there’s still much we don’t know about how how extensively—and explicitly—groups like the Oath Keepers telegraphed their plans, including to law enforcement,” he said. “To say the least, one of the burning questions that still lingers from the Capitol storming was how security could have been caught so off guard. Even if the answer turns out to be vapid communication failures, those deficiencies will need to identified and rectified.”
Secret Service Scrutiny
Serious questions have been raised about the Secret Service’s role on January 6, particularly following testimony before the committee by Cassidy Hutchinson, who served as an aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
Hutchinson testified over the summer that former White House deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato had told her that former President Donald Trump had tried to grab the steering wheel of his vehicle on the day of the riot. Ornato purportedly said, that happened after the then-president was told he could not go to the Capitol. Hutchinson also said Ornato had told her the story while in a room with Robert Engel, the Secret Service agent in charge of Trump’s detail on January 6.
Secret Service sources said in July that both men were willing to deny that the incident had taken place. Ornato was assistant director of the Secret Service Office of Training until he left the agency in August, saying he would continue co-operating with the select committee.
Robert Singh, a professor at the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, told Newsweek that Rhodes’ trial was “likely to add pressure on the January 6 committee both to scrutinize the Secret Service more deeply and broadly, and to expedite its findings before January 2023—when a Republican majority, if it happens, could simply disband the committee.”
“How much is ‘there’ is open to question,” Singh added. “It is possible, of course, that there are sympathetic figures to the alt right within the federal government. Equally, it is possible that maintaining contacts with groups such as the Oath Keepers is more a way of the authorities keeping tabs on what they are up to. So, the direction of suspicion isn’t entirely clear.”
How Significant Is Rhodes’ Communication With the Secret Service?
Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, told Newsweek that Rhodes’ communications with the Secret Service “could easily prove insignificant.”
“Rhodes’ communications with the agency may have been of no importance. Either the trial witness’s testimony, or Rhodes’s claims about his contacts, may have been simply false,” Quirk said. “The leaders of these insurrectionist groups do not miss many opportunities to puff themselves up.”
He added: “But in the context of the Secret Service’s seemingly desperate and, in the end, mostly unsuccessful effort to hide many thousands of text messages from the days surrounding the insurrection, Rhodes’ claim could be a major revelation.”
Quirk said that January 6 committee had now received “many or most of the communications that the Secret Service tried to hide.”
“With all those captured messages to explore, the committee, the Department of Justice, and other investigators should not have too much difficulty unraveling the agency’s secrets,” he said. “One question the investigators will now be asking of many current and Trump-administration agency officials: ‘What was your relationship with Stewart Rhodes?’”
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