Over the past dozen years, at least 28 people who currently hold elected office joined or financially supported the Oath Keepers, the extremist group that figured prominently in the violent Jan. 6 storming of the US Capitol, a BuzzFeed News analysis of data from the organization shows.
In the months since the Capitol insurrection, as two dozen people linked to the Oath Keepers have been charged with crimes, including conspiracy, for their roles, several of those elected officials have continued to voice support for the organization. And at least two officials — David Eastman and Mark Finchem of the Alaska and Arizona Houses of Representatives, respectively — were in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6 to protest the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory. Neither of the men has been charged.
Other current elected officials with ties to the Oath Keepers who were identified by BuzzFeed News said they dropped out of the group long before that day, although some speculated it might just have been the work of a few bad actors.
At a time when the Oath Keepers and other extreme right-wing groups appear more focused on moving into local politics, the accounting gives insight into how much support the group may already have in state and local government around the country. The officials who appear in the group's records range from state senators and representatives to road superintendents, city council members, and sheriffs. Some paid for lifetime memberships, others joined for only a year, and still others donated money to the group but did not become members.
“People ask me if I’ll renounce my membership,” said Chad Christensen, a Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives who joined the Oath Keepers in 2012, sells insurance for State Farm, and also owns a private detective agency. “I tell them there’s no way.”
Although significant attention has been given to the presence of Oath Keepers in the armed forces and police departments, far less is known about members who hold elected office, or what it means to elect people who have shown support for a group that has repeatedly undermined the authority of the federal government.
The organization, founded in 2009 by Army veteran and Yale Law School graduate Stewart Rhodes, draws its name from the oath to uphold the Constitution that members of the military and law enforcement swear. Until recently, its membership has been a closely guarded secret. The list of officials identified by BuzzFeed News almost certainly undercounts the true number because of incomplete data and the significant challenges in matching the names of members to those of local officials.
But BuzzFeed News’ analysis of current and former Oath Keepers in government suggests the group’s beliefs — in particular, the notion that an individual’s interpretation of the Constitution trumps federal law — have to some degree found a foothold in the halls of American government.
Someone being voted into a local body such as city council “might not seem like a big deal,” said Richard Carpiano, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside. But it “raises a concern about to what degree this fringe ideology is invading our democratic institutions” as well as “their underlying worldview for the important decisions they have to make in their position — decisions that affect all their constituents.”
The internal Oath Keepers records, which appear to include membership rolls, chat logs, and emails, came into public view last month after some five gigabytes of data from the organization’s servers was hacked and the information was subsequently released by Distributed Denial of Secrets, a nonprofit collective that posted much of the information publicly and shared additional files with journalists and researchers.
The hacked data has already been used by a variety of media outlets to identify law enforcement officials who appear to be affiliated with the Oath Keepers, including members of the New York Police Department, the head of Utah’s Department of Corrections, and the elected sheriff of Riverside County, California, Chad Bianco, who said he joined in 2014 but is no longer a member. BuzzFeed News found several police officers who inquired about membership in the group after Jan. 6, as well as at least four members currently running for public office.
BuzzFeed News created its list of elected officials linked to the Oath Keepers by cross-referencing the leaked data with information about thousands of state and local officials, comparing names, email addresses, physical addresses, phone numbers, and other information. There is no centralized US database of local officeholders, meaning the names of many officials could not be cross-checked against the Oath Keepers’ records. The membership rolls, meanwhile, appear to have last been updated in mid-2020 and may not be complete. In most cases, for example, they do not identify whether members were active or inactive.
But the result, though not comprehensive, provides one of the most thorough reckonings of the group’s inroads into American politics and governance to date.
Most officials whom BuzzFeed News reached for comment agreed to discuss their links to the Oath Keepers. Other elected officials for whom possible matching information was found in the membership data did not respond to repeated requests; if their affiliation could not be confirmed, they were not included in the tally. One lawmaker, North Carolina state Rep. Keith Kidwell, refused to confirm or deny his affiliation because the membership data was hacked and thus, he said, is “the fruit of a tainted tree.” He was first identified as a possible Oath Keeper earlier this month; the group’s membership rolls indicate someone with his name, email address, and phone number joined in 2012.
Eastman, on the other hand, is happy to discuss his affiliation with the group. An Army veteran and West Point graduate, he was formally reprimanded by the Alaska legislature early in his first term for claiming that “poor women in rural Alaskan villages” intentionally got pregnant so they could get free trips to Anchorage or Seattle for abortions. Last month he made headlines again for apparently comparing President Joe Biden to Adolf Hitler and the COVID-19 vaccine to Nazi experimentation on Jews and others held in concentration camps.
He has not previously been identified as an Oath Keeper, but in written responses to inquiries from BuzzFeed News, the Republican legislator said he’d joined the group “when it first started” and that he “will always consider it a privilege to stand with those in the military and first responders who strive to keep their oaths to the Constitution.”
Finchem, for his part, has been active with the Oath Keepers since at least 2014, organizing events for the group in Arizona and urging people via his campaign Twitter account to “Protect State Sovereignty, Join Oath Keepers!” This May, lawyers for Finchem defended the Oath Keepers, stating in a letter that the group is a “non-partisan association” and “can by no stretch of one’s imagination be considered ‘anti-government.’” Photographs from Jan. 6 show he was at the Capitol’s east staircase at the time the building was being stormed. He did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Others said they were initially attracted to the Oath Keepers because of the group's support for the Constitution and, in particular, the Second Amendment. But they also said that they grew concerned when it began taking a more confrontational approach to moments of civil strife, with members appearing in tactical gear and carrying weapons in tense standoffs with federal agents starting in 2014. Many quit.
Chris Hooper, who was elected sheriff of Texas’s Nueces County last November, joined the Oath Keepers at the “Liberty Tree” level, which costs more than a basic membership and provides discounts on gear, among other perks. He told BuzzFeed News the concept of the group was “beautiful.” Those feelings changed when armed Oath Keepers flooded into southern Nevada in a prolonged standoff with Bureau of Land Management agents over ranchland leased to the Bundy family.
“I’m thinking, this beautiful concept is being hijacked by somebody who is really not acting in the best interest of being an Oath Keeper,” said Hooper, who said he is no longer a member. “It’s kind of like Black Lives Matter. Those three words are beautiful words, because all life matters. But I have a problem with those three words as connected to the Marxist organization on the internet site of Black Lives Matter and it’s the same thing with Oath Keepers.”
Brad Rogers, now an elected county commissioner in Elkhart County, Indiana, and until 2018 the county’s sheriff, said he joined the Oath Keepers soon after the organization was founded in 2009. He said he believes “the federal government is out of control” and recalled threatening to arrest any FDA inspector who set foot on a particular Amish dairy farm without a warrant.
But he said he quit the Oath Keepers years ago because though he agrees “with the tenets of the organization,” he felt it was “going down a path talking about violence and things of that nature that I won’t tolerate.”
Glenn Jacobs, the mayor of Knox County, Tennessee, is best known as the former WWE star Kane, famous for being The Undertaker’s half brother and for his Big Boot signature move. As an elected official he’s drawn attention for his opposition to COVID-19 mandates, last month sending a letter to President Biden saying the rules “aren’t about freedom.”
In 2013, Jacobs donated $50 to the Oath Keepers because they “were big supporters of the Constitution,” a spokesperson said. The donation put him on the group’s membership rolls, but Jacobs subsequently decided he had “philosophical differences with some of their stances” and stopped contributing.
South Dakota state Sen. Jim Stalzer said he too has “totally broken” with the Oath Keepers because he grew disenchanted at what he called the group’s “confrontational aspects.”
A certified pistol instructor, Stalzer said he first heard about the Oath Keepers from Richard Mack, a former sheriff who was on the group’s board of directors and was the leader of the Constitutional Sheriffs movement, which argues that federal and state governments should be subordinate to local law enforcement. Attracted to Mack’s ideas, Stalzer signed up, occasionally giving firearms classes to other Oath Keepers.
Not all of the officials linked to the group serve rural areas. Gary Halverson, one of 20 alders on the city council of famously liberal Madison, Wisconsin, joined the Oath Keepers in May 2020 because he saw it as an “organization that welcomed veterans who cared about our democracy.” But he quickly decided he had been “misled” and “terminated the membership” less than three months later.
Some politicians left the group, not, they said, for ideological reasons but because the group’s membership services left something to be desired.
Gary Roland said he joined the Oath Keepers a decade ago and was an active dues-paying member until 2020, more than a year after he was elected Fayette County surveyor in central Kentucky. “I read the website and it seemed like a good thing to me,” the former member of the Army National Guard said. But when he stopped getting emails and newsletters from the group, he canceled his membership.
Still, Roland supports the Oath Keepers’ mission and said what happened on Jan. 6 — and the subsequent prosecution of so many Oath Keepers on conspiracy charges — is no reason to lose faith.
“I’m sure there’s some rogue people who might have broken a window in Washington, but I very much believe it’s a good organization,” he said.