Oath Keepers Founder: DC Parking Garage Meeting Was Brief Handshake, Not a Conspiracy

Encounter lasted less than 30 seconds—not 30 minutes—with no discussion about the Capitol, Stewart Rhodes says
By Joseph M. Hanneman
Joseph M. Hanneman
Joseph M. Hanneman
Joseph M. Hanneman is a reporter for The Epoch Times with a focus on the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol incursion and its aftermath; and general news in the State of Wisconsin. His work over a nearly 40-year career has appeared in Catholic World Report, the Racine Journal Times, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Chicago Tribune. Reach him at: joseph.hanneman@epochtimes.us
March 30, 2022 Updated: March 30, 2022

A parking-garage contact between Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes III and former Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio on Jan. 5, 2021, was nothing more than a brief handshake, not a meeting to coordinate plans for Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol, Rhodes said in an interview with The Epoch Times.

Federal prosecutors detailed the alleged parking-garage meeting between Rhodes and Tarrio in the March 7, 2022, indictment of Tarrio and five other Proud Boys accused of conspiracy to obstruct the counting of Electoral College votes at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The indictment (pdf) says the Rhodes-Tarrio meeting lasted 30 minutes. It implies the meeting was related to the Jan. 6 violence that would occur the next day at the U.S. Capitol.

“During this encounter, a participant referenced the Capitol,” the indictment said, providing no other details about who made the reference or what it meant.

A Greeting, Not a Meeting

Rhodes said there was no meeting. The entire encounter consisted of a handshake greeting that lasted mere seconds.

“Now they’re blowing that up into some kind of great big conspiracy meeting,” Rhodes told The Epoch Times. “It’s just ridiculous. That’s the way it’s been from the beginning with all of this. It’s been manufactured, falsified evidence from the very beginning.”

William Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, said in response to an inquiry from The Epoch Times, “Following our usual practice, we are not commenting on pending cases beyond what is stated or submitted to the Court.”

Rhodes was indicted (pdf) by a federal grand jury in January on charges of seditious conspiracy to disrupt or prevent certification of the 2020 presidential vote in Congress on Jan. 6, among a number of other charges.

Prosecutors allege Rhodes and 10 other Oath Keepers conspired to attack the U.S. Capitol and prevent certification of the Electoral College votes. He is being held without bail pending trial, which likely won’t begin before September.

Tarrio was not at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A judge ordered him to leave the District of Columbia when he released Tarrio on Jan. 5 on charges he set fire to a Black Lives Matter banner at a protest in December 2020.

Before he left DC, Tarrio stopped at the Phoenix Park Hotel, but was ordered off the premises. He went to a nearby parking garage, where he eventually encountered Rhodes. Tarrio has previously said it was a case of happenstance.

“We did not coordinate to assault the Capitol,” Tarrio said in a documentary in 2021.

oath keepers
Members of the Oath Keepers are seen during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Rhodes said he was part of a three-person security detail for attorney Kellye SoRelle, the general counsel for Latinos for Trump and the Oath Keepers. SoRelle was invited to the parking garage to meet Tarrio by Bianca Gracia, head of Latinos for Trump, to make sure Tarrio had proper legal representation in his criminal case.

“So we just followed and watched over Kellye SoRelle,” Rhodes told The Epoch Times in a call from the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Oklahoma. “She went with Bianca to go meet Enrique. Enrique is also a member of Latinos for Trump.

“And so we walked up. There’s a film crew with him. And I just walked up and said, ‘I’m Stewart Rhodes of Oath Keepers,’ shook his hand and said, ‘I’m glad you’re out.’ He said, ‘Thank you’ and then I walked away.”

SoRelle said Rhodes and Tarrio merely shook hands and did not have a conversation.

“We go down into the parking garage. We’re there for a very brief time. Stewart says, ‘Hi man, nice to meet you,’ whatever, then walks off,” SoRelle told The Epoch Times. “I ask him about attorneys, if he needs one because I’ve got contact information. I talked to him maybe two minutes.”

SoRelle said she then stepped back to where Rhodes and the film crew were standing, while Gracia spoke with Tarrio for a few more minutes.

“It was maybe 10 minutes tops down there,” SoRelle said. “It was very brief. Everybody’s encounter was maybe a minute or two. …I was there maybe a little bit longer than Stewart, but it wasn’t about anything other than [Tarrio’s] arrest and attorneys and making sure his legal needs were met.”

Video from the parking garage reviewed by The Epoch Times shows Rhodes briefly reached into a small group to shake hands with Tarrio.

“Stewart. [It’s a] pleasure,” Rhodes said, to which Tarrio replied, “The pleasure’s all mine.” Rhodes then stepped back. No one uttered the word “Capitol.”

The video was used in a recent documentary on the Proud Boys on Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom. Footage was shot by a New York filmmaker working on a documentary for the National Geographic Channel, prosecutors said.

“We were there for the purpose of watching over Kellye SoRelle’s safety. That’s the only reason we were there,” Rhodes told The Epoch Times. “So I was just being cordial and polite because I’d had a falling out with Enrique over a long distance.

“We’d never met in person before,” Rhodes said. “I walked up and said, ‘Hello,’ which I thought was a classy thing to do. ‘I’m glad you’re out. Thank you.’ And I walked away.”

Rhodes said SoRelle had received death threats after becoming a whistleblower exposing possible election fraud in Detroit during the counting of presidential election ballots in November 2020. Because of the threats, Oath Keepers provided her with security while she was in Washington to speak at a Latinos for Trump event on Jan. 6, 2021.

Enrique Tarrio, head of the Proud Boys
Enrique Tarrio, head of the Proud Boys, is escorted out of the area after arguing with counter-protestors at a ‘Stop the Steal’ protest outside of the Georgia State Capital building in Atlanta, Ga., on Nov. 21, 2020. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

“We stepped away to let her have a private conversation,” Rhodes said. “And that was the end of it. We got done. I didn’t talk to Enrique again. We stepped away outside of earshot and stayed out of earshot the entire time.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Rhodes condemned the U.S. Department of Justice’s prosecution of the Oath Keepers, accusing the DOJ of manufacturing evidence to support a preconceived conclusion.

That’s the entire track record of all of this from day one,” he said. “Everything has been a giant nothing-burger, made out of nothing.”

Rhodes said he and fellow Oath Keepers went to Washington on Jan. 6 not to attack the U.S. Capitol or subvert actions of Congress, but to provide event security. Oath Keepers were assigned security duties at a Stop the Steal rally in Area 8, adjacent to the Capitol, he said.

“In all those indictments and all the media, they don’t mention the fact that we were there to protect an event on the Capitol grounds,” Rhodes said. “That’s why we were there.

“Leave that out, make it sound like we were at the Ellipse, watching President [Donald] Trump’s speech, and in a reaction to President Trump’s speech, we all marched to the Capitol and ran inside. They’re lying by omission.”

Prosecutors allege two groups of Oath Keepers moved across the Capitol grounds in a “stack formation,” a military-style maneuver used to breach buildings. One stack climbed the stairs outside the historic Columbus Doors on the east side of the Capitol and then “breached” the entrance into the Rotunda, according to the indictment.

Video evidence showed the giant 17-foot-tall bronze Columbus Doors were open on Jan. 6, despite the expectation of huge crowds due to Trump’s speech. One of the inner doors to the Rotunda was opened from the inside by a protester. Police initially resecured the entrance, but the inner doors were opened again from the inside, allowing hundreds of people to stream into the Capitol.

The Oath Keepers who went inside the Capitol for less than 20 minutes did not damage the building or force their way into private offices, he said. Some of them made “stupid statements” about following a plan, but it was nothing but loose talk, he said.

“Those Oath Keepers teams did go inside, but did so entirely of their own volition,” Rhodes said. “It was part of no plan, they just got stupid that day … and fell for the trap, bumbled into the buffalo jump.

Epoch Times Photo
Stewart Rhodes, founder the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally in Washington on June 25, 2017. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

“Doors were wide open, people walked in those Columbus Doors, opened up from the inside. You cannot open those from the outside,” Rhodes said. “They’re magnetic, massive doors. So someone on the inside opened them up and the Oath Keepers from Florida wandered in right along with the rest of the crowd. Did not do much of anything inside, except actually help police officers. They helped two different police officers that I know of.”

At one point, a group of Oath Keepers stepped in to calm a situation between a hostile crowd and U.S. Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, said Rhodes and Jonathon Moseley, one of his attorneys.

“They did protect a black police officer who was armed with an M4/AR-15 and was very agitated, scared-looking and was surrounded by a bunch of yelling Trump supporters,” Rhodes said. “The Oath Keepers jumped in between and dialed it all back, calmed him down, calmed the Trump supporters down, and escorted that black police officer to other Capitol police officers and hooked him up with his buddies. So that he wasn’t by himself.”

Rhodes said he mentions the race of the officer because his group is often falsely maligned as racist and composed of white supremacists.

The stakes in the situation were high, which is why the Oath Keepers stepped in to be a buffer between the angry crowd and Officer Dunn. “If you’re armed and you got unarmed assailants, multiples coming at you, you’re in a lethal-force situation and you can’t let them take your gun,” he said. “So in that kind of situation, law enforcement officers will shoot.”

Moseley said he is seeking the closed-circuit security camera video that shows this incident. “We’re trying to get the video,” Moseley said. “The video from that corridor is mysteriously missing from the government.”

‘Absolute Fabrication’

Rhodes said he believes the Department of Justice leaned hard on Oath Keepers member Joshua A. James, who pleaded guilty on March 2 to seditious conspiracy and obstruction of an official government proceeding. James, 34, of Arab, Alabama, will likely testify against Rhodes and other Oath Keepers, though Rhodes describes it as “testi-lie.”

“They’ve convinced or coerced Josh James, a member of Oath Keepers, to testify, you know, bearing false witness to allege this massive conspiracy beginning back in November,” Rhodes said. “Absolute fabrication.”

James faces 7 1/4 to 9 years in prison when he is sentenced this summer under a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

“That was the only deal they would accept because that’s what they want … to create a false crime and to create a false witness,” Rhodes said. “And that’s why they finally indicted me because they got someone to agree to testi-lie. That’s the only reason I was indicted. For an entire year, they had nothing on me. So go find something and make something.”

Rhodes said the most explosive allegations in the federal indictment—that he and the Oath Keepers brought weapons to Virginia in case they were needed—had nothing to do with the Capitol or any illegal plot.

The arms, some of which Rhodes purchased on his trip from Texas to Washington, were a contingency in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act as a response to the election corruption and left-wing threats to lay siege to the White House and remove him from office. No weapons were brought into Washington.

Photo showing Capitol Police being escorted down the Capitol steps through the crowd to safety on January 6 by members of the Oath Keepers.
Photo showing Capitol Police being escorted down the Capitol steps through the crowd to safety on January 6 by members of the Oath Keepers. (Courtesy of Roberto Minuta)

The Insurrection Act of 1807 gives the president latitude to employ the armed forces or militias from any state to put down an insurrection, such as the attempt to replace the legitimate government of the United States. There was some speculation after the 2020 election that Trump might use the Insurrection Act, something Rhodes publicly advocated.

“We urged him to use his powers to declassify files held by the NSA or the CIA or the FBI on corrupt politicians and expose them as part of his way of fighting against this coup,” Rhodes said. “All of that is perfectly constitutional. None of that is anything other than protected free speech and political speech.”

“I did declare publicly that we would have a contingency plan that if President Trump invoked the Insurrection Act, and needed us to protect the White House and protect him because Antifa had threatened, it swore they were going to lay siege to the White House and remove Trump by force after the election,” he said.

“So we just said, ‘Hey, if the president goes to the Insurrection Act—but only if—we would then respond if he calls us up as the militia,’ which he certainly can do under federal statutes.”

Rhodes said he made no secret of his plans to aid Trump if he exercised that legal authority.

“I wasn’t trying to hide it. It’s no secret,” Rhodes said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, President Trump, please invoke the Insurrection Act. And by the way, if you need us, we’re here.’

“My big concern with him is safety, and the White House, because Antifa threatened to lay siege to the White House,” Rhodes said. “I wasn’t even thinking about the U.S. Capitol. I was focused on if the president of the United States needed us to protect him from radical, far-left terrorists. That’s it.”

Patriotic, With No Violence

Rhodes slammed the notion that the Oath Keepers are some kind of violent extremist group. Membership is made up of current and former military, police, and first responders such as firefighters and EMTs. The group’s primary role in recent years has been to protect Trump supporters in the streets against attacks by Antifa and other violent groups.

“Oath Keepers from day one has always been 100 percent lawful and above board,” he said. “Nothing we do is ever unlawful.

Epoch Times Photo
Oath Keepers member Jeremy Brown, a retired U.S. Army Green Beret, dressed in tactical gear at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (U.S. Department of Justice)

“What we do is to protect people. We’ve done that across the country, all through the Trump administration; protected Trump supporters from Antifa on the streets,” he said. “And that’s why we were in D.C. all three times.

“We’ve never had to even use force, ever,” Rhodes said. “We use our presence and our deterrence, and Antifa is afraid of us. So the left hates us. They hate the Proud Boys for much the same reason.

“We’re the two major groups in the country that protect Trump supporters in the streets from radical leftist terrorists, and they don’t like that. So this has been part of a way to get rid of us and get us out of the way. It’s also a way to get at President Trump, ultimately.”

Jan. 6 Committee Appearance

Rhodes said he appeared before the House of Representatives select committee on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. He said he refused to discuss anything that took place after the November 2020 election, but he did talk about the Oath Keepers and its history. He was asked to come back for an “off-the-record” interview.

Rhodes said the Feb. 25 suicide of Jan. 6 defendant Matthew L. Perna made him change his mind about appearing before the committee. Perna, 37, took his own life after learning federal prosecutors intended to seek sentencing enhancers that could have put him in prison for 41 to 51 months.

In charging documents and the paperwork of the plea agreement, Perna was not accused of vandalism or violence at the Capitol. He and his attorney were blindsided by the DOJ decision to seek penalty enhancers, relatives said.

“I was thinking about it (another committee appearance), but then when he committed suicide, I realized they’re not interested in the truth, they’re just out there to hurt people and persecute people,” Rhodes said. “I’m not gonna give them any credence whatsoever.”

Joseph M. Hanneman is a reporter for The Epoch Times with a focus on the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol incursion and its aftermath; and general news in the State of Wisconsin. His work over a nearly 40-year career has appeared in Catholic World Report, the Racine Journal Times, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Chicago Tribune. Reach him at: joseph.hanneman@epochtimes.us