How a standoff in Nevada years ago set the militia movement on a crash course with the US Capitol

The ABC News documentary "Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion" is on Hulu today.

January 05, 2022, 5:10 AM

Within days of Joe Biden being projected the winner of the 2020 presidential election, the founder of the Oath Keepers militia, Stewart Rhodes, appeared on right-wing radio to warn of a coming "bloody fight" to save "the republic."

Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion
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Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion

A look at the days, events and conversations leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, from the eyes of anti-government groups, extremism experts and several ABC News correspondents who were at the Capitol that day.

The election had been "stolen" from Donald Trump, Rhodes declared to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, saying that "just as Americans across the country stormed the Bundy ranch to stand up for a rancher's family, we need to go to Washington with the same conviction."

It was a fleeting moment on fringe radio, but it reflected nearly a decade's worth of anti-government rhetoric. In one moment, it connected some of the nation's most prominent anti-government figures: Jones, Rhodes, and the Bundy family, who led two high-profile confrontations with the federal government in 2014 and 2016.

Two months after Rhodes' radio appearance, on Jan. 6, 2021, the so-called "big lie" of a stolen presidential election drove a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol, as Congress met to certify the 2020 election results.

PHOTO: In this Feb. 28, 2021, file photo, Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, is shown in Fort Worth, Texas.
In this Feb. 28, 2021, file photo, Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, is shown in Fort Worth, Texas.
Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

But as the nation still struggles to process what pushed the crowd toward such violence a year ago, counterterrorism experts and former U.S. officials underscore how much many of the attackers had been primed, over many years, to believe that the country is collapsing and that one day armed conflict may be the only way to save it.

"It is the other big lie," Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security, told ABC News. "When you tell somebody that it's an existential crisis and they are the only thing that can stop [it], some small percentage of people think that the only thing to do then is to commit an act of violence."

Daryl Johnson, a former senior domestic terrorism analyst at DHS, agreed, saying he believes there is "a straight line that you can draw" between Jan. 6 and what activist Ammon Bundy and his father started years ago on their Nevada ranch.

An ABC News review of court records, videos, and media accounts shows how Bundy's infamous government showdowns were invoked as rallying cries in the run-up to Jan. 6, and how Bundy's own actions and rhetoric throughout 2020 foreshadowed what was to come.

And counterterrorism experts warn that Jan. 6 is hardly the end of the threat.

"It's a point on a timeline," said Dr. Donell Harvin, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation who was the District of Columbia's homeland security chief on Jan. 6. "It portends to something that's been brewing for years, and that's still going on today."

Spokespeople for Bundy and Rhodes did not respond to multiple ABC News requests for comment for this story.

'A giant Americana victory'

By all accounts, Ammon Bundy's first major showdown with the federal government in 2014 -- the one Rhodes invoked on Jones' radio show -- was a boon for U.S. militias and the nation's anti-government movement.

At the time, militias were in the midst of a revival. The militia and white supremacist movements had diminished in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, but Barack Obama's election to the White House in 2008 and his perceived liberal policies on guns, immigration and taxes changed that.

Claiming he wanted "to prevent the destruction of American liberty," Rhodes formed the Oath Keepers in 2009, shortly after Obama took office. Like other modern militia groups, Rhodes based the Oath Keepers on the Second Amendment's call for "a well-regulated militia."

But the militias referenced in the Constitution were supposed to be under the direction of state governors, which is why states now have National Guard units, according to Mary McCord, the former head of the Justice Department's national security division. McCord said that despite their "own disinformation," there's "no authority for these private militias," especially when they "decide on their own to call themselves up." Others suggested militias can be legal, as long as they don't engage in violence.

Nevertheless, in early April 2014, the Bundy family issued a public "call out" for battle-ready groups to come to their aid after federal agents seized their cattle in Bunkerville, Nevada, over unpaid grazing fees. "Range War begins tomorrow," Bundy's father posted online.

As Reuters reported at the time, Jones began "avidly promoting" the dispute on his radio show. And then armed militia members from across the country, most prominently Rhodes and members of his Oath Keepers, converged on the Bundy ranch.

The standoff grew increasingly volatile over several days, with federal agents deploying dogs and stun guns, and rifle-carrying militia members taking sniper-like positions on an overpass overlooking the area.

Fearing a bloodbath, federal authorities ultimately backed down and released the cattle.

PHOTO: In this April 12, 2014, file photo, Eric Parker aims his weapon from a bridge as protesters gather by the Bureau of Land Management's base camp, where cattle that were seized from rancher Cliven Bundy are being held, near Bunkerville, Nev.
In this April 12, 2014, file photo, Eric Parker aims his weapon from a bridge as protesters gather by the Bureau of Land Management's base camp, where cattle that were seized from rancher Cliven Bundy are being held, near Bunkerville, Nev.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters, FILE

To Jones, it was "a giant Americana victory." Rhodes hailed it as "a significant watershed moment," and the Oath Keepers released a video calling it "the first time in our country's recent history that good Americans stood up and said, 'We're not going to let this happen on our watch.'"

The outcome was "huge in terms of validating and legitimizing" the organizations that associated with Bundy, especially the Oath Keepers, historian and Johns Hopkins University professor Leah Wright Rigueur told ABC News. Experts said it "emboldened" militia groups and anti-government activists.

"It gave them hope that they could do it again, and maybe do something even on a bigger scale," according to Johnson, who now heads the Washington-based consulting firm DT Analytics.

In fact, in an interview with Reuters at the time, Jones vowed that "it's going to happen more."

'It matters how you stand'

Two years after the showdown in Nevada, in January of 2016, Bundy led an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside Burns, Oregon, to protest the lengthy imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers who set fires on federal land. The ranchers told Bundy they didn't want his help.

Still, armed militia members, including numerous Oath Keepers, once again came to Bundy's aid.

"The federal government decides to play it slow and just let them wait it out," recalled Chris Sampson, the chief researcher at the Terror Asymmetric Project, which tracks online extremism.

This time, though, the standoff brought bloodshed.

Three weeks into the takeover, on a road outside of the refuge, state and federal authorities surrounded a truck driven by Bundy spokesman LaVoy Finicum. When Finicum stepped out of the vehicle and appeared to reach for a gun inside his jacket, law enforcement fatally shot him.

PHOTO: In this Jan. 4, 2016, file photo, members of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters stand guard near Burns, Ore.
In this Jan. 4, 2016, file photo, members of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters stand guard near Burns, Ore.
Rick Bowmer/AP, FILE

The standoff ended three weeks later when the FBI moved in on the property and the last remaining militia members surrendered.

"Finicum became not only the martyr of that, but he became the person that you should go be to stand up to the government," Sampson recalled.

In fact Rhodes invoked Finicum in mid-November 2020, as the pro-Trump "Stop the Steal" movement was gaining traction following the 2020 election. In a lengthy post online, Rhodes told "patriots" to head to an upcoming rally in Washington because "duty calls!"

"This election was stolen," Rhodes wrote. "As the late, great cowboy patriot LaVoy Finicum said: 'It doesn't matter how it ends, It Matters How You Stand.'"

Bundy and other leaders of the Oregon takeover were arrested on federal conspiracy and weapons charges, but a jury acquitted them of all charges. A separate case against Bundy for the 2014 standoff in Nevada fell apart due to prosecutorial misconduct.

According to Sampson, it was just another "succession of wins" against the federal government, and Bundy and his family "proceeded to still be heroes."

The Trump effect

Less than a year after the 2016 Oregon standoff, Donald Trump was elected president.

At the time, the number of militias and so-called "patriot groups" was actually slightly declining, according to some counts. But thanks to Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric, his claims of a government "deep state," and his reluctance to criticize the far right, militia groups and other right-wing extremists "felt license to be more public" and "more vocal," McCord said.

Members of the Oath Keepers even reportedly provided security at some of Trump's political rallies.

Once in office, Trump regularly demonized government institutions, accused longtime public servants of "treason," and allowed wild conspiracy theories about a "deep state" -- including the QAnon movement -- to flourish, experts told ABC News.

"We pay a lot of attention to the kind of racialized rhetoric that Donald Trump employs … [but] we don't talk a lot about the anti-government sentiment that Trump deploys," Rigueur, an ABC News contributor, said.

Then, as a global pandemic swept over the country in 2020, Trump and his allies went even further.

"This long-standing rejection of the role of the federal government really comes to a head around the government's coronavirus response," said Rigueur.

Early on, with COVID-19 increasingly ravaging U.S. cities, Trump publicly refused to follow federal recommendations for Americans to wear face masks. He publicly clashed with the government's top scientists and doctors. And as states worked to expand their mail-in voting capacity so voters could safely cast ballots in upcoming elections, Trump publicly claimed, with no factual basis, that mail-in voting was riddled with fraud.

"This will be the greatest rigged election in history," Trump repeatedly warned at the White House and on Twitter, months before Election Day.

Meanwhile, other issues were inflaming political tensions across the country.

The killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests and a renewed "Black Lives Matter" movement. But extremists on the far-left and far-right, including militia groups, turned some of the peaceful protests violent.

Trump and his allies framed outbursts of violence in major cities as evidence that left-wing movements like antifa were a greater domestic terrorist threat than white supremacists or anti-government extremists.

"So social issues [and] political issues were really starting to collide together," said Harvin, the former D.C. homeland security chief.

'Stand in defense'

In the spring and summer of 2020, while "Black Lives Matter" activists were organizing protests calling for racial justice, right-wing groups were organizing protests calling for an end to the coronavirus lockdowns, mask mandates and other restrictive measures that state governments were implementing.

Bundy and Rhodes were featured speakers at several such rallies.

"You really could not design a better scenario if you're Stewart Rhodes or [Bundy]," said Neumann, who is now an ABC News contributor. "With COVID, [they have] the opportunity to be like, 'See? I was right. … And you need to stand up for your rights.'"

At the start of the pandemic, Bundy even launched a new nationwide network of supporters, which he called "People's Rights," to help organize protests and prepare people for what he called the "physical" defense of their rights. He estimated that more than 40,000 joined his cause.

"If it gets bad enough, and our rights are infringed upon enough, we can physically stand in defense in whatever way we need to," Bundy said at an event in Idaho in April 2020, according to a New York Times account of his remarks.

At a rally the following month in Texas, Rhodes told supporters they were now living under "the same kind of tyranny" that led Americans to launch an armed revolution against British forces in 1765.

"So you are in the same place they were," he said. "You got to get your crap together and start training, get yourselves back in shape, and prepare yourself to fulfill your duty as the militia of this county and of this state."

'Dry runs' for Jan. 6

As the pandemic deepened, people like Bundy and Rhodes weren't the only ones urging Americans to take action against the government -- then-president Trump was, too.

"Liberate Virginia!" and "Liberate Michigan" Trump tweeted in April 2020.

"These [tweets] were essentially pouring fuel on a raging fire, and his messages were actually heeded and carried out," Johnson said.

Two weeks after Trump's Michigan tweet, hundreds of people, including armed militia members and QAnon adherents, stormed the Michigan statehouse in Lansing to protest Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's latest pandemic-related restrictions.

PHOTO: Protesters try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber after the American Patriot Rally for the reopening of businesses on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., April 30, 2020.
Protesters try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber after the American Patriot Rally organized by Michigan United for Liberty protest for the reopening of businesses on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., April 30, 2020.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

Then at a June rally, Bundy urged his own followers to take their grievances to the Idaho Capitol.

"If that means we have to knock down the doors of the Capitol building to enter in to exercise [our] right, then that's exactly what I will do, and I hope many of you will do the same," Bundy said to cheers. "That, my friends, is the peaceful thing to do."

Two months later, he led an angry mob of protesters into the Capitol building in Boise.

Video posted to Facebook could easily be mistaken for some of the footage that later came from inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, with angry Americans clashing with police, loud chants of "This is our house!" and flashes of military symbols and "Trump 2020" paraphernalia.

In the Boise video, Bundy can be seen trying to force open a door so the crowd of protesters can flood into the state's House gallery.

"Broken glass on the floor of our Capitol because they tried to keep the people out," a woman says in the video as the crowd pushes inward.

Experts and former U.S. officials who spoke with ABC News described the Lansing and Boise incidents as clear precursors to Jan. 6. Johnson even called them "dry runs."

'We will step in and stop it'

In the weeks after Biden was projected the winner of the presidential election, Trump supporters held rallies in Washington and elsewhere, in hopes that they could "Stop the Steal."

Trump's campaign and its allies filed an array of lawsuits across the country, challenging ballot counts and election operations in key states, but those legal efforts failed in court.

Nevertheless, Rhodes promoted the cause, speaking at rallies and appearing on Jones' show, where he invoked 2014's standoff at the Bundy ranch and vowed that if anyone tried to "illegally" remove Trump from office, "we will step in and stop it."

PHOTO: In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Alex Jones, the founder of right-wing media group Infowars, addresses a crowd of pro-Trump protesters after they storm the grounds of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.
In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Alex Jones, the founder of right-wing media group Infowars, addresses a crowd of pro-Trump protesters after they storm the grounds of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images, FILE

At the time, "Jan. 6 was a blip on the radar," according to Harvin -- "just another date on the calendar."

But then law enforcement and intelligence officials started to notice online chatter among fringe groups saying "they can change the outcome of the election" by preventing Congress from certifying the election on Jan. 6, Harvin recalled.

The chatter concerned Harvin and his counterterrorism colleagues, he said, but they really became alarmed when -- in mid-December 2020 -- Trump posted a tweet saying: "Big protest in D.C. on January 6. Be there, will be wild!"

"Immediately within 24 hours after that tweet we saw a tenfold increase in online chatter," Harvin said. Groups that Harvin said are normally "not aligned" -- including anti-government groups, white supremacist groups and conspiracy theorists -- started communicating and coordinating online together, he said.

A week before Jan. 6, Bundy posted his own message online.

"Just wanted to express my support for what is happening in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6," he said in a video on his YouTube page. "Don't wear a mask, and stand for freedom."

'I'm with Ammon Bundy'

"If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore," Trump told his supporters at the rally held the morning of Jan. 6 on the Ellipse.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during a "Save America Rally" near the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021.
President Donald Trump speaks during a "Save America Rally" near the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021.
Shawn Thew/EPA via Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

An hour later, when hundreds of protesters breached security at the U.S. Capitol, the crowd allegedly included an Idaho woman named Pamela Hemphill, who attended several Bundy-related events throughout 2020 and joined him when he stormed the Idaho state Capitol months earlier, according to an ABC News review of online videos of the events.

The night before the siege in Washington, Hemphill had attended an event hosted by Jones and was recorded telling the crowd, "Let's go to the Capitol. We did it in in Boise. … We broke the glass door. Watch the video," the FBI said in charging documents.

"I'm with People's Rights. Ammon Bundy," Hemphill added, according to the documents.

Following the attack on the Capitol, she was charged with disorderly conduct and breaking into government property. She has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Hemphill is one of more than 700 people who have been arrested so far for their alleged actions at the Capitol building on Jan. 6.

PHOTO: Pro-Trump protesters storm into the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
Pro-Trump protesters storm into the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

"Some people clearly came intending to [commit violence], others got swept up in it," McCord said.

More than 100 of those charged have military or law enforcement experience, according to an ABC News review of the cases.

At least 62 of those charged have alleged ties to militia groups, including the Oath Keepers.

Rhodes was reportedly on Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, but he's said he wasn't there until after the violence began, and there's no evidence he entered the Capitol building. In addition, while court records suggest he was communicating directly with at least two rioters that day, Rhodes has denied any wrongdoing.

He told the Washington Post last year that his group had "zero plan" to enter the Capitol, and anyone who did acted on their own.

A dangerous mixed message?

In a video posted to YouTube two days after the siege, Bundy insisted he has never promoted violence, and he promised to pay thousands of dollars to anyone who "can find even one comment where I am promoting violence."

"You will not find anything," he assured viewers. "I do not believe that anybody has a right to act in violence."

"Unless," he added, "they're acting in defense."

Experts said that type of remark -- "unless they're acting in defense" -- can send a potentially dangerous mixed message, especially when Bundy has spent years imploring Americans to stand up and "defend" their rights.

"We are entering the greatest battle to defend individual rights that has ever been waged before," he warned a Utah crowd in August 2020.

More recently, in an interview with right-wing radio, Bundy told listeners that when defending their rights, "the level of defense depends upon you, depends on how much that right means to you."

Bundy and others like him often "flirt on that line" where "they make calls to action" without calling for violence -- and then vulnerable people "hear that message and decide on their own to act violently," according to Johnson, the former domestic terrorism analyst.

Neumann agreed, saying "it wasn't illogical" for protesters who "believed their country was being stolen from them" to then believe on Jan. 6 "that this is one of those times where violence is justified."

PHOTO: In this Jan. 5, 2016, file photo, Ammon Bundy, one of the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, speaks during an interview at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near Burns, Ore.
In this Jan. 5, 2016, file photo, Ammon Bundy, one of the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, speaks during an interview at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near Burns, Ore.
Rick Bowmer/AP, FILE

Eight years after the standoff at his family's ranch, Bundy is now running to become the next Republican governor of Idaho. In a campaign video released over the fall, Bundy said he's "not anti-government" -- he's "just anti-corruption" and against "government overreach."

And at a campaign event last month, he told ABC News that what happened at the U.S. Capitol a year ago "is being over-exaggerated" and "hyped up."

"It wasn't an insurrection," Bundy insisted. "I mean, they weren't trying to overthrow anything."

The FBI, meanwhile, recently warned that "anti-government extremism" is among the greatest threats facing the nation, and said the agency is currently conducting about 2,700 domestic terrorism investigations.

"The beliefs persist," Neumann, the ex-DHS official, said.

ABC News' Josh Margolin, Alex Manalo-Hosenball, John Santucci, Jenny Wagnon Courts, Will Steakin, Laura Romero, Olivia Rubin and Malka Abramoff contributed to this report.

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