A Stop The Steal is posted inside of the Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, breaking windows in the deadly insurrection attempt aimed at stopping Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s win in the November election. (Photo by Jon Cherry, Getty Images)
Jason Van Tatenhove’s involvement with the far-right paramilitary group the Oath Keepers started and ended in Montana.
He first met up with the group in Montana to participate in the 2014 standoff between Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management over grazing fees. He then left the group in 2018 after overhearing a conversation between Oath Keeper members and associates in a Eureka grocery store in which they denied the Holocaust, he told the U.S. House panel investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection on Tuesday.
“I probably should have broke with them much earlier than I did. But the straw that broke the camel’s back really came when I walked into a grocery store … There was a group of core members … and some associates and they were having a conversation at that public area where they were talking about how the Holocaust was not real. And that was for me something I just could not abide,” he told the panel.
The Oath Keepers are one of the most prominent anti-government groups in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Some of its high-profile members used to live in Montana, but overall the group’s prominence in the state has waned over the years, according to the Montana Human Rights Network.
In testimony, Van Tatenhove continued: “We were not wealthy people at all. We were barely surviving, and it didn’t matter. I went home to my wife, and my kids and I told them that I’ve got to walk away at this point. I don’t know how we’re gonna survive or where we’re gonna go, what we’re going to do; I just can no longer continue and put in my resignation.”
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Along with being the group’s national spokesperson, Van Tatenhove was also a close confidante of the group’s founder and former Montana resident Elmer Stewart Rhodes. Rhodes was one of 12 Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy for their involvement in Jan. 6.
Rhodes formed the Oath Keepers in 2009 and moved to Montana in 2010. He was a practicing lawyer in the state before being disbarred by the Montana Supreme Court in 2015 for violating the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct after failing to show up to multiple court hearings before the high court, according to reporting by KTVH.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Oath Keepers’ recruitment efforts are focused on members of the military, law enforcement, and other public-safety positions. The group’s core principle is to support and defend the constitution, even if that interpretation goes against that of U.S. lawmakers and judges.
Travis McAdam, director of combating white nationalism and defending democracy for the Montana Human Rights Network, said the Oath Keepers’ goal of having a chapter in every Montana county never took off and their presence has faded.
“They did have pockets of support around Montana, and they held events that sometimes even drew Republican officials. For a few years, Oath Keepers was one of the most high profile anti-government groups in Montana,” he said via email on Wednesday to the Daily Montanan. “However, consistent questions regarding Rhodes’ leadership at the national level hurt their momentum on the ground. There are still Oath Keepers in Montana, and that’s always a cause for concern, but their presence and level of activism pales in comparison to that 2009-2012 timeframe.”
In 2014, Congressman Matthew Rosendale spoke at a pro-Second Amendment Oath Keepers rally in Kalispell. At the time, the Republican told NBC Montana his focus was on supporting the Second Amendment, and he was in no way connected to the Oath Keepers.
And while the group tries to soften its image by likening itself to a “community preparedness team” or “veterans support group,” Van Tatenhove told lawmakers Tuesday that in reality, the group is a militia that used military tactics during the Jan. 6 insurrection and said he was surprised the group has not incited more violence.
“We’ve had the potential from Bundy ranch on,” he said about the 2014 standoff. “I think we’ve gotten exceedingly lucky that more bloodshed did not happen because the potential has been there from the start.”
Now based in Estes Park, Colorado, Van Tatenhove also said he fears for the next presidential election cycle if former President Donald Trump becomes president again.
“Who knows what that might bring if a president that’s willing to try to instill … and encourage to whip up a civil war amongst his followers using lies and deceit and snake oil? And regardless of the human impact? What else is he going to do if he gets elected again? All bets are off at that point,” he said to the committee.
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Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.