Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, was sentenced on Thursday to 18 years in prison, after being convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role in the January 6 attack on Congress.
Related: Proud Boys and Oath Keepers: what is their future with top leaders jailed?
Prosecutors sought a 25-year term. Lawyers for Rhodes said he should be sentenced to time served, since his arrest in January 2022.
Before handing down the sentence, the US district judge, Amit Mehta, told a defiant Rhodes he posed a continued threat to the US government, saying it was clear he “wants democracy in this country to devolve into violence”.
“The moment you are released, whenever that may be, you will be ready to take up arms against your government,” Mehta said.
Rhodes claimed the prosecution was politically motivated.
“I’m a political prisoner and like President Trump my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country,” he said.
Rhodes also noted that he never went inside the Capitol on January 6 and insisted he never told anyone else to do so.
But members of the Oath Keepers took an active role on 6 January 2021, when a mob incited by Donald Trump smashed its way into the Capitol, attempting to stop certification of Joe Biden’s election win.
Prosecutors successfully made the case that Rhodes and his group prepared an armed rebellion, including stashing arms at a Virginia hotel, meant for quick transfer to Washington DC.
Other members of the Oath Keepers, some convicted of seditious conspiracy, are due to be sentenced this week and next. Members of another far-right group, the Proud Boys, will face sentencing on similar convictions later this year.
Nine deaths have been linked to the January 6 attack, including suicides among law enforcement. More than 1,000 arrests have been made and more than 500 convictions secured.
In court filings in the Oath Keepers cases, prosecutors said: “The justice system’s reaction to January 6 bears the weighty responsibility of impacting whether January 6 becomes an outlier or a watershed moment.”
Like all other forms of Trump’s attempted election subversion, the attack on Congress failed. In the aftermath, Trump was impeached for a second time, for inciting an insurrection. He was acquitted by Senate Republicans.
Laying out Trump’s actions after the 2020 election, the House January 6 committee made four criminal referrals to the justice department. The former president still faces potential indictments in state and federal investigations of his election subversion and role in the attack on Congress. Nonetheless, he remains the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination next year.
At Thursday’s hearing, speaking for the prosecution, the assistant US attorney Kathryn Rakoczy pointed to interviews and speeches Rhodes has given from jail repeating Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen and saying the 2024 election would be stolen too.
In remarks just days ago, Rhodes called for “regime change”, Rakoczy said.
People “across the political spectrum” want to believe January 6 was an “outlier”, Rakoczy said. “Not defendant Rhodes.”
A defense lawyer, Phillip Linder, denied Rhodes gave orders for Oath Keepers to enter the Capitol on January 6. But he told the judge Rhodes could have had many more Oath Keepers come to the Capitol “if he really wanted” to disrupt certification of the electoral college vote.
In a first for a January 6 case, Judge Mehta agreed with prosecutors to apply enhanced penalties for “terrorism” under the argument that the Oath Keepers sought to influence the government through “intimidation or coercion”.
Judges in previous sentencings had shot down the justice department request for the so-called “terrorism enhancement”, which can lead to a longer prison term, but Mehta said it fitted Rhodes’s case.
“Mr Rhodes directed his co-conspirators to come to the Capitol and they abided,” the judge said.
Asked if Mehta’s acceptance of the enhancement boded ill for others found guilty of seditious conspiracy, Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, Virginia, said prosecutors “argued that the judge should apply the enhancement because the ‘need to deter others is especially strong because these defendants engaged in acts that were intended to influence the government through intimidation or coercion – in other words, terrorism’.
“The judge then stated, ‘It’s hard to say it doesn’t apply when someone is convicted of seditious conspiracy.’
“Mehta apparently accepted that argument in imposing the sentence today and may well apply it to others who have been convicted of seditious conspiracy, as he has heard the evidence presented.”