Newly released emails show an oddly friendly relationship between the Secret Service and the Oath Keepers militia ahead of the January 6 capitol riot. It’s a reminder that we still don’t know the full story of what happened that day.

Protesters who claim to be Proud Boys gather with other supporters of former US president Donald Trump outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Alex Edelman / AFP via Getty Images)

More than two years on, the events surrounding the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot only get weirder. I’m referring in particular to the never satisfactorily explained peculiarities around whatever law enforcement was doing that day, a full accounting of which has been blocked by those in power from the very start.

The latest news on this front comes from government ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which received a public records request for Secret Service communications that reveal the agency’s disturbing closeness with the right-wing antigovernment militia Oath Keepers and its founder and leader, the recently convicted Stewart Rhodes. The Oath Keepers are not only one of the most prominent extremist groups associated with the Capitol riot — to the point where more than a dozen members wound up being convicted for their involvement — but they were specifically profiled by the Secret Service’s threat assessment division afterwards.

Yet the emails obtained by CREW suggest that the Secret Service had a friendly, even strangely intimate, relationship with Rhodes and the Oath Keepers. In the most eyepopping email, dated September 2020, a Secret Service agent refers to himself as “the unofficial liaison to the Oath Keepers (inching towards official)” and informs his fellow agents, after speaking with Rhodes over the phone, that the group wants to “provide protection and medical attention to Trump supporters if they come under attack by leftist groups” and that they’d “have security details” at a Fayetteville Trump rally, for which he “wanted to liaison with our personnel.” The agent helpfully provides Rhodes’s cell number.

CREW points out that this and another email directly contradict a Secret Service spokesperson’s statement to CNN last year that the agency “doesn’t have enough information to say whether or not this call actually took place,” referring to court testimony that Rhodes had spoken to an agent about what weapons they could bring near the rally. A separate email — containing a thin and exceedingly generous description of the group and its history from one agent in response to another’s question about them — also sits awkwardly next to the agency’s threat assessment after the Capitol riot, which states that “the Oath Keepers are of record with the [Secret Service] since 2014.”

CREW points out that these emails only concern the Fayetteville event and are part of a wider and ongoing public records request about the agency’s contacts with the paramilitary group. As more records are released, it’s possible we’ll find out even more disturbing details about the relationship between the two. But it’s hard not to speculate that these revelations may be related to the Secret Service’s deletion of texts between January 5 and 6, shortly after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general’s office requested the agency’s electronic communications as part of a government probe into the Capitol riot.

A Failure Unexplained

These emails add to an increasingly strange picture of law enforcement’s failures on the day, as well as evidence of an alarming overlap between DHS personnel and right-wing extremists.

The Secret Service, which was run on January 6 by a Trump loyalist who simultaneously held a separate political appointment under him, has already taken flack for some of its agents’ actions when chaos engulfed the Capitol. Secret Service agents reportedly tried to whisk away Mike Pence — who, as vice president, was meant to certify the election result —  in the middle of the fray, which he refused to go along with.

A separate email unearthed last year by the January 6 committee found that just eleven days before the incident, a Secret Service field office shared an FBI tip warning that another far-right pro-Trump organization, the Proud Boys, “will have a large enough group to march into DC armed and will outnumber the police” and asking to “please, please take this tip seriously.” This is on top of a leaked list last year revealing that the Oath Keepers — the same group in the CREW emails — counted as members more than three hundred working and retired employees of DHS, the government department that the Secret Service is part of. 

Unfortunately, we may never have a decent accounting of what exactly led law enforcement to drop the ball so spectacularly on a day they knew in advance would see hundreds of pro-Trump protesters try to charge into the Capitol. This is partly because, as a whistleblower alleged early on, there were those in power who stifled investigation into the Capitol Police’s screwups, while former Rep. Liz Cheney, as one of her final acts in Congress, ordered staffers on the January 6 committee (which she had been mystifyingly put in charge of by grandstanding Democratic leadership) to stop investigating the matter, saying explicitly that she refused to put any blame on law enforcement.

Unsolved Mystery

You don’t have to sign onto the most panicked picture painted of the Capitol riot to be disturbed by all this. After all, as legal experts have pointed out, the government wasn’t able to prove in the end that the Oath Keepers actually had any concerted plan on the day beyond just storming into Congress.

A key law-enforcement agency controlled by a Trump loyalist, and which has been accused of trying to enable his attempt to overturn the election, also had a close relationship with an extremist group which viewed itself as mobilizing on his behalf on that day.

But at minimum, all this suggests that a key law-enforcement agency controlled by a Trump loyalist, and which has been accused of trying to enable his attempt to overturn the election on January 6, also had an oddly close relationship with one of the extremist groups who viewed themselves as mobilizing on his behalf on that day. And there are endless future scenarios where this scenario could rear its head in dangerous ways.

This connection is part of a wider and worrying pattern of sympathy within US law enforcement for armed right-wing extremists, and is echoed in what court testimony from last year revealed was a blind spot the FBI had for such groups even as it was infiltrating them, in large part thanks to its fixation on using them to go after the Left.

Perhaps it’s all a big misunderstanding and the truth really is innocent. But the more that efforts to conceal law enforcement’s actions pile up, the less likely this looks — and the less likely it is we’ll ever know for sure.

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