When the Department of Justice indicted members of the Oath Keepers last week for their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, there was one Republican official who might have taken more notice of the arrests than others.
Frank Eathorne, who was revealed in a leak last year to be one of 191 Wyoming-based members of the far-right militia group, was in Washington for protests on Jan. 6. But Eathorne is no rank-and-file fringe crank. He is the sitting chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party.
That role has made him one of the more influential Republican officials in the country. Eathorne is presiding over what is perhaps the GOP's highest-profile primary battle of the 2022 election: the MAGA-fueled campaign to unseat Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) for her unrelenting criticism of former President Donald Trump's lies about the 2020 election.
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And rather than remain neutral, Eathorne has been one of the top figures fighting to defeat Cheney. He has appeared frequently in conservative media to denounce her since her January 2021 vote to impeach Trump for inciting the riot, which kicked off the nasty primary campaign.
In February 2021, Eathorne supported an effort by the party to formally censure Cheney, which narrowly succeeded. In November, he presided over a successful vote to no longer recognize Cheney as a member of the Republican Party.
But the Oath Keepers indictments mean that Eathorne's aggressive efforts to keep the pressure on Cheney-in hopes of replacing her with a MAGA acolyte-are going to be complicated by his association with an extremist group facing grave, and rare, federal crimes charges.
Aside from his aggressive efforts to bring down Cheney, Eathorne has made national news for amplifying the most fringe of right-wing ideas. Appearing on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's podcast in 2021, he expressed interest in the idea of Wyoming seceding from the United States. The remark prompted a quick and strident rebuke from Bannon.
In 2022, state and local Republican Party organizations are home to figures like Eathorne. But Eathorne stands out for his association with the Oath Keepers, as well as his participation in the Jan. 6 riots.
Of the 700-plus Capitol rioters who have been charged with a crime, Oath Keeper leaders and members are facing some of the most serious prosecutions. Eleven members of the Oath Keepers-including the group's founder, Stewart Rhodes-have been charged with "seditious conspiracy."
These charges cover the specific crime of conspiring to overthrow the government or disrupt its functioning, and they are rarely brought. The federal government has not charged anyone on these grounds since 2010.
In fall 2021, a whistleblower group called Distributed Denial of Secrets published a trove of hacked documents and information about the Oath Keepers. The identities of more than 38,000 members were in that data dump, sparking nationwide scrutiny on politicians and law enforcement officers who were named.
In the aftermath, BuzzFeed News reported that 28 elected officials nationwide were Oath Keepers, including a pair of GOP state legislators from Alaska and Arizona who traveled to the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Using that data, the Wyoming-based news site WyoFile reported in December that Eathorne, along with former governor candidate Taylor Haynes, were members of the militia group.
Lindsay Schubiner, program director at the Western States Center-a nonprofit advocacy group that tracks far-right extremism, particularly in the West-called the militia membership of party figures like Eathorne a "dangerous signal about the state of our democracy."
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"It's troubling to see leaders in institutions that should be engaging in the democratic process not only condone paramilitaries, but officially join them," Schubiner said.
Eathorne did not respond to a request for comment.
The Republican National Committee, which oversees state-level GOP organizations, did not respond to questions about whether Eathorne should remain the leader of the Wyoming GOP, nor did Sens. John Barrasso or Cynthia Lummis, the state's two Republican U.S. senators. A Cheney spokesperson also declined to comment on Eathorne.
But Cheney has made no secret of her views on Eathorne. "Certainly, there are people in the state party apparatus of my home state who are quite radical," Cheney said during an interview with Fox News' Bret Baier on Jan. 7. "And some of those same people, include people who were here on January 6th, include a party chair who has toyed with the idea of secession."
Eathorne was not mentioned in the federal indictment of Oath Keepers, and he has not been arrested or charged with any offense in relation to Jan. 6.
In a statement a day after the insurrection, Eathorne confirmed he was in Washington for the events, including "a brief stop in the vicinity of the Capitol building property."
"I retired from the public gathering near mid-afternoon and watched the news of some reported events I personally had not witnessed," Eathorne said.
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The Southern Poverty Law Center now describes the Oath Keepers as one of the largest far-right groups operating in the U.S. today. Many of its members are former military and law enforcement personnel.
The federal government's filing details a painstaking plan by Rhodes and his fellow militiamen to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden's presidential election victory to ensure Trump remained in power.
The indictment alleges that the defendants "conspired through a variety of manners and means," including recruiting members to come to Washington on Jan. 6 and procuring and transporting paramilitary gear and weapons.
It is also alleged that the defendants used organized, military-style tactics to breach the U.S. Capitol that day "in an effort to prevent, hinder and delay the certification of the electoral college vote."
If convicted, defendants face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison. Nine of the 11 Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy have already been charged with other crimes in connection with Jan. 6.
Schubiner, with the Western States Center, emphasized that while the Oath Keepers are known for their far-right, anti-government, and frequently bigoted views, the insurrection underscored that they are focused on seizing power. The mainstreaming of their members, she said, is part of achieving that goal.
"It's incredibly important for Republican leaders and any political leaders," she said, "to denounce affiliations with paramilitary groups, if they do not want their party to become identified with those groups."
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