Members of the House Committee of Military and Veterans' Affairs heard testimony on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, on the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers amid public pressure to take disciplinary action against Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, who is a member of the group. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

House committee hears testimony on far-right organization

Lawmakers to hold further informational hearings

An effort to take disciplinary action against Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, seemed to lose steam Thursday, following a presentation about the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers. Last year, Eastman was revealed to be a member of the organization, which prompted state House leaders to consider reprimanding Eastman.

The House Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs heard testimony Thursday from extremism experts on the Oath Keepers and their role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. But despite lengthy and damning testimony from experts, House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, seemed unconvinced the hearings would lead to any action against Eastman.

“I don’t know that this is going to bear any fruit that is going to make anyone happy on either side,” Tuck said. “It is a distraction, we have a lot of work to do, one of the things we’re trying to do is make sure the public is informed.”

Tuck noted that there was not an official Alaska chapter of the Oath Keepers and said in an interview with reporters it was clear from testimony there were members of the Oath Keepers present at Jan. 6 that had nothing to do with the riot.

“There were many people that were there on Jan. 6 as members of Oath Keepers that did not participate,” Tuck said. “As I pointed out, many (chapters) have disavowed the (national organization.)”

Tuck said he reached out to Oath Keepers to testify about the organization, but only received replies from Virginia and Pennsylvania chapters. Both chapters said they had no connections to the national organization, according to Tuck.

Eastman’s membership in the organization has come under scrutiny since a 2021 data leak showed him to be a “lifetime member.” Eastman has defended his membership saying he joined years ago and called the arrests of the group’s leadership for their role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, “politically motivated.”

Members of the public are pushing for Eastman to be expelled from the Legislature, and the House of Representatives Committee on Committees voted last week to strip Eastman of his committee appointments.

The floor vote on that decision was tabled after Eastman raised a technical objection to his role as an alternate on the Legislative Ethics Committee. But the House Majority Coalition was not able to muster the 21 votes necessary to take action against Eastman. On Feb. 3, Tuck announced the Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs would hold an informational hearing on the Oath Keepers.

The Oath Keeper’s website says the group is not a militia, but an organization meant to uphold members’ oath to the Constitution.

“The media has attempted to paint this organization as a extreme right wing anti-government militia. This is as far from the truth as you can get, we swore an oath to the Constitution,” the site says. “Our oath is to the founding principles that established our great Union of Sovereign States. We will always stand on the side of equality and the Bill of Rights.”

Eastman was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, but he didn’t enter the Capitol building and has not been charged with any crime. In a Jan. 30, 2022, post to his personal website, Eastman said he would have intervened to stop the violence if he could.

At the meeting Thursday, only four members of the committee Reps. Andi Story, D-Juneau; Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage; and Matt Claman, D-Anchorage; and Tuck were present. Republican members Reps. David Nelson, Laddie Shaw and James Kaufman — all representing Anchorage — were not present.

Chairperson Tuck noted that because the meeting was purely informational a quorum wasn’t needed to proceed with the meeting.

A troubling history

During the meeting, the committee heard testimony from Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League and Jon Lewis, research fellow at the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University, both of whom have followed the Oath Keepers and militia movements for years.

Friedfeld traced the history of the Oath Keepers back to the militia movements that started in the 1990s, motivated largely by conspiracy theories about a New World Order and mass gun confiscation. The Oath Keepers frame their ideology as resisting violations of civil liberties, Friedfeld said, but the group also cultivates an ideology that says the government is irredeemably corrupt and tyrannical.

“A closer look shows the issue with the Oath Keeper mentality,” Friedfeld said, saying their beliefs about the government were “warped by conspiracy” and “not grounded in reality.”

Friedfeld traced Oath Keeper actions over the past decade, which include armed standoffs with government officials such as the 2014 standoff at the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy. While the target of Oath Keeper beliefs was typically the federal government, Friedfeld said that dynamic shifted in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump where the focus shifted to state and local government officials.

Friedfeld said Oath Keepers like to clothe themselves in the language of patriotism, but their beliefs inevitably lead to violent conflict with the government.

“If you believe the government is tyrannical,” Friedfeld said, “then what hope do you have the government will be responsive to normal means?”

A December 2021 report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point also notes the Oath Keepers’ conspiratorial and inevitably violent rhetoric.

“Oath Keepers rhetoric is deeply conspiratorial and promotes the need for a violent replacement of tyrannical forces in the United States due to an alleged imminent conflict with the federal government,” the report, co-authored by Lewis, said. “The Oath Keepers are ideologically and operationally best characterized by their preoccupation with preparation for a seemingly inevitable direct conflict against the government.”

In his testimony to the committee, Lewis said the Oath Keepers involved in the Jan. 6 riot were motivated by the belief the 2020 election was stolen as part of a broad leftist conspiracy and saw their actions that day as the culmination of their efforts.

Lewis gave a detailed account of Oath Keeper actions in the run-up to Jan. 6, much of which has been revealed by phone and messaging records obtained by federal investigators. Former leader of the Oath Keepers Stewart Rhodes is alleged to have purchased firearms and firearms accessories in the days before Jan. 6, Lewis said, and organized with other members to illegally transport those weapons into Washington, D.C.

An online group, Expel Eastman, has formed to advocate for Eastman’s expulsion from the Legislature, citing a provision within the state constitution prohibiting members of groups that violently oppose the government from public service.

Michael Patterson, one of the organizers of Expel Eastman, told the Empire in an interview he’s frustrated with the lack of action from legislative leaders. Patterson said the House should hold a floor vote on Eastman so the public knew where members stood.

“They’re stalling for time until the public gets distracted with something else,” Patterson said. “You have a man who is frankly a fascist in the House who violated the constitution, the people need to know where their lawmakers stand on this.”

Eastman has faced scrutiny in the past for comments he’s made on the floor. In 2017, he was censured by the House for his comments that women purposefully become pregnant in order to get a Medicaid-funded trip to cities for an abortion. On Sept. 16, 2021, Eastman tweeted an excerpt from a speech by Adolf Hitler, and linked as a source a blog with Holocaust denial.

Tuck said there would be an additional informational hearing Tuesday, but added he preferred to keep Eastman’s name out of the hearings.

“I would say there isn’t a next step (with regard to Eastman,) this is basically an informational hearing,” Tuck said. “There’s a hearing on Tuesday, I hope that’s the end of it.”

Wednesday, Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, submitted a nonbinding Sense of the House condemning the Jan. 6 riot, the leaders of the Oath Keepers charged in the insurrection, and comparisons between government mandates the Holocaust, including comments made by Eastman. A Sense of the House is a nonbinding resolution meant to express the will of the body.

That vote was moved to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and on Thursday Tuck said that was a separate issue from the informational hearings.

Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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