Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger with the final story in the final chapter of a reporting project I started over three years ago. A time when I sat for hours alone just listening.
Male Speaker: What interested you in the 3% movement?
Micah Loewinger: To far-right fever swab chat rooms and recruitment interviews on Zello.
Male Speaker: Do all of you have the backing of your family? Do they know that you're on an interview tonight?
Male Speaker: I'm the man in the house, so if I need to go somewhere or do something, that's going to happen.
Micah Loewinger: I wondered what it was like to share a home with someone who had been radicalized like this, which is why when I ran into Anna Sale, my colleague at WNYC at our company holiday party last winter, I pitched the collaboration for the piece you're about to hear. Anna is the host of Death, Sex & Money, a show about difficult personal conversations.
Anna Sale: It's beautiful.
Micah Loewinger: Beautiful and scary because the roads are very nice. Anna and I drove to a remote town in Montana, near the Canadian border to interview Tasha Adams, the ex-wife of Stewart Rhodes. Tasha had witnessed the long build-up to January 6th and could tell us about the private origins of this public extremism.
Anna Sale: We're going to do this interview together, and in some parts of it, Micah is going to lead, and some parts of it I'm going to lead. Micah, do you want to just start?
Micah Loewinger: Sure. Yes. It's really nice for me to meet you. I don't know, do you remember who I am?
Tasha Adams: Yes, I do. I remember we talked a little bit not long after, J6.
Micah Loewinger: That's right. Can I ask about January 6th?
Tasha Adams: Yes.
Micah Loewinger: What were you doing?
Tasha Adams: January 6th, glued to my laptop.
Male Speaker: The Oath Keepers, a far-right paramilitary group are also here. They're organized, staging their military-style equipment neatly on the ground, and later they put on body armor, talk on radios, and chat with their supporters on a walkie-talkie app called Zello.
Micah Loewinger: When did you start hearing from reporters?
Tasha Adams: I had talked with some journalists even from 2018 on, unofficially. Basically, if there was a piece on Stewart. Yes, I did all the background on it. After J6, I felt a lot more comfortable kind of coming out and talking publicly. Even listening to my original interviews, it's almost like a really different perspective. If you read the LA Times article, it's really clear. I'm telling this man, it's all my fault, and he's just writing down. It's all her fault.
Micah Loewinger: What was all your fault?
Tasha Adams: All of it. Oath Keepers, Stewart.
Anna Sale: Because you hadn't prevented it?
Tasha Adams: The first words out of my mouth were, "I helped start this. I helped start this, it turned into that and people died that day. Would this have happened had I not supported Stewart?" It's still really hard for me to talk about J6 in particular as I feel like I do own a piece of that for sure.
Micah Loewinger: Tasha and Stewart Rhodes have six kids and were together for 27 years. They first met in 1991 when Tasha was 18 years old. She was working at a dance studio in Las Vegas where Stewart was taking classes.
Tasha Adams: He just seemed so worldly. He lived everywhere and he'd been in the military and he was also very, very intelligent. That was obvious right away. He'd read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire at 13 and he was always reading something. I liked those things about him.
Micah Loewinger: A few months in she started to see how controlling he could be, how he started to demand all of her free time. Nowadays she believes he's a sociopath, but at the time she only had a rough sense that something was off.
Tasha Adams: I was really on the fence and I was really thinking maybe I need to break this off. Then I get a call. There's been a terrible accident. He's accidentally shot himself in the eye. This completely changed everything in my relationship. I was taking care of him. I was cleaning his empty eye socket. I was just like being pulled out in a tidal wave. All of a sudden I'm just in it.
Micah Loewinger: Also, kind of ironic because a lot of the militia guys preach this gun safety thing and how they're well-trained and they don't slip up and then--
Tasha Adams: Yes, during our divorce hearing, it came up where he talked about how safe he was at handling weapons. Honestly, I had been so conditioned for so many years to never bring it up. I just let him sit there with an eye patch on and tell the judge how safe he is with firearms, [laughs] I just didn't say a thing.
Anna Sale: Conditioned because if you ever brought it up during the course of your marriage, it's so humiliating and embarrassing to him that it would be dangerous for you to bring that up.
Tasha Adams: Yes. He would shut it down and so you just couldn't even hint at it.
Anna Sale: When you married had that period of doubting changed into something else?
Tasha Adams: Yes. It changed into I have to fix this.
Anna Sale: Fix what?
Tasha Adams: Fix him. During his recovery, he became more open about the kind of abuse he experienced as a kid. That his mom had not been mentally stable. I felt so bad and I felt so guilty for my own upbringing. I'd had this board game family life with loving people. Whenever there was something I didn't like about his behavior, he would remind me of this horrible childhood he'd had and how difficult he'd had it, and not everyone has this perfect life. He was very intelligent and he was very good at manipulating me.
Micah Loewinger: In 1997, they had their first kid, Dakota. Stewart convinced Tasha to start stripping to help pay his way through college. She was raising their child, bringing home the money. She told me sometimes she even did his homework. In 2001, he got into Yale Law School. The prestigious degree helped Stewart Land jobs, but he had trouble keeping them. At the time he moved the family without explanation after his clerkship abruptly ended.
Tasha Adams: There was a huge argument. He was yelling at the judge. I had no idea he was fired. Just said, "Oh, we're moving. Okay, here we go again."
Micah Loewinger: It sounds like he had a really hard time working for people and with people.
Tasha Adams: Yes.
Micah Loewinger: Was the Oath Keepers a way for him to be the leader, to have the autonomy that he wasn't finding in his life up until that point?
Tasha Adams: Honestly, in some ways that's what I was hoping for when he said he wanted to start an org, I guess I thought, "Wow. Then he could just talk for a living and then he can't get fired and maybe we can pay the rent." He talked about it for a while and we were at a Ron Paul event, that's when he was doing some legal work for the Ron Paul campaign, 2008. By then, I have a million kids, so I'm just entertaining kids. That's all I'm doing, these things. He comes back in with a notebook with some names written down, and one of the names on it was Oath Keepers. I said, well, just stop right there. That's the name. That is the name. That name is so marketable. It's just a good name. I could see it on jackets, sell T-shirts, people are going to love it.
Micah Loewinger: Can I ask you just a really basic question? What was the oath?
Tasha Adams: Oath Keepers, the oath is based on the idea that everybody in the military, even post office workers, even lawyers, police officers have all had to swear an oath by law, have to swear an oath to the Constitution before they can go into office. The idea is that sometimes these guys swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and they're not doing it. His original pitch, which is how he pitched it to me, [laughs] was very much this idea of what if police in particular had a support group who they could go to if they saw corruption and that they could say, "Hey, things are going crazy in my department. They're not acting right and I don't know what to do," and they would offer legal counsel.
Micah Loewinger: At the time, Tasha didn't see anything dangerous about this type of militia organizing, though others saw it for what it was like when Stewart was interviewed by Chris Matthews on MSNBC in 2009.
Tasha Adams: Chris Matthews said, "I think you won a war."
Chris Matthews: You Know what I think you're up to, is creating a mindset. You want to have people in a militant environment where they think militantly with this sense of perhaps taking steps at some point against the government or not taking orders or in some way rebelling--
Tasha Adams: I don't think Stewarts ever been called out so accurately.
Micah Loewinger: So early too.
Tasha Adams: Yes, so early. Part of me was like, am I mad because there's some truth to this? I was afraid there might be truth to it. I really, really didn't want there to be truth to it.
Micah Loewinger: Meanwhile, life at home was becoming more and more difficult. She recently tweeted out a picture of scars on her arm. We sent a list of questions to Stewart and his lawyers for this piece, he declined to comment
Tasha Adams: If you were to ask me, and in fact, I was asked three years ago, was Stewart physically abusive? I would've said no and did say no many times. He would never outright punch you, but he would do other things to hurt you. Most commonly he would want to do martial arts with you, and then you would just get beat up [beep] really with sticks or whatever and just, "Oh, sorry about that. Oh, sorry about that", but how often and how hard you got hurt correlated directly to how upset he was with you over something. I was physically afraid of him. I was afraid he was going to kill us all.
Micah Loewinger: She and the kids had started talking about trying to escape, but they were so isolated. He had moved them to a remote part of Montana. She told me she didn't have reliable access to a car or even cell service. It was around this time she began following the custody battle of Infowars host and far-right conspiracy peddler, Alex Jones.
Alex Jones: His ex-wife, Kelly, is seeking sole or joint custody of the children who are aged 9, 12, and 14, who currently live full-time with their father. Her claim, he's "not a stable person", and part of her evidence is his media persona.
Tasha Adams: I was watching that very closely and that played a huge part in like, "Whoa, I really could lose my kids." I knew she was someone that would understand that. I had texted her very briefly and I said, "I'm a few months away from doing the same."
Micah Loewinger: Tasha and her kids left Stewart in 2018, for five-and-a-half years the divorce was tied up in family court until this past Tuesday.
Male Speaker: Live, doing it live.
Tasha Adams: Live from Libby, Montana.
Micah Loewinger: Tasha and her son Dakota posted this video on Twitter.
Tasha Adams: I'm divorced and my case has been unsealed.
Male Speaker: The records unsealed -
Tasha Adams: Records are unsealed.
Male Speaker: - then after that is no contact.
Tasha Adams: No contact with the kids.
Micah Loewinger: Then on Thursday, just a couple days later.
Female Speaker: We have breaking news for you, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes has been sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Male Speaker: Yes. This is the longest sentence in any US capitol riot, prosecution. 18 years will keep Stewart Rhodes in prison up to the 2040s.
Micah Loewinger: Wow. Big day for you. Big week for you.
Tasha Adams: Yes. This is great.
Micah Loewinger: How did it feel to see that number 18 years?
Tasha Adams: As the judge started talking, I thought, well, this could even be more.
Micah Loewinger: Judge Amit Mehta called Stewart Rhodes, "Peril to our democracy." After Stewart Rhodes had gone on a conspiratorial rant in the courtroom.
Tasha Adams: He basically called for violence right there on stand while he is in the middle of sentencing. In his mind, his strategy is, I hope they hear me. I'm speaking loud enough and outrageous enough that the conservative news circles like Fox pick it up.
Micah Loewinger: You think he put on a show so that he'll be quoted as a martyr in some of the conservative press?
Tasha Adams: Yes. Then that will be enough that maybe an incoming, whoever might be the next presidential candidate will hear that and get, "Oh, I'm hearing this name Stewart Rhodes a lot, he must be important. We'll throw that out there."
Micah Loewinger: When I called you up knowing how much this sentence meant to you. I was expecting you to be celebrating at the 18 years. What I'm hearing is more, because of the potential for a pardon, you're seeing this as more of a, 2024 is only a year away.
Tasha Adams: Yes, it looms. It for sure will loom, but I'm super happy, for the next few years. I'd like to get out. I'd like to see the world a little bit or at least more in the country. Maybe at least a city with more than 2000 people. [laughs] Go to a place where there's more than one McDonald's or more than one Costco or [laughs] something crazy like that.
Micah Loewinger: Tasha told me she thinks this sentence will have a chilling effect on the militia movement, that Stewart Rhodes had more of an influence on this form of extremism than people realize. That may be so, but I think we're far from out of the woods, the deep revisionist history related to January 6th, the election denialism, and the man with gun vigilantism will persist because the paranoia and reactionary rage that he tapped into, is running for president in 2024.
For On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger. Subscribe to Anna Sales Podcast, Death, Sex & Money, to listen to a version of this interview that delves even deeper into Tasha Adams's backstory. It's produced by Zoe Azalea, and it's a really great listen.