By James Brooks Alaska Beacon
A nationally recognized expert in domestic extremism testified Tuesday that the Oath Keepers, a national anti-government militia group, meet the standards for disloyalty set by the Alaska Constitution.
The Oath Keepers count Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, as a lifetime member, and Tuesday marked the first day of a bench trial to determine whether Eastman is ineligible to serve in the Legislature because of that membership.
If Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jack McKenna concludes that the Oath Keepers advocate the overthrow by force of the U.S. government, Eastman — a six-year incumbent and the victor of a November election for a state House seat — could be barred from taking office.
Jon Lewis, an expert in domestic extremism at George Washington University, testified by teleconference as the trial’s first witness and said that there is no doubt that the Oath Keepers, as a group, advocate the overthrow by force of the U.S. government, as demonstrated by their actions before and after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“My opinion is that both before and during Jan. 6, the Oath Keepers called for and attempted to execute a plan that would have resulted in the overthrow of the U.S. government on Jan. 6,” he said.
To support his argument, he cited the federal charges brought against the leaders of the Oath Keepers, including its founder, Stewart Rhodes, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy and other crimes associated with the insurrection.
“I would assert, as someone who’s reviewed every single one of these cases … that the totality of the evidence, as presented by the Department of Justice in these seditious conspiracy cases, clearly shows a conspiracy to, in some substance, prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power, which would result in the overthrow of the U.S. government,” he said.
Defending Eastman is attorney Joe Miller, who asked Lewis to compare the size of the Oath Keepers organization to the number of members charged in connection to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Could those few dozen members be aberrations from the thousands of people counted on the group’s rosters nationwide?
“I would simply say, anyone who has followed even in passing the public statements of Rhodes from 2016 until present, anyone who has opened a website once, who has looked at their Facebook or Twitter accounts before they were banned — there is there’s no gray area when it comes to the true goals and motivations of the Oath Keepers,” Lewis said.
On further cross-examination, Miller asked whether Lewis was aware of any communications or statements from the Alaska chapter of the Oath Keepers that could in any way be interpreted as advocating the overthrow of the government by force or violence.
“No,” Lewis said, adding upon further questioning that he isn’t aware of any communication from the Alaska chapter that repeated any of Rhodes’ calls to action against the government.
The trial is expected to last into next week — and possibly longer, depending upon weather conditions in Palmer and other possible delays. The proceeding is the result of a lawsuit filed in July by Randall Kowalke, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough resident.
Kowalke is being represented by attorney Goriune Dudukgian of the Northern Justice Project, who presented a brief opening statement before yielding to Lewis. Miller deferred his opening remarks until Dudukgian wraps up his case.
Under the standards for disqualification, the burden is on the plaintiffs to prove that Eastman has violated the constitution.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said on Tuesday that he hasn’t been following the Eastman case but is concerned about the implications.
“I think like a lot of folks, I’m concerned that you could be excluded from running or your election could be canceled as a result of associations. So we’ll see how this trial pans out, but I think everyone should be concerned,” he said.
“We’ve got to be very, very careful, because that can be a very slippery road for a lot of us,” Dunleavy said.