Jordan Green is an investigative correspondent based in Greensboro, N.C., who covers right-wing extremism for Raw Story. His work has been featured in a host of publications, including the Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Nation, In These Times and Sojourners.
Prior to joining the staff of Raw Story in March 2021, Green spent 16 years covering housing, policing, nonprofits and music as a reporter and editor at Triad City Beat in North Carolina and Yes Weekly. Green’s exposé on Medicaid fraud by a bogus drug-treatment program placed third for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s David Carr Investigative Reporting Award in 2020, while his reporting on how tax revaluations discriminated against Black homeowners in Winston-Salem won the N.C. Press Association’s second-place award for investigative reporting in 2013.
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson praised Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that opposes transgender rights, as the modern-day equivalent of Betsy Ross, Rosie the Riveter and Rosa Parks.
Members of the group, who are in Raleigh to lobby the North Carolina General Assembly for legislation prohibiting transgender girls and women from participating in female sports and to ban gender reassignment surgery for minors, greeted Robinson by saying, “We love you, Mark!”
“I love you, too,” Robinson responded.
Robinson addressed the conservative group, which has pushed culture-war battles at local school boards across the country by assailing pandemic restrictions and demanding book bans while building electoral power, during a reception today at his official residence. Among the speakers was a lobbyist for Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing Christian legal group that one prominent extremism watchdog has publicly designated as a "hate group."
Reps. Ken Fontenot and John Torbett, two Republican lawmakers, also spoke at the event.
Several speakers at the event struck martial tones, including Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich, who traveled from Florida to attend.
“We are at war,” Descovich said. “But you have heard that.”
Nathan Street, a former music teacher who resigned from a public elementary school in Greensboro while under investigation for allegedly physically abusing students, was in attendance. During his speech, he asked the Moms for Liberty members to "give me your best muscle pose." When they obliged he enthused, "Whew, look at them guns down there! I love it. I love it."
Flexing his biceps, Street added, "When it's all said and done, you're able to do this, and you're able to say, 'Bring it, pal. I'm ready to fight you and I'm ready to take you down to the mat, whatever I've got to do to win."
Robinson, who is considered the Republican front-runner in North Carolina's 2024 gubernatorial election, compared the nation's current political climate to that of the Civil War.
“I know people say we’re more divided now than at any time in our history,” Robinson said. “I would remind those individuals that we fought a civil war. And even though we were divided not just along political lines, not just along geographic lines, we were actually on opposite sides of battle killing each other on battlefields. Blood was shed. More blood than has ever been shed by Americans in our history was shed during our civil war because we were fighting over those essential rights — states’ rights, the rights of individuals, liberty itself. We came out of that war stronger than ever.”
Robinson rocketed to recognition in 2018 when he addressed the Greensboro City Council in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Schoolhigh school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
The viral video of his populist appeal for gun rights earned him the keynote speaker slot at the National Rifle Association convention and made him a darling of conservative media. He was elected lieutenant governor in 2020, with no prior political experience.
Since his election as lieutenant governor, Robinson’s anti-LGBTQ statements from church pulpits have generated outrage.
In June 2021, he told the congregation in Seagrove, N.C., that LGBTQ “issues have no place in a school,” adding, “There’s no reason anybody in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality — any of that filth.”
More recently, during a sermon in a church in Mooresville, N.C., outside of Charlotte, Robinson mocked churches that are welcome LGBTQ people, saying, “You see so many pastors right now will say in their pulpits, ‘I don’t want this church to be political, I don’t want to talk about politics that have anything to do with religion. We used to be religious in this church, and we’re going to love, we’re going to accept everybody, and we’re going to accept everything. I’m going to fly a rainbow flag out front and spit right in the face of God.’”
A sign propped against the porch at the lieutenant governor’s residence read, “We do not co-parent with the government.”
Across the street from the event at Robinson's residence, Blue Miller, one of roughly a dozen protesters, taunted the Moms for Liberty activists while the chief state government lobbyist for the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom spoke.
“You say you’re not co-parenting with the government — at the governor’s mansion lawn and you’re going to speak to the General Assembly?” said Miller, who is a transgender person. “You guys are trying to take this state and run it. I mean, you all are trying to be the state. You’re schmoozing with the state.”
Alliance for Defending Freedom, which defended a Colorado baker who refused to design a wedding cake for a same-sex couple before the Supreme Court in 2018, has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The watchdog group, which tracks extremism, asserts that Alliance Defending Freedom has “supported the recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults in the U.S. and criminalization abroad,” citing the group’s support for a Texas law criminalizing sodomy, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003.
The Alliance Defending Freedom disputes the characterization, contending it “has never supported the passage of law criminalizing homosexuality.”
Asked if Robinson was comfortable with Alliance Defending Freedom’s positions, John W. Waugh, a spokesperson told Raw Story in an email: “The Lt. Governor has said time and time again that he will defend the rights of ALL North Carolinians.”
The budding alliance between Robinson and Moms for Liberty echoes the group’s alignment with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is likely to seek the presidency in 2024 alongside at least several other Republican candidates, most notably former President Donald Trump.
Moms for Liberty helped mobilize the activist base for DeSantis’ successful reelection campaign last year. DeSantis aligned with the group’s “parent’s rights” messaging, and spoke at its most recent national summit in Tampa in July 2022. This year, Moms for Liberty has announced that Robinson will be part of the speaker lineup at the upcoming national summit in Philadelphia in July, and the group is expected to play a similar role in his gubernatorial campaign.
As Donald Trump plots a return to the White House in 2025, his past courtship of militant far-right groups — some of whom led the mob that overran the U.S. Capitol — highlights an ongoing threat of political violence in the United States.
Trump has continued to signal to violent extremists since Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021. In February, the former president amplified a user on the Truth Social platform who pledged that his supporters will “physically fight for him” to win the Republican nomination while warning that “we Are Locked and LOADED.”
Jacob Glick, a former investigative counsel for the January 6th Committee, told Raw Story it’s largely beside the point whether Trump directly or indirectly coordinated with the militant groups that attacked the Capitol — including, most prominently, leaders of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who have been convicted of seditious conspiracy.
“The scheme is in plain sight,” said Glick, who now serves as policy counsel at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center. “The fact is that both Trump’s authoritarianism and the fascistic bloodlust of the militant groups who aligned with him were out in the open. They each saw each other without necessarily communicating directly. That doesn’t make it any less dangerous. That’s how this anti-democratic dynamic has operated throughout history.”
A patch on a tactical vest worn by a Trump supporter at the Jericho March rally reads: "Water boarding is how we baptize the terrorists." Jordan Green/Raw Story
Glick pointed to one particular strand of the Jan. 6 story as exemplifying Trump’s proximity to the militant groups.
Robert M. Weaver, then employed in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, co-organized the Jericho March — a series of quasi-religious gatherings attended by a loose coalition of Trump supporters who staged weekly rallies in state capitols that culminated with a major demonstration in Washington, D.C., in December 2020.
The Jericho March helped set the stage for what transpired less than a month later on Jan. 6, 2021.
Texts obtained by the January 6th Committee show that Weaver communicated extensively with Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, a featured speaker at the rally, and also received confirmation of Trump’s approval through an undisclosed contact within the Trump camp.
“What the messages show is a really egregious instance of a pro-Trump political operative serving in the administration at the time who was extremely active in Stop the Steal — welcoming the help of armed extremists and didn’t reject it,” Glick told Raw Story.
A representative for the Trump campaign could not be reached for comment.
Weaver’s collaboration with Rhodes — now among six Oath Keepers convicted of seditious conspiracy — represents a “mainstreaming and normalization of political violence” seen in multipleinstances of crossover between political operatives and militants in the runup to Jan. 6, Glick said, adding, “The Jericho March was 1,000 percent in that category.”
‘Let his church roar’
Weaver presented an unlikely candidate to lead the Christian nationalist wing of the election denial movement. It’s a movement that materialized quickly, one bent on keeping Trump in power after 2020 election returns showed the former president losing the electoral vote to Democrat Joe Biden.
A member of the Quapaw Tribe in Oklahoma with a business background in healthcare and employee benefits, Trump had made Weaver part of his administration. Then-President Trump first tapped Weaver to lead the Indian Health Service in 2017. But Weaver withdrew following a report by the Wall Street Journal that indicated his resume inaccurately stated his qualifications.
Despite being denied the leadership post, which required Senate confirmation, Weaver in July 2020 joined U.S. Department of Health and Human Services staff as an adviser to the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
While other political operatives such as Ali Alexander, Amy Kremer, Felisa Blazek and Tomi Collins began organizing weekly rallies to sow doubt about the result of the 2020 election, Weaver launched a similar effort to mobilize Christians and a smaller subset of conservative Jews behind Trump. Weaver teamed up with Arina Grossu, a former Family Research Council spokesperson who was also working at Health and Human Services at the time, to lead what they called the Jericho March.
A self-described “holy roller, speaking-in-tongues” Pentecostal Christian, Weaver recalled during a Dec. 9, 2020, interview with Christian radio host Eric Metaxas that two days after the election he cried out to God in prayer, and then heard a voice telling him: “It’s not over.”
Weaver told Metaxas: “And the vision was of people all over the crowd, shofars blowing. I saw Catholics. I saw evangelical Christians. Charismatic Christians. I saw all kinds of nuns. I saw Jewish rabbis. I saw people praying. The church was united. And I knew that we were supposed to march on the 12th, that God was showing us that. And I knew we were also supposed to go to the contested states, and do the same thing. And it wasn’t just one time. God said to do it every day at noon, so we’ve been doing it since.”
A man holding a pro-Second Amendment flag raises his hand during a praise song at the Jericho March in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 12, 2020. Jordan Green/Raw Story
As described by Weaver and others, the Jericho March was inspired by the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament, in which Joshua, the successor to Moses, leads an army of Israelites who conquer the ancient city of Jericho by marching around it seven times while blowing horns, with the walls crumbling at the seventh pass.
“God had told me that this was about unity,” Weaver said. “He told me to let his church roar.”
On the same day he described his vision to Metaxas, Rhodes added Weaver to the “Dec. 12 DC Security/Leadership” Signal chat, according to the communications which Weaver turned over to the January 6th Committee.
In a separate text obtained by the January 6th Committee, Weaver introduced Rhodes to Stephen Brown, whom the organizers hired to handle logistics for the event, writing: “Steve meet Stewart with Oathkeepers security. Please get with him to work on extra security.” Not only did the Oath Keepers provide additional security for the rally, but Rhodes spoke from the stage during the event.
Responding to news on the eve of the rally that the Supreme Court would refuse to hear a challenge filed by the Texas attorney general, Rhodes launched into a rant in the “Dec. 12 DC Security/Leadership” chat labeling the justices as “compromised or deep state traitors” and calling on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act.
“We are at war,” Rhodes wrote. “At war with China and all its American proxies, who are the domestic traitors and insurrectionists. Trump needs to be a wartime president and wage war on our enemies. That is all he has left. If he doesn’t do that, then we will have to fight against an illegitimate Biden regime and all of the deep state with him. It will be a bloody and desperate fight.”
Rhodes' comments on the Signal chat previewed his remarks when he took the stage the next day.
“He had these grand visions of being a paramilitary leader,” Jason Van Tatenhove, a former spokesperson for the Oath Keepers, told the January 6th Committee during a public hearing last July. “And the Insurrection Act would have given him a path forward with that. The fact that the president was communicating, whether directly or indirectly messaging that gave him the nod. All I can do is thank the gods that things did not go any worse that day.”
Trump ‘encouraged by’ Jericho marches
While Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers founder, was emboldened by Trump’s flirtation with the Insurrection Act in 2020, the Jericho March organizers were able to cite the president’s approval to galvanize supporters. Trump’s benediction was passed down to Weaver through a contact at the White House, his co-organizer told the January 6th Committee.
In a Nov. 10, 2020 Jericho March newsletter obtained by the committee, Arina Grossu wrote: “President Trump is also aware of the Jericho Marches and is encouraged by them.”
One of the staff members asked Grossu how she knew that Trump was aware of the marches.
“So that is a question for Rob,” she responded. “I don’t have — I was not in those conversations or in any of those — I did not have that kind of connection.”
Grossu also told the committee that in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 rally, “there was talk that maybe he would fly over,” and indeed Trump did signal his approval to the rally by flying over in Marine One that day.
President Trump flies over the Jericho March in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 12, 2020. Jordan Green/Raw Story
Again, Grossu said her information came from Weaver.
“Rob would probably know more about details of that,” she said. Grossu said she did not know the identity of Weaver’s point of contact at the White House.
The committee did not depose Weaver, although he did provide documents. Reached by phone by Raw Story last week, Weaver abruptly hung up.
The Dec. 12, 2020, Jericho March event in Washington, D.C. was a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the insurrection, in Glick’s view.
Two days later, the duly appointed electors would meet to cast electoral votes on behalf of their respective states. And in the early morning hours of Dec. 19, following a late-night meeting at the White House at which Trump’s allies urged him to call out the National Guard to seize voting machinery, Trump would summon his supporters to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 with his infamous “be there, will be wild” tweet.
“It’s all of the January 6th story compressed into one disturbing arc,” Glick said. “December 12th was such an important day in terms of proving that model of political-militant coordination can work. They were able to replicate it on January 6th.
“December 12th was also important because Trump flew over the rally,” he continued. “That night D.C. descends into violence. He sends out his tweet a week later. We see Trump witnessing firsthand the violent potential of the Stop the Steal movement on the ground in D.C. Then, a few days later, when his paths to victory are all but closed off, he calls out his supporters again.”
“Be there, will be wild” was only the culmination of Trump’s courtship of militant groups, Glick said.
“The dynamics are crystal clear in the January 6th Committee report, in the DOJ prosecutions and in public reports,” Glick said. “Trump leaned into the potentially violent power of his base, while he was simultaneously orchestrating multiple illegal schemes to undermine the election. His extreme base followed those cues. They engaged in a call and response that stretched back for months and years before January 6th.”
Trump cultivated militant far-right groups throughout the 2020 campaign.
The former president kicked off his last re-election campaign with a speech in Orlando, Fla. in June 2019 in which he complained that “our patriotic movement has been under assault from the very first day” as members of the Proud Boys street gang prowled the streets outside the venue chanting, “Pinochet did nothing wrong” in homage to the late Chilean dictator known for extrajudicial execution of political opponents.
Days before a January 2020 Second Amendment rally in Richmond, Va. that attracted militia members, neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists, Trump tweeted: “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia.” As protests against COVID restrictions took shape across the country — including one in which men in tactical gear carried assault rifles into the Michigan state capitol — a couple months later, Trump tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and, “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege.”
During his first debate with Joe Biden in September 2020, Trump infamously instructed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” And in the closing days of the campaign, he minimized a plot by Three Percenters to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, telling supporters at a rally in Lansing that “people are entitled to say maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn’t.”
‘2024 is the final battle’
The same contours of desperation that drove Trump’s 2020 campaign are in place again for his 2024 bid.
While Trump is the early favorite to again win the Republican presidential nomination, significant trouble looms for him. The multiplecriminalinvestigations against Trump may only increase the incentive for him to inflame his supporters with appeals to base fears. He will also face a 2024 Republican primary featuring several legitimate, conservative candidates intent on ending Trump’s political career for good.
Recalling that the Trump campaign sought to link civil unrest that erupted during his administration to Biden, Kristofer Goldsmith — a military veteran who leads the anti-sedition group Task Force Butler — predicted that Trump will encourage rioting during the 2024 election in order to inflict political damage on his Democratic opponent.
“Any opportunity he has to inspire a riot, especially in American cities — what are traditionally considered Democrat-controlled areas — he has every incentive to inspire riots, and there are tons of neo-Nazis around the country who are desperate for that kind of permission structure,” Goldsmith said.
While militant leaders such as Rhodes looked to Trump for approval to carry out acts of violence, Trump signaled to extremists at key moments during the 2020 campaign when he needed to energize his base by invoking fears about federal investigations, gun control, urban crime, and pandemic restrictions.
Goldsmith said Trump shows every sign of similarly exploiting anti-LGBTQ hate as the 2024 campaign unfolds.
“The way that the last two years have gone with the radicalization of the Republican Party and the adoption of legislation specifically targeting, taking away the rights of, and imposing restrictions on the LGBTQ community, I expect Trump to use that,” Goldsmith told Raw Story. “I expect Trump to use the LGBTQ community as a punching bag to further radicalize the Republican Party — to give permission to elements of the far right that have a desire to go out and use violence.”
During a campaign rally in New Hampshire last month, Trump demonstrated how his rhetoric has evolved since he left the White House in January 2021. Specifically, he used anti-LGBTQ language and apocalyptic political imagery to excite his supporters.
“Does anybody really believe what’s going on in this country?” Trump asked. “I will sign a law prohibiting child sexual mutilation in all 50 states. And this is what we must do to save our country from destruction. 2024 is the final battle. If we don’t take it over, we’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Far from condemning those who committed violence on his behalf, Trump has offered symbolic support.
The former president glorified the rioters who attacked the Capitol by playing a recording of Jan. 6 defendants housed at the D.C. jail singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” during a recent rally in Waco, Texas. And last week, during a CNN town hall in New Hampshire, Trump said he was inclined to pardon many of those who face criminal charges in the attack. That signaling gives a green light to future violence, Goldsmith said.
“He wants to assure his fascist troops and out-and-out neo-Nazis that he will go to bat for them if they commit violence on his behalf,” Goldsmith said.
Again, as in 2020, Trump is refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of any outcome in the 2024 election that does not make him the victor, while claiming that America’s very nationhood is at stake.
“I’m just telling you,” he said during his campaign rally in New Hampshire last month, “if we allow them to cheat, because that’s the only way they’re going to win the election — if we allow them to cheat again, you’re not going to have a country.”
Two U.S. Army veterans are charged with committing a heinous double murder in southwest Florida.
But as the case nears trial, only one of the defendants, Alex Zwiefelhofer, is likely to be sitting in a Fort Myers courtroom and facing a federal judge.
His co-defendant, Craig Lang, is in Ukraine.
The upcoming trial, likely slated for late spring or summer, highlights a longstanding concern on the part of the Department of Justice and the FBI that volunteer fighters from the United States — even while aiding a U.S. ally such as Ukraine — could pose a national security threat.
It also underscores how a trained killer with international savvy could potentially get away with the murder he’s accused of by seeking refuge in an active war zone. The split-screen justice process for Zwiefelhofer and Lang can be chalked up to a simple twist of fate.
When the government charged the two men with violations related to the 2018 double murder in Florida, Zwiefelhofer was already sitting in jail in Wisconsin for purchasing a firearm while under indictment for a felony.
Lang, in contrast, allegedly bought another man’s identity with cash and weapons to make a false passport, which he used to fly from Mexico City to Bogota, Colombia, and then onward to Madrid, Spain, in late 2018.
By September 2019, when authorities unveiled the Florida murder charges, Lang was back half a world away in Ukraine, where both he and Zwiefelhofer had previously fought Russian-backed separatists in disputed Ukrainian territory. Since then, Lang has successfully fought U.S. officials’ attempts to extradite him.
As recently as last August, the lead FBI agent on the case said that Lang was reported to be “fighting with Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces against Russian forces.”
The investigation and prosecution of Lang and Zwiefelhofer has ranged over more than half a dozen countries and is inextricably bound up with an ongoing war that claims strategic importance in U.S. foreign policy objectives.
And as the full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine moves into its second year, the case casts a spotlight back to a more limited war between Ukraine and Russian-based separatists from 2014 to 2017 that provided a cover for lawless American adventure seekers such as Lang and Zwiefelhofer. That includes not only the alleged double murder in Florida, but also alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
Sheri Polster Chappell, the federal judge overseeing the case, observed in an order last month that “given the current war in Ukraine, extradition before the trial term is unlikely.”
‘Googled the worst warzone in Africa’
In the spring of 2017, Lang and Zwiefelhofer found themselves looking for a new war.
They had traveled parallel tracks of personal upheaval that propelled them into a lawless fellowship of international mercenaries and adventure-seekers. Now, their paths converged in quest for violence. Literally, they were looking to take up arms in the most war-torn places on earth.
Lang, a veteran of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was the more battle-hardened of the two men. He has said that he suffered a combat-related brain injury in the Middle East, causing him frequent headaches and vision problems in his left eye. While stationed at Fort Bliss, Lang had been hospitalized for threatening suicide, his ex-wife testified in court. Convinced that his wife was unfaithful, he had driven 26 hours overnight from the base in west Texas to North Carolina with the intention of setting up a perimeter of Claymore mines around his wife’s condo and murdering her, he told a reporter from Vice in 2016.
Lang ended up going to jail for pointing a gun at one of his wife’s neighbors, and the Army dishonorably discharged him. Beset by mounting child support payments and with his state-side employment prospects diminishing, Zwiefelhofer eventually landed in Ukraine, where the country’s armed forces were scrambling to respond to a separatist rebellion.
Seven years younger, Zwiefelhofer followed Lang into the U.S. Army in 2015. But his tenure there was brief. He told FBI agents that he joined the Army for combat and trained for a position in the elite Rangers, but was assigned to a unit known for parade duty.
Meanwhile, personal challenges aggravated Zwiefelhofer’s disappointment: He had a drinking problem, was in a motorcycle accident and felt unsupported by his leadership, he told the FBI. As his fellow soldiers planned for a four-day leave in September 2016, Zwiefelhofer announced he was going AWOL.
He later told the FBI that he booked a flight for Paris, and got “trashed” during a layover in London. He signed up for the French Foreign Legion, but left after learning he would need at least eight years of service before he could deploy. On the advice of a friend he met online, Zwiefelhofer traveled to Ukraine in search of a war.
Two days after his arrival there, he met Lang, and in late 2016 and early 2017, they fought together in the Right Sector, a far-right battalion that attracted international volunteers. When peace talks put the fighting on hold in the spring of 2017, Zwiefelhofer told the FBI, he and Lang literally “Googled the worst warzone in Africa and we got South Sudan.”
Following their aborted military expedition to the African country in 2017, Lang and Zwiefelhofer were deported to the United States. Back home with their parents, they began to plot their next adventure.
The audacious plan involved sneaking into Venezuela and carrying out raids against the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro. They met in Miami in April 2018, and according to the government, set in motion a ruthless plan to finance the military expedition, which ultimately resulted in them luring a couple — Serafin “Danny” Lorenzo and Deana Lorenzo — to a darkened shopping center parking lot outside of Fort Myers under the pretense of a bogus gun sale. The two men allegedly riddled the couple’s bodies with bullets and robbed them of $3,000 cash.
In September 2019, a federal grand jury in Florida indicted Zwiefelhofer and Lang on multiple counts, including use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence by murder. In December of that year, with the authorization of the U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida expanded the charges to include two additional counts for violations of the Neutrality Act — a statute dating back to 1794 that the government has only sparingly enforced — and conspiracy to kill, kidnap, or maim persons in a foreign country.
Under federal statute, Lang and Zwiefelhofer could have faced the death penalty.
But in 2021, prosecutors announced they would not seek the death penalty against Lang, in a parry to his effort to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to avoid extradition. Last year, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Florida to also not seek the death penalty against Zwiefelhofer. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment.
James Chandler, Zwiefelhofer’s lawyer, declined to comment for this story.
Reached for comment, Lang requested that Raw Story submit questions in advance and conduct a live interview over Twitter Spaces; Raw Story would not agree to those terms.
Craig Lang in a Facebook photo from 2019, as seen in a Department of Justice exhibit. Source: Department of Justice
Lang has had little to say about the case until recently.
But last month, he posted a long Twitter thread that briefly addressed the double murder and robbery. Lang sought to undermine the case against him by ridiculing the notion that he would be motivated to commit murder for $3,000 in cash, as the government alleges.
Lang’s argument against the murder charges hinges on the facts in a separate federal case, in which he and three other men are charged with passport fraud. One of Lang’s co-defendants pleaded guilty in 2020 to selling his identity to Lang. A prosecutor told the judge that the defendant “received $1,500 in cash, several weapons, including an upper receiver of a rifle with silencer and some other Glocks” that he knew “had bodies on them.” The prosecutor went on to say that two of the firearms that Lang gave the defendant in payment for his identity were “forensically matched” to the Florida murders.
Lang argued the facts in the two cases aren’t logical, while hinting at a setup.
“In one document against me a witness claims that I had a briefcase full of money?” he wrote on Twitter. “Why would I shoot someone for 3K if I had a briefcase full of cash? Also, where would I get this so-called briefcase of cash, grenades and suppressors? Those seem like highly controlled items.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida declined to comment.
Potential national security threat
At least a year before Lang and Zwiefelhofer’s alleged rendezvous with Danny and Deana Lorenzo ended in a hail of bullets outside Fort Myers, the U.S. Department of Justice appears to have opened an investigation against one of the men for alleged war crimes violations in Ukraine, believed to have taken place in 2015.
In October, BuzzFeed was the first to report the investigation of Lang and six other Americans. The outlet obtained a copy of a DOJ appeal for assistance to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine that was leaked to an obscure pro-Russian website, which it authenticated through anonymous sources with direct knowledge of the investigation. (Zwiefelhofer is not among the seven men named in the war-crimes investigation.)
The DOJ document, according to BuzzFeed, includes a description by an American volunteer fighter named Santi Pirtle that says a second American volunteer fighter filmed interrogations, “including one in which a man was detained, thrown in a shower stall, and beaten with a sock filled with stones. Pirtle told investigators he saw Lang punch and push the man, demanding his password to a Facebook account because Lang thought it was holding information on pro-Russian fighters.”
After leaving Ukraine, Pirtle reportedly joined the U.S. Army, and his Facebook account indicates he is assigned to an infantry unit at Fort Polk in Louisiana. Pirtle could not be reached for comment for this story.
The facts of the U.S. war crimes investigation, as reported by BuzzFeed, are nearly identical to those in a case brought against an Austrian national described by Lang as a “former colleague of mine” — and resulted in the man pleading guilty to war crimes in an Austrian court in January 2022.
Lang has cited the DOJ war-crimes investigation, while speculating that the true purpose of the extradition request linked to the Florida double-murder is to get him back on American soil to prosecute him for war crimes.
In the United States, the FBI was closely monitoring returning fighters in the summer of 2017. When Zwiefelhofer, Lang and a third American named William Wright-Martinovich were deported from South Sudan that summer, officers at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the U.S. State Department alerted Customs and Border Protection in Charlotte, N.C., that Zwiefelhofer would be on a flight from London on Aug. 2, according to an unclassified FBI report that his defense counsel received through discovery.
The mission of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, according to the agency’s website, “is to lead worldwide security and law enforcement efforts to advance U.S. foreign policy and safeguard national security interests.”
Zwiefelhofer was handcuffed and taken into custody on the plane, according to his lawyers, and a FBI Special Agent Kristen L. Sheldon and Customs and Border Patrol Officer Michael Newsom took him into a secure room for questioning at the Charlotte airport. According to a motion filed by the government in February, “the purpose of their interview was to assess Zwiefelhofer’s threat to the United States given his participation in foreign combat.”
The cover page for the FBI report drafted by Sheldon and Newsom to memorialize the interview with Zwiefelhofer includes a notation that further explains the federal agents’ interest in talking to him.
“(U)FOUO” — an acronym for “unclassified, for official use only,” it reads. “Europe/Eurasia; Human Rights Violations; War Crimes; Type 3 Assessment.” According to a March 2020 Department of Justice Inspector General report, a Type 3 assessment “is opened to identify, obtain, and utilize information about actual or potential national security threats of federal criminal activities or the vulnerability to such threats or activities.”
The agents appear to have asked the returning foreign fighter directly whether he was aware of Lang committing war crimes, because the report states: “Zwiefelhofer never witnessed Lang conduct any war crimes or participate in any bad behavior.”
But the report goes on to say: “Zwiefelhofer was a witness to war crimes, but he didn’t care because those involved were separatists. Zwiefelhofer witnessed chlorine — for making mustard gas, and POWs get their fingers cut off.”
The FBI declined to confirm or deny the existence of a war crimes investigation. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
Zwiefelhofer freely shared with the agents that when he left Ukraine in 2017, his plan had been “to f--- around from war to war for ten years.” His imagination supplied him with a wild array of possibilities.
According to the report, Zwiefelhofer said he would not fight ISIS because he saw it as an FBI trap. But he would fight in the Philippines “to live out a Vietnam war fantasy.” He would “fight in Libya with the Tripoli government against Russians because he doesn’t care for Russians.”
The report continued: “Zwiefelhofer is not a fan of the Jews. Zwiefelhofer will fight against Hizballah. Zwiefelhofer on principle doesn’t like jihadis or Hamas. Zwiefelhofer doesn’t like the British but isn’t going to go to war with them. Zwiefelhofer will disagree verbally with Americans but will not kill his brothers.”
In fact, Zwiefelhofer is accused of doing just that in the indictment alleging his participation in the murder of Danny and Deana Lorenzo, two fellow military veterans.
Zwiefelhofer’s Facebook and Instagram pages in 2018 and 2019 promoted themes of violent white supremacy, including an eco-fascist meme that couches violence against migrants as a measure to preserve ecological diversity. Other posts celebrate the war waged in the 1970s to preserve white-minority rule in present-day Zimbabwe and one features a photo of himself posing with a narrow mustache commonly associated with Adolf Hitler.
Lang described himself as an anti-communist constitutionalist to a reporter from Vice visiting the warfront in 2016 and has denied that he’s an extremist. But according to the U.S. government he communicated by Facebook around the same time with Jarrett William Smith, who would ultimately be convicted of distributing bomb-making instructions to an FBI informant acting who told him he was looking for a politician to assassinate in Texas.
According to court records, after Smith expressed interest in traveling to Ukraine to fight in one of the volunteer battalions, Lang told him: “Alright, I’ll forward you over to the guy that screens people he’ll most likely add you soon.
“Also as a pre-warning if you come to this unit and the government comes to shut down the unit you will be asked to fight,” Lang added. “You may also be asked to kill certain people who become on the bad graces of certain groups.”
Smith wound up joining the U.S. Army instead of going to Ukraine, but he and Lang stayed in contact, according to the government. In a Facebook group led by Smith that included Lang, Smith wrote in December 2018: “Oh yeah, I got knowledge of IEDs for days. We can make cell phone IEDs in the style of the Afghans.”
By the time criminal charges for the alleged double murder/robbery were unveiled against Lang and Zwiefelhofer in September 2019, concerns about Ukraine as a vector of far-right radicalization were reaching critical mass among extremism analysts, members of Congress and U.S. government officials.
Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) asked FBI Director Christopher Wray about the matter of American extremists traveling to Ukraine for training “and coming back to do God knows what” during a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee in October 2019.
“I think you’re on to a trend that we’re watching very carefully,” Wray responded. “We are starting to see racially motivated violent extremists connecting with like-minded individuals overseas online certainly, and in some instances we have seen people travel overseas to train.”
‘They want us to do raids’
Preparation for the double-murder trial in Florida has required “extensive travel,” according to a filing by one of Zwiefelhofer’s lawyers, and the affidavit supporting the initial criminal charges lists eight different countries.
The government has been challenged by the need to track key witnesses — part of a floating community of foreign fighters — who are not in the United States. Last August, the government filed an application for an arrest warrant to bring Wright-Martinovich — last seen in the far north of Norway — before the court as a material witness. And the government plans to depose another witness, who remains unidentified, by video out of concern that they could be killed in a warzone before the trial begins.
Almost from the start, the government has committed to pursuing charges that emphasize the international significance of Lang and Zwiefelhofer’s alleged crimes. In December 2019, a second federal grand jury returned an expanded indictment that included new counts for violation of the Neutrality Act, a rarely invoked statute that requires approval from the highest levels of the Department of Justice.
Earlier this year, the government outlined evidence prosecutors plan to introduce at trial that promises to “prove that the defendant was motivated by a desire to engage in combat in areas of the world known to be in armed conflict. The defendant abandoned the U.S. Army in 2016 when his desire to fight could not be fulfilled. In search of conflict, he traveled abroad and arrived in Ukraine in October 2016, where he fought for months.”
Blazakis said he believes the Department of Justice is pursuing a Neutrality Act violation against Zwiefelhofer not just because it has evidence to support the charge or to create leverage for a potential plea deal, but also because “it illustrates irrespective of where the behavior occurs (even in a country that isn’t friendly to the United States) that Americans will have to confront charges associated with their alleged bad behavior.”
The filing previews some of the evidence the government plans to present at trial, including a Facebook exchange between Lang and Zwiefelhofer on March 8, 2018 — roughly a month before the Lorenzos were murdered.
“The resistance is begging us to show up sooner,” Lang wrote. “The politic side of s--- has been increasing protests. And they want us to do raids to show they have teeth.”
“We’re doing this as fast as we can,” Zwiefelhofer responded. “Taxes should come in this week or they just won’t and we’ll know what we can do.”
“I just don’t want to miss our chance and piss off our contacts and be stuck with nothing again,” Lang replied.
Now, Zwiefelhofer, who counseled patience on the Venezuela expedition, is sitting in jail awaiting trial. Lang, his gung-ho comrade, remains a free man in Ukraine.
Transgender and nonbinary children were temporarily detained by Capitol Police following a raucous protest of pending anti-trans legislation at the Florida House of Representatives on Tuesday.
Video posted on TikTok shows a group of adults facing officers at a security checkpoint in the building while chanting “Let the parents in!” It appears they were demanding to get to their children who they claimed were being detained inside.
“You are legally required to have the parents involved in this process,” one woman can be heard telling an officer. “So, let them in. You are legally required. They are minors. Let them go.” As the woman is speaking, the video shows a man who appears to be wearing the badge of the Florida House of Representatives Office of the Sergeant at Arms closing a door.
Another TikTok video shows two men wearing suits standing in front of a door marked “House of Representatives” as adults chant, “Let them go.”
“The parents are here,” an individual narrates in the video. “They are withholding them from the parents illegally.” Another person can be heard yelling: “Kidnappers! Kidnappers!”
Andres Malave, a spokesperson for the Florida House Majority Office, confirmed to Raw Story that young protesters were temporarily detained in the gallery and that one person was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace of a lawful assembly. Malave said protesters who were detained were also issued trespass orders banning them from the Capitol grounds for one year.
The officers detained the protesters after they allegedly rained down underwear from the balcony gallery on lawmakers seated below. The garments were scrawled with messages like “Fascism has no place in Florida. Stop trans genocide.”
The three bills passed the Florida House on Wednesday and are headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis' desk for his signature.
Malave told Raw Story he didn’t know how long the children were detained in the gallery.
“Until the officers conducted their investigation, they did what they had to do,” Malave said.
Malave said that, based on his observations, parents or guardians were allowed to their children, contradicting the accounts of some of the adults shown in the TikTok videos who claimed they were shut out.
“Supposed parents and guardians were given an opportunity to identify their kids and be there,” Malave said. “I saw at least one guardian who was escorted in when she was identified as a parent.”
Malave disputed the description of the officers as “kidnappers.”
“I’m not even going to entertain that question,” he told Raw Story. “You’re accusing the Florida House of Representatives of kidnapping? You’re reading some random tweets that are hyper-charged from a protest. A series of individuals disrupted the business of the House of Representatives. Actions have consequences. Nobody singled them out. As such, they were detained accordingly.”
Staffers at a subdivision of the National Archives and Records Administration, a federal agency Donald Trump has recently assailed as “a radical left troublemaking organization,” went out of their way to save the former president from embarrassment by making a last-minute substitution in a photo spread for an official publication commemorating his presidency.
Emails exclusively obtained by Raw Story through a Freedom of Information Act request show that one staffer flagged a photo that was slated for inclusion in an official presidential papers volume because “Trump’s mouth is a little too close for comfort to the child’s mouth.”
The photo, which was taken by White House photographer Andrea Hanks during Trump’s visit to Houston in September 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, shows the former president lifting up a young African-American girl so that their faces are cheek to cheek. Trump’s lips are pursed, suggesting he is kissing her, while the girl is turning away with a look of mild discomfort.
The image was originally published on the White House Flickr account as a “photo of the day.” The account is now maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, commonly known as NARA.
The sensitive photo was flagged by Shannon Holt, a writer and editor at the Office of the Federal Register, a sub-agency of NARA. Following Holt’s prompt, Kimberly Tilliman, the chief of presidential and legislative publications, asked Joshua Liberatore, a senior writer and editor, to make a substitution, the emails show.
“Thanks for the opportunity to review,” Tilliman wrote in an email on April 16, 2021. “The resolution looks great! Your selection captures the tone of the year. On page 4, there is one potential risk sensitivity concerning an image with a female child subject.” Tilliman asked Liberatore to follow up with the Government Publishing Office to make the change
As a substitute, the staffers at the Office of the Federal Register chose a photo from the same Flickr account that shows the former president high-fiving a young African-American boy. The caption on the Flickr page indicates that the photo was taken at the White House on a day in December 2017 when the former president was meeting with business owners and their families.
“In compiling the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Office of the Federal Register staff strive to prepare the best product that will form an official publication,” Katerina Horska, the director of legal and policy affairs at the Office of the Federal Register, said in an email to Raw Story. “Decisions regarding which photos are selected from the portfolio supplied by the White House Photo Office are made in accordance with that goal in mind.”
The Office of the Federal Register has been publishing the Public Papers of the Presidents since 1957, and follows a charge from the National Historical Publications Commission, according to the agency website, to produce “an official series in which the presidential writings, addresses, and remarks of a public nature could be made available.” Each of the Public Papers volumes also includes a portfolio of photos selected from White House Photo Office files and a forward signed by the president.
Horska declined to answer additional questions about why the original photo was considered a “risk sensitivity.”
Comment from Trump could not be obtained for this story despite requests made to the office of the former president or his 2024 presidential election campaign.
The photo of Trump pulled from the presidential papers volume is reminiscent of images of Joe Biden interacting with women and girls that have exposed the current president to criticism that he is inappropriately touchy, while building a foundation for false claims of pedophilia promoted by conspiracy theorists.
A video capturing an awkward interaction between then-Vice President Biden and the 13-year-old daughter of Sen. Chris Coons went viral in 2015.Courtesy C-SPAN
A clip of then-Vice President Biden posing for a photo during a reenactment of Sen. Chris Coons’ (D-DE) oath of office in January 2015 went viral due to the awkward scene of Biden whispering something to the senator’s 13-year-old daughter and then attempting to plant a kiss on her head as she moved away. Responding to a question from Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace about whether his daughter thought Biden was “creepy,” Sen. Coons said that the vice president was simply offering reassurance because his own daughter had dealt with having a father in the political spotlight.
While Biden was preparing to run for president in 2018, Trump deployed “Creepy Joe” as one of his leading nicknames to degrade his political rival, after his son Donald Trump Jr. road-tested it in a tweet. As the election unfolded in the summer of 2020, the trope reinforced the false claim by the burgeoning QAnon cult that Trump was secretly battling an international cabal of pedophiles including Democratic politicians, Hollywood and other elites. The innocuous image of Biden with Coons’ daughter has become a staple of a nationwidepropaganda campaign by a hate group that deposits baggies containing antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ tracts in residential neighborhoods.
William Sturkey, an associate history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, noted another reason the image of Trump with the girl in Houston might have prompted concern from staffers at the Office of the Federal Register about mitigating harm to the former president’s reputation.
“I think this might be a sensitivity about this particular president, who has a long history of suggesting that many young women exist for his sexual pleasure,” Sturkey told Raw Story.
“I don’t think it’s a sexual picture in any way, shape or form,” added Sturkey, who has looked at archival photos from the presidential libraries of presidents Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson to conduct historical research. “But I think Trump’s own history with women creates a sensitivity. Trump has a long history of making sexual advances, bragging about his sexual advances, and bragging about having sex with a lot of young women. From the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape with Billy Bush, to the porn star, to calling his own daughter a ‘piece of ass’ on the Howard Stern Show, to Jeffrey Epstein — how far do you want to go?”
Sturkey said he thinks the staff at the Office of the Federal Register made the right call because Trump “looks better connecting with the young, black child at the White House.”
This photo of Trump high-fiving a small child at the White House in December 2017 was selected as a replacement.Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
While Trump has been lambasting NARA in the past 12 months for its efforts to secure presidential documents after Trump’s departure from the White House, the emails show that staffers showed nothing but respect to him and took care to ensure that his official presidential papers would present him in a dignified manner.
And they show that staffers went to some trouble to replace the photo flagged as a “potential risk sensitivity,” even after making previous substitutions and grappling with a short supply of photos with adequate resolution.
“Can you indulge us with one further photo swap?” Liberatore asked John Mitrione, a visual information specialist at the Government Publishing Office, in an email on April 19, 2021. “Our supervisor is asking us to substitute the photo on page 7 with the Hurricane Harvey victims/families due to ‘risk sensitivity.’ A replacement photo — which we all feel is superior to the original — is attached and I’ve marked up the caption file with the new information (also attached). Thanks for your patience. I didn’t foresee this late change, and I appreciate that we’ve asked a lot of you already, but I agree with the advisability of the swap.”
This is not the first time staffers at the NARA, the parent agency of the Office of the Federal Register, has gone out of its way to shield Trump from embarrassment. In January 2020, the National Archives facility in Washington, D.C. issued a formal apology for altering a licensed photo of the Women’s March — held one day after Trump’s 2017 inauguration — by blurring signs held by marchers that were critical of the president. The photo was displayed in an exhibit celebrating the centenary of women winning the right to vote.
The agency initially defended the decision by saying that the alterations were made “so as not to engage in current political controversy.” But the following day, the National Archives backtracked, issuing a new statement acknowledging their mistake, adding, “We are and have always been completely committed to preserving our actual holdings, without alteration.”
NARA’s pattern of extraordinary effort to avoid offending Trump is mirrored by a recent revelation that officials with the Smithsonian Institution — an independent federal trust administered by a governing board with representatives of all three branches of government — thanked a political action committee linked to the former president for a $650,000 contribution to fund official portraits of Trump and former first lady Melania Trump.
Since Acting Archivist Debra Steidel Wall notified Trump in May 2022 that she intended to allow the FBI to review 15 boxes of documents that were returned to NARA from Mar-a-Lago, the former president has turned his fury on the agency, adding it to the amorphous federal bureaucracy that he demonizes as the “Deep State.”
Following the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago in August 2022, Trump used Truth Social, his social media platform, to retail a series of false claims, including one that former President Obama took more than 30 million documents to Chicago after he left the White House. NARA was forced to refute Trump’s claim with a public statement clarifying that “NARA moved approximately 30 million pages of unclassified records to a NARA facility in the Chicago area where they are maintained exclusively by NARA.”
Agency officials have cultivated an image of NARA for being scrupulously nonpartisan, and by Aug. 24 Wall felt compelled to address the scrutiny brought to bear by Trump and his supporters in a letter to employees.
“NARA has received messages from the public accusing us of corruption and conspiring against the former president, or congratulating NARA for ‘bringing him down,’” Wall wrote. “Neither is accurate or welcome. For the past 30-plus years as a NARA career civil servant, I have been proud to work for a uniquely and fiercely non-political government agency, known for its integrity and its position as an ‘honest broker.’ This notion is in our establishing laws and in our very culture. I hold it dear, and I know you do, too.”
Since the FBI raid, Trump has honed his attack on NARA, describing the agency to Fox News host Sean Hannity in September 2022 as “a radical left group of people,” while suggesting without evidence that “when you send documents over there, I would say there’s a very good chance a lot of those documents will never be seen again.”
After appearing in Manhattan courtroom on April 4 for arraignment on felony charges related to a hush-money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, Trump complained during an address from Mar-a-Lago: “NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration, which as to this date is a radical left troublemaking organization that red flags the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights as dangerous and triggering.”
Trump has woven his grievances against NARA and other federal agencies into his 2024 presidential campaign, pledging to “dismantle the deep state & reclaim our democracy.” A report in Axios last summer detailed how Trump plans to reimpose a 2020 executive order that could reclassify up to 50,000 federal workers to positions without employment protection and replace them with loyalists.
A video address on his campaign website hints at how Trump could punish officials at NARA, without specifically mentioning the agency by name, were he to return to the White House in 2025.
“First, I will immediately reissue my 2020 executive order restoring the president’s authority to remove rogue bureaucrats,” Trump confirmed in the campaign video. “And I will wield that power very aggressively.
“Second, we will clean out all of the corrupt actors in our national security and intelligence apparatus. And there are plenty of them. The departments and agencies that have been weaponized will be completely overhauled so that faceless bureaucrats will never again be able to target and persecute conservatives, Christians or the left’s political enemies, which they’re doing now at a level that nobody can believe even possible.”
Sean Kauffmann gave a stiff-arm Nazi salute as he arrived at a protest outside a drag show at a local brewpub in Cookeville, a small city about 75 miles east of Nashville, Tenn., in late January.
“Kill all the n—ers and the Jews!” shouted a 15-year-old boy who had come with Kauffmann to protest the “Celebrity Drag Brunch,” an event benefiting a local LGBTQ advocacy organization.
An array of fascist and far-right groups flanked Kauffmann and the boy, chanting homophobic slurs at the several dozen people across the street who had arrived to serve as informal protectors for the drag show performers and patrons, according to police body-camera footage exclusively obtained by Raw Story through a state open records request.
Kauffmann, the 15-year-old boy and a third friend — former Proud Boy and Army military veteran Robert Bray — left the protest in a black Honda Civic around 1:30 p.m. As the three were driving past the brewpub, the protectors saw them throw some type of projectile out of the car.
William Beals, a 15-year-old boy and Sean Kauffmann (l-r) outside a drag show in Cookeville, Tenn. on Jan. 22. Robert Bray is in the background at left. Courtesy Josh Brandon
But they had company. A Cookeville Police Department officer tailed the car as it passed the brewpub and turned right at a stop sign. The officer activated his blue emergency lights about 30 seconds later. Kauffmann pulled his Honda over. Three additional police units fell in behind.
Exclusive video obtained by Raw Story shows the local Tennessee police officers letting neo-Nazis off with a warning after menacing the drag show brunch that was supporting charity. The police’s encounter highlights a broader pattern of law enforcement missing the warning signs about extremist violence.
The lead officer, who identified himself as “Officer Smith,” first greeted Kauffmann, while another officer, Caleb Rubel, approached the passenger side.
“The reason I stopped you is throwing stuff at people. You can’t be doing that, okay?” Smith said, after collecting driver’s licenses from Kauffmann and Bray, who was seated in the front passenger seat, the police body cam footage showed.
“What’d y’all throw out over there?” Smith asked.
“A stink bomb,” one of the occupants of the vehicle replied.
While Smith was running the men’s driver’s licenses, Rubel alerted him: “Hey Smith, front guy’s got a firearm on his right hip.”
Rubel approached the Honda Civic’s passenger side again.
“So, which one of you all threw it?” Rubel asked.
Bray raised his hand, and chuckled.
“So, why?” Rubel asked.
“Control,” Bray replied.
“Trying to use that gun on your hip?” Rubel asked, referring to Bray’s pistol.
“No, that’s for my personal protection.” Bray replied.
“It’s not real smart to go provoking people and then trying to find some lousy excuse to use it, right?” Rubel asked.
“Those aren’t people,” Bray responded.
Rubel continued standing at the front passenger window, as Smith meanwhile learned from dispatch that the occupants of the vehicle were part of a “terroristic group.” Smith informed Kauffmann, Bray and the 15-year-old that they could be charged with aggravated assault. An arrest seemed likely, even imminent.
But it wasn’t: Smith ultimately let Kauffmann, Bray and the 15-year-old juvenile go with a mild warning.
“Don’t throw something at someone, OK? You guys are free to go,” the officer said.
After the traffic stop, the Tennessee Active Club, a neo-Nazi crew led by Kauffmann, celebrated the protest as a victory.
Noting the participation of two other neo-Nazi groups in a post on its Telegram channel, he declared: “Hail victory, hail group unity and networking.”
'Law enforcement is unprepared'
The Cookeville police’s encounter with Kauffmann and his crew highlights a broader pattern of law enforcement missing the warning signs about extremist violence.
From the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017 to the attack on the U.S. Capitol in 2021, and now a groundswell of attacks against LGBTQ Americans, police have repeatedly found themselves overmatched or under-informed relative to the potential threat.
And the failure to enforce the law and accurately identify known extremist groups points to an apparent bias that makes it difficult for law enforcement to recognize threats from far-right actors, and predisposes them to view community members who mobilize to protect drag shows and LGBTQ-friendly spaces as equal offenders.
Kauffmann and his Tennessee Active Club’s effort to provoke violence in Cookeville came amid the group’s participation in a sustained run of vitriolic protests against drag shows across the state from November 2022 through February 2023.
Since a new law went into effect on April 1 banning drag shows in the presence of anyone under the age of 18 in Tennessee, the Tennessee Active Club’s campaign of provocation has fed into a wider national pattern of violence against the LGBTQ community. This includes a Molotov cocktail attack last month by a neo-Nazi against a church hosting a drag event in Ohio.
Meanwhile, the campaign to curb if not shut down drag shows has united a coalition of far-right factions — from neo-Nazis to the Proud Boys and QAnon followers — to a degree not seen since the Jan. 6 insurrection. The intimidation campaign against LGBTQ-friendly spaces unfolded alongside a flurry of legislative proposals in dozens of states targeting transgender people, whether following Tennessee’s lead to ban drag performances or restricting gender-affirming care and blocking access to collegiate and school sports.
In concert with the harassment of drag shows and legislative efforts, anti-trans talking points by conservative media figures such as Tucker Carlson and Matt Walsh have created a feedback loop that lends mainstream legitimacy to vigilante violence.
Gwen Snyder, an anti-fascist researcher and veteran community organizer in Philadelphia, told Raw Story that the fact that Kauffmann “is so engaged in anti-trans terrorism now is telling in terms of what the terrorist far-right agenda is, and really goes to show how both this terrorist far right has laid the groundwork for the assault on trans people by the mainstream right and what the mainstream right is giving cover to. This stuff bubbled up on Terrorgram and Nazi right spaces. It was taken on by the mainstream right, and the mainstream right is now giving cover to Nazis like Sean” Kauffmann.
The mainstreaming of anti-trans hate dovetails with a continuous failure by law enforcement to interdict extremist violence over the decade.
“Law enforcement is unprepared, despite public statements that they’re planning to commit violence,” Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, told Raw Story. “And too often, they don’t follow up after the violence occurs, which tends to condition the militants to believe they’re allowed to commit violence.
“Law enforcement has been reluctant to respond to far-right violence in a manner that would address its organized activity,” said German, who infiltrated neo-Nazi groups in the 1990s as an undercover FBI agent. “Unite the Right is an example of national groups that included individuals who had committed violence elsewhere coming to an event that was publicly advertised. That shouldn’t be a hard problem to recognize.”
Raw Story left 10 voicemails over the course of a week for the Cookeville police chief and the department’s public information in an attempt to obtain comment from them. Cookeville officials did not respond to these messages.
'All the red flags are there'
Kauffmann’s violent ideations reached a fever pitch in 2019, when he founded a neo-Nazi group called Panzer Strike Force in Tucson, Ariz.
During that period, he communicated with an enlisted soldier named Jarrett William Smith, who was later convicted for distributing bomb-making instructions to an FBI informant while suggesting former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) as an assassination target. Shortly before Smith’s arrest in September 2019, he counseled Kauffmann to “hide your guns” after Kauffmann expressed the fear that federal authorities would seize his firearms because of his history of violence and Nazi beliefs.
Snyder uncovered communications on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app favored by white supremacists, between Smith — handle: “Anti-Kosmik 2182,” according to federal court documents — and Kauffmann, who posted under the handle “Boog Führer.” Raw Story has independently reviewed the material.
Posting under the “Boog Führer” moniker, Kauffmann inadvertently disclosed his identity by sharing clippings from what appear to be confidential documents referencing his history with the Arizona Department of Child Safety to illustrate why he was at risk of losing his guns. The clippings shared by Kauffmann, posting as “Boog Führer, included his first and last name.
Snyder discovered Kauffmann when she was monitoring the emergence of “Terrorgram” — a term researchers use to describe an online network of neo-Nazis who share violent propaganda on the social media app Telegram, including posts valorizing white supremacist mass shooters as “saints.”
“He was very noticeably one of the most active users in those spaces,” Snyder told Raw Story. “He has been in conversation with people including Jarrett William Smith.…. He has obviously a prolonged interest in committing acts of terror. He has a violent history. All the red flags are there.”
Kauffmann declined to comment when reached by Raw Story.
In June 2020, when Nick Martin — another anti-fascist researcher — posted a photo of four men throwing up stiff-arm, Nazi-style salutes at a Black Lives Matter rally in Tucson. Snyder said in a Twitter thread two days later that until that point she had been reluctant to reveal Kauffmann’s identity, but his appearance at a protest prodded her into action.
“I am truly worried about the dangers this man poses, and if I weren’t actively afraid he’d try to murder people at a protest, I wouldn’t be chancing provoking him with an ID,” Snyder wrote at the time.
A month later, Kauffmann traveled to east Tennessee and showed up at a Black Lives Matter protest in Rogersville, a small town of about 4,700 people. Kauffmann and three other neo-Nazis were charged with disorderly conduct. A local news station cited police reports that said the men “became violent and started trying to assault people in the crowd.”
It’s hard to imagine that the FBI wasn’t tracking Kauffmann by the summer of 2020. Jarrett William Smith had been arrested by the FBI in September 2019, after speaking with an undercover informant who purported to be interested in traveling from Oklahoma to Texas to carry out an assassination against an unnamed politician. In the Telegram chats that Snyder uncovered, prior to his arrest, Smith expressed interest in driving to the Dallas/Fort Worth area to meet one of Kauffmann’s associates.
“I sent a DM,” Kauffmann said in the chat. Smith replied: “If you need help or knowledge I have contacts in the aforementioned orgs that can supply me with the stuff you may want/need.”
Darrell DeBusk, a spokesperson for the FBI’s Knoxville Field Office, declined to comment on whether the agency is tracking Kauffmann.
The Telegram chats that Snyder culled in 2019 and 2020 show that Kauffmann's appetite for violence was nearly boundless. There was a suggestion to “make it a Saint Day September” — a term indicating a month of mass murder. He shared a GIF of the Norwegian white supremacist and mass murderer Anders Breivik. He made comments promoting rape as weapon of dominance and others expressing a desire to “rape and kill antifa.” He denied that the Holocaust occurred, while arguing, “it should of happened.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks extremism, sent out a law enforcement alert on the Tennessee Active Club and Kauffmann specifically to the FBI in November 2022. But it’s unclear how much of this information, if any, reached the Cookeville police officers when they surrounded Kauffmann’s Honda Civic on Jan. 22.
“Did they say who they’re with?” an officer identified as “Young” who responded to support the traffic stop, asked Smith, his fellow officer.
“They got American flags in the back,” Smith replied.
Gesturing towards Bray, the neo-Nazi who could not be reached for comment for this story, he added, “Got a veteran.”
It’s unclear what Smith saw that looked like an American flag, but the men had been openly displaying a flag with a swastika encircled by a field of red less than an hour before.
After confirming Kauffmann’s insurance, Smith told him: “The only issue is that if you’re throwing something at a protest or whatever … still that can cause bodily injury, you can still be charged with aggravated assault by throwing something like that at somebody. Do you understand that?”
“Yeah,” Kauffmann said.
“That’s a Class D felony in the state of Tennessee,” Smith continued. “Don’t want to see anybody get charged with anything today. It’s a protest. We want to see everybody protest however they feel. Just don’t throw stuff, okay?”
“Right, yeah,” Kauffmann said. “We were making sure to [remain] nonviolent.”
“I got you,” Smith replied.
“I can see the way it would be construed that way,” Kauffmann said.
Conferring with Young a couple feet away from the vehicle, Smith said, “They’re definitely affiliated with the Proud Boys, that’s what dispatch said. Terroristic….”
The group’s links to the Proud Boys was grounded in personal history and association: A YouTube interview from 2019 that was reviewed by Raw Story shows Bray wearing a Proud Boys shirt, and photos published by the Philadelphia Inquirer and a local blog show that he attended rallies with the Proud Boys in Philadelphia in September 2020 and then, in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, the following month. Video from the Jan. 22 rally also shows Kauffmann and Bray shaking hands with two Proud Boys when they arrived at the Cookeville protest.
Robert Bray, a passenger in Sean Kauffmann's car, admitted to throwing a stink bomb at drag-show supporters.Courtesy Cookeville Police Department
The police body-camera video from the traffic stop also shows Sgt. Zach Gilpin, who was on the scene, advising Smith to police the situation with a light hand. Any further enforcement, he told Smith would just make them “hostile” and “make them want to retaliate and make it even bigger.”
“Oh yeah,” Smith agreed.
While conferring with Gilpin, Smith characterized Kauffmann’s statement about his intentions in a way that was imprecise at best and took his assurance at face value.
“He said, ‘We don’t want violence; we just want to protest,’” Smith told Gilpin. “I said, ‘You have every right to do that.’”
Michael German, the Brennan Center fellow, told Raw Story he finds the sergeant’s rationale to be astonishing.
“Wow,” he said. “I would think that would have the opposite effect. If this individual in the group thinks the police are not going to enforce the law, then they might think they can get away with even more aggressive actions to instigate violence.
“I’m not sure how that would escalate things unless the police thought the militants were going to escalate violence towards them,” German added. “And that would point to a bigger problem if the police are more concerned about protecting themselves than protecting the community. Either they know that this is a group that is prone to violence that is coming into their town, or they don’t. If they think this is a group that is prone to violence, they should probably be doing more to police that group.”
German said the hands-off approach taken by many law enforcement agencies toward far-right extremists stands in stark contrast to the approach commonly taken toward non-violent left-wing protesters, who are often subject to mass arrest just for marching.
“It’s hard for me to see it any differently than it’s a demonstration of bias on the part of the police that they view a non-violent environmental protest as a national-security threat, and deadly violence by white supremacists as not that big of a deal,” German said.
Smith and Gilpin could not be reached for this story, either directly or through the Cookeville Police Department.
See no hate
The absence of any apparent recognition on the part of the officers that the driver of the vehicle was a prominent white supremacist who leads the Tennessee Active Club, or even that he and his passengers were neo-Nazis is striking, considering that reforms two decades ago were intended to address this very gap, German told Raw Story.
German told Raw Story that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “law enforcement established numerous intelligence-sharing vehicles” that include FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces, along with state and local fusion centers that are intended to disseminate intelligence among agencies “about the kinds of groups that are engaged in organized criminal acts.”
Many of the fusion centers “spread misinformation and unfortunately don’t accurately portray violent groups in a way that allows law enforcement to understand how to react,” German added.
“It seems that this information-sharing network is not sharing the accurate information correctly,” he said.
By the time of the Jan. 22 traffic stop in Cookeville, there was ample public documentation of Kauffmann’s presence at protests outside drag shows across Tennessee, including Chattanooga on Nov. 13 and Maryville on Nov. 25.
Following a period of relative dormancy, Kauffmann had moved from Arizona to rural Perry County in Tennessee in October 2022.
With the launch of the Tennessee Active Club the same month, Kauffmann grafted his organizing efforts onto a national network of so-called “active clubs” that typically distribute white supremacist propaganda, join small-scale demonstrations and gather for private training events. The network was inspired by Robert Rundo, the founder of the Rise Above Movement, who is currently under indictment for conspiracy to riot.
Since founding the Tennessee Active Club, Kauffmann has made it into one of the most robust crews in the country, putting a particular emphasis on anti-LGBTQ activism while aggressively deploying white supremacist symbols and rhetoric, according to Morgan Moon, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, a nonprofit dedicated to monitoring, exposing and disrupting extremist threats.
“A lot of that has to do with the fact that Sean Kauffmann is running this organization,” Moon told Raw Story. “He’s been on our radar for some time. Kauffmann has advocated for violence online. He’s advocated for rape. … He has a history not only of white supremacy, but also aggression and violence.”
Moon spotted a Nov. 20, 2022, post on the Tennessee Active Club’s Telegram channel flagging an upcoming drag show in Maryville and calling on supporters to “shutdown [sic] the grooming, sexualization and exploitation of children.”
The Anti-Defamation League issued a law enforcement alert the following week.
Prior to the Maryville protest, a similar protest outside a community theater hosting a drag show in Chattanooga on Nov. 13, 2022 provided an intelligence-gathering bonanza for law enforcement.
After speaking with the owner of a tattoo shop next door to the theater who called in a complaint about threats from the anti-drag protesters, the responding officer crossed the street and approached Kauffmann, according to police body camera video reviewed by Raw Story.
“Hey guys, who’s in charge of this group right here?” asked the law enforcement official identified as “Officer Hauge.”
“We’re just independent,” Kauffmann responded. “We’re not with a group.”
Standing to Kauffmann’s right was the 15-year-old juvenile who the police in Cookeville later encountered in the back seat of the Honda Civic. Standing to his left was an unidentified man wearing a shirt and hat identifying him as a member of the League of the South, a group that advocates for the secession of the original states of the Confederacy to create a homeland for white Christians. The League of the South was among dozens of white supremacist groups and individuals found liable for conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and ordered to pay more than $25 million to plaintiffs injured in the attack.
Belying his claim that he was an independent participant, Kauffman was wearing the Tennessee Active Club’s official T-shirt and ballcap. The ballcap was turned backward, and there was no lettering on the front of the T-shirt. But later Hauge walked up behind Kauffmann, and the video shows the distinctive Tennessee Active Club logo, with the sonnenrad — a symbol commonly embraced by neo-Nazis — encircling the three stars of the Tennessee state flag, on the back of his shirt.
Later, Hauge’s video shows that he watched members of Patriot Front, a fascist group accused of vandalizing a monument to the African-American tennis legend Arthur Ashe and defacing an LGBTQ pride mural. Patriot Front splintered from Vanguard America following Unite the Right. Vanguard America collapsed amidst a storm of bad publicity after James Fields Jr. rallied with the group before accelerating his car into an anti-racist march, murdering Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.
Despite ample documentation of Patriot Front’s background by groups that monitor extremism, the officers give no indication in the video that they were familiar with the extremist group in their midst. The video shows Davis, the police sergeant, bringing back a flier to show the other officers, including Executive Chief Glenn Scruggs.
“So, the weird-looking flag thing, that’s what they are,” Davis said, referring to Patriot Front’s distinctive flag featuring the fasces encircled by 13 stars.
Scruggs took a quick look at the flier and responded: “Yeah.”
Davis noted that the name of the group was “Patriot Font,” and another sergeant, George Forbes, muttered something that is hard to discern in the video.
Whatever he said, it ended the discussion.
As the event was winding down, Hauge instructed a rookie officer named Shackleford on how to write a report.
“Did somebody have a card on what that flag meant?” Shackleford asked Hauge.
“Yeah, I think Davis got one that was like …” Hauge responded, his words trailing off.
There was no further discussion between the two officers about the group with the strange flag, but Hauge gave Shackleford a rambling and fine-grained tutorial on when officers should and should not name specific groups. The discussion illuminates the political sensitivity surrounding policing protests against drag shows and the pressure on officers to take a “both sides” approach toward those harassing drag shows and those seeking to protect LGBTQ-friendly spaces.
“Now, say you had a Blood or Crip shoots a Ghostface, Aryan Nation, Latin King, whatever,” Hauge said. “Putting it in that kind of report where there has been a physical assault on somebody and saying that this set attacked this set — all that does in that report — that’s not Crips attacked this Aryan guy and it’s Black on white; it has to do with gang affiliation, right? So, there’s no problem with associating a specific set with that because that helps us track what’s going on there.”
But documenting groups involved with drag show protests required more delicate treatment, Hauge suggested.
“When it comes to a political view where it’s two parties that are going to sit there and cuss and yell and scream at each other, don’t put yourself in that hole,” Hauge counseled. “Because what’s ultimately gonna happen is ultimately in some way, shape or form, the media’s gonna get a hold of this. I guarantee they’re probably going to pull it up. And the last thing we want to put in there is that us as police who are neutral to this situation — all we’re here for is to make sure the public is safe — is to sit here and say, ‘Oh, well, LGBTQ was harassed by Republicans, or Democrats were harassed by Republicans, or left wing was harassed by right wing,’ and we put a stigma that they can use as flak against us or anything else. So, don’t put yourself in that situation.”
Hauge’s final point to his law enforcement colleague: “We’re not gonna establish groups, or whether or not it’s a hate group, unless there’s physical violence.”
Jerri Sutton, an assistant chief with the Chattanooga Police Department, defended the decision to exclude information about specific extremist groups in the report, adding that it doesn’t reflect officers’ awareness of intelligence.
“That incident report was written up and gave an account of the event,” Sutton told Raw Story. “It was documented on video, as you have pointed out. The report’s not written to slight any group. The information was part of the intelligence gathering. We were aware of who we were dealing with.”
William Beals, a 51-year-old construction worker who attended the Chattanooga protest and two months later walked up on the Cookeville police officers as they were conducting the traffic stop involving Kauffmann, told Raw Story that he has been tailed in Chattanooga by an “FBI member that is chosen to be on the side of antifa.”
“I am on the terrorist watch list because of the FBI,” he said. “I don’t give a s—. I’m not an actual terrorist. I’m a Three Percenter.” Three Percenters are an authoritarian movement whose adherents view themselves as latter-day equivalents of the original American patriots who are guarding against supposed government tyranny.
Beals has been publicly identified by online researchers, who nicknamed him #TowerPup, as being present at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and going inside the building. He told Raw Story that at least one of the videos cited by researchers as evidence that he was at the Capitol was fabricated from a photo of him on his motorcycle that was grafted onto another person’s body at the Capitol. But he has publicly stated he was involved in an altercation with left-wing counter-protesters during the same time period.
In an interview with a right-wing podcaster last month, Beals said his own mother asked him if he was at the Capitol.
“I said, ‘Nope,’” Beals recounted. “I’m one of those Three Percenters that was whupping the s— out of antifa and BLM down BLM Plaza road. I definitely take accountability for that one.”
During the Nov. 13, 2022 protest at the drag show in Chattanooga, Forbes, the police sergeant, noted that Beals was walking around with a “Bowie knife on his damn hip” and singled him out as one two “instigators” in the crowd.
When Forbes arrived on the scene, Beals approached him — and asked him to investigate the venue hosting the drag show.
“See, the reason I’m asking — if they’re giving children alcohol or in any form grooming those children, okay, that’s what we need to know,” Beals told Forbes. “Because this ain’t OK.”
William Beals (left), a self-identified Three Percenter, addresses Sgt. George Forbes at a drag show protest in Chattanooga, Tenn.Courtesy Chattanooga Police Department
Forbes heeded Beals’ request. The venue owner informed Forbes that they were not serving alcohol because they submitted their application for an alcohol permit too late. With her permission, Forbes and two other officers conducted a walkthrough of the venue, where they inspected a drink menu and looked behind the bar.
Video from the protest shows Beals walking into the middle of the street and daring a drag supporter to fight.
“I’m right f—ing here, boy,” he said. “I’m right here, pussy.”
It’s unclear whether officers observed the incident, but police body-camera video shows that Hauge told another man that Forbes also identified as an “instigator” to get out of the street. Later, as the man walked through a grassy strip occupied by drag show supporters, Forbes told him: “Sir, right now, you’re causing a disorder.” Around the same time, drag show supporters accused the man, in the presence of officers, of assaulting a woman by bumping her with his shoulder, but Forbes brushed them off.
German said provocation is a time-worn tactic of white supremacists and far-right groups, going back to Nazi Germany.
“When I was working undercover in the 1990s in neo-Nazi groups, law enforcement understood the tactics that they used,” he said. One of those tactics, he said, was to show up at rallies where they knew they would face opposition, and then provoke a fight.
“Law enforcement has forgotten those lessons since 2015, and they have tried to present these events as mutual combat,” German said.
Sutton, the assistant police chief in Chattanooga, noted to Raw Story that Executive Chief Glenn Scruggs responded in person to monitor the scene.
“Any situation where the officers deem it necessary to make an arrest, they have the discretion to do so,” she said. “In this case, they made the decision to keep the parties separate, so that the patrons going to the business could do so safely, and those who were protesting could do so from a distance that allowed them to exercise their freedom of speech.”
German also said that law enforcement responses often reflect a false equivalency between extremists and the communities they are sworn to protect.
“What’s frustrating to me and what’s frustrating to many others is that the far-right militants are coming from outside the community, and law enforcement doesn’t protect them, and treats them as mutual antagonists rather than understanding that this is an outside force coming in with the purpose of instigating violence. There’s a fallacy that mutual combat means there’s no crime, and we don’t have to intervene.
“If someone wants to have a drag show and far-right militants are coming to menace and prevent them from exercising their rights,” German added, “law enforcement needs to understand that this isn’t a both-sides issue.”
Since the Nov. 13 standoff, Chief Celeste Murphy has met with the owner of the community theater.
“Chief Murphy has been in contact with several interested parties in this whole situation,” Sutton told Raw Story. “We have a relationship with the LGBT community. We are well aware of their ability to exercise their rights. We are working with the district attorney’s office to ensure that everybody’s rights are secured.”
Within a week of the Chattanooga drag show, the Tennessee Active Club mobilized again to harass a drag show in Maryville, a small city outside of Knoxville. The LGBTQ community and anti-fascists also mobilized to protect the bookstore hosting the drag show and toy drive.
Josh Brandon, a voice actor and former country radio programmer who hosts the “Overthinking Everything” podcast, had planned to travel to Virginia that day to visit a friend who was having gender-affirming surgery. But on Thanksgiving he found himself in the emergency room. With his travel plans disrupted, Brandon decided he might as well go to help out at the drag show.
A self-described “lifelong shamed and closeted bisexual,” Brandon handed off a metal detector used to check patrons for weapons when Sean Kauffmann and his crew arrived at the bookstore, instantly finding a new calling as an anti-Nazi antagonist.
“Look me in the eye,” Brandon told Kauffmann, with a big smile spreading across his face. “I’m not afraid of you, you piece of s—.”
Shortly after the encounter, Brandon said Kauffmann shared his personal information on Telegram. Around the same time, he also received a phone call from Beals, who was not present at the Maryville protest, but indicated he had seen footage of Brandon there.
“He made threats,” Brandon recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to come find you. I’m going to beat the s— out of you.’”
Brandon told Raw Story he reported Kauffmann’s Telegram post and Beals’ phone call to the FBI. He said he also called the Knox County Sheriff’s Office to tell them to expect Beals at a drag protest in Knoxville on Dec. 22.
As a precaution, Brandon said, he continued to alert the FBI when he planned to attend a drag event in which he expected to face Beals and Kauffmann across the street.
It remains unclear whether the implementation of the new Tennessee state law banning drag performance for audiences under 18 will aggravate or ameliorate far-right violence against LGBTQ-friendly venues in Tennessee, or whether the neo-Nazi groups will be able to capitalize a recent right-wing effort to leverage rage against trans people in response to as a school shooting in Nashville that was carried out by a person who identifies as trans.
The Tennessee Active Club has recently shown signs of looking beyond Tennessee. Kauffmann and three of his associates traveled to Lexington, Ky., last month to protest the prosecution of a University of Kentucky student accused of assaulting another student while berating her with racist slurs. Meanwhile, protests at drag shows, often marred by violence and displays of overt support for white supremacy, continue to be a nearly weekly occurrence in communities across the country.
Moon, of the Anti-Defamation League, noted that Kauffmann has shown a motivation to travel, including a trip to San Diego, Calif., in August for a mixed-martial arts competition and to Washington state in December to network with other active clubs.
Moon noted that the active clubs place a strong emphasis on physical fitness, and the Tennessee Active Club recently held a joint fight training with the Vinland Rebels, another neo-Nazi group that was also in Cookeville. Law enforcement should pay attention to Kauffmann for a number of reasons, Moon told Raw Story.
“I think what’s most important is that the Tennessee Active Club and Sean Kauffmann have put a particular focus on LGBTQ events,” she said. “They keep coming out to these drag events. Sean Kauffmann has a history of violent criminal activity. He shares his extreme and violent beliefs online. This shows this potential for a future powder keg at an event with counter-protesters.”
* * *
Editor's note: Raw Story obtained more than two hours of body worn- and dash-camera video from the Cookeville Police Department after requesting the video through the Tennessee Public Records Act. Raw Story edited down the video to produce a compilation video presenting a chronological narrative of a Jan. 22, 2023 traffic stop. The Cookeville Police Department blurred footage that shows a 15-year-old juvenile and one of the officers’ laptop computers, and redacted a conversation between the officer and dispatch.
Raw Story also reviewed more than three hours of police body-camera video from the Chattanooga Police Department capturing officers’ response to a Nov. 13, 2022 drag show protest. The first video compilation shows officers’ encounters with known extremist groups and the lead officer coaching a rookie on how to file a report. The visuals were blurred inside the police unit in the original video as provided by the Chattanooga Police Department. A second compilation video has been edited to produce a chronological narrative of the Chattanooga officers’ encounters with two men described as “instigators” and discussion among officers about how to handle the situation. Raw Story did not include footage showing individuals at the scene whose presence is incidental. Portions of the video that include a letter reviewed by one of the officers was visually redacted by the Chattanooga Police Department.
Former President Donald Trump’s tweet on Dec. 19, 2020 — it summoned his supporters to “be there” for Congress’ Jan. 6 certification of the electoral vote and promised that it would be “wild” — electrified far-right militants.
One person who answered the call was Joseph Pavlik, a 65-year-old retired firefighter from Chicago.
Pavlik’s social media posts in November and December 2020 reflected a mounting sense of desperation about what America would look like with Trump forced to leave the White House. His Facebook posts manifested a logical response to the existential choice — Donald Trump or dystopian collapse — that the United States’ 45th president first defined during his 2016 campaign.
Joseph Pavlik, a former Chicago firefighter, served as a marshal for Women for America First at the Ellipse rally on Jan. 6. U.S. Department of Justice
“Democrats told us they were going to steal this election RIGHT TO OUR FACES…. AND WE DID NOTHING,” Pavlik wrote on Nov. 5, 2020, according to a statement of facts establishing probable cause for his arrest. “So get ready young guys because YOU WILL LIVE ON YOUR KNEES from this day forward.”
On Dec. 14: “These aren’t Americans they are indoctrinated socialists that hate America and hate Americans. We need to be much more brutal than punching and kicking. This is not some simple street disagreement.”
Again, on Dec. 14: “These are now indoctrinated terrorists that have made a conscious choice to ruin America … the sooner it is taken to a serious level to remove these terrorists the sooner the terrorists climb back into their basements … only until their bodies hit the ground will the terrorism stop.”
And on Dec. 26: “WE ARE THE STORM THAT THE DEMOCRATS AND RINOS THOUGHT WOULD NEVER SHOW UP and we just getting started.”
These weren’t idle social media screeds. On Jan. 4, Pavlik rented a car and drove from Chicago to Washington, D.C., according to court documents, and checked into a room at the Hampton Inn Washington Downtown.
Pavlik’s room was part of a bloc reserved by Jeremy Liggett, a firearms instructor from Florida who had founded a militant group called Guardians of Freedom. Liggett’s group aligned with the Three Percenter movement, whose followers view themselves as a revolutionary vanguard in the mold of the original American patriots, while pitting themselves against the U.S. government as equivalent in their eyes to the British crown.
Like Trump himself, Liggett and his group had been hyping Jan. 6 in a bid to attract people like Pavlik to the nation’s capital.
And in doing so, they weren’t reluctant to advertise ties they had forged with Women for America First, a “peaceful” pro-Trump nonprofit, led by former Tea Party organizer Amy Kremer, which was organizing the Jan. 6 rally.
“On Jan 6th, 2021, the March for Trump Bus tour powered by Women for America First, is rolling into Washington, D.C. to demand transparency and election integrity,” read a December flyer Guardians of Freedom had distributed. Headlined “Calling All Patriots!” it announced the group’s intentions to come to D.C. on Jan. 6 and played up their connection to the Kremers’ organization.
The flyer further stated that “The Guardians of Freedom III% are responding to a call from President Donald J. Trump to assist in the security, protection, and support of the people as we all protest the fraudulent election and re-establish liberty for our nation.,” it continued. “JOIN US & Thousands of other Patriots!”
Liggett himself made a Facebook post on Christmas Day that personalized the appeal. “I will be in D.C. on January 6th!” he wrote. “Patriots, I urge you to come with me!”
Pavlik was among those reading.
“I will be there,” he commented in the post’s thread.
When Pavlik arrived in D.C. — along with dozens of other Guardians of Freedom members and associates, mainly from Florida — Women for America First indeed had a job for him although it would be hard to describe it as anything as glamorous as saving the republic.
At least initially.
‘Would’ve been nice to shake Trump’s hand’
The union between Women for America First and the Guardians of Freedom was one of chance, happenstance, convenience and common cause.
Dustin Stockton, an organizer who had worked alongside founder Amy Kremer since the Tea Party days in 2010, described how his friend, Charles Bowman, connected Women for America First with Guardians of Freedom while introducing Liggett as a speaker at a raucous Jan. 6 pre-rally held at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5.
“I got a phone call from a friend of mine,” Stockton said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, there’s this group. They’ve been coming here. They came to your first event in November. And they want to look out for everybody. And the thing is, they don’t want anything from you. And they don’t want to step on, like, your guys’ toes. But they want to be around to help out.’”
Bowman, at Stockton’s invitation, had joined Women for America First on a bus tour to spread the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Kremer was impressed enough that she delegated responsibility to Bowman for lining up “marshals” for Jan. 6-related events.
Bowman, in turn, called Liggett, someone he knew from Republican circles and right-wing rallies in Florida.
On the morning of Jan. 6, Pavlik and Liggett donned pink reflective vests, along with about 30 other volunteers associated with Guardians of Freedom, and posed for a photo in front of Women for America First’s “March for Trump” tour bus.
Guardians of Freedom and other volunteers pose for a photo in front of the March for Trump tour bus on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021. U.S. Department of Justice
Pavlik and Liggett — along with Brian Preller, a firearms instructor who had recently worked for a company registered under Liggett’s name — were among 10 people tapped to serve as marshals at the “Save America” rally headlined by Trump at the Ellipse. Other volunteers pitched in on the outside of the rally perimeter.
Jason Funes, a former Trump campaign worker and former Department of Interior staffer who assisted Women for America First with the bus tour and D.C. rallies, told the January 6th Committee that some of the volunteers he saw near the security checkpoints and magnetometers were Bowman’s “people,” and that Bowman “was arranging to help coordinate who those people were going to be.”
“When I walk up to the Ellipse event on the 6th, like Secret Service knows they’re there, they’re helping people, like, remove backpacks and put things into a pile and, you know, make sure they try to get them back to people,” Funes said.
Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson would later testify before the committee that Trump urged the Secret Service to remove the magnetometers because “they’re not here to hurt me.” Court records and trial testimony show that multiple people brought firearms, chemical spray and other weapons to D.C. on Jan. 6.
“But, like, yeah, there was militia-type groups outside the Ellipse event, and that was coordinated,” Funes told the committee during his interview. “It wasn’t them just standing there by chance.”
Bowman could not be reached for comment for this story.
The number of Three Percenters in the crew assembled under the Guardians of Freedom banner ranged from 40 to 60, based on the estimated number of people who checked into the hotel and the estimate Bowman gave to the January 6th Committee. The actions of all the volunteers at the Ellipse, and later at the Capitol, on Jan. 6 has yet to be fully accounted.
For all the bluster about responding to a call by the president to assist in security, some of the volunteers’ experience at the Ellipse initially felt underwhelming.
One Guardians of Freedom volunteer marshal, Joe Diamandis, commemorated the day by posting a photo on Facebook that showed him stationed next to barricades draped in bunting with Donald Trump Jr. speaking on the Jumbotron in the background, accompanied by the text, “Cool experience, VIP entrance.”
Liggett’s assignment? Escorting rallygoers to the bathrooms, showing people to their seats and handing out signs. As a guy who liked to project alpha-male toughness, Liggett would later tell the January 6 committee that he was less than thrilled to be wearing a pink vest. And to add injury to insult, the organizers didn’t bother to provide the volunteers with lunch.
“I mean, it would’ve been nice to shake Trump’s hand,” Liggett said. “Would’ve been nice to have lunch. I mean, do you see what I’m saying? Like, you know, it was really boring.”
Violence at the Capitol
Liggett may not have shook Trump’s hand, but he and other Guardians of Freedom would soon feel Trump’s presence.
President Donald J. Trump speaks at the "Stop the Steal" Rally on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
As planned, Trump ended his fiery speech at the Ellipse by telling his faithful that they would “walk down to the Capitol.” As with everyone at the event, individual responses among the event organizers and the gathered militants varied. Some went back to their hotel rooms. Others headed straight to the Capitol. Some initially went back to their hotel rooms, and then, upon hearing reports of disturbances at the Capitol, ventured out again to see what was happening.
As part of his marshal duties, Liggett escorted Pastor Greg Locke, one of the speakers on the bus tour, back to his hotel room.
But after hearing that “antifa was attempting to start issues,” Liggett and five other people headed over to the Capitol — although once there he was disconcerted to discover there was no one who looked like antifa, he’d tell the January 6 committee.
Joseph Pavlik, the retired firefighter from Chicago, shed his pink reflective vest. He walked to the Capitol wearing a black jacket and a borrowed tactical vest with a Three Percenter patch reading, “When Tyranny Becomes Law Rebellion Becomes Duty.” He also brought a gas mask and pepper spray.
By the time he reached the Lower West Terrace, Pavlik had joined up with Brian Preller, one of the other marshals, along with four other men — Benjamin Cole, John Edward Crowley, Jonathan Alan Rockholt and Tyler Quintin Bensch — who were also part of the Guardians of Freedom group. The six men gathered outside the entrance of the Capitol Tunnel, which led to the stage where President-elect Joe Biden was slated to take his oath of office in two weeks.
The Tunnel became the focal point of a fierce, prolonged battle for more than two hours as Metropolitan police officers repelled rioters, who attacked them with poles and crutches, and sprayed chemical irritants at them.
Pavlik and Crowley arrived at the Tunnel entrance first, according to charging documents, and Pavlik entered before the others.
Liggett, who has not been arrested, walked up close enough to the Capitol that he could see people standing on the steps and sitting on the inaugural stage, he later told the January 6th Committee. Later, he walked around the Capitol building, and gave a CNN reporter a hard time, explaining to the committee that he regarded the network as “fake news.”
“I don’t even know why you’re here,” he told the reporter. “You shouldn’t be here anyway.”
Liggett said he left around the time Capitol police started firing flash bangs at the crowd.
Wearing the helmet and gas mask, Pavlik appeared to push on the police line, according to charging documents, and was allegedly present in the mouth of the Tunnel when other rioters assaulted police officers. Pavlik allegedly struggled with an officer who can be seen in police video pushing against Pavlik’s face and helmet to try to force him out of the Tunnel.
The charging documents emphasize that at various times during the battle of the Tunnel, rioters “attempted to use their numbers and collective mass in a heave-ho effort to push the officers back” and that “at times, the rioters forcibly pressed the officers’ bodies against each other and against the doorway, crushing them.” Authorities allege that Preller, Cole, Crowley and Rockholt specifically participated in the heave-ho effort.
The charging documents allege that Pavlik, Preller, Cole, Crowley and Rockholt “participated in at least one attempt by rioters to force their way into the Capitol through the line of police officers. During the battle, the men reportedly wore large goggles, helmets and tactical vests while variously carrying chemical irritants, an expandable baton, a walking stick and a knife.
Pavlik faces multiple charges, including engaging in physical violence in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon. Pavlik pleaded guilty and was released on personal recognizance bond last month. He was expected to appear in D.C. federal court for a status hearing on Tuesday.
Lawrence Beaumont, Pavlik’s lawyer, told Raw Story that his client is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
A witness later told the FBI that Tyler Bensch posted videos of himself on his Snapchat account on Jan. 6 that appeared to show him at the Capitol wearing a gas mask, a body armor vest, camouflage and an AR-style rifle. Apart from the witness’s description, open-source photos show Bensch at the Capitol wearing a tactical vest with a Three Percenter patch and black gas mask, while carrying chemical spray canisters, a black radio and antenna, and a GoPro-style camera mounted to his shoulder. Bensch is accused of spraying an individual in the crowd in the face with chemical irritants.
Rockholt allegedly picked up a U.S. Capitol Police riot shield, and Bensch was later seen carrying it off the Capitol grounds.
Bensch and Rockholt are both charged with civil disorder, entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds and disorderly and disruptive conduct. Bensch and Rockholt could not be reached through their lawyers for comment.
Police body camera video shows Brian Preller, John Edward Crowley, Benjamin Cole, Tyler Bensch and Jonathan Rockholt inside or near the entrance of the Tunnel at the U.S. Capitol. U.S. Department of Justice
Preller faces multiple charges, including engaging in physical violence in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon. He has pleaded not guilty on all counts.
Crowley faces multiple charges, including engaging in physical violence in a restricted building or grounds and theft of government property and aiding and abetting. He has pleaded not guilty on all counts.
Cole is charged with civil disorder, entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds and disorderly and disruptive conduct.
Preller, Crowley and Cole could not be reached through their lawyers.
Despite planning for a rally at the Supreme Court, where they could showcase speakers like My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell who didn’t make the cut for the Ellipse event, the lead organizers for Women for America First, including Amy Kremer, her daughter Kylie Jane Kremer and Dustin Stockton, went back to their rooms at the Willard hotel.
“We were going back to the hotel, going to order food, and watch the joint session play out on TV,” Amy Kremer told the January 6th Committee. “I think it was supposed to start at 1 o’clock. So that was our plan. And when I tell you we were exhausted, we were exhausted. But then, when all the stuff started happening at the Capitol, I said to everybody: ‘We don’t need to be a part of that. Just stay put, stay here.’”
‘We don’t know who those people are’
Immediately following the insurrection, Women for America First issued a statement distancing themselves from the violence.
“We unequivocally denounce violence of any type and under any circumstances,” the statement read. “We are saddened and disappointed at the violence that erupted on Capitol Hill, instigated by a handful of bad actors, that transpired after the rally.
“We stand by and strongly support the men and women of the Capitol Hill police and law enforcement in general and our organization played absolutely no role in the unfortunate events that transpired,” the statement continued. “What is truly sad is that the misdeeds of a handful of people will overshadow the overwhelming success of the peaceful event — attended by hundreds of thousands of Americans — that we sponsored today.”
Stockton told the January 6th Committee that he had absolutely no conversations with organized groups about going to the Capitol. He said he had wanted to hold a press conference to clear up any questions of responsibility, while suggesting that someone higher up the chain shut down the proposal.
“Like at that point I was so desperate to get across the finish line, and I continued to fight to do the press conference where we took every question from everybody, right, to make it clear, we don’t know who those people are, right,” Stockton said.
At least a month before the insurrection, Women for America First had sought to portray itself as a responsible alternative to more provocative organizers such as Ali Alexander and InfoWars host Alex Jones.
“So, they started pushing a much more violent rhetoric,” Stockton told the committee, “while what we were pushing, frankly, was, like, procedural inside the House, to, like, ‘All right, this is our best chance to make our case, like, to the world. Let’s make sure that, like, we put our best face on this thing.’”
During the massive manhunt that ensued after the insurrection, the FBI was preoccupied with charging people who went inside the Capitol or assaulted law enforcement officers. When a tip led them to Stockton in Nevada, the agent didn’t know what they had. In February or March 2021, Stockton told the committee, he received a call from an agent in the FBI’s Reno office.
“Ah, you know we have reports that you were in D.C. on January 6th,” the agent told Stockton.
“I assume or I hope that you’re aware that, like, I was an organizer of these events and was intimately involved in them, responded, chuckling.
They only spoke for 10 or 15 minutes, Stockton said. That was the extent of his conversations with law enforcement about Jan. 6, Stockton told the committee in December 2021. It’s unclear whether he’s talked to the FBI since that time.
Since Jan. 6, Dustin Stockton has continued to promote an ahistorical narrative of the insurrection, valorizing many of the groups who carried out the attack while claiming without evidence that it was a setup orchestrated by infiltrators.
“On November 14th, December 12th, and January 6th, I helped rally millions of people in Washington, DC,” Stockton wrote in a July 2021 Substack article. “The individuals and groups who answered the call included Oath Keepers, III%ers, Anons, Tea Partiers and patriots. Together, we worked to keep people safe and to peacefully and patriotically protest the theft of America.”
In a tweet around the same time, Stockton claimed implausibly that “infiltrators thought the crowd would follow them on J6, [but] they didn’t count on patriots stopping nearly everyone from falling into the trap.”
Stockton told Raw Story he doesn’t have anything else to add about Jan. 6th.
“I’ve gone out of my way to be honest, like, even before everybody else, when it wasn’t popular to do it,” he said. “For like me, at some point, man, you guys gotta let us move on with our lives. Three years [sic] we’ve been exhaustively covered in every outlet. We’ve answered every question. We’ve gone out of our way to do it. And, like, if you want to talk about other stories or other things, but to be honest, I’m just done taking questions on January 6th.”
Since Jan. 6, 2021, roughly 1,000 people have been charged with offenses related to the attack on the Capitol, including dozens of Oath Keepers. Kelly Meggs, who communicated with Jeremy Liggett in the runup to Jan. 6, and founder Stewart Rhodes are among the members who have been convicted of seditious conspiracy.
“My organization — I say my organization because, obviously, I helped found it, right? — okay, we didn’t do anything violent whatsoever in Washington, D.C., at all,” Liggett testified to the January 6th Committee in March 2022.
After his appearance, Liggett took to Facebook Live to denounce the committee as “a scheme of the devil,” while portraying himself as a victim.
“I wholeheartedly believe with all my heart that none of us were in Washington, D.C. to do any harm,” he said. “And their narrative — what they want to get out there is that every single one of us conservatives — every single one of us patriots are nothing but terrorists. And I believe that they want our neighbors to believe this. They want our family members to believe this. And that gives them power.”
Among members of the Guardians of Freedom group, there was at least some inkling that arrests were on the horizon.
In a September 2021 online conversation with another individual cited in his charging document, Brian Preller referred to a statement made to a “room flooded with 3% Patriots” where he insisted that “no one goes to jail at all cost.”
“F*** that man let em arrest you for doing nothing wrong,” the unidentified individual responded. “Lawsuit + makes them look bad.”
“Flagler county sheriffs is on our side 80/20,” Preller replied. “But I’m not ever seeing the inside of a cell brother. Ever.”
FBI agents assigned to a counter-terrorism investigation staked out a parking lot outside a school board meeting in Florida to monitor a Guardians of Freedom member, according to a recent House Judiciary Committee report.
In mid-August 2022, FBI agents in the Jacksonville and Tampa field offices began preparing to make arrests and execute search warrants against Jan. 6 suspects. Stephen Friend, a former special agent assigned to the Daytona Beach Resident Agency under the Jacksonville Field Office who has since resigned, expressed concern that the agency was taking an unnecessarily heavy-handed approach on learning that an FBI SWAT team was enlisted to carry out some of the arrests.
During a meeting with his supervisor on Aug. 19, 2022, Friend told his supervisor that he thought the use of the SWAT team was inappropriate, according to a declaration submitted to Republican members of Congress after Friend was suspended from the agency.
“I suggested alternatives such as the issuance of a court summons or utilizing surveillance groups to determine an optimal, safe time for a local sheriff deputy to contact the subjects and advise them about the existence of the arrest warrant,” Friend wrote, describing his conversation with Senior Supervisory Resident Agent Greg Federico.
Lira Gallagher, an FBI spokesperson at the Washington Field Office, said the agency would decline to comment.
On Aug. 24, Tyler Bensch, Jonathan Rockholt and John Edward Crowley were arrested in Florida. Friend, the former special agent, conceded to Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year that it was reasonable for the FBI to conclude that Bensch possessed a firearm based on the description of him posting photos and videos of himself outside the Capitol with an AR-15 rifle, and that under such circumstances it would also be reasonable to deploy a SWAT team to make an arrest, according to a recent congressional report.
Preller, who had talked about allyship from the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, was arrested on Aug. 24 in Hardwick, Vt., while Benjamin Cole was arrested in Louisville, Ky.
Although Liggett was not arrested, he reportedly made a Facebook post announcing that the FBI had served a search warrant at his home in Florida that day.
Reached by phone by Raw Story, Liggett said, “I have nothing to hide,” before referring questions to his lawyer. Kevin C. Maxwell, the lawyer, told Raw Story that he and Liggett decided they were “not going to give any interviews until the government finishes its investigation and has determined what they’re going to do,” including potentially charging additional defendants.
Joseph Pavlik, the retired firefighter, would be arrested in Chicago in January.
In September 2022, the leaders of Women for America First signaled that they, too, were under legal scrutiny.
Harmeet Dhillon, a prominent lawyer who recently lost a bid to chair the Republican National Committee, tweeted on Sept. 9 that Women for America First was among clients that had been “served w/ extremely broad subpoenas, or warrants for phone/device.”
During an appearance on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Dhillon told Carlson that three of her clients received “subpoenas or warrants” from the “Capitol siege section of the United States Department of Justice’s D.C. office. Dhillon said her clients were asked for all communications with dozens of people in late 2020 regarding topics in three categories — “alternate electors, fundraising around irregularities around the election, and also a rally that happened before the January 6th situation at the Capitol — the Save America rally.”
It’s unclear whether the federal probe involving the Women for America First leaders is related to the ongoing FBI investigation of the Guardians of Freedom.
Kylie Jane Kremer responded to a direct message from Raw Story on Twitter by providing the email for Christopher Barron, Women for America First’s publicist. Barron did not respond to multiple voicemails and emails. Dhillon also could not be reached for comment.
Although a grand jury in Georgia is reportedly considering criminal charges against Trump, the former president has so far managed to avoid entanglement in the roughly 1,000 cases involving supporters implicated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The former president has fused his political identity to the hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants in a shared victimhood grievance, describing them in a recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, D.C., as “great patriots” who were “sitting in a jail nearby rotting away, and being treated so unfairly, like probably nobody’s ever been treated in this country before — except maybe me.”
Trump has suggested that the multi-pronged federal investigation surrounding the Jan. 6 attack would be hamstrung if he is re-elected, saying, “To those that are in the FBI that are with us, I want to thank you very much. I really do. I want to thank you. Stay strong. Help is coming.”
Some of the defendants have unsuccessfully attempted to call Trump as a witness, while one, Dustin Thompson, based his defense on the argument that he had been following orders from Trump when he broke into the Capitol, only to be convicted of a felony charge for obstructing an official proceeding and five misdemeanors.
Despite the legal hurdles to putting a former president on the witness stand, the lawyers for Joseph Biggs, one of the Proud Boys currently on trial for seditious conspiracy, are still trying. Biggs’ lawyers drew up a subpoena for Trump last month, and it is scheduled to be served next week.
“We think he has personal information about what he did and said that day,” Dan Hull, one of Biggs’ lawyers, told Raw Story. “He obviously played some role. We’d like to find out about it and have him testify at trial. We look at it as an opportunity for him.”
'Focus on moving forward'
For Women for America First, the organization that put on a rally for a sitting president of the United States, the violence at was an unfortunate occurrence from which they quickly washed their hands.
“What should have been an amazing day, turned into something it should have never been because of some asshats,” Amy Kremer complained in a group text to her daughter and Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign, only two weeks after the insurrection. “I think it is time the movement purge itself of the bad and evil. I believe that will take care of itself in due time.
“I’m hoping that we can put this all behind us,” she added, “and focus on moving forward.”
Amy Kremer, whose group Women for America First hosted the rally for Donald Trump at the Ellipse, said after Jan. 6: "I hope we can put this all behind us." Gage Skidmore
Forward has led to March 2023.
Last weekend, Trump posted on Truth Social that he expected to be arrested on charges stemming from an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney. He urged his supporters to “Protest, take our nation back!”
Kremer was on alert.
But this time, there was no bus tour to hype crowds in Middle America. No Jumbotrons, stages or entourages of pastors and MAGA influencers lined up to provide a focal point for gatherings at Mar-a-Lago or New York City.
There is nothing — nothing at all — akin to the Jan. 6 rally.
Kremer was just another Trump supporter with a Twitter account, advising her followers that they could protest without a permit with signs and megaphones on public sidewalks.
“Keep moving & they can’t remove you,” she advised. “Be happy & peaceful warriors. Don’t be baited & if they try, move away quickly.”
Key figures and groups in this series
1st Amendment Praetorian: Volunteer security group associated with retired Lt. General Michael Flynn that provided personal security details for Ali Alexander and other speakers at pro-Trump rallies leading up to Jan. 6, 2021
Guardians of Freedom: Three Percenter group led by Jeremy Liggett based in Florida whose members joined a mob in the Tunnel at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and tried to break through a line of D.C. Metropolitan Police Officers.
Oath Keepers: Far-right militia group that targets military veterans and former law enforcement for recruitment; dozens of members equipped with military gear entered the Capitol in a column formation
Proud Boys: Neo-fascist street fighting group that served as the engine of the insurrection by leading a mob to the Capitol, including one member who broke out a window, leading to the initial breach of the building
Stop the Steal: Coalition led by Republican operative Ali Alexander that organized protests in battleground states after the Nov. 3, 2020 election, followed by large rallies in Washington, D.C., culminating in Jan. 6
United Constitutional Patriots: Militia group that allegedly detained more than 300 migrants in New Mexico while carrying firearms and fake badges; their spokesman interviewed Dustin Stockton for a Facebook livestream during an event to promote a privately-funded section of the border wall in 2019
Women for America First: Nonprofit led by Tea Party organizer Amy Kremer that hosted the Jan. 6 rally featuring Donald Trump, along with the March for Trump bus tour and two large rallies in Washington, D.C. preceding Jan. 6
This is the final installment in a three-part series about ties between Women for America First, which held the permit for the rally where Donald Trump spoke on Jan. 6, and the Three Percenter group Guardians of Freedom. Read parts one and two.
Ali Alexander, the MAGA provocateur and Republican operative, has been pushing increasingly inflammatory rhetoric on social media during the nationwide arrest watch for former President Donald Trump.
On Tuesday morning, Alexander took aim at New York City police officers who have been mobilized in anticipation of a possible indictment from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
“Any cop who betrays the people for politicians is a traitor and will be dealt with at a later date accordingly,” Alexander tweeted at 7:26 a.m. “Do not add your name to the fake news who are enemies of the people.” The tweet closed with the hashtag #NYPD.
Responding to a request for comment from Raw Story, Alexander said in an email: "While I've discouraged everyone I know from attending anything in New York City unless there's a prayer rally featuring former President Donald J. Trump, I want to double down on my statements reminding law enforcement that they have a duty to protect the people, even from politicians and agitation."
Alexander organized rallies promoting false claims that the 2020 election was stolen that culminated with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Alexander has also recently promoted inflammatory rhetoric that frames the prosecution of the former president as an existential threat to his supporters.
Commenting on news about low attendance at a protest in support of Trump that was held in Manhattan last night, Alexander tweeted: “This makes me sad but I warned y’all. Here is your post-Stop the Steal era and now Democrats having seen it, will arrest more of you and murder more of you. Projecting weakness invited genocide.”
Alexander deployed similarly inflammatory rhetoric that flirted with violence in the runup to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
During a Periscope livestream four days prior to the insurrection, Alexander told followers: “In 2021, we will decide whether the Second Amendment militia talk and 1776 is rhetoric or whether it is a threat against tyrants. In 2021, we will literally decide whether we have a transhumanist future and the Great Reset, or whether we put them to bed. And I vote we put them to bed. And I vote that we put them to bed by any means necessary, but as peacefully as possible.”
In a livestream on the social media app Callin in November, Alexander bragged, “I started a riot for the sitting president.”
Alexander walked up the Capitol steps on Jan. 6, but then left the scene and surveyed the chaos from a nearby parking garage. He has insisted that his activities were protected by the First Amendment and has not faced any criminal charges for his role in the events of Jan. 6.
In recent days, Alexander has been reliving his glory days as the leader of the “Stop the Steal” coalition following Trump’s 2020 election defeat by posting photos of himself leading rallies during that period.
In a pinned tweet from this past Saturday, Alexander wrote that if he were advising Trump, he would tell him to hold a prayer rally outside of New York City and discuss his “arrangement with the DA and I would make them arrest me on stage, in front of billions.”
“But what do I know?” Alexander added. “I’m only the guy who got millions to protest across 62 consecutive days for the first time in American history. Trump’s advisors and his judgment are why he’s in this situation. Everyone needs to seem [sic] him kneel before Jesus Christ. our king.”
As the Women for America First bus tour wound across the country as Donald Trump refused to concede the 2020 election, chairperson Amy Kremer oversaw the operation from the road, while her daughter, Kylie Jane Kremer, worked from Washington, D.C.
Soon, the culmination of their effort to keep the president in power would be afoot: a massive rally scheduled for Jan. 6 at the Ellipse, just south of the White House. Trump himself would be the guest of greatest honor.
Since Trump had signaled his intention to be at the rally via Twitter on Dec. 27 , the Kremers grappled with new considerations. First, the rally would have to be moved from Freedom Plaza to the Ellipse. Second, and more pressing, Trump’s involvement aggravated a growing feud among the various organizers and MAGA hangers-on about who would get to share the stage with the president.
More granular details also demanded attention this day — Jan. 1, 2021 — with the rally five days away. One decidedly practical problem: organizers needed marshals who could greet the thousands of people expected to show up to support Trump — and direct them to bathrooms when nature trumped activism.
The solution? Tap a willing reserve of militant Trump supporters known as Three Percenters who had shown up at a previous rally organized in D.C. by Women for America First.
Such frantic preparations for the ambitious rally, to be named “Save America,” also necessitated that Women for America First relay signals in two directions — one up to the White House, and the other down to the militants, some of whom would wind up joining the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol in Trump’s name.
From the time of the president’s announcement that he would be at the Save America rally, Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign, played an increasingly important role and began communicating directly with the Kremers.
“One additional thing we need to know about is volunteers,” Kylie Jane Kremer said in a group text to Pierson on Jan. 1 at 4:44 p.m. “Do we need to provide those or have they already started it? We can do so but don’t want to overstep.”
Added Kylie Jane Kremer: “I’m literally terrified to ask any questions to anyone so as they come, I will send your way.”
Pierson deferred to Kylie Jane Kremer.
“I think you guys can take over volunteers,” she replied. “Are you good with that?”
Pierson suggested recruiting 30 volunteers, including “10 mature types” to serve as marshals.
Amy Kremer had someone in mind for the job of coordinating the marshals: Charles Bowman.
Bowman joined the bus tour at the request of Dustin Stockton, one of the lead organizers, to help out on the advance team.
“Ladies, I just talked to Bowman, and he’s going to get us 10 marshals,” Kremer announced in a new group text on Jan. 2. “He’s on this text message. Thank you, Bowman.”
“Do you want us to handle the 30 volunteers under the marshals?” Kylie Jane Kremer asked. “You will be the lead marshal, unless you want someone else to be.”
“Sit tight,” Bowman responded. “Let me see if I have 40 people who will pass the background check.”
Amy Kremer tapped Bowman for the job because “he’s one of those people that know everybody,” she later told the January 6th Committee. And Bowman moved quickly.
Most notably, he called Jeremy Liggett, the founder of a Florida-based Three Percenter group called Guardians of Freedom, to ask for names of volunteers to cover marshal duties.
A former law enforcement officer and firearms instructor, Liggett and a group of loosely affiliated Three Percenters — an authoritarian movement whose adherents view themselves as revolutionary vanguard in the mold of the original American patriots, and the U.S. government as the latter-day equivalent of the British crown — had assisted with security during a previous pro-Trump rally organized by Women for America First in D.C. on Dec. 12. Bowman later acknowledged to the committee that Liggett had added him to a Guardians of Freedom Telegram chat so that he “could get a feel for what the group is.”
Amy Kremer’s enlistment of Three Percenters to serve as marshals at the Ellipse rally underscores a critical component of the bus tour and D.C. rallies culminating on Jan. 6 that her group organized.
Despite Women for America First’s efforts to project a “peaceful” image and whitewash the violence as an unexpected byproduct of an otherwise law-abiding Jan. 6 rally, an exhaustive review of depositions, interviews and phone texts by Raw Story reveals that the group, particularly Stockton, cultivated ties with violent militants almost from the start.
This is the second in a three-part series detailing the links among the White House, Women for America First and pro-Trump militants. (Read Part 1 here.)
Liggett didn’t need much prodding. He had already booked hotel rooms by the time Bowman called him requesting volunteers, and his group had announced plans to come to D.C. for Jan. 6.
On Christmas Eve, Guardians of Freedom had circulated a flyer headlined “Calling All Patriots!!” that announced that “the March for Trump Bus tour, powered by Women for America First” was “rolling into Washington, D.C. to demand transparency and election integrity” on Jan. 6.
“I got called by Charles and said, ‘Hey, we need guys to marshal. We need volunteers to marshal — marshal the event,’” Liggett recalled. “And I said, ‘Okay. No problem.’ And I said, ‘I’ll get people together to marshal the event.’ And he said, ‘All right. You know, it’s a voluntary basis.’ And I said, ‘That’s fine.’
Four hours later, Bowman sent the Women for America First organizers a list of 10 people, including Liggett.
Kremer said she didn’t know any of the people on the list, and had no idea they were associated with the Three Percenter movement, although she also told the January 6th Committee that she was familiar with Three Percenters based on hearing Bowman and Stockton discuss the movement.
White House hotline
While Bowman was enlisting members of Guardians of Freedom to serve as marshals at the Ellipse rally on behalf of Women for America First, Pierson was coordinating with the White House.
Caroline Wren, a prominent fundraiser for the Trump 2020 campaign and Republican National Committee, had lined up a $3 million pledge from Publix heiress Julie Fancelli to foot the bill for the rally.
As a purse-holder of sorts, Wren exerted increasing influence over the event, and the Kremer mother-daughter duo viewed her as a threat. They found an ally — Pierson — who shared their desire to keep rival organizer Ali Alexander and other more controversial speakers, such as InfoWars host Alex Jones and political consultant Roger Stone, off the Ellipse stage.
As the new year arrived, the fragile alliance neared a breaking point. About five hours after Pierson delegated responsibility for marshals to Women for America First, Kylie Jane Kremer raised a more pressing matter with her.
“We are team players and are grateful to work with y’all,” Kremer told Pierson in a text at 10:19 p.m. on Jan. 1. “But it’s out of line to tell me we’re only here because Caroline got us here and we have no say whatsoever.”
After some back-and-forth discussion, Pierson tried to assuage Kremer’s concerns.
“Bottom line, I’ve set you up will [sic] the entire trump team all the way down to a ‘Trump’ looking website,” Pierson said. “This isn’t grassroots anymore.
“So, are you used as a pass through?” Pierson continued. “YES! Your brand hosting the President of the United States on Whit House [sic] grounds on a historic day. Win!”
She added: “You will be able to claim that with the highest production reel possible for donor recruitment.”
After reassuring Kylie Jane Kremer, Pierson found herself mediating between Wren and the Kremers again the following day.
At 4:15 p.m. on Jan. 2, Wren emailed Pierson a list that included Alexander, Jones and Stone as speakers at the Ellipse event — a proposition that Pierson would later characterize as a “deal breaker” in her interview with the January 6th Committee.
To resolve the conflict, Pierson decided to go directly to the White House.
“Would you mind giving me a call regarding this January 6th event?” Pierson texted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, according to her recollection to the January 6th Committee. “Things have gotten crazy, and I desperately need some direction.”
Pierson said she told Meadows that Wren was trying to include Jones, Alexander “and all these crazy people on the president’s stage, and that’s a disaster.” She said that during the conversation she also briefed Meadows “that some people were going to the Capitol,” later adding that the chief of staff “agreed” with that idea.
Pierson said Meadows told her that no one had spoken to him about speakers.
He supported her position.
“So, why don’t you just take this over to make sure that this doesn’t go bad,” Pierson recalled Meadows telling her.
At 10:49 p.m. on Jan. 2, Pierson sent an email to Wren and Taylor Budowich, another senior adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign. Pierson noted in the email that she had spent the day on the phone with the rally organizers and had received guidance from the White House.
“POTUS expectations are to have something intimate at the Ellipse, and call on everyone to march to the Capitol,” Pierson told Wren and Budowich. “This actually works out because Ali’s group is already setting up at the Capitol, and SCOTUS is on the way.”
But Wren wasn’t giving up. She wanted to secure speaker slots for allies.
On Jan. 3, Pierson texted Meadows again, saying she was “done” and complaining that Wren “has decided to move forward with the original psycho list,” based on apparent approval from White House Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino.
Pierson said Meadows called her and recommended that she “talk it over with Scavino.”
Pierson reached Scavino on the phone that night. He told her she should speak directly to the president.
“You just need to come talk to him, and you let him put this to bed,” Pierson recalled Scavino saying.
Pierson, who was recovering from a back injury, soon found herself booking a flight from Dallas to Washington, D.C.
Arriving the next morning, she sat across the table from Trump by afternoon.
Seated across from him in the dining room off the Oval Office. Pierson gave Trump her list of proposed speakers. Trump nixed almost all of them, which at least resolved — in the Kremers’ favor — the question of whether Alexander and Jones would rank among his opening acts.
Pierson said Trump told her he wanted a few members of Congress to speak, with the event broken up by big blocks of music — a hybrid between a political rally and party.
Trump himself raised the issue of a march to the Capitol.
“Are people going to the Capitol?” Trump asked, according to Pierson.
“Yes, there are some people going to the Capitol,” she replied. “There’s a permit for a stage at the Capitol.”
“Well, I should walk with the people,” Trump said.
Pierson and a presidential aide tried to discourage Trump from walking to the Capitol. But Pierson, who declined to comment for this story when reached by phone, said Trump cut her off and asserted the National Guard should help secure his route.
The meeting ended. Trump was about to leave for a campaign rally in Georgia. The plan to deploy the National Guard as a protective escort was never executed.
‘Go forth and do great things’
The fact that Women for America First lined up a group of Three Percenters acting as marshals at the Ellipse rally on Jan. 6, at roughly the same time Pierson was confirming speakers and Trump’s desire for people to walk to the Capitol after the event, wasn’t a fluke.
Guardians of Freedom and other militants had been hovering around a previous pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that was organized by Women for America First — particularly one of its lead organizers, Dustin Stockton.
Stockton made no secret of his enthusiasm for the Three Percenter movement, despite Women for America First’s conspicuous efforts to project safe optics.
“The optics that we were trying to project was not, this is a paramilitary group looking to take over,” Stockton told the January 6th Committee in December 2021, describing the Dec. 12, 2020, rally. “This is a professional group that you can come have — that you could, Tea Party-style, come have a safe, productive time, right, airing your grievances with people who are like-minded.”
But at the time of the rally, Stockton was flaunting his links to Three Percenters by toasting his “III% brothers.”
A photo taken from the Dec. 12 rally showed a grinning Stockton jammed into an elevator with seven other men. Some of them wore tactical vests and balaclavas that concealed most of their faces.
Among them: Charles Bowman and Matthew Robinson, a former Proud Boy who, like Bowman, was from Florida.
“I was in some never-forget photos on Saturday, but the photo Bowman took of us on the elevator with our III% brothers might just top them all,” Bowman gushed in a Substack article published four days after the Dec. 12 rally.
Photo of Charles Bowman (front left) and Dustin Stockton (back right) published on Stockton's Substack. Via "Tyrant's Curse" Substack
Though the Dec. 12 rally might have been a high point, Stockton’s enthusiasm for the Three Percenter movement was no passing interest.
Seven months after the insurrection, Stockton would make a direct endorsement of Three Percenters, Oath Keepers and, albeit subtly, QAnon — all groups heavily represented among those arrested on charges related to the attack on the Capitol.
“Now more than ever, I encourage people to join or start patriot groups dedicated to preserving the Constitution,” Stockton would write on his Substack in July 2021. “It’s the perfect time to attend an Oath Keepers meeting, join a III% training, or get involved in an Anon research group.”
Referring to Three Percenters specifically, Stockton said, “There are lots of independent groups across the country that organize under the iconic III% patch. The best of them offer a healthy dose of range time, training and community service. Groups worth joining have membership that includes community leaders, professionals, and current/former law enforcement.”
Security measures in D.C. on Dec. 12, when Women for America First’s rally at Freedom Plaza vied with a competing Jericho March on the National Mall, gave the organizers further exposure to the militant groups.
In a phone text to Kylie Jane Kremer at 2:01 p.m. on Dec. 12, Bowman said, “Three-quarters of Proud Boys are at monument now. So if antifa is going to come in and try to break the box, it will be now.”
Asked about the text by the January 6th Committee, Bowman was unable to explain where he obtained information about the movements of the Proud Boys, although video of the group at that location had been shared on social media around 1:30 p.m.
“I’m sure I was just regurgitating something,” Bowman told investigators.
Kylie Jane Kremer dismissed the Proud Boys as “very much a fringe group,” as she told committee investigators a year after the insurrection.
As such, she said, Women for America First wanted to make “a distinction between, I guess, with some of the fringe-type people in the conservative movement just as there are fringe-type people, you know, on the left.”
And yet other militant groups, including Guardians of Freedom, Oath Keepers and 1st Amendment Praetorian — a volunteer security group that had worked with Ali Alexander — made an impression at the Dec. 12 rally hosted by Women for America First, according to Jason Funes, a former Trump campaign worker and former Department of Interior staffer who helped Women for America First with the bus tour and D.C. rallies.
“I barely had to [time] to reach and network the security teams that day,” Funes told the January 6th Committee. “So, if this person telling me that person’s good and that person’s telling me this person’s good, okay, fine. I don’t know if they’re Oath Keepers, if they’re Praetorian group, or they’re Guardians of Freedom or Three Percent — I don’t even — I heard of most of those groups for the first time when I was doing the D.C. events, right?”
Funes told the committee he didn’t think Amy Kremer knew about the militant groups buzzing around the Women for America First rally on Dec. 12, but he was more inclined to think Kylie Jane Kremer was aware.
“Oh, if Amy would’ve found out and known — listen, Kylie, maybe, like I said, she’s a little young, ambitious, and maybe just got led along by Dustin and Charles that they had it, right, and there was going to be just kind of their own things or whatever they were doing,” Funes said. “Like, they were going to do it anyway is the f***ing thing, okay? That’s how they f***ing roll. All right?
“But if Amy would’ve found out, she would be pissed that that would be the case, that, we would ever even be trying to coordinate and do some s***,” he added.
Kylie Jane Kremer responded to a Twitter direct message from Raw Story by providing the email for Christopher Barron, Women for America First's publicist. Barron did not respond to multiple voicemails and emails.
Women for America First made a point to hire professional security, but they agreed to allow 1st Amendment Praetorian to “act as a secondary barrier,” Stockton told the committee.
He emphasized that there was no effort to discourage volunteer security, as long as it didn’t hurt the optics of the rally.
“But it’s what the optics look like from the stage, which is projected out to the world through the cameras, and also to the people who are there,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have those people to discourage, like, possible counter-protester attacks. But it wasn’t the image that we were trying to project.”
Stockton made no mention during his interview with congressional investigators of the fact that the informal security cohort included members of Guardians of Freedom, a group founded by an associate of his friend, Bowman. Bowman told the committee that to the best of his recollection, Jeremy Liggett helped with security on Dec. 12.
Tyler Bensch, a 20-year-old from Casselberry, Fla, who would later be linked to Liggett by the FBI as a member of the so-called “B Squad,” posted a photo on Facebook of himself dressed in a helmet, goggles, body armor, military fatigues and a gas mask standing in the middle of a street in Washington, D.C., with the Capitol in the background, according to a witness.
Guardians of Freedom associate Tyler Bensch in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12, 2020. U.S. Department of Justice
“Listen, American patriots thought that by dressing up in bulletproof vests and being the militia-type of people, that sent a good message and representation that, you know, the event is safe and secure,” Funes said. “And if that’s all they have to keep us safe and secure, I’m going to use anybody I can to keep people safe and secure. I don’t know who you are.”
Funes complained that he was cut out of security meetings.
“Whatever — fine,” he said. “So go forth and do great things, man. I don’t want to know the details. But if you’re telling me that we’re going to be safer because you’re doing this, fine. I had no idea what it was going to lead up to.”
‘I will have a ton of men with me’
An abiding question surrounding the multiple investigations into the events of Jan. 6 is the degree to which the militant groups — primarily the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, but to a lesser degree Three Percenters also — coordinated among each other in advance of the insurrection.
An exhibit in the government’s seditious conspiracy prosecution of the Oath Keepers last year confirmed all three.
As noted in the January 6th Committee’s full report, Guardians of Freedom founder Jeremy Liggett exchanged texts with Florida Oath Keeper leader Kelly Meggs on Dec. 22, 2020, three days after Meggs spoke by phone with Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio. (Meggs was recently convicted of seditious conspiracy, and Tarrio is currently on trial for the same charge.)
“He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!!” Meggs told Liggett, sharing his excitement about President Trump’s Dec. 19, 2020 “be there, will be wild” tweet summoning his supporters to D.C. on Jan. 6.
“I will have a ton of men with me,” Liggett responded.
Meggs told Liggett that “we have made Contact with PB and they always have a big group. Force multiplier…. I figure we could splinter off the main group of PB and come up behind them. F***ing crush them for good.”
Liggett said he had encountered Tarrio at rallies in Florida in his deposition for the January 6th Committee.
On Dec. 30, 2020, Liggett posted on Facebook: “3% will show in record numbers in D.C. The gloves are off antifa.”
Reached by phone by Raw Story, Liggett said, “I have nothing to hide,” but referred questions to his lawyer. The lawyer, Kevin C. Maxwell, said he and his client decided they were “not going to give any interviews until the government finishes its investigation and has determined what they’re going to do,” including potentially charging additional defendants.
Guardians of Freedom’s Dec. 24 flyer, headlined “Calling All Patriots!!” and name-dropping Women for America First, announced that the group was “responding to the call from President Donald J. Trump to assist in the security, protection of the people as we all protest the fraudulent election and re-establish liberty for our nation.”
Then-President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk on the south lawn of the White House on December 23, 2020, in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
The flyer said that “destruction of our Constitutional Republic” was underway, while quoting the so-called “right to revolution” in the Declaration of Independence that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
The flyer continued: “That is why YOU are here. For massive change to occur, massive action must be taken.”
The flyer concluded with an appeal for funding and a link to a Cash App account: “For the Guardians of Freedom members to deploy, help secure & defend the people at the January 6th event, it will take tremendous support from all of you to assist with the sharing and contributing to our events, missions, and fundraiser.”
The government alleges that Liggett, identified in the charging documents for six other men as “B Leader,” coordinated the group’s travel from Florida and reserved a block of about 15 rooms at the Hampton Inn Washington-Downtown Convention Center for Jan. 6 around Christmas.
While most of the Guardians of Freedom’s members were from Florida, the group’s social media campaign reached far beyond the state line.
Liggett posted on Facebook: “I will be in DC on January 6th! Patriots I urge you to come with me!”
Joseph Pavlik, a retired firefighter from Chicago, responded on Christmas Day: “I will be there.”
The group’s recruitment drive in the runup to Jan. 6 even reached Stockton.
A Dec. 30, 2020, email from Tarra Nicolle Hernandez, an administrator for Guardians of Freedom, noted that Stockton had been approved as a full member of the group. Hernandez would be among the 10 people recommended by Charles Bowman to serve as marshals at the Ellipse on Jan. 6.
“Welcome to the Three Percenters, Guardians of Freedom,” the email read. “It is an honor to have you on our team of patriots.
“Please be advised, per the founder, Jeremy Liggett, you have been moved and assigned as a full active member and not a prospect member,” the email continued. “Please disregard the mandatory meeting attendance mentioned in the attached documents.”
Stockton was not asked about the email during his December 2021 interview with the January 6th Committee, suggesting it had not come to light at that point.
But both Charles Bowman and Amy Kremer both told the committee they didn’t recall Stockton mentioning an invitation to join Guardians of Freedom. Stockton could not be reached for comment for this story.
‘Antifa’s worst nightmare’
Wearing a black tactical vest with a Three Percenter patch and a patch bearing the words “B Squad,” Jeremy Liggett appeared in a video that was posted on Facebook on Jan. 3, 2021.
As court documents note, Liggett stood “in front of a group of individuals wearing military-style gear and face coverings, many of whom appeared to possess assault rifles.”
"We all know in D.C., once the sun goes down, things get a little bit violent and the reason why things get violent is because you have socialist, leftist, Marxist, communist agitators like Black Lives Matter and antifa,” Liggett warned. He described various “defensive tools” including “the strongest pepper spray commercially available to use,” an expandable metal baton, knives with blades less than three inches, a walking cane and a Taser, according to charging documents.
Guardians of Freedom founder Jeremy Liggett posted a video on Jan. 3, 2021 providing instructions on weapons to bring to Washington, D.C. (eyes redacted by DOJ). U.S. Department of Justice
On Jan. 4 and 5, about 40 people checked into 20 rooms on the third floor of the Hampton Inn, according to court documents. Among them: Liggett and Pavlik, the retired Chicago firefighter, along with four other men identified by the government as members of “B Squad.” A hotel employee told investigators that members of the group “were wearing tactical gear such as military style vests, zip ties, pepper spray, and clip-on knives, and had police-type batons, helmets and masks.”
On Jan. 5, Liggett spoke at a raucous pre-rally at Freedom Plaza. The rally was divided into blocks that were apportioned to various factions or organizers, according to Dustin Stockton. The first four hours went to Women for America First and two pastors — Greg Locke and Brian Gibson — who had joined the March for Trump bus tour, with the second half divided between Ali Alexander and another organizer named Cindy Chafian.
Wearing his “March for Trump” jacket, Stockton introduced Liggett as “antifa’s worst nightmare.” Liggett addressed the rally wearing his black tactical vest with the Three Percenter and “B Squad” patches.
“I am a son,” he said. “I am a father. And I am an American patriot. I am a Three Percenter.”
Liggett led a chant: “F*** antifa! F*** antifa! F*** antifa! F*** antifa!”
“Listen guys, this is about your American dream,” he said. “Your American dream is at stake. I’m here with a simple message today. Stand. Stand and fight for America. Fight for your freedom of religion. Fight for the Constitution of the United States of America. Fight for your children. Fight for your grandchildren. Patriots do not comply.
Again, Liggett led the crowd in a chant. This time, it was: “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”
When Stockton reclaimed the microphone, he remarked on “how cool it is hearing ‘fight’ echo off these buildings.” Then he asked the crowd to indulge him in “a little housekeeping,” requesting that they text a number for updates on the rally happening the following day at the Ellipse.
“That’s where the president’s going to be speaking,” Stockton said. “That’s who we’re taking our marching orders from, right?”
Trump’s speech on Jan. 6 was only 18 hours away.
Key figures and groups in this series
1st Amendment Praetorian: Volunteer security group associated with retired Lt. General Michael Flynn that provided personal security details for Ali Alexander and other speakers at pro-Trump rallies leading up to Jan. 6, 2021
Guardians of Freedom: Three Percenter group led by Jeremy Liggett based in Florida whose members joined a mob in the Tunnel at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and tried to break through a line of D.C. Metropolitan Police Officers.
Oath Keepers: Far-right militia group that targets military veterans and former law enforcement for recruitment; dozens of members equipped with military gear entered the Capitol in a column formation
Proud Boys: Neo-fascist street fighting group that served as the engine of the insurrection by leading a mob to the Capitol, including one member who broke out a window, leading to the initial breach of the building
Stop the Steal: Coalition led by Republican operative Ali Alexander that organized protests in battleground states after the Nov. 3, 2020 election, followed by large rallies in Washington, D.C., culminating in Jan. 6
United Constitutional Patriots: Militia group that allegedly detained more than 300 migrants in New Mexico while carrying firearms and fake badges; their spokesman interviewed Dustin Stockton for a Facebook livestream during an event to promote a privately-funded section of the border wall in 2019
Women for America First: Nonprofit led by Tea Party organizer Amy Kremer that hosted the Jan. 6 rally featuring Donald Trump, along with the March for Trump bus tour and two large rallies in Washington, D.C. preceding Jan. 6
This is the second in a three-part series about ties between Women for America First, which held the permit for the rally where Donald Trump spoke on Jan. 6, 2021, and the Three Percenter group Guardians of Freedom. Read part one and part three.
On Jan. 6, 2021, just south of the White House, Amy Kremer stood atop the stage where President Donald Trump would soon address his followers. She gazed over what she created — and what a sight it was.
Kremer and her daughter, Kylie Jane Kremer, were about to host the sitting president of the United States as he amassed his faithful in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election’s results. Their organization, Women for America First, was the one and only group that possessed the official permit to stage Trump’s “Save America” rally.
And amid a circus of shadowy militia groups, QAnon disciples and C-list MAGA minions staging raucous, unofficial gatherings on Jan. 5 and 6, Kremer’s “Save America” rally, and its proximity to Trump himself, carried a patina of slightly-less-crazy.
Kremer, after all, cut a decidedly mainstream and public — if ultra-conservative — profile. For years, she regularly appeared on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. She organized for political groups, including the Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express of the late 2000s and early 2010s. By 2020, she led a pro-Trump bus tour that helped funnel Trump supporters into Washington, D.C., in service of the cause of denying Democrat Joe Biden the presidency after he won it.
Fomenting violence? That hadn’t been her style. So when people who attended her rally marched down the National Mall and assaulted the U.S. Capitol during what would become one of the darker days in American history, she disowned them.
“We stand by and strongly support the men and women of the Capitol Hill police and law enforcement in general and our organization played absolutely no role in the unfortunate events that transpired,” Amy Kremer said on Jan. 6, 2021. “What is truly sad, is that the misdeeds of a handful of people will overshadow the overwhelming success of the peaceful event — attended by hundreds of thousands of Americans — that we sponsored today.”
Through a carefully managed media strategy, the Kremers also distanced their organization from the violence and other, more provocative J6ers such as like Ali Alexander and Alex Jones, and by extension, the allied militant groups including the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, whose members would soon face prosecutions for seditious conspiracy and a host of other charges.
Crowds arrive for the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
But an exhaustive review of depositions, interviews, phone texts and court documents by Raw Story reveals that Women for America First, particularly through an organizer named Dustin Stockton, cultivated ties with a Florida-based paramilitary group — Guardians of Freedom — that rode the wave of far-right vigilante reaction that crested in 2020. Guardians of Freedom subscribed to the “three percenter” ideology of armed resistance against U.S. governance it perceives as tyrannical.
Members of Guardians of Freedom were tapped by a proxy for Amy Kremer to serve as volunteer marshals at the rally at the Ellipse, and six Guardians of Freedom members now face federal charges for violent offenses at the Capitol on Jan. 6, including two who are charged with engaging in physical violence in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon.
The Kremer-Guardians of Freedom connection offers a present-day legal intrigue: An ongoing FBI investigation could potentially ensnare more members of Guardians of Freedom. And Amy Kremer and her lawyer have confirmed that Women for America First was the target of warrants or subpoenas (they didn’t specify which) seeking access to their phones and electronic devices as part of a probe into fake electors, fundraising around election denial claims and the rally on Jan. 6.
Kylie Jane Kremer responded to a Twitter direct message from Raw Story by providing the email for Christopher Barron, Women for America First’s publicist. Barron did not respond to multiple voicemails and emails. Harmeet Dhillon, Women for America First’s lawyer and a recent Republican National Committee chairwoman candidate, also could not be reached for comment.
‘An armed crew'
Stockton, one of the lead organizers of the March for Trump bus tour and the pro-Trump rallies in D.C. leading up to and culminating on Jan. 6, had been working with Amy Kremer since January 2010.
That was when he introduced himself to the Tea Party Express organizer at a press conference in Reno, Nev., announcing a campaign to defeat then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Often wearing a tennis visor and scraggly beard, Stockton did not fit the typical image of a Republican political operative.
Nicknamed “Bossman,” his relaxed body language and Nevada drawl brings to mind the actor Seth Rogen, and he’s been known to pause during interviews with reporters for a bong hit. He possesses a quirky and disarming sense of humor. One of his favorite bits for conservative audiences paranoid about the government seizing their firearms begins: “Well, I personally lost all my guns in a tragic boating accident years ago. But I have a feeling I’m in good company that way.”
During an appearance at the National Press Club in 2010, Stockton recounted the start of his peripatetic career in right-wing politics at the side of Amy Kremer, known among her friends as the “bus queen” for her organizing work with the Tea Party Express organization to harness populist anger and push the Republican Party to the right.
“I left my pregnant wife and two young daughters and criss-crossed this country because I believe so firmly that we need to take our country back and the great danger that we are facing,” he said, pounding the podium for emphasis, “and that we must step up and meet those challenges.”
Dustin Stockton attends a Tea Party Express election night party at the Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter on November 2, 2010, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Later, Stockton and his fiancée, Jennifer Lawrence — not to be confused with the actor who starred in The Hunger Games — would work for Steve Bannon as reporters at Breitbart News Network.
Bannon, who’d go on to become White House strategist under Trump, himself would cheerlead efforts to overturn the 2020 election, telling associates four days before the election that Trump would “just declare victory.” He predicted on the eve of Jan. 6 that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow.”
Stockton’s associations with right-wing militias, predating the push to overturn the 2020 election, have received little attention since the Jan. 6 insurrection.
But they’re as notable as they are real: In 2018, Stockton helped Brian Kolfage, a military veteran and triple amputee, start We Build the Wall, a project to raise private funds to complete the border wall Trump promised. Kolfage wound up getting indicted, alongside Bannon and others, for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Bannon was ultimately pardoned by Trump one day before he left office. Kolfage pleaded guilty last April and awaits sentencing.
During an event near a segment of the wall in New Mexico in May 2019, Stockton participated in an interview with Jim Benvie, the spokesperson for the Guardian Patriots militia. Benvie had previously been active with another militia — the United Constitutional Patriots — whose members reportedly detained more than 300 migrants near the border while carrying firearms and fake badges.
During the interview, streamed by Benvie on Facebook Live in May 2019, Stockton expressed appreciation, saying, “Your videos turned us on to just how serious this crisis is. And when we saw those, the proof is there. We had the absolute proof of what was happening right here. And to be able to shut that off with the people’s money so quickly, it’s moving.”
Benvie was ultimately convicted of impersonating a government employee and sentenced to 21 months of prison time for two incidents in April 2019 near the We Build the Wall site. There, he accosted migrants, while accompanied by United Constitutional Patriot members dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying firearms, and yelled, “Alto! U.S. Border Patrol.”
Stockton’s association with the militia movement was underscored by a personal stance that lent credence to the idea that private militias could augment law enforcement as a defensive force against perceived adversaries.
In an email uncovered by the January 6th Committee concerning security arrangements for the Nov. 14, 2020, Million MAGA March, Stockton foreshadowed violence.
He told a fellow organizer: “I have an armed crew of 3K guys with 2K AR-15s” and they’d be nearby in Virginia and Pennsylvania “if any things got really sticky.”
During his interview with the January 6th Committee in December 2021, Stockton explained that the email was a reference to Gun Owners of America, an advocacy group for whom he had performed consulting work.
He chalked up his provocative rhetoric as nothing more than “braggadocios fluff” meant to reassure his paranoid fellow organizers.
'Put our best face on this thing'
Notwithstanding Stockton’s comfort with militia groups and Second Amendment militancy, the Nov. 14, 2020, rally marked a fork in the relationship between Women for America First and a more strident pro-Trump coalition led by Republican operative Ali Alexander.
To that point, the two groups had been organizing in tandem: Alexander sent out a tweet on Nov. 4, 2020, calling on Amy Kremer and others to join a national campaign under the hashtag #STOPTHESTEAL. Kylie Jane Kremer started a Facebook group called “Stop the Steal” on the same day that quickly attracted 2.1 million followers, according to Kremer, before it was shut down by Facebook for spreading misinformation.
But on Nov. 19, Women for America First publicly diverged by announcing that it was withdrawing from a rally organized by Alexander in Georgia, explaining that “we are unable to ensure a safe and secure area for our supporters and therefore will not be on the ground in Atlanta.”
A week later, Amy Kremer tweeted that Women for America First was “the ONLY hosting organization for the #MarchForTrump on December 12th,” adding that “if anyone is asking you to RSVP or donate to the cause besides our org, you’re being scammed.”
Looking back on the rift, Kylie Jane Kremer told the January 6th Committee during her interview in January 2022 that Women for America First felt the need “to make a very clear distinction” because, she said, the rhetoric from Alexander’s coalition “was getting a little more aggressive in tone and encouraging things like we had seen with November 20th of, you know, storming inside the Georgia State capital that we really needed to make a distinction between the two groups.”
Stockton also promoted the view that Women for America First was a more responsible alternative to Ali Alexander’s coalition, at least in retrospect.
“So, they started pushing a much more violent rhetoric,” Stockton told the January 6th Committee in December 2021, “while what we were pushing, frankly, was, like, procedural inside the House, to, like, ‘All right, this is our best chance to make our case, like, to the world. Let’s make sure that, like, we put our best face on this thing.’”
Three Percenter ties
As the final report of the January 6th Committee noted, the founder of Guardians of Freedom communicated in advance with the Florida leader of the Oath Keepers about plans for Jan. 6. The materials released by the committee in late December and early January reveal that Women for America First’s ties to the militant groups that stormed the Capitol were far more extensive than previously known.
While the Kremers and Stockton publicly distanced themselves from militant groups such as the Proud Boys that were gravitating to the protests, the organization was at the same time drawing in its own cohort of militants — a group of Three Percenters mainly from Florida calling themselves Guardians of Freedom.
Women for America First’s link to the Three Percenters — an authoritarian movement whose adherents view themselves as a revolutionary vanguard in the mold of the original American patriots, and the U.S. government as the latter-day equivalent of the British crown — was a commercial real estate developer from Florida’s northeast coast named Charles Bowman. Amy Kremer described Bowman as being “like a big brother that’s always — you know, it was like he was always looking out for us and making sure, you know, that we were safe and whatnot.”
Bowman met Stockton at a We Build the Wall event in New Mexico, but he said he initially met Women for America First through their lawyer, Michael Yoder, he told the January 6 committee. Amy Kremer, in turn, said she met Bowman through Stockton.
Bowman attended the rally that kicked off for the first leg of the March for Trump bus tour at the 2A Ranch, a GOP-friendly event space in Ormond Beach, Fla., on Nov. 29, 2020. As Stockton emceed the rally, a video shows Bowman standing near the bus door, while another man stood to the side of the stage wearing a tactical vest with a Three Percenter patch and a balaclava covering his face.
Bowman told the committee that the two met at a Republican dinner in Lake County, where Liggett lives. Liggett, in turn, said he met Bowman at a rally of some sort.
Within three days of the Ormond Beach rally, members of Guardians of Freedom were discussing plans to go to Washington, D.C. to support Trump.
A statement of fact written by Clarke Burns, a special agent assigned to the FBI Washington Field Office Joint Terrorism Task Force, that establishes probable cause for charges against five Guardians of Freedom members captures a social media exchange that alludes to the sensitivity surrounding the word “militia.”
“Now, I think it would be hysterical if you got morale patches that said ‘plan B’ or ‘B Squad’ because I think it’s one of the top 3 funniest things I’ve personally ever heard from politicians as they try to dance around the M word lmao,” said the individual, who is unidentified in the court documents.
A person identified in the statement of facts as “B Leader” responded: “Hahahahaha…. I am going to name DC operation plan B.”
The man that the FBI identifies as “B Leader” is clearly Liggett, based on a reference in the court document to a Facebook video that features Liggett. When Liggett and other Guardians of Freedom members came to D.C. on Jan. 6, they wore patches that said “B Squad.”
“I further believe that when they discuss a plan B/B Squad, they are referring to an alternate plan to be in place if they do not get the desired electoral outcome (i.e. the former president remaining in power),” Burns wrote in the statement of fact.
Bowman recalled during his interview with the January 6th Committee that “Stockton had phoned me and asked — you know, they were short of people, if I could come out and help with the events.”
An imposing presence, Bowman could show flashes of magnanimity: During a rancorous school board meeting riven by conflict over a book-banning proposal in November 2021, a local newspaper in Flagler County reported that Bowman signed up to speak, only to announce that he and his wife had bought burgers for the attendees.
Bowman could not be reached for comment for this story. Liggett, a former law enforcement officer who operates a gun range in Clermont, Fla., declined to comment for this story through his lawyer, Kevin C. Maxwell.
Violent words on the bus
The presence of militants in the Women for America First camp was matched by an escalation of violent rhetoric at the rallies on the bus tour, as reported by BuzzFeed, despite the Kremers’ efforts to set themselves apart from Ali Alexander.
Stockton promoted his personal organizing brand under the moniker “Tyrant’s Curse,” and he recited its formal “message” at multiple tour stops, including Ormond Beach and then in Lansing, Mich., on Dec. 8.
“A well-armed and self-reliant populace, who take personal responsibility and put their faith in God, can never be oppressed and will never be ruled,” he told crowds.
Paired with the rhetoric of other speakers denying the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, Stockton’s message carried an ominous ring.
“It’s about putting your range time in,” he said. “It’s about learning tactics. It’s about training others.” He added: “The second part: self-reliance, right? Which is we have to be able to take care of our own. And if you’re able to take care of yourself, how many more people in your neighborhood can you take care of, if things really got dark?”
In a Facebook video in the runup to Jan. 6, Stockton told his followers, according to an ABC News report, to “clean your guns and prepare. Things are going to get worse before they get better.”
Stockton, who in an MSNBC interview last year distanced himself from Jan. 6 rally attendees who used "revolutionary and violent" rhetoric, could not be reached for comment for this story.
Cordie Williams, a Marine Corps veteran and chiropractor from California, made a similar call during a March for Trump bus tour stop in Madison, Wis., on Dec. 6.
“We need to know how to fire those handguns, fire those rifles,” he said.
“When they come for my kids with this non-tested COVID vaccine, I’m gonna give them an insurance policy courtesy of a Glock to their forehead,” Williams said during the same tour stop in Madison.
The second statement crossed the line, apparently.
“We’d just had an incident at one of our rallies where a speaker we didn’t really know that well, we give them a chance to get on stage, and he talked about putting a Glock to the forehead of anyone who shows up at his door, like, to vaccinate his kids,” Stockton recalled during his interview with the January 6th Committee. “So, we kicked him off the tour, right? Like, for us, it’s a fine line, but you can’t ramp up the tensions that way.”
Even so, militaristic rhetoric continued to percolate at the March for Trump bus tour stops.
Three days before the Jan. 6 insurrection, Couy Griffin, a county commissioner from New Mexico and founder of Cowboys for Trump, told a crowd in Bowling Green, Ky.: “If we allow this election to be stolen from us, we will become a third world country overnight. The elitist, gross, wicked, vile people that are in place will continue to wage war on America. Because there is a war, mind you, I promise you that.”
Last June, Griffin was found guilty of entering and remaining in a restricted building for his actions at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The apocalyptic themes of irreparable loss and war invoked by Griffin and Stockton echoed a familiar source: Donald Trump, who after his loss to Joe Biden in November 2020 quickly schemed to overturn the election and retain presidential power.
As the March for Trump bus tour motored across the country, Amy Kremer was planning for the next big rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. And as those plans unfolded, Kremer and her daughter, Kylie Jane, found themselves scrambling to navigate the treacherous internal politics of the MAGA movement to maintain control of their event.
One of the first orders of business was recovering their permit for Jan. 6 from the National Park Service after a rogue volunteer tried to hijack the event.
Then, when Trump tweeted that he would be personally appearing on Jan. 6, they had to move the rally from Freedom Plaza to the Ellipse, near the White House.
President Donald Trump speaks at the "Stop the Steal" Rally on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
When one crisis was resolved, another one seemed to materialize, and the Kremer mother-daughter duo would find themselves fighting to keep rival organizers off the stage at the Ellipse up to the very moment Trump addressed his supporters.
The chaos that erupted after that speech, predictable as it may have been, was not solely galvanized by Amy Kremer.
It emanated from a complicated interplay between the White House and the militants — and she would find herself right in the middle of it.
* * *
Key figures and groups in this series
1st Amendment Praetorian: Volunteer security group associated with retired Lt. General Michael Flynn that provided personal security details for Ali Alexander and other speakers at pro-Trump rallies leading up to Jan. 6, 2021.
Guardians of Freedom: Three Percenter group led by Jeremy Liggett based in Florida whose members joined a mob in the tunnel at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and tried to break through a line of D.C. Metropolitan Police officers.
Oath Keepers: Far-right militia group that targets military veterans and former law enforcement for recruitment; dozens of members equipped with military gear entered the Capitol in a column formation.
Proud Boys: Neo-fascist street fighting group that served as the engine of the insurrection by leading a mob to the Capitol, including one member who broke out a window, leading to the initial breach of the building.
Stop the Steal: Coalition led by Republican operative Ali Alexander that organized protests in battleground states after the Nov. 3, 2020 election, followed by large rallies in Washington, D.C., culminating in Jan. 6.
United Constitutional Patriots: Militia group that allegedly detained more than 300 migrants in New Mexico while carrying firearms and fake badges; their spokesman interviewed Dustin Stockton for a Facebook livestream during an event to promote a privately-funded section of the border wall in 2019.
Women for America First: Nonprofit led by Tea Party organizer Amy Kremer that hosted the Jan. 6 rally featuring Donald Trump, along with the March for Trump bus tour and two large rallies in Washington, D.C. preceding Jan. 6.
This is the first in a three-part Raw Story series about ties between Women for America First, which held the permit for the rally where Donald Trump spoke on Jan. 6, 2021, and the Three Percenter group Guardians of Freedom. Read part two and part three.
Police arrested a Marine Corps veteran and firearms trainer last month on charges related to the Jan. 6 insurrection — including disorderly conduct in the Capitol — after the FBI followed up on a September 2021 news article published by Raw Story.
The federal government accused Richard Avirett, a Florida resident, of entering the Senate office of Sen. James Risch (R-ID) on Jan. 6, 2021. Raw Story identified Avirett by comparing images of him from open-source video at the U.S. Capitol with a photo from his LinkedIn page.
In the statement of facts supporting charges against Avirett, a task force officer assigned to the FBI Tampa Division’s Joint Terrorism Task Force cited “video from Raw Story” that depicts Avirett inside the Capitol building.
The image published by Raw Story that confirms Avirett’s presence inside the Capitol comes from a video shot by livestreamer Jeremy Lee Quinn. The video also shows Avirett looking at his phone in Risch’s office.
In January 2022, according to the statement of facts, the FBI task force officer interviewed one of Avirett’s longtime acquaintances.
“The individual viewed the Raw Story video noted above as well as other pictures of Avirett taken at the Capitol and positively identified Avirett in the pictures and video,” the task force officer wrote.
Later, law enforcement executed a search warrant on Avirett’s Facebook account, and found a photo taken from inside Risch’s office and a message stating, “I’m inside.”
When Avireitt spoke to Raw Story in September 2021, he denied going inside the Capitol.
"I wasn't even around there," Avirett said at the time.
The footage shot by Quinn that was published in Raw Story shows Avirett on the Lower West Terrace of the U.S. Capitol.
An unidentified man then shouts, “Last chance! Who wants to make history with me? Who’s a man? Who’s a patriot? I’m going into Capitol Hill by myself. Who wants to man the f*** up. Patriots, let’s do this right f***ing now.”
Later, the video shows Avirett inside a congressional office ransacked by rioters, with broken furniture strewn about. The video shows Avirett carrying a long, thin, white rod that looks like PVC pipe or shoe molding. Later, in Risch’s office, Avirett can be seen picking up a rectangular object that appears to be a computer keyboard.
Eight months after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Avirett posted a photo on Facebook showing a Trump flag being hurled into a line of police officers guarding the tunnel on the Lower West Terrace, near the window he allegedly used to enter the Capitol.
“One day we will look at the picture and know we were right and we had the chance,” Avirett wrote.
"Mr. Avirett, like more than 50,000 other Americans, arrived at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 with the intent to exercise their First Amendment rights, with the encouragement of the United States president," Robert Lee Jenkins Jr., Avirett's lawyer, told Raw Story in a statement March 8. "As we continue to gather information and prepare for trial, we're confident that when all the facts come out, it will be established that Mr. Avirett did not show up with the intent to commit any crimes, and that he did not participate in any violence or destruction of government property."
According to Avirett's LinkedIn page, he worked as a private military contractor for Blackwater USA in Iraq, where he provided special operations and protection services to the Department of Defense and State Department, and specialized in explosive ordinance disposal. After leaving Blackwater, Avirett's LinkedIn page says he started a tactical training company to teach "gun fighting and personal combat applications" and "consulted with media and theater actors and actresses on use of firearms and theatrical combat.
A warrant was issued for Avirett’s arrest by U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui on Jan. 19, according to court documents. Avirett was arrested three weeks later in Cleveland, Ga., northeast of Atlanta.
WXIA-TV reported that a local police officer took Avirett into custody when a license plate reader flagged him as a wanted person. The officer wrote in the report for the apprehension: “Mr. Avirett appeared very shocked to hear he had an arrest warrant.”
Avirett was released on Feb. 21 on a sworn promise to appear in court. He has a status hearing scheduled for April 18 in D.C. federal court.
The Rev. Al Sharpton is seemingly everywhere today: he hosts an MSNBC show, conducts civil rights rallies, even meets with President Joe Biden, both in public and as a confidant.
But as Sharpton has become one of the nation’s most prominent liberal voices in the national political-media-entertainment complex, there’s one topic absent from his list of talking points: Sharpton’s old 2004 presidential campaign committee still owes the U.S. Treasury more than $21,000, according to a Raw Story review of federal records.
“I think it’s outrageous,” Ann Ravel, a former FEC chairman, told Raw Story. “They should put a lien on their bank account. They obviously committed an illegal act that they have taken responsibility for. They agreed to and failed to do so, because they failed to pay the fine. It renders the FEC toothless if there’s no accountability for campaigns that are clearly doing something illegal.”
Ravel, a Democrat appointed to the FEC by then-President Barack Obama, said an agreement that requires a political campaign to pay money to the U.S. Treasury puts the FEC in an awkward position. Once the FEC reaches an agreement with a political committee, the agency has little power to enforce the terms of the agreement, she explained.
“The FEC obviously doesn’t have responsibility for what the Treasury is failing to do, but it would be a wise action for them to connect with Treasury on this and let them know that when they come to a conciliation agreement at the FEC, which is part of the federal government, it should be enforced,” Ravel said. “That’s one way they can increase people’s trust in the FEC is that the Treasury is following through.”
Sharpton did not respond to Raw Story’s request for comment, nor did Terence Cullen, a spokesperson, who only noted in an email on Tuesday that the Sharpton 2004 presidential campaign committee also owes Sharpton himself $100,000.
MSNBC, the network where Sharpton hosts the weekend news program “Politics Nation with Al Sharpton,” also did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Former Sharpton spokesperson Rachel Noerdlinger told the Center for Public Integrity in 2013 that Sharpton had planned to conduct a fundraiser to address his campaign debt problems, although it’s now unclear whether such an event ever occurred. Regardless, Sharpton’s campaign debt remains.
The U.S. Bureau of the Fiscal Service, the division of the U.S. Treasury that is responsible for collecting money owed to the federal government, declined to comment.
Money and trouble
Sharpton failed to win any delegates during the 2004 presidential campaign — or even a significant share of the Black vote in the crucial South Carolina primary. He dropped out of the race in March of that year, and endorsed John Kerry, the eventual Democratic nominee, who’d go on to lose to Republican President George W. Bush.
But Sharpton’s standing in the Democratic Party establishment — already significant then — has only grown since. Of late, he’s grown close to President Joe Biden. And in October, reports emerged that Biden told Sharpton during a private conversation at the White House that he will seek a second term.
Biden then appeared on Sharpton’s syndicated radio show in November, and in January, spoke at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast hosted by Sharpton’s National Action Network. There, Biden described Sharpton as “a good friend.”
The Biden-Sharpton friendship is made at least mildly awkward by the fact that Sharpton’s presidential committee owes money to a part of the Biden administration — the U.S. Treasury — that Biden is fighting to bolster.
For example, Biden has lambasted Republican efforts to reduce funding to the Internal Revenue Service, a part of the U.S. Treasury. Biden has even vowed to veto legislation that he says would “shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle-class” and “make it harder for middle-class families and small businesses to get timely tax refunds and other important services from the IRS, by rescinding billions in funding for IRS information technology and operations.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (left) speaks with Al Sharpton (center) and John Edwards (right) during a break at the MSNBC January 29, 2004, in Greenville, S.C.Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images
Here’s how the Sharpton campaign wound up owing the U.S. Treasury $21,250:
The FEC found that a 2004 presidential election fundraiser for Sharpton hosted by the late Detroit fast-food magnate La-Van Hawkins exceeded the limit for in-kind contributions by $9,000. A flight valued at $1,750 that Hawkins provided for Sharpton also constituted a prohibited corporate contribution. Thus, the agreement required the campaign to pay the U.S. Treasury, at a minimum, $10,750.
The agreement also addressed another matter — the receipt of excessive contributions — and gave the Sharpton campaign the option of either refunding $10,500 in excessive contributions or forking the money over to the U.S. Treasury.
Soon after Sharpton and his treasurer signed the agreement with the FEC, the campaign reported a debt of $19,500 to the U.S. Treasury.
That total appears to combine the $10,500 and $9,000 increments but does not address the matter valued at $1,750. Thus, with $1,750 added to the campaign’s acknowledged debt of $19,500, the true debt to the U.S. Treasury comes to $21,250.
As for the $1,750 debt to the Treasury that appears to have gone unreported in the Sharpton campaign filings, Myles G. Martin, a spokesperson at the FEC, declined to comment other than to direct Raw Story to a clause in the agency’s compliance agreement with Sharpton 2004.
That clause stipulates that the agency has the option of filing a civil lawsuit against the Sharpton campaign in D.C. federal court to address any violations of the agreement.
The 2009 agreement with the FEC cited poor record-keeping as the cause of the Sharpton campaign’s legal woes, noting that Sharpton “routinely mixed travel” for the campaign and his responsibilities as president of the National Action Network, and that the nonprofit “effectively subsidized the Sharpton 2004 presidential campaign by paying for vendors and consultants who performed work to benefit the [campaign] committee.”
As a result, the agreement required the campaign to refund $181,115 to the National Action Network or forfeit it to the government. FEC filings indicate that the campaign intends to do the former.
The Sharpton campaign’s debt was already sizable before its legal troubles with the FEC.
By that time the campaign had $480,096 on the books from debts owed to consultants and publicists, in addition to Sharpton and Rivera themselves. But after the campaign committed to pay civil penalties to the FEC, fork over money to the U.S. Treasury and refund illegal contributions to the National Action Network, the debt ballooned to $888,713.
Records on file with the FEC show that a combination of payments from Sharpton himself and the campaign paid off the $208,000 owed to the FEC for civil penalties by March 2010.
The debt is still listed on Sharpton’s most recent FEC report, filed on Jan 31, with a note that he “paid the civil penalty with personal funds within the agreed upon timeframe.” Excluding the FEC debt, which appears to be satisfied, the campaign’s total debt is closer to $680,000.
Under a separate agreement signed by Sharpton as an officer of the National Action Network, the nonprofit agreed to pay a civil penalty of $77,000 to the FEC for the election law violations. FEC records show that the National Action Network paid off the civil penalties in 2009.
Yet the $21,250 the Sharpton campaign committed to forfeiting to the US government in 2009 for excessive contributions and prohibited corporate contributions remains unpaid.
If the Sharpton campaign does intend to pay off its debt to the US Treasury and other creditors, it’s unclear where the money would come from: The campaign reported a negative balance of -$11,636 on its year-end report for 2022.
Sharpton could also choose to pay off the debt himself.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) ran up a hefty legal bill in his unsuccessful quest to avoid testifying before a special grand jury in Georgia investigating former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election – and he’s not shy about asking for help.
“I’m trying to get people to help me pay my legal bills,” Graham told Raw Story. “Anybody is welcome to help.”
As previously reported by Raw Story, nine of Graham’s Republican colleagues in the U.S. Senate have already contributed a total of $78,000 through their leadership PACs to the Lindsey Graham Legal Expense Trust Fund.
Graham testified in November 2022 before a special purpose grand jury called by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to investigate “the facts and circumstances relating directly or indirectly to possible attempts to disrupt the lawful administration of the 2020 elections in the state of Georgia.”
Prosecutors were interested in hearing from Graham about two phone calls after the Nov. 3, 2020, election in which the senator allegedly questioned Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his staff “about reexamining certain absentee ballots cast in Georgia in order to explore the possibility of a more favorable outcome for former President Donald Trump.”
Last year, Graham hired a high-powered legal team that included Donald F. McGahn II, a former White House general counsel and former Federal Election Commission chair, to try to get the subpoena quashed. The legal fight ended with the US Supreme Court upholding a lower-court decision denying Graham’s motion.
The legal team included McGahn and two other attorneys with the Jones Day law firm, along with two attorneys from the Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough law firm in South Carolina.
Roughly a week after Graham testified before the Fulton County special purpose grand jury, his campaign paid Nelson Mullins $268,228 for “legal services.”
Beginning in December 2022, Graham’s Senate colleagues began contributing to the legal expense fund. Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY), John Boozman (R-AR), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Steve Daines (R-MT), John Hoeven (R-ND) and James Lankgford (R-OK) all donated the maximum allowable amount of $10,000, while Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) donated $8,000, while Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) donated $5,000.
The special purpose grand jury in Fulton County concluded its work last month. Under Georgia law, special purpose grand juries can be impaneled to review specific matters involving complex facts and circumstances and take longer to work than a normal grand jury. Unlike regular grand juries, special purpose grand juries are not empowered to issue indictments, but may recommend criminal prosecution.
Last month, Willis told Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney that “decisions are imminent” as to whether to indict Trump and others. Prosecutors are believed to be considering state charges including solicitation to commit election fraud, making false statements and violation of Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
On Monday, Judge McBurney ruled that portions of the special grand purpose grand jury report may be released.
Forced to testify before a grand jury investigating former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) got some significant financial help from some of his U.S. Senate friends.
Nine of Graham’s Senate colleagues collectively donated $78,000 through their respective leadership PACs to the Lindsey Graham Legal Expense Trust Fund during December, according to a Raw Story analysis of Federal Election Commission records.
The donations — $10,000 is the maximum allowable amount per year under Senate ethics guidelines under the Office from the Office of Governmental Ethics — followed Graham’s Nov. 22 appearance before a special grand jury authorized by the Fulton County Superior Court at the request of District Attorney Fani Willis.
Graham’s office did not respond to messages about donations to his legal defense fund or legal expenses arising from his unsuccessful attempt to fight a subpoena. None of the senators who donated to Graham’s legal defense fund through their leadership PACs responded to questions from Raw Story.
There is no indication that the senator, who is the ranking Republican member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a target of the investigation or could himself face criminal charges.
‘NECESSARY AND MATERIAL WITNESS’
Graham said at the time that he testified before the grand jury for more than two hours and answered all questions.
But leading up to his testimony, Graham mounted an aggressive defense — an apparently costly one, too.
In late November, Graham’s campaign committee made a payment of more than $268,000 to the South Carolina law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough for “legal services,” according to FEC records.
The Graham campaign has utilized Nelson Mullins since at least 2011, according to federal records, but up until November, the campaign’s highest single payment to the law firm was $45,824, in 2021.
Graham’s legal team includes two lawyers from Nelson Mullins’ Charleston office and three lawyers from the Jones Day law firm, including former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II, who filed an emergency application to stay a lower-court decision with the Supreme Court. (McGahn is also a former FEC chairman.)
After the federal court in Atlanta and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals shot down Graham’s effort to fight the subpoena, the Jones Day team appealed for intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied the application, clearing the way for Graham’s testimony.
Don McGahn, pictured here in 2018 when he served as then-President Donald Trump's White House counsel, is now doing legal work for Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Graham’s testimony centered on two phone calls to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in November 2020, in which the US senator pressed the state official on signature verification for absentee ballots in Fulton County. The state’s most populous county, Fulton covers about 90 percent of Atlanta, and as a jurisdiction rich in Democratic votes, it became the focal point of baseless claims of voter fraud by Trump and his allies.
The special purpose grand jury, which a Fulton County superior court judge created in January 2022, concluded its work last month.
Willis reportedly told Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney during a Jan. 24 hearing that “decisions are imminent” as to whether to indict Trump and others. Charges could include solicitation to commit election fraud, making false statements and Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO, according to a report by the nonprofit legal watchdog Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington.
Under Georgia law, special purpose grand juries can be impaneled to review specific matters involving complex facts and circumstances and can take longer to investigate than the period of time allotted in a normal grand jury term. Special purpose grand juries do not have the authority to return an indictment, but may recommend criminal prosecution. Willis’ recent statement indicating Trump could soon face indictment was made during the district attorney’s request that the special grand jury’s report remain sealed.
“We want to make sure that everyone is treated fairly, and we think for future defendants to be treated fairly it’s not appropriate at this time to have this report released,” Willis said, according to CNN.
McBurney in July identified Graham as “a necessary and material witness to the special purpose grand jury.”
Under Senate ethics guidelines established under the Office of Governmental Ethics, legal defense trusts must be approved by the Select Committee on Ethics “for the purpose of paying for legal proceedings ‘relating to or arising by virtue of service in or to the Senate,’” according to a primer provided by the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.
Two days after the Graham campaign made a $268,228 payment to Nelson Mullins, the Hawkeye PAC contributed $5,000 to the Lindsey Graham Legal Expense Trust Fund.
The Hawkeye PAC is a leadership PAC sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, Graham’s colleague on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Contributions from the eight other senators followed. FEC reports filed by the respective leadership PACs list a mailing address for the Lindsey Graham Legal Expense Trust Fund that is associated with the Bowers Law Office in Columbia, S.C.
Under the arcane rules established by the Federal Election Commission, leadership PACs are financed, maintained and controlled by candidates or public officeholders, but are not considered to be authorized campaign committees.
While campaign committees allow contributions to other candidates’ campaigns, leadership PACs emerged as a vehicle for public officeholders to raise money for colleagues.
Ann Ravel, a Democrat and former FEC chairwoman who now teaches at UC Berkeley Law School, told Raw Story that public officeholders often use leadership PACs to make donations to colleagues as a means of garnering favor to obtain coveted committee appointments. Another benefit of leadership PACs, Ravel noted, is that there are almost “no constraints on how you use the money."
Bradley A. Smith, a professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, a Republican who is also a former FEC chair, told Raw Story it makes sense that Graham’s colleagues would use leadership PACs to support his legal defense fund because they might want to reserve their campaign funds for their own reelection efforts.
“If you want to support someone else’s legal defense fund, why use your own campaign funds?” he said. “The leadership PAC allows you to support other members. It’s a nice chit. They’ll remember you. ‘Oh, he was a nice guy. He gave me some money.’”
There could be other donors to Graham’s legal fund. But anyone who’s made a contribution to Graham’s legal defense fund since Jan. 1 may not have to publicly disclose the fact for weeks yet, per federal regulations.
‘I DIDN’T KNOW WHERE THIS WAS GOING TO LEAD’
The certificate of material witness issued by McBurney last July noted that Graham questioned Raffensperger and his staff “about reexamining certain absentee ballots cast in Georgia in order to explore the possibility of a more favorable outcome for former President Donald Trump” during a phone call in November 2020.
Attesting to Graham’s importance to the investigation, McBurney wrote that Graham “possesses unique knowledge” about the phone call and any communication with the Trump campaign or others “involved in the multi-state, coordinated efforts to influence the results of the November 2020 election in Georgia and elsewhere.”
McBurney also deemed Graham’s testimony as “essential in that it is likely to reveal additional sources of information regarding the subject of this investigation.”
Based on an interview with the Georgia secretary of state, the Washington Post reported that Raffensperger described Graham as questioning him during the phone call “about the state’s signature-matching law” and asking whether he “had the power to toss all mail ballots in counties found to have higher rates of non-matching signatures.”
The newspaper reported that Raffensperger “said he was stunned that Graham appeared to suggest that he find a way to toss legally cast ballots,” while directly quoting him as saying: “It sure looked like he was wanting to go down that road.”
Graham immediately disputed Raffensperger’s recollection of the call, telling the Post that the characterization was “ridiculous.”
“The main issue for me is: How do you protect the integrity of mail-in voting, and how does signature verification work?” he said.
During his November 2021 interview with the January 6th Committee, Raffensperger gave an account that appears to differ somewhat with the reporting by the Post a year earlier.
Asked by committee staff whether Graham said “anything about what your office or Fulton County should do if they found problems with the absentee ballots, like, what the remedy would be,” Raffensperger responded, “No.” He also said he didn’t recall whether Graham said that absentee ballots should be thrown out if errors were found.
Raffensperger told the committee that Graham suggested that credit card companies could be used for signature verification on absentee ballots. As they got into more detail, Raffensperger said that Sterling did most of the talking on behalf of the secretary of state’s office.
“He was talking about a process of using companies, and I didn’t know exactly where he was going,” Raffensperger said. “I just didn’t want to go where he was — where I thought he might want to go. I just thought it best not to call him back.”
Asked if Graham made any reference to Trump or indicated whether Trump asked him to call, Raffensperger told the committee: “I don’t recall.”
Raffensperger could not be reached for comment.
Graham has argued that his purpose for making the calls was entirely legislative. The senator’s application for review by the Supreme Court argues that he “relied on the information gained from the calls both to vote Joe Biden ‘the legitimate president of the United States’ and to cosponsor legislation to amend the Electoral Count Act.”
An order by US District Court Judge Judge Leigh Martin May last August, which was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court, dismissed Graham’s claims that his conversation with Raffensperger and his staff was limited to legislative concerns.
“To begin, the specific activity at issue involves a senator from South Carolina making personal phone calls to state-level election officials in Georgia concerning Georgia’s election processes and the results of the state’s 2020 election,” May wrote. “On its face, such conduct is not a ‘manifestly legislative act.’
“There has been public disagreement and dispute among the calls’ participants as to the nature and meaning of Senator Graham’s statements and inquiries therein,” she added. “In fact, it has been suggested that Senator Graham was seeking to influence Secretary Raffensperger’s actions.”
Authorities have so far arrested more than 950 people for alleged crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection for all manners of misdeeds, from weapons offenses to illegal entry to assaulting law enforcement officers.
Six members of the Oath Keepers have been convicted of seditious conspiracy. A separate seditious conspiracy trial for five leaders of the Proud Boys is now underway.
In all, hundreds of people have gone to — or will go — to prison.
But Ali Alexander — the GOP political operative most publicly identified with efforts to overturn the 2020 election save for Donald Trump himself — isn’t among them.
No matter that Alexander launched the “Stop the Steal” project one day after the Nov. 3, 2020, election that Trump lost but refused to concede.
Or that Alexander called for a rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021 — before Trump, on Twitter, urged supporters to “be there” because it “will be wild.”
Or that he led a chant of, “Victory or death!” on the eve of the attack on the Capitol.
On Jan. 6 itself, Alexander helped lead a march from the Ellipse, a tract of land behind the White House where Trump addressed his supporters, to the U.S. Capitol.
Alexander has displayed an uncanny ability to walk right up to the line of incitement, eluding prosecution in the largest criminal inquiry in the Justice Department’s history.
Proof of Alexander’s legal elusiveness came in late January. Amid the pre-trial phase of a looming court drama, U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta dismissed Alexander and co-defendant Roger Stone from a federal lawsuit brought by seven Capitol Police officers injured by Trump supporters who converged on Capitol Hill.
Mehta, a nominee of President Barack Obama, reasoned that nothing Alexander said ahead of the attack could be described as being “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” or “likely to incite or produce such action.” — the definition of unprotected speech as set forth in the Supreme Court’s 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio decision.
“Moreover,” Mehta added, “neither is alleged to have participated in the attack on the Capitol on January 6th or done anything in support of the alleged conspiracy other than engage in protected expression.”
The court proceeding served to underscore what Alexander believes is true: that he’s done nothing wrong.
“It was alleged I was violent or whatever, and Judge Mehta correctly pointed out that I was not, and my speech was normative under our laws,” Alexander told Raw Story in an email. “This proves I never directed, conspired or wished any violence to interfere with my peaceful protests.”
Meanwhile, Alexander has cooperated with other parts of the government hunting for J6ers to bring to justice. That includes the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, which grilled him with questions for eight hours but failed to extract from him any admission of guilt.
He also appeared before a federal grand jury last year and said that he was told that he was not the target of the investigation.
This is the story of how Alexander became the nation’s most untouchable J6er — for now.
‘YOU DON’T OWE YOUR ENEMIES AN APOLOGY’
Alexander is a convert to Catholicism with a messianic streak who has described himself as a “prophet in our times.” He has expressed support for blasphemy laws while claiming that the political establishment is “rigged” by “Satanists” and a “Jewish mafia.”
Born Ali Akbar, Alexander might seem like an unlikely candidate to lead the banner MAGA movement in support of Trump’s desperate quest to cling to power after the 2020 election. He chose “Ali Alexander” as his “professional name,” as he explained to the January 6th Committee.
“I’m the American Dream,” he told the committee in a prepared statement. “My mother was a Black woman in Section 8 housing. My father was an Arab man who disappeared when I was just two years old. About 15 years ago or so, I was arrested on two different occasions for petty crimes. I won’t re-litigate the merits of those offenses in this short time, but two arrests in your early twenties as a Black man often set people back, so far back that they never again find firm footing on which they can succeed.”
Alexander said his left-leaning mother considered moving the family out of the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But she didn’t, and the event shaped Alexander into a “war hawk” who believed, along with his fellow teenage Republicans, that he “must shepherd the general public into war.”
Alexander dropped out of college and “entered full-time politics” in 2007, he told podcaster Chrissie Mayr on Jan. 30.
“We had an internet problem, this Black guy was running, and I support John McCain,” Alexander said, referring to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. “I’m more moderate in my politics. And because we’re up against this Black guy, and we suck at the internet, I was a very good web designer, and I was Black.”
In 2009, Alexander threw himself into organizing with the Tea Party, and he aligned himself with the emerging conservative media ecosystem of the Obama era. He adopted an ethos of refusing to disavow more right-leaning associates, and later told the January 6th Committee that he was influenced by Andrew Breitbart, the late founder of Breitbart News Network, who took the stance “that you don’t owe your enemies an apology.”
As a self-described “far-right” political operative, Alexander demonstrated a willingness to associate with white nationalists. In 2009 — a decade before he brought Groyper leader and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes into the Stop the Steal coalition — he befriended Robert Stacy McCain, a one-time member of the secessionist group League of the South and then-reporter for the Washington Times.
“When this guy was listed by the [Southern Poverty Law Center] as a white nationalist, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can associate with the guy,’” Alexander recalled during a livestream last November. “And he basically became my best friend for a number of years — this 55-year-old white journalist, you know, I don’t know what I was, 24, 25-year old Black political operative. We caused hell!”
During the same livestream, Alexander defended Fuentes while urging the Republican Party to better protect the interests of white men.
“So, we’ve got to become a party that wages a culture war, that protects the white plurality or the white majority, that has an open door for other people that want to assimilate,” he said. “And we need less white, female political power in this world. You know, it’s an interesting juggle act that we’re doing.”
Immediately following the 2020 election, Stop the Steal became ubiquitous as a social media hashtag that represented the far right’s protest of Joe Biden’s election and Alexander’s own personal brand.
It also marked the evolution of the slogan “Stop the Steal” into its contemporary form. The phrase “Stop the Steal” had been coined in 2016 by Stone, a longtime confidant of Donald Trump, to gird against a delegate fight at the Republican National Convention.
“Stop the Steal” received a test run following the 2018 election. During a late-night Periscope livestream in November 2018, Alexander called for conservative activists to get in the streets as results came in from tight US Senate and gubernatorial races in Florida. Alexander himself booked a flight to Florida’s Broward County and led “seven to 10 days of consecutive protests to protest the bureaucrats” after receiving a prod from far-right social media influencer Jack Posobiec, Alexander later recounted to the right-wing Catholic outlet Church Militant.
Alexander told the January 6th Committee during his deposition in December 2021 that he “created Stop the Steal in 2018” and that he has a “gentleman’s agreement” with Stone to have “perpetual use of the license.”
Even before the first election results came in on Nov. 3, 2020, Alexander was laying the groundwork for Stop the Steal in its current iteration.
“In the next coming days, we’re going to build an infrastructure to stop the steal,” Alexander said in a livestream on Sept. 7, 2020, according to a report by Right Wing Watch. “What we are going to do is we’re going to bypass all of social media. In the coming days, we will launch an effort concentrating on the swing states, and we will map out where the votes are being counted and the secretary of states. We will map all of this out for everyone publicly and we will collect cell phone numbers so, that way, if you are within 100 miles radius of a bad secretary of state or someone who’s counting votes after the deadline or if there’s a federal court hearing, we will alert you of where to go.”
‘I’M BACK IN’
Alexander was initially reluctant to activate Stop the Steal.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Ali, you gotta be prepared to stop the steal again,’” Alexander recounted to Michael Voris of Church Militant. “And I was pretty bitter. I said, ‘The Republican Party doesn’t deserve me. So, I’m not going to do it.’”
But Alexander relented. In a now-deleted tweet from Nov. 4 that was provided to Raw Story by the owner of the @Betoangelmommas Twitter account, Alexander outlined a wish list under the heading “#STOPTHESTEAL.”
Then, Alexander tagged right-wing figures he wanted on the ground in states narrowly carried by Biden. In Pennsylvania: Posobiec and Scott Presler, an activist who had organized anti-Muslim marches in 2017.
In Arizona: Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and right-wing influencer Mike Cernovich.
For Georgia, he recruited Daniel Bostic, producer of the pro-Trump documentary The Plot Against the President, and C.J. Pearson, who came to notoriety as a 12-year-old in 2015 for a viral video questioning Obama’s patriotism.
He also urged Tom Fitton, president of the conservative legal outfit Judicial Watch, to spearhead his “legal network.” Alexander likewise tagged Amy Kremer, the veteran Tea Party organizer who would go on to organize the Jan. 6 rally at the Ellipse, and Ed Martin, president of Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, as “national” advocates.
The tweet ended with an ultimatum: “This or you lose now, enjoy!”
Tweet sent by Ali Alexander outlining who he wanted involved in the Stop the Steal projectTwitter screengrab
The contents of the tweet mesh with a Periscope broadcast on Nov. 4 during which Alexander said he was “busy organizing thousands and thousands of people” to join “voter integrity” rallies.
“We’re matching influencers with operatives, so every influencer will have an operative there also working with local media,” Alexander said, as reported by Right Wing Watch, a project of the liberal group People for the American Way.
“If you need a plane ticket, I’ll PayPal you money, because people have sent me money,” he continued.
The individuals singled out by Alexander — particularly Fitton, Kremer and Martin — share one distinct commonality: they’ve been part of the Council for National Policy, a “secretive right-wing organization that brings together people from all aspects of the right-wing movement, including extremists, and connects them all,” said Kristen Doerer, the managing editor of Right Wing Watch.
“It’s hard to know if the CNP directly provided support, but there’s a number of people in the CNP that did,” Doerer said.
As one example, Doerer cited Fitton, who submitted a draft to White House staff on Oct. 31, 2020 — three days before the election — proposing that Trump declare: “We had an election today — and I won.”
According to the document, which the January 6th Committee obtained from the National Archives, Fitton also suggested that Trump say that “the ballots counted by the Election Day deadline show the American people have bestowed on me the great honor of reelection to President of the United States,” despite the fact that there is no such Election Day deadline.
Whatever reservations Alexander might have initially harbored, they dissipated amid Trump’s refusal to concede. On the evening of Nov. 4, Alexander tweeted: “I’m back in. #StopTheSteal.”
BANKROLLING FLIGHTS AND HOTELS FOR INFLUENCERS
Alexander’s utility to the conservative movement was his personal and professional network and estimable social media presence.
“I am one of four or five people in the entire country who has the Rolodex that I have,” Alexander told podcaster Chrissie Mayr. “So, when you think about it, because I worked in 35 states, and I have a network that most people don’t have over 15 years, I can call on a lot of GOP county chairs. If you watch me walk through the Republican National Convention, you will see me shake hands with no less than 10,000 people, literally.
“Other GOP operatives aren’t livestreaming regularly like I did starting in 2017; a lot of people know me,” he continued. “I don’t make money being a public figure. I make my money building and scaling large organizations, campaigns, nonprofits, working with lawyers and PR teams.”
Alexander’s swing state prospectus had a hole in it for Michigan, and Brandon Straka, the influencer who created the pro-Trump #WalkAway campaign, stepped up to lead a rally in Lansing. Straka told the January 6th Committee that he was recruited to help promote Stop the Steal through a private Twitter DM thread called “MAGA Verified” that was set up for Trump supporters who held Twitter’s coveted blue checkmark.
“And I remember at some point, I believe it was Ali, telling me, it’d be great to have someone in Michigan, we don’t have anyone in Michigan,” Straka told the committee. “And I said, ‘I’ll go.’”
Alexander incorporated Stop the Steal LLC a few days days after Election Day. He immediately began collecting donations through payment processors such as Donorbox and Stripe, he told the January 6th Committee.
Recounting the national blitz of rallies and social media activity after Nov. 4, 2020, Alexander told Mayr that the “coalition of influencers” that he assembled made a compact “where all of us had to retweet each other’s offline events, and no offline event was allowed to have our own branding.”
“You’ve got to read True Believer,” he told Mayr. “You’ve got to read Propaganda. You’ve got to read Persuasion. You’ve got to read Influence. There’s a lot of books and a lot of experience that allowed me to create something that looks — that is organic — but is more manufactured than people think.”
When Trump supporters converged in D.C. for a second time on Dec. 12, Stop the Steal again “needed to fundraise money for travel for our people, hotels for our people, expenses for our people,” Alexander testified. Alexander also used the popular Stop the Steal brand to help a Christian nationalist event called Jericho March raise money to cover the cost of its own rally on the National Mall, he testified.
‘I DID COME UP WITH JANUARY 6TH’
On Dec. 16, Alexander issued a call for people to come to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 even before Trump, in a tweet, summoned his supporters on Dec. 19, 2020.
That day, Alexander tweeted to his 100,000-plus followers that “Stop the Steal is coming back to DC” on Jan. 6 — a tweet the January 6th Committee staff would later note in its research.
“I did come up with January 6th. The White House joined after I came up with it. They asked my permission to take it over. I let them take it over,” Alexander told Mayr. “And I deeply regret letting them take it over.”
Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet served as a “call to arms” for many extremists and conspiracy theorists, and “created a ‘fire hose’ of calls to overthrow the US government,” the January 6th Committee found in its final report.
But Alexander and his Stop the Steal partners, including Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), had already laid the groundwork.
Alexander testified that he assumed Trump’s tweet referred to Stop the Steal “because I was — literally everyone was going to capitals, and I had had a conversation — a direct conversation with, you know, Paul Gosar. And so, I just figured the president had to be tweeting about, you know, our presence or us.”
Alexander told the committee that he did not have any foreknowledge that Trump was going to promote the Jan. 6 rally on Twitter.
‘BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY, BUT AS PEACEFULLY AS POSSIBLE’
As Jan. 6 approached, Alexander’s rhetoric became increasingly militant.
“In 2021, we will decide whether the Second Amendment militia talk and 1776 is rhetoric or whether it is a threat against tyrants,” he said during a Jan. 2 Periscope livestream that has since been deleted but is archived. “In 2021, we will literally decide whether we have a trans-humanist future and the Great Reset, or whether we put them to bed. And I vote we put them to bed. I vote that we put them to bed. And I vote that we put them to bed by any means necessary, but as peacefully as possible. And peacefully as possible. And only escalating as morally allowed.”
In the same livestream, he predicted that Jan. 6 would be “a top three moment of American history,” adding, “So, what I’m here to tell you is you’re supposed to rebel. You’re supposed to kick dust in their eye. You’re supposed to throw a fit. Do not walk into the concentration camp. Fight back. Spit, claw, cut, bite. You should not play to the whistle. You should play past the whistle, and then you should punch the referee.”
During the same period, records obtained by the January 6th Committee show that Alexander participated in a Signal group named “Jan 5/6 DC OK security/VIP Chat” that was described by Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes as “a group for all event organizers and VIP speakers who need Oath Keepers PSDs or event security on Jan 5/6.”
The chats show Rhodes announcing on Jan. 1 that the Oath Keepers, a far-right group that targeted military veterans and retired law enforcement for recruitment, planned to provide personal security details to Alexander and Stone.
In another text on the same day, Alexander asked “how many guys” would be available to provide security at a rally he was organizing at Freedom Plaza on Jan. 5.
Florida Oath Keepers leader Kelly Meggs, using the moniker “OK Gator 1,” responded that the Florida chapter would provide 5-10 people early in the day, and 20 in the afternoon.
“Perfect,” Alexander responded.
On Jan. 3, Alexander told the Signal group that his “influencers” would be promoting a website at MarchToSaveAmerica.com headlined “Fight to #StopTheSteal, with President Trump.”
The website offered the explanation that “at 1 p.m., we will march to the US Capitol building to protest the certification of the Electoral College.”
“Then I’m gonna blast all events tonight to our lists,” Alexander told the other participants in the “Jan 5/6 DC OK security/VIP Chat.” He added, “Trump campaign is doing paid digital ads too to boost attendance. Today, we flex.”
Ali Alexander unveils the MarchToSaveAmerica.com website in the "Jan 5/6 security/VIP Chat" Signal group. Courtesy January 6th Committee
Alexander and Rhodes both talked about the possibility of civil war ahead of Jan. 6.
Speaking in December at the Jericho March, which Alexander helped organize, Rhodes called on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows a president to deploy military forces across the country to suppress civil disorder or rebellion. If Trump failed to do so, “we’re going to have to do it ourselves later, in a much more desperate, much more bloody war,” Rhodes said.
Alexander, for his part, predicted during his Jan. 2 livestream: “We’re going to get the outcome we need. That outcome might lead to civil war.”
Rhodes and Meggs are among six Oath Keepers who were recently convicted of seditious conspiracy for their role in the insurrection.
MARCH TO THE CAPITOL
When Trump addressed his supporters at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, he appeared to give a nod to Alexander, who was seated in the front row.
“Our country has had enough,” Trump said. “We will not take it anymore, and that’s what this is all about. And to use a favorite term that all of you people really came up with: We will stop the steal.”
Beyond building the infrastructure for a national protest movement and issuing the call for Trump supporters to come to DC, Alexander and InfoWars host Alex Jones helped shepherd Trump supporters from the Ellipse, where the president was speaking on Jan. 6, to the Capitol.
There was a plausibly legitimate reason for Alexander to go to the Capitol: He had organized a permitted rally in “Lot 8” on the Capitol grounds, although the rally would never take place amid the chaos to come.
“Alex Jones and myself were escorted out by Secret Service early before Trump ended his speech so that we could lead marchers to the US Capitol and help the flow of hundreds of thousands of people who were in the massive overflow,” Alexander recounted in a livestream on Periscope the following day. “We wanted to put them on the path to the US Capitol, knowing it would take everyone a half an hour to an hour to walk up there. So, Alex and I left the president’s speech.”
Before proceeding to the Capitol, Alexander and Jones stopped at Freedom Plaza. As Alexander looked at his phone, Jones began rallying passersby.
“The New World Order is on the ropes. That’s why they’re having to steal these elections. That’s not the actions of a strong group. That’s the action of a weakling. And we declare 1776 against the New World Order,” a video posted on right-wing social media site Parler shows Jones saying.
Phone texts that Alexander submitted to the January 6th Committee show that during his march to the Capitol, he was in communication with dozens of people, including two text groups related to Stop the Steal — “STS Patriots” and “STS Management.”
“Get out early and get those golf carts down Pennsylvania [Avenue] ahead of the president,” Alexander instructed the STS Management group at 1:15 p.m., as he marched with Jones and a security detail surrounding the InfoWars contingent.
To Caroline Wren, a fundraiser for the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee who had stayed back at the Ellipse, Alexander texted: “Is POTUS walking? Can you give me an update every five minutes?”
“He is not,” Wren responded.
Wren did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.
When they reached the Capitol shortly before 2 p.m., the InfoWars crew climbed atop a stack of metal chairs. Jones addressed the crowd through a bullhorn.
“We’re not antifa, we’re not BLM,” Jones said. “You’re amazing. I love you. Let’s march around to the other side. Let’s not fight the police and give the system what they want. We are peaceful and we won this election. And as much as I want to see the Trump flags flying over this, we need to not have the confrontation with the police.”
Shortly afterwards, Alexander sent a text to Wren and fellow influencer Michael Coudrey, whom he described as “a right hand to me at Stop the Steal”: “We are D escalating the front side of the Capital.”
Coudrey, whom Alexander described as “a right hand to me at Stop the Steal,” led a group of Stop the Steal influencers accompanied by three Oath Keepers to the Capitol separately from Alexander and the InfoWars crew.
At 2:10 p.m., Coudrey reported to Alexander: “It’s over. They broke through and stormed the Capitol.”
Alexander and the InfoWars crew trekked from the west side to the east side of the Capitol and ascended the building’s steps, snaking through the crowd in a line with hands on one another’s shoulder.
C.J. Pearson, one of the Stop the Steal influencers, also wound up on the east side. Video posted on Parler shows Pearson, dressed in a suit and tie, climbing atop an official vehicle parked in front of the Capitol and raising his fist in exultation. Later, he texted a photo of himself to the STS Patriots chat.
Coudrey responded with a heart emoji, and wrote, “A moment in history folks.”
But Alexander was growing concerned.
“CJ, get off the car. Everyone get out of there. And do not text message each other start a signal group,” he wrote, referring to the encrypted messaging app.
The January 6th Committee staff asked him about his recommendation to move to Signal.
“I just did not think that it was good for people to willy-nilly be texting each other with all of the campaign to frame people and violate our privacy rights,” Alexander said in response.
Coudrey had already advised the STS Patriots group to leave the Capitol, after announcing that the permitted rally was canceled. He told the group they were going back to their hotel.
Brandon Straka, the #WalkAway founder, responded seven minutes later: “F*** no!! I’m at the Capitol and I just joined the breach!!! I just got gassed! Never felt so f***ing alive in my life!”
He later described the text message to the January 6th Committee as a “hyperbolic joke.”
After leaving the Capitol, Alexander went to 101 Constitution Ave. parking deck, which overlooks the Capitol.
“I don’t disavow this,” Alexander said, pointing toward the crowds in front of the Capitol as sirens wailed. “I do not denounce this. This is completely peaceful, looks like so far. And there are a couple of agitators that I obviously don’t endorse. But this is completely peaceful.”
‘SOME PORTION OF THIS ATTACK WOULD COME BACK TO YOU’
In a Periscope video posted the day after the insurrection, Alexander appeared rattled, and contradicted himself on whether he had told people to go inside the Capitol.
“And so, I did call for people to enter the US Capitol,” he said. “The hundreds of thousands of people who are here are here at the behest of the president, but at the behest of the people, at the behest of the Constitution, at the behest of all of those things.”
Then alluding to his permitted rally, he said, “We were never going to be on the steps of the Capitol, and we certainly were never going to enter the US Capitol.”
Still later, Alexander said, “I would not have entered. I don’t think that people should have entered. I’m against entering.”
Alexander has hedged some of his provocative rhetoric by publicly stating that he tends to exaggerate.
“I am prone to hyperbole, exaggeration, and victory laps,” he told the January 6th Committee in December 2021.
In a boastful moment during a livestream last November, Alexander alluded to his role in the events of Jan. 6, as well as his friendship with rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, that could be read as either an admission of guilt or a ploy to build social capital with Trump’s hardcore base.
“I red-pilled the most famous rapper in all of human history,” he said. “I started a riot for the sitting president of the United States. Kiss my Black ass.”
To date, Alexander has faced no criminal charges for his involvement in the rallies that set the stage for the attack on the Capitol. Last June, he said in a statement that he testified before a federal grand jury, adding that he was assured by prosecutors that he “was not a target but a fact witness.”
Straka, in contrast, pleaded guilty in August 2021 to engaging in disorderly and disruptive conduct in the Capitol building or grounds. He received a sentence of 36 months of probation and a $5,000 fine.
Doerer with Right Wing Watch noted that unlike Straka, Alexander did not go inside the Capitol or tell other rioters, as Straka did, to take a police officer’s shield.
“He does, like, this stochastic terrorism where he will generally attack one subject, but add, ‘But we’re not violent,’” Doerer said of Alexander. “He’ll talk about general terms of violence, but say, ‘We’re not going to do that.’ He’ll add a shadow of doubt on these incitements of violence.”
Doerer also noted a subtle, but important distinction between Alexander and Rhodes, the Oath Keepers leader, that likely colored how the government views the two men’s actions at the Capitol.
“[Rhodes] was deliberate in organizing Oath Keepers to storm the Capitol, where Ali Alexander just generally used violent rhetoric and led people to the Capitol,” Doerer said. “But when it started getting super violent, [Alexander] was quick to take a perch where he could oversee it and not be directly involved in it.”
Beyond his email to Raw Story, Alexander declined an interview request and did not respond to specific questions about his activities. Among those questions: whether he received assurances from any backers before launching Stop the Steal, whether he communicated with anyone at the White House or the Trump campaign before putting out a call for people to come to DC on Jan. 6, how he learned that the Trump campaign paid for digital ads to boost attendance on Jan. 6, and what he hoped to accomplish by leading a march to the Capitol.
The January 6th Committee tried in vain to pin Alexander down after eight hours of testimony in December 2021. Citing a text from Wren on Jan. 6 telling him he should leave the Capitol, committee staff pressed Alexander on whether his provocative rhetoric had caused the violence that day.
“Why didn’t you push back on Ms. Wren’s assertion that this would come down on you hard?” the staff member asked.
“I was escaping tear gas,” Alexander responded.
“It’s because you know she was right, right?” the staffer continued. “You knew that… some portion of this attack would come back to you, because, for the previous three months and leading up to January 6, you had advocated for a revolutionary war? You had tweeted ‘1776,’ and that message came to fruition on January 6th, didn’t it?