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Opinion Rolling Stone said Jan. 6 leaders used ‘burner’ phones. Where’s the evidence?

Kylie Kremer speaks at rally against the 2020 election results outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 7, 2020. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)
7 min

The Rolling Stone exclusive from November 2021 sounded like something from an episode of “The Wire”: Organizers of the Donald Trump rally on the Ellipse on Jan. 6, 2021, had allegedly used anonymous cellphones to communicate with top officials in Trump’s orbit.

“According to the three sources, some of the most crucial planning conversations between top rally organizers and Trump’s inner circle took place on those burner phones,” wrote investigative reporter Hunter Walker. The contacted associates included White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump campaign consultant Katrina Pierson, and Eric and Lara Trump, the article alleged.

The fiery report was much followed. But 14 months and one huge House select committee report later, the story looks wobbly. In interviews with the committee, the alleged burner users denied the activity. Although committee investigators took pains to scrutinize the Rolling Stone report, they failed to corroborate it. Since the committee’s report was released in December, Rolling Stone has not published a follow-up detailing the latest developments, an omission that drives at one of the media’s great biases — the one against reexamining past stories that come under fire.

The saga underlines potential pitfalls of reporting out tips on Trump World shenanigans as well as the relative powerlessness of journalistic investigative methods compared to those of government. (It’s a blowout.)

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The burner story revolves around Amy and Kylie Kremer, a mother-daughter duo who organized MAGA rallies, events and tours. “I’m called the bus queen,” Amy Kremer, a leading tea party activist, told the House Jan. 6 committee. The Kremers helped to coordinate the nationwide March for Trump bus tour, which elevated the stolen-election lie and fed into the infamous Jan. 6 rally, where Trump told attendees to march to the Capitol.

According to Rolling Stone, as the caravan passed through California in late December 2020, Kylie Kremer dispatched a fellow organizer to purchase three burner phones. She and Amy Kremer each received one; the magazine couldn’t determine the intended recipient of the third phone. As anyone who watches police procedurals on TV knows, burners are prepaid phones that don’t require the user to register an account, thereby frustrating detection efforts.

“The use of burner phones could make it more difficult for congressional investigators to find evidence of coordination between Trump’s team and rally planners,” noted Rolling Stone. (Both Kremers didn’t “immediately” respond to a request for comment on the record, the story said.)

Such scandalous possibilities were picked up by other outlets, including the Daily Beast, HuffPost, Vice, the Hill, Insider, and the Independent. A Daily Kos write-up claimed that “this new evidence adds to a significant pile suggesting that Trump’s staff played an active role in planning the event so it would provide a crowd of bodies at the precise hour and place needed to threaten lawmakers directly.”

A month after Rolling Stone published the story, attorney David A. Warrington of the Dhillon Law Group sent a retraction request. “To be clear, at no time did either Kylie Jane Kremer or Amy Kremer direct anyone to purchase a burner phone with cash or otherwise, nor did they use a burner phone to communicate with anyone, let alone anyone identified in the article,” reads the letter.

A Rolling Stone follow-up in March 2022, also by Walker, strengthened the initial story by quoting an on-the-record source for the burner allegations. Scott Johnston, an aide who assisted with the bus tour, told the magazine that the Jan. 6 committee had contacted him seeking “corroboration” of the burner claims.

The story hovered there until late December, when the committee released transcripts of its interviews and depositions. In their interviews, both Kremers denied having possessed or used burner phones. “This story is total bull----,” Amy Kremer told the committee.

Benjamin Wittes: The Jan. 6 committee report contains a treasure trove in fine print

The panel’s interactions with Johnston, by contrast, produced a dramatic twist. He had purchased the three phones at a CVS in Cathedral City, Calif., he told the committee. The purchase, totaling around $260, took place in the early afternoon of Dec. 28, 2020, Johnston told a committee investigator.

The committee homed in on CVS Store 1520 and plumbed the location’s records. “What CVS told us is there is no record of any transaction for a prepaid phone, whether with cash or credit card, no transactions at all at CVS 1520 for the purchase of prepaid phones on December 28, 2020,” the investigator told Johnston. Was there any reason “why, according to CVS’ records, the purchase that you’ve told us about never happened,” the investigator asked.

Johnston said he had “no information” why that would be. (The committee spoke with another alleged source for the story, who said that Johnston had mentioned the burner purchase.)

Rolling Stone also relied on Johnston for another “exclusive” — namely, that Meadows and Pierson had participated in a Jan. 6 planning call with Kylie Kremer in the waning days of 2020. The magazine used this tidbit to allege that Meadows was “involved in efforts to encourage the president’s supporters to march on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.” In his committee interview, Johnston testified that Kylie Kremer switched between her personal phone and her burner phone on a Dec. 29, 2020, call with these two officials. However, the investigator apprised Johnston that the committee could find no record of any calls between Kylie Kremer and any number associated with Meadows or the White House during the relevant period.

Presented with these debunking facts, Johnston stuck to his story.

The committee’s final report didn’t mention the burner story, though its attempt to run down the Rolling Stone claims reflect how seriously it took the allegations. There was good reason for such scrutiny: Had burner use been confirmed, there might have been pre-Jan. 6 consultations between the White House and rally organizers of which the committee had been unaware.

The committee report also emphasized the disparity between government investigative muscle and journalistic inquiries: How many reporters dream of securing the sales data of a private company upon request? In response to the Erik Wemple Blog’s request for more details on burner sales, a CVS spokesperson emailed, “While we are not able to provide you with individual transaction records, we will continue to cooperate with official inquiries into this matter.”

Warrington, who represented the Kremers and others before the Jan. 6 committee, said in a statement: “There was no truth to the burner phone story reported by Rolling Stone. ... Our clients fully cooperated with the House January 6th Committee who, after a full investigation, also ultimately determined there was no truth to the burner phone allegation. It is telling that Rolling Stone persisted in publishing this false story that was so easily debunked by the Committee and does not appear in the final Committee report.”

Failing to corroborate a claim isn’t the same as disproving it, but the committee’s interview with Johnston torched the account of Rolling Stone’s main source. Asked about the implications of the committee’s report, the magazine said in a statement: “Three sources alleged in November, 2021 that a key Jan 6 rally organizer used burner phones to communicate with Team Trump. Rolling Stone reported those allegations. Since then, one of those sources has gone on the record. We’ve reviewed the reporting in the original story, and it’s solid.”

Not good enough. Rolling Stone published a juicy story, bursting with clandestine implications, and then basked in the digital reverberations. Now that the sourcing looks suspect, the magazine publishes an unattributed statement and seeks to move on. That shortchanges readers who might wonder how that whole burner thing worked out.