The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The question of Roger Stone’s ties to extremist groups grows more salient

Members of the Oath Keepers provide security for Roger Stone at a rally in Washington on Jan. 5, 2021, the night before a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

There are at most two degrees of separation between former president Donald Trump and the leaders of far-right extremist groups that were involved in the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Between both Trump and the heads of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers sits only Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone.

On Tuesday, the federal government indicted Enrique Tarrio, the head of the Proud Boys, on eight criminal counts including conspiracy, obstructing law enforcement and obstruction of an official proceeding. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was arrested in January for allegedly similarly engaging in an effort to block the counting of electoral votes on that day; he faces charges including seditious conspiracy. Last week, one of those included in the conspiracy charge, Joshua James, pleaded guilty.

All of which makes Stone’s connections to both groups much more salient. In fact, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta made that question explicit in a ruling that allowed lawsuits against Trump related to Jan. 6 to move forward.

“Stone’s connections to both the President and these groups in the days leading up to January 6th is a well-pleaded fact,” Mehta wrote. “Discovery might prove that connection to be an important one.”

That assessment was in service to his determination that Trump and the extremist groups were conceivably working in concert as part of a “civil conspiracy.”

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Given that, it’s worth articulating Stone’s relationships with all three: the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and Trump.

Stone and the Proud Boys

Both Stone and Tarrio live in South Florida, which appears to be how they came to know each other. After the Proud Boys were founded in late 2016, Tarrio became the head of a chapter located in the area, before rising to the top position.

The earliest indications of how Stone and the Proud Boys overlapped came, strangely, from activity posted by fake accounts on Facebook. A network of fake accounts and pages shared information about politics and about Stone during a period ranging from 2015 to 2017. When it shuttered the network in 2020, Facebook wrote that it “first started looking into this network as part of our investigation into the Proud Boys’ attempts to return to Facebook after we had designated and banned them from the platform” in 2018. “… Our investigation linked this network to Roger Stone and his associates.”

By May 2017, with Trump in the White House, Stone posted a video that the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer described as his taking “the Proud Boy initiation.” It is not clear if it’s the same video as one posted in February 2018, still visible on the Daily Beast’s website. In it, Stone declares himself to be “a Western chauvinist,” one of the tenets of the Proud Boys’s neo-fascist ideology.

That March, Stone was asked to speak at a Republican Party event in Oregon. Alleging that he was scared for his personal safety, Stone employed members of the Proud Boys to serve as bodyguards. Repeatedly that year, he posted photos of himself with Proud Boys, including in May (alongside Fox News host Tucker Carlson) and July. In December, the Proud Boys posted a video on their website, showing Stone with Tarrio.

“Keep the faith,” Stone told viewers. “Don’t let them wear you down, the globalists, the two-party duopoly, Robert Mueller, the deep state, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Washington Post. They want to wear us down. Never give up the fight.”

The reference to Robert S. Mueller III, then serving as special counsel investigating Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 campaign, was pointed. In January 2019, Mueller successfully sought an indictment of Stone on a number of charges, including lying to law enforcement, obstruction and witness tampering. Among those quickest to rise to Stone’s defense: Tarrio, who attended a news conference wearing a “Roger Stone Did Nothing Wrong” T-shirt. He wore it to a Trump rally the next month.

Stone’s closeness with Tarrio was documented as part of his legal fight. When Stone posted an image on social media interpreted as a threat against the judge overseeing the case, he was forced to answer where he’d obtained the image. He described having been sent photos by a number of people including Tarrio and Proud Boys member Tyler Ziolkowski. He said there was a “revolving door” of people coming into and out of his house.

During a presidential debate in September 2020, Trump was asked to denounce right-wing extremism and to tell groups to stand down. Trump instead told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” — possibly simply jumbling the moderator’s request but nonetheless making a comment that the Proud Boys quickly embraced as an endorsement. This increased attention being paid to the group and to Stone’s relationship with them. In a conversation with a reporter published a few days later, Stone denied having an affiliation with the group.

Then Trump lost his reelection bid. The indictment of Tarrio and other members of the Proud Boys (including Ethan Nordean) articulates how the group reacted: immediate calls for action and declaring the effort to derail Joe Biden’s presidency a war. On Parler, Tarrio wrote, “We’re rolling out. Standby order has been rescinded.” Stone quickly geared up an effort to cast doubts on the election results called “Stop the Steal.”

On Dec. 11, he joined Tarrio and Nordean at a rally in D.C. centered on claims that the election had been stolen. The next morning, before another pro-Trump rally in the city, Tarrio and others got a tour of the White House.

Stone and the Oath Keepers

It’s useful to diverge here to talk about the Oath Keepers, an extremist organization focused on recruiting former members of the military and law enforcement. There are not obvious ties between Stone and the Oath Keepers or founder Rhodes before the post-election period, but the Oath Keepers’ activity in that period is alleged in government indictments.

For example, the group set up an encrypted chat group called “Dec 12 DC Security/Leadership,” according to the statement of offense included in the plea deal reached with Oath Keeper Joshua James. In that chat, Rhodes declared that a Biden presidency would lead to “a bloody and desperate fight.” Notice that the name is an apparent reference to the Dec. 12 rally in D.C., the aftermath of which included brawling and assaults involving Proud Boys members.

On Jan. 5, 2021, Rhodes and Tarrio were part of a small group that met in a parking garage in D.C. Tarrio had just been arrested for having stolen and destroyed a Black Lives Matter banner from outside a church during the unrest in December and had been ordered to leave D.C. He told Reuters that the meeting was a chance encounter; an attorney for the Oath Keepers told Reuters that the meeting was planned and centered on discussing defense attorneys.

By this point, Stone was already in D.C. and once again using extremists as his personal security contingent — but, this time, the Oath Keepers. In an interview with fringe media personality and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones last year, Stone discussed the presence of the extremists.

“I remember you saying, ‘I have no money for security, are you going to handle it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, get with me,’” Jones said. “But you never ended up getting with me, because the town was so mobbed, you couldn’t even find me, and so Oath Keepers helped you out.” Stone replied that he didn’t “know any of them on an intimate basis.”

One of them was James.

On both Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, the Oath Keepers were Stone’s perpetual companions. They accompanied him to a rally outside the Supreme Court on Jan. 5, sporting badges that read “all access.” When Stone spoke at a rally that evening, they were there with him backstage (as in the photo at the top of this article, again with the same pass). And on the day of the riot itself, they served as his escorts.

During the riot itself, Stone stayed in his room at the Willard hotel, according to documentary filmmakers who were with him. James and other Oath Keepers traveled to the Capitol where they allegedly participated in the riot. In the weeks prior, James and others had been told by Rhodes to “be prepared, if called upon, to report to the White House grounds to secure the perimeter and use lethal force if necessary against anyone who tried to remove President Trump from the White House,” according to James’s plea agreement. That his duties that day centered on staying with Stone take on a different light given those instructions.

On Jan. 15, the documentary crew accompanying Stone filmed him using an encrypted communications app on his phone. Several of those with whom he’d been in communication that day are identifiable in the images, including Rhodes and Tarrio.

Stone and Trump

Stone’s relationship with Trump extends back decades. Stone pushed Trump to run for president for years before he did so. He served as an early adviser to Trump’s campaign in 2015 until he was ousted a few months into the effort. He continued to advise Trump, however, in the manner of numerous others pushed just outside the inner circle.

For example, Stone was at the center of questions about the Trump campaign’s awareness of efforts by Russian actors to influence the election results by leaking stolen material through WikiLeaks. Stone claimed to have a relationship with WikiLeaks and unique insights into what the group was going to release, a relationship that led a “senior” campaign official to ask Stone to reach out to the group (which he then did through backchannels). It’s worth noting that this overlapped with the period in which those fake accounts that eventually somehow linked to the Proud Boys were active on Facebook.

In the weeks after the election, Stone was very active in efforts to cast doubt on the results. He worked with Ali Alexander, a right-wing activist who hosted a number of “Stop the Steal” events. In late December, Stone received a full pardon from Trump, lifting the cloud of the Mueller indictment. A few days later, he joined the president for dinner at Mar-a-Lago.

The effort to undercut Biden’s presidency was moving down two tracks: one tightly linked to Trump and his legal team and the other loosely organized by outside opportunists such as Alexander and Jones. Both tracks were aiming for events in Washington on Jan. 6, forcing a negotiated agreement on who would be doing what, when. It was agreed that Stone and others would have a prominent role in the event on Jan. 5 and that, after Trump’s speech outside the White House on Jan. 6, there would be a rally at Capitol Hill.

But on Jan. 6, Stone appears to have found himself largely outside the loop. He complained to the filmmakers following him that he’d been cut out of the main event at the Ellipse, an event that sparked a known confrontation as a prominent donor and ally of Jones worked to get the conspiracy theorist a prominent placement that morning. He remained in his room the rest of the day. His bodyguards decamped for the Capitol, where they joined other Oath Keepers and Proud Boys in storming the Capitol.

Perhaps Stone was simply a guy who knew and was sympathetic to extremist groups in a way that gave the appearance of complicity — as he’d been a guy who claimed to know WikiLeaks four years prior. Perhaps the Oath Keepers managed to be connected to Stone thinking that it offered a better connection to Trump and the White House. Perhaps, as Judge Mehta wrote, we’ll learn that the connection was more significant than what we know now. And, of course, it may be even less significant.

What’s clear, however, is that we don’t yet know the whole story.