The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To build a crowd for a pro-Trump rally, Nevada GOP consultant sought help from Proud Boys

Supporters of President Donald Trump protest the 2020 presidential election result outside the Clark County Election Department in North Las Vegas on Nov. 8. (John Locher/AP)

Two days after the tumultuous 2020 election, as President Donald Trump railed that his victory had been stolen, a small group of men dressed in yellow-and-black Proud Boys shirts appeared with dozens of other Trump supporters to protest the counting of ballots at Nevada’s biggest voting center.

The rally at the Clark County Election Department in North Las Vegas, one of many such demonstrations around the nation, looked like an organic response to a president then trailing in early returns and threatening anew to contest his defeat. But private messages from Facebook and interviews show the extent of the efforts, in at least one battleground state, to demonstrate the appearance of grass-roots energy to spread Trump’s falsehoods about the election. His claims would only grow over the coming weeks, culminating in a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The behind-the-scenes maneuverings in Nevada involved a liberal activist who had faked a persona to get close to far-right activists and a consultant working with the state Republican Party who contacted her in a bid to recruit the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s group, to attend the rally.

Woodrow Johnston, the vice president of McShane LLC, a consultancy that had been hired by the party to investigate electoral fraud, wrote on Nov. 4 to Sarah Ashton-Cirillo in a Facebook Messenger chat, telling her that Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), one of his firm’s clients, was preparing a “Brooks Brothers Riot” in Arizona. That was a reference to the Republican protests that disrupted vote counting in Florida after the 2000 presidential election.

“We might need to do the same here in Nevada,” Johnston wrote, according to copies of the correspondence given to The Washington Post by Ashton-Cirillo, the authenticity of which Johnston did not contest. “Which means we need to get the Proud Boys out.”

That message led Ashton-Cirillo immediately to contact a group of activists, including a person who has publicly identified as a Proud Boys member and one other man who would later be photographed at the protest in a Proud Boys shirt, the Messenger records show.

Seven months later, Johnston’s involvement in the attempt to organize that peaceful protest and in other GOP efforts since have inflamed a bitter feud in the Nevada GOP among the forces competing for prominence in a party still in thrall to Trump. Johnston’s involvement also has highlighted the turmoil that has beset Republicans nationally as far-right groups have sought more influence in the party.

More than two dozen alleged members or supporters of the Proud Boys have been charged with committing crimes in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the Canadian government in February declared the chapter there a terrorist entity, leading it to dissolve itself.

Trump famously told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” at the first presidential debate in September. Weeks later, Johnston echoed those words in a text to the political operative he was asking to make contact with the group.

“Stand back and standby Lol,” Johnston wrote.

The peaceful protests that followed in North Las Vegas, which included dozens of Trump supporters chanting “Don’t steal my vote” and “Stop the cheating,” continued for several days. They did not disrupt the counting of votes nearby.

Johnston said in an interview that he had not been acting on behalf of the state Republican Party or his employer. Johnston’s employer, Rory McShane, also said that Johnston was acting independently of McShane LLC when he sent the messages.

“I was unaware of these texts, but I know Mr. Johnston was not working on behalf of any client or organization,” Rory McShane said in a written statement. “Our management team has met with Mr. Johnston. I’m confident he sees the error of what he did.”

Gosar, through a spokesman, also said he had not been in contact with Johnston about any protests.

“We did not communicate with him about any rally, and what he meant by that is up to him,” Thomas Van Flein, Gosar’s chief of staff, said when asked about Johnston’s message mentioning a “Brooks Brothers Riot.”

In the midst of an earlier dispute about whether the Proud Boys had influenced an internal party vote, the GOP caucus in the Nevada Senate called May 21 for Republicans to distance themselves from the Proud Boys, and the Clark County Republican Party, which represents Republicans in Las Vegas, later joined that call.

“If there is a determination that any member or employee of the Nevada Republican Party conspired with these individuals or had knowledge of any wrongdoing in the party vote, Senate Republicans call for their immediate removal and resignation,” the caucus said in an unsigned statement.

Jessica Hanson, the executive director of the state Republican Party, said in an interview that chairman Michael J. McDonald and the party gave “zero direction” to organizers of the protests against the counting of votes in the November election. “Chairman McDonald had no part in organizing the event, never asked McShane to recruit or work on any events, and Chairman McDonald never attended any of these activist events,” Hanson said.

Ashton-Cirillo is a liberal transgender activist who says she spent months pretending to be a devotee of Trump’s hard-right policies. She said she was researching a book on extremism and was trying to help elect a friend to a district judgeship in Las Vegas.

Now running for the Las Vegas City Council under the name Sarah Ashton, she saved messages and screenshots of Telegram group messages from the far-right activists. She solicited their support for politicians with whom she worked and attended political and social events with them. She has since shared some of those messages — including racist and antisemitic posts from a Telegram group called Keep Nevada Open — with the Clark County GOP, which cited the chat records when it banned seven people from participating in party business.

One of the people banned from participating in county Republican proceedings was Matthew Anthony Yankley, who was on the list of people Ashton-Cirillo contacted for the protest after Johnston’s request. Yankley helped to administer Keep Nevada Open and described himself on a recent political podcast as a member of the Proud Boys. He also said in the same interview that “heads of” the state party had asked for his help, including at an April meeting of the state party to vote on a censure resolution against the Republican official who investigated claims of electoral fraud in Nevada.

Yankley’s declaration prompted calls from the Senate GOP caucus and Nevada’s two largest county Republican groups for an audit of the censure vote against Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, who had concluded that the 2020 election in the state had not been tainted by fraud.

In an unsigned statement, the state party has said the censure vote was not improper and has accused those who question the proceedings, including leaders of the Clark County GOP, of telling “slanderous lies.” Cegavske said in a statement after the censure that she had carried out her duties “as enacted by the Nevada Legislature, not carry water for the state GOP or put my thumb on the scale of democracy.” She has not commented on the reported role of Proud Boys members in party events.

Party leadership has not publicly addressed whether it invited Yankley to the meeting where the censure vote took place and has declined to respond publicly to Republican requests for an audit of that vote.

Yankley and another alleged member of the Proud Boys who was contacted by Ashton-Cirillo about the protest could not be reached for comment through their listed phone numbers and Facebook Messenger accounts. Lawyers representing Yankley in a lawsuit against the Clark County Republican Party also did not respond to an email request for comment.

Yankley said in the podcast interview that the Las Vegas chapter of the Proud Boys is neither racist nor violent. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he did not know about the bigoted posts in the Telegram group he helped to host until the Clark County Republican Party raised concerns. He said he banned from the group the person who posted the objectionable information.

Yankley filed a lawsuit with others on May 20 against the Clark County GOP, making complaints including that the group had failed to follow its own procedures when denying membership to applicants. Clark County District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez asked the plaintiffs at a May 26 hearing to amend their lawsuit to demonstrate that they were members of a “protected class” who would have standing to sue in her court, according to the Associated Press.

Two other people who were contacted by Ashton-Cirillo on Facebook Messenger declined to speak with The Post on the record. Contact information for another person could not be found.

One other person contacted by Ashton-Cirillo after Johnston’s request, Mike Houlihan, said he did not remember the specific Facebook Messenger exchange with Ashton-Cirillo but said he knew her, had been to parties and political events with her and remembers seeing social media posts announcing the protests at the election center. Houlihan, a conservative activist who says he invites Proud Boys members to parties at his house, was photographed at the election center protests wearing a mask painted with the American flag.

“I’m not a member of the Proud Boys. They are good friends of ours,” Houlihan said. He said he knew the group as nonviolent and did not consider its members to be racist.

Ashton-Cirillo said her months-long deception started in September and took her inside events in Nevada with high-ranking Republicans. She said that among those events was one in late October whose attendees included McDonald, McShane and Gosar and that she was photographed with them. She said she did not discuss the Proud Boys or protests at the event.

“It was a large public event with hundreds of attendees,” McShane said of that event. Gosar and McDonald did not respond to requests for comment on their interactions with Ashton-Cirillo.

Ashton-Cirillo said she also attended political events that Yankley had helped to organize as well as a house party where Yankley and other members of the Proud Boys were present. Her ruse put her in position to help Johnston recruit Proud Boys and other far-right activists for the post-election protests.

“I will never apologize for lying to them, when all they had to do was look at anything about me,” Ashton-Cirillo said, referring to an online social media trail that showed her supporting former president Barack Obama and mocking Trump.

Over the course of the fall, she claims, she got to know Yankley and Johnston while working to elect two local candidates in Las Vegas, including her friend, County Judge Nadia Krall. She began discussing the possibility of taking a job with Johnston’s firm after the election, the Messenger chats show. The day after the election, the Messenger texts show, Johnston asked her to invite Proud Boys members and other far-right activists to a protest similar to the “Brooks Brothers Riot.”

She responded with excitement, the Messenger chats show. She wrote telling Johnston that she had been in Florida during the 2000 protests over the presidential election. “So I’m ready,” she wrote.

When he subsequently quoted Trump’s “stand back and stand by” admonition in the chat, she responded by writing “time to go have a po’ boy in honor of Speaker Scalise,” a comment she said referred to House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was shot by a left-wing extremist in an attack on a congressional Republican baseball practice in 2017.

At the time of those exchanges between Johnston and Ashton-Cirillo, Johnston’s employer was working with the state GOP on an effort to check the validity of 2020 election ballots in the Las Vegas area, according to Hanson, the state GOP executive director. About six hours before asking about the protest, Johnston had written to Ashton-Cirillo that the “GOP has hired us to help with Nevada ballots.” Johnston and McShane had been working with McDonald and other Republican leaders out of a rented room at the Venetian casino, people familiar with the work said.

“Damn. We’re not getting the green light,” Johnston wrote to Ashton-Cirillo at 12:14 a.m. on Nov. 5, hours after his initial request. She said she understood from the Message chats that Johnston was working for someone else in his effort to organize the protest.

When asked about his “green light” comment, Johnston said he was not working for any other organizations at the time.

“I was waiting to see if an event was occurring, and I was not working at the direction of my boss or any other entity,” Johnston said in an interview.

By the time Johnston wrote the “green light” message, Ashton-Cirillo had started another message thread with Yankley and other far-right activists, copies of her exchanges with them show. She said she knew them as far-right activists and did not think all were Proud Boys members.

In that thread, she attributed the idea of a protest to the Republican Party. “I just received this from the GOP,” she told them in the separate Messenger chat. “They are asking me to potentially gather the ’boys and all the patriots and lead a literal (nonviolent) charge on the County Elections office.”

Later in the conversation, Yankley chimed in to discuss a need to step up efforts in the coming election cycle. “We have to get an early jump on 2022,” he wrote. “The real war is just beginning.”

Ashton-Cirillo encouraged him. “We win elections by embracing who we are and letting the voters decide,” she wrote.

“[Y]es,” Yankley replied, including an expletive for emphasis.

In the thread with the activists, Ashton-Cirillo also mentioned Gosar, who she said Johnston had told her was planning a “Brooks Brothers Riot” to protest the election result in Arizona. On Nov. 4, the same day as Johnston’s message, Gosar did speak to a nonviolent crowd of protesters in Phoenix, declaring, “We’re not going to let this election be stolen. Period,” according to news reports at the time.

Although Gosar chief of staff Van Flein said the congressman did not speak to Johnston about a protest, the aide did speak highly of Johnston’s boss. “Rory McShane is an incredibly effective strategist,” Van Flein said in a written statement. “It doesn’t surprise me to see people trying to take him down.”

Shortly before 2 p.m. on Nov. 5, Johnston sent another message to Ashton-Cirillo, according to the chat history. “Looks like we are on. Can you assemble your people?” he wrote.

She quickly shared the news in her separate chat thread with Yankley and others, the records show. “Guys,” she wrote. “Straight from the state … *state GOP.”

Within an hour, Ashton-Cirillo responded to Johnston. “There will be a presence,” she wrote. “Of at least a few PB and other Patriots from the party.”

“Very good,” Johnston responded.

The peaceful protests at the county election center, which had been widely advertised online by other conservative activists with no connection to the Proud Boys, continued for several nights. People dressed in the yellow-and-black outfits of the Proud Boys made up a small portion of the crowd.

“Violence doesn’t come from the right,” one unidentified man in a Proud Boys shirt told a videographer at one of the rallies. “As long as the lefties don’t start riots, we’ll be fine. That’s all I got to say.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.