Keith Lee, an Air Force veteran and former police officer, spent the morning of January 6th covering the entrances to the Capitol.
In online videos, the 41-year-old Texan pointed out the fence’s weakness. He welcomed the arrival of far-right militiamen surrounding the building long before President Trump’s rally at the far end of the mall. Then Mr. Lee, armed with a megaphone, called the mob until his voice echoed from the rotunda dome.
Even in the heat of the event, however, Mr. Lee paused to raise funds on the fly. “If you couldn’t make the trip, give five to ten dollars,” he told his viewers, seeking donations to cover the legal costs of two imprisoned “patriots,” a leader of the far-right Proud Boys and an ally who had collided with the police during an armed robbery at Oregon’s statehouse.
Much unknown is known about the planning and funding of the Capitol Storm, which will challenge Mr Trump’s electoral defeat. What is clear is that it was driven in part by a largely ad hoc network of low-budget agitators, including far-right militants, Christian conservatives, and ardent supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Mr. Lee is all three. And the sheer breadth of the movement he has joined suggests that any single organization can be far more difficult to face.
In the months leading up to the uprising, Mr. Lee had helped organize a number of pro-Trump trailers around the country, including one that temporarily blocked a Biden campaign bus in Texas and one that temporarily blocked a Hudson River bridge in Texas disused suburbs of New York City. To pay for dozens of trailers to meet at the January 6 rally, he had teamed up with an online fundraiser in Tampa, Florida that raised money from small donors and claimed to be giving out tens of thousands of dollars.
Their efforts were one of many grassroots efforts to get Trump supporters to the Capitol, often amid calls for revolution, if not for outright violence. In an online ridesharing forum, Patriot Caravans for 45, more than 4,000 members coordinated trips from as far as California and South Dakota. Around 2,000 people donated at least $ 181,700 to another location, Wild Protest, leaving messages asking the rallies to stop confirming the vote.
Oath Keepers, a self-identified militia whose members broke through the Capitol, had asked for donations online to cover “gas, flight, hotels, food and equipment”. Many others raised money through the crowdfunding website GoFundMe or, more commonly, through its explicitly Christian counterpart, GiveSendGo. (On Monday, the money transfer company PayPal stopped working with GiveSendGo because it is linked to the violence at the Capitol.)
Several prominent arsonists, an opaque pro-Trump nonprofit, and at least one wealthy donor had spent weeks reinforcing the president’s false claims about his defeat and fueling the anger of his supporters.
A major sponsor of many rallies leading up to the uprising, including the rally with the President on January 6, was Women for America First, a conservative nonprofit. Her leaders include Amy Kremer, who has achieved a prominent position in the tea party movement, and her daughter Kylie Jane Kremer, 30. On November 4th, she launched a Facebook page called “Stop the Steal”. More than 320,000 people signed up in less than a day, but the platform was immediately shut down for fear of inciting violence. The group has denied any violent intent.
Mike Lindell, founder of the MyPillow bed company, was by far the most visible funder of Women for America First’s efforts now defunct website as one of the “generous sponsors” of a bus tour promoting Mr. Trump’s attempt to overturn the election. In addition, he was a major proponent of Right Side Broadcasting, an obscure pro-Trump television station that ran blanket coverage of Trump rallies after the vote, and a podcast by former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon, who also sponsored the bus tour.
“I’ve had everything I’ve had in the past three weeks, financially and everything,” Lindell said in a television interview in mid-December.
In a tweet that same month, he called on Mr. Trump to “impose martial law” in order to confiscate ballot papers and voting machines. Through a representative, Mr. Lindell said he did not endorse the bus tour until “December 14th” and was not a financial sponsor of events after that, including the January 6th rally. He continues to stand by the president’s demands and met with Mr. Trump on Friday in the White House.
In late December, the president himself added volatility to organizational efforts and tweeted an invitation to a rally in Washington that would take place when Congress rallied to confirm the election results.
“Be there, be wild!” Mr Trump wrote.
The next day a new website, Wild protestwas registered and quickly became an organizing center for the President’s most ardent supporters. It appeared to be linked to Ali Alexander, a conspiracy theorist who swore stop certification by “marching hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of patriots to put their bums in DC and shut this town down”.
Mr Alexander could not be reached for comment, but in a video posted on Twitter last week, he declined any responsibility for the violence.
While other groups like Women for America First promoted the rally where Mr. Trump would speak – at the ellipse, about a mile west of the Capitol – the Wild Protest website directed Trump supporters to another location: the front door of Congress .
Wild Protest connected three hotels with discounted rates and another website for coordinating travel plans. According to archived versions of a web portal that was used to collect them, donations have also been collected from thousands of people. The website has since been retired and it is not clear what the money was used for.
“The time for words is over, our republic will be saved through action alone,” wrote one user who donated $ 250, describing the confirmation of the vote by Congress as “treasonous.”
Another donor gave $ 47 and wrote, “Fight to get our country back by all means.”
Mr. Lee, who tried to raise money for legal defense the morning before the riot, did not respond to requests for comment. He has often compared supporters of the overthrow of the election with those who signed the Declaration of Independence and declared that he was ready to give his life for the cause.
A sales manager laid off at an equipment company because of the pandemic said he grew up a conservative Christian in east Texas. Air Force records show he enrolled a month after the 9/11 attacks and left as a senior airman for four years. Later, in 2011 and 2012, he worked for a private security company on a US military base in Afghanistan.
Between, He also worked as a police officer in McKinney, Texas, not far from Houston.
He said he was never politically active. But during Mr. Trump’s presidency, Mr. Lee began delving into the online QAnon conspiracy theory. His supporters believe Mr Trump is trying to save America from a shady ring of pedophiles who control the government and the Democratic Party. Mr. Lee said this is consistent with his experience of dealing with child crimes as a police officer.
His active support for Mr. Trump began last August when he organized a caravan of drivers from across the state to demonstrate their support for the president by circling the capital, Austin. That led him to start a website, MAGA Drag the Interstate, to organize Trump caravans across the country.
By December, Mr. Lee had become well known enough to be included on a list of speakers at a press conference ahead of a March for Trump rally in Washington.
“We are on this precipice” of “good versus evil,” said Mr. Lee. “I will fight for my president. I’ll fight for what’s right “
He threw himself on meeting other “patriots” to meet in Washington on January 6, and late last month began linking his website to the Tampa organizer to raise funds for attendees’ travel.
The fundraiser, who identified himself as a web designer named Thad Williams, said on a podcast that sexual abuse as a child eventually drew him into the online world of QAnon.
While others are “made of steel” as “warriors against evil” and “covered in the blood and sweat of this part”, Williams sees himself more as a “chaplain and healer”. In 2019, he set up a website to raise funds for QAnon believers who want to travel to Trump rallies. He could not be reached for comment.
At the Capitol meeting, he claimed to have raised and distributed at least $ 30,000 for transportation. Thank you statements posted on Twitter appear to confirm that he allocated money, and the day after the attack, online services PayPal and Stripe closed his accounts.
For his part, Mr. Lee’s MAGA Drag the Interstate location said he had organized caravans with more than 600 people bound for the rally. It used a military-style abbreviation to denote routes in different regions of the country from Alpha to Zulu, and a logo on the website combined Mr. Trump’s distinctive hairstyle with Pepe the Frog, a symbol of Alt-Law used by white supremacists.
Participants exchanged messages about where to park together on the streets of Washington overnight. Some arranged a midnight rendezvous at motorway service stations or waffle house restaurants to drive together on the morning of the rally.
On the evening of January 5th, Mr. Lee a Video podcast of a crowd of singing Trump supporters at Houston airport waiting to board a flight to Washington. “We’re there for a show of force,” he promised, suggesting street fights should be expected before dawn. “Let’s see if we can play a little during the night.”
A co-host of the podcast – a self-described Washington State Army veteran – asked for donations to raise $ 250,000 bail for Chandler Pappas, 27.
Two weeks earlier in Salem, Oregon, Mr Pappas sprayed six police officers with maces during a protest against Covid-19 restrictions while conducting a raid into the State Capitol building and carrying a semi-automatic rifle, according to a police report. Mr Pappas, whose attorney did not return a call for comment, was linked to the far right Proud Boys and an allied local group called Patriot Prayer.
“American citizens are under attack. The reaction of fear is anger, the reaction of anger is patriotism and voilà – you are getting a war,” said Mr. Lee’s co-host, who called his name as Rampage.
He instructed the audience to donate to the Bail Fund through GiveSendGo and thanked them for helping raise $ 100,000 through the same website for the legal defense of Enrique Tarrio, a Proud Boys leader who is being accused for destroying a historically black church in Washington.
At 10:45 the next day, more than an hour before Mr. Trump spoke, Mr. Lee was back online, broadcasting footage of himself at the Capitol.
“If you died today and went to heaven, can you look George Washington in the face and say that you fought for this country?” he asked.
Around noon he reported that “backup” had already arrived, circumventing the Trump speech and the rally. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were among the groups that went straight to the Capitol.
“Guys, we have the three percent here! The three percent here who love this country and want to fight! “Mr. Lee reported a little later, referring to another militant group. “We have to surround this place.”
Mr. Lee had made his way to the rotunda at 3 p.m. – After a fellow attacker was shot dead, police officers were injured and the local authorities asked for help – he was back outside using his megaphone to shove others into the building. “If we do it together,” he insisted, “there is no violence!”
When he knew that the legislature was evacuated, he declared victory: “We did our job,” he shouted.
The coverage was contributed by Kitty Bennett, Stella Cooper, Cora Engelbrecht, Sheera Frenkel and Haley Willis.
Video production by Ainara deep valleys.