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The Trump supporters who went from planning the Jan. 6 rally to aiding the riot probe

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lynn Lawrence spent years as cheerleaders and organizers for Donald Trump while traveling the country in an RV.

HUNTER WALKER: They really are colorful characters. I mean, Dustin is a former competitive poker player from Nevada with a skeletal suicide king tattooed on his arms. He often likes velour blazers and exotic stingray western boots.

SHAPIRO: That's reporter Hunter Walker.

WALKER: Jennifer, you know, has - she favors winged eyeliner and skimpy outfits, by her own admission. They travel the country with their dog, Louie, by their side.

SHAPIRO: Jen Lawrence and Dustin Stockton helped organize a number of rallies to overturn the election, including the big one in Washington last January 6. That rally was immediately followed by a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. Well, they are now cooperating with the House Select Committee investigating the events of that day, and they have also told their story to reporter Hunter Walker, who's written about them for Rolling Stone. He says they used to work closely with Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

WALKER: They were involved with him when he was at Breitbart, reporting directly to him on the, quote, unquote, "special projects desk." And these efforts consist of things like, you know, embedding themselves with Bernie Sanders activists at the 2016 DNC and fomenting some of their protests against Hillary Clinton. They got back with him in 2019 and were working on Rebuild the Wall. The project raised $25 million and did succeed in erecting three miles of barrier along the southern border. But ultimately, it ended in this pretty wild federal investigation where Bannon and other leaders of the group were charged with, you know, saying they were not going to take payment, but yet paying themselves out of those donor funds. Dustin and Jen were never charged, but their RV was raided one day in the desert by this obscure investigative arm of the U.S. Postal Service, believe it or not.

SHAPIRO: Now what did they tell you about their role in organizing the January 6 rally that immediately preceded the assault on the Capitol?

WALKER: So, you know, I think one thing people should understand is there wasn't one thing on January 6. There was this major rally on the Ellipse that was put together by this group, Women for America First, largely. There was also this, quote, unquote, "wild protest," which was scheduled to take place right on the side of the Capitol. And that was organized mostly by this far-right activist Ali Alexander. In the lead-up to January 6 in the months between the election and the electoral certification in Congress that day, both the organizers of the wild protest and the main Ellipse rally had these nationwide tours. And Dustin and Jen were prominent speakers at this March for Trump bus tour, where they promoted the baseless allegations of fraud. And they also were involved that day. They were in the VIP section on the Ellipse, you know, and they helped to get guests and promote all of those different events challenging the election.

SHAPIRO: They painted a very favorable picture to you of their involvement and their sort of revulsion at the violence and their shock that that armed attackers would storm the Capitol. Do you buy it?

WALKER: Yeah, so to hear them tell it, you know, they early on raised questions about violence that day. They were worried about this wild protest that was set to take place at the Capitol and thought people shouldn't be brought that close. They also had no idea people were going to march to the Capitol and were kind of shocked when President Trump called on folks to do that. And they claim that they did not participate themselves and go to the Capitol. There's a lot of reasons to take that with a grain of salt. As we've alluded to, they've promoted misinformation in the past. They were part of this group that's under investigation. And of course, they could be looking to make deals now that there's a congressional investigation raging and they've been subpoenaed.

But I should say, you know, some evidence supports what they've told me before. I've personally reviewed tons of text messages from the Ellipse rally planning. Members of that group did seem dismayed at Alexander's, quote, unquote, "wild protest." And of course, in the massive FBI investigation looking into the Capitol, there's been no indication that Dustin and Jen ever went inside. And also, I've seen text messages where they sort of argued with other Ellipse rally organizers and urged them to come out more strongly in the day after the riots and denounced what had happened at the Capitol.

SHAPIRO: You point out that they did say things at other previous rallies that could be interpreted as incitements to violence.

WALKER: Yeah. You know, they would say things like we have to fight, you know, using almost warlike language and, you know, framing this as a generational struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DUSTIN STOCKTON: We have to fight Big Tech. We have to fight Big Media, and we have to fight Big Money to protect America for my kids and for your kids.

WALKER: Jen has said in hindsight that there's some things she wishes she didn't say. Dustin describes himself as a little bit more of a free speech, quote, unquote, "fundamentalist." They saw all of the activism they were doing as sort of part of the edgy political gamesmanship they'd been engaged in for years. You know, but they say in all of their prior activism, there had not been widespread violence or any kind of, you know, danger along the lines of what we saw in the Capitol. You know, one thing that I think is certain - there's no question on is that on January 6, things went way too far.

SHAPIRO: Do you know what they told the committee in their testimony?

WALKER: So I talked to Dustin and Jen after they spoke to investigators last week. And, you know, they said that a lot of it was just confirming what they'd told me in Rolling Stone. But they also said that the committee was focused on two really interesting aspects of their story. One is their allegation that Congressman Paul Gosar talked to them about, quote, unquote, "a blanket pardon" for their activities related to Rebuild the Wall. And according to them, Gosar and his chief of staff contacted them, said that they were in the Oval Office with President Trump discussing pardons and, quote, unquote, "your names came up."

And the other aspect is their claim that, you know, the Ellipse rally organizers were concerned about this, quote, unquote, "wild protest." And Amy Kremer, one of the leaders of Women for America First, gave Dustin and Jen the impression that she had gone directly to Trump's former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, with concerns about that violence. And that's another thing that the committee seems to have honed in on - this question of whether Mark Meadows was made aware of concerns of violence and had any opportunity to prevent it.

SHAPIRO: So where do they stand now on this false claim they pushed that the election was stolen from Donald Trump? I mean, do they still endorse the big lie?

WALKER: Yeah. So one of the most interesting things about, you know, hearing them come forward is that they've moved to a more nuanced perspective. You know, initially, Dustin tells me he had questions about the numbers and, you know, he felt like, you know, there was really outright fakery. Since then, he's come to believe none of that took place. But they do feel that, you know, the social media censorship of some conservative views - what they see as, quote, unquote, "lawfare," where conservative activists such as themselves have faced legal charges and investigations, are efforts to what they call fortifying the election for Joe Biden. But, you know, they do not believe that, you know, the numbers were faked. That has changed.

And one thing that's really, really interesting about that is, according to them, the Ellipse rally was initially supposed to be this thing where, you know, evidence was going to be presented that the election had not been legitimate. And they ultimately felt abandoned by Trump in that he didn't really present convincing evidence that day. And that's part of what's changed their mind and motivated them to come forward here.

SHAPIRO: That's Hunter Walker. He's been covering the January 6 insurrection for Rolling Stone. Thanks for talking with us.

WALKER: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.