By WILL STEAKIN, MATTHEW MOSK, JAMES GORDON MEEK and ALI DUKAKIS, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Three of the key advisers who helped engineer Donald Trump’s’ rise to the presidency in 2016, and who fell from grace under the weight of federal criminal charges, resurfaced during Trump’s final days in office to help engineer his ill-fated attempt to cling to power.
Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn all participated in efforts to promote the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” event that ultimately devolved into a riotous and deadly melee at the United States Capitol, leaving five dead and causing Trump to become the only president to be impeached for a second time.
While none of them spoke at the actual rally, Stone whipped up a crowd of Trump supporters in Washington the night before, telling them the president’s enemies sought “nothing less than the heist of the 2020 election.”
“And we say, No way!” Stone said at the Jan. 5 rally.
Flynn promoted the so-called “Jericho March,” a rally of Christians to “pray, march, fast, and rally for election integrity,” according to the group’s website, that also took place on Jan. 6 in the shadow of the Capitol. In the weeks leading up to the event, Flynn told his supporters that they would “need to be fearless as Americans.”
Speaking at a Dec. 12 rally in Washington to promote the Trump effort to overturn the election, Flynn told supporters they had reached a “crucible moment” and “there has to be sacrifice.”
“We’re in a battle … for the heart and soul of the country,” Flynn said. “We will win.”
Bannon also played a significant role in promoting the Jan. 6 rally, which was co-organized by “March for Trump,” and he previously served as a prominent sponsor of the group’s cross-country December bus tour ahead of the rally. Shortly after Trump lost the 2020 election, Bannon’s “War Room” podcast was banned from YouTube for suggesting Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray should be beheaded.
“I’d put the heads on pikes. Right. I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats,” Bannon said. “You either get with the program or you are gone.”
Falls from grace
All three men played pivotal roles in Trump’s rise to power, only to see their reputations tainted by criminal investigation.
Stone was one of Trump’s earliest political advisers, working with the real estate mogul long before he ventured into campaign politics. After a brief period working directly for Trump’s presidential bid, Stone took on the role of outside adviser, even as he maintained regular contact with Trump.
Stone was later swept into the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, and faced allegations that he helped coordinate the release of hacked documents by WikiLeaks that were meant to damage Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. In 2019, Stone was convicted on federal charges of obstruction of justice, lying to Congress and witness tampering, and sentenced to 40 months in prison. Trump commuted the sentence and ultimately issued Stone a pardon.
After leading Trump to victory as a top campaign strategist, Bannon also served in Trump’s White House. He left after seven months and, like many top campaign officials, became swept up in the Russian investigation. He was never charged with wrongdoing in that probe. Last August, though, he was charged in federal court in an unrelated case with defrauding donors to a private fundraising effort called “We Build the Wall,” which said it was raising private funds to help expand the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He pleaded not guilty and is out on bail awaiting trial.
Flynn served briefly as Trump’s first national security adviser before he was dismissed for lying about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador. He, too, became a focus of the federal prosecutors and pleaded guilty to lying to investigators. He later recanted before being sentenced, and was also pardoned by Trump.
A source close to Flynn told ABC News the retired general does not believe his words incited violence, and that he does not condone it, saying the riot was “the last thing we expected.”
Trump had invited Flynn and his family to the Jan. 6 rally but the source said they left disgusted at what the confidant said was a pointless gathering on the Ellipse, followed by outrageous political violence on Capitol Hill.
“100% the election was stolen — no one is going to convince us otherwise,” the source said. “But Michael Flynn never called for violence. What happened there was terrible.”
Back in the fold
All three men resurfaced in Trump’s orbit as advisers became increasingly concerned that Trump would lose his bid for reelection to Joe Biden. And as Trump mounted his drive to convince his supporters that he had actually won the 2020 race “in a landslide,” all three picked up the messaging and spread it to their followers.
Even before Election Day, Stone was pushing the notion that vote counts could not be trusted. During a September appearance with extremist agitator Alex Jones, Stone called on Republicans to “be prepared to file legal objections and if necessary to physically stand in the way of criminal activity.”
After the election, Stone encouraged protesters to come to Washington to voice objections to the outcome. He was billed as a featured speaker for the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the assault on the U.S. Capitol, but did not appear. Since that day, he has sought to distance himself from the effort, telling ABC News in a statement that he condemned the violence perpetrated on the Capitol by the mob.
“I have no role whatsoever in the January 6 events as I never left the site of my hotel until leaving for Dulles Airport before 6 pm curfew. A careful review of my language of January 5 indicates that I played no role whatsoever in advocating violence or any inappropriate or illegal activity,” Stone said in the statement. “Indeed anyone breaking into the US Capitol, trespassing and destroying property would only be hurting the America First movement that I support.”
In the days after Trump’s election loss, Flynn joined forces with Sidney Powell, the attorney who had helped engineer Flynn’s decision to recant his earlier guilty plea. The two helped lead Trump’s effort to dispute the election defeat, both in court and through a social media blitz that engaged, among others, followers of the conspiracy-driven movement known as QAnon.
The two even met with Trump in the Oval Office, not long after Flynn appeared on the conservative network Newsmax to advocate that Trump impose martial law and command the military to “rerun” the election. At a Dec. 12 rally Flynn falsely told followers “there are paths that are still in play” for Trump to remain in office for a second term. “There’s a lot of activity that’s still playing out,” he said before Trump flew over the crowd in Marine One.
Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor and expert in homegrown terror groups, said Flynn emerged as a hero among extremists. She said Flynn “riled up” the groups ahead of the Jan. 6 election protest, and “incited the most extreme among the crowd to do something about it.”
Bannon’s quiet return
Of the three, Bannon kept the lowest profile in the days after the election. Only in recent days did he surface as someone who appeared to be back in touch with the president about the election, according to Bloomberg News. Bannon was also helping efforts by 501(c)(4) political nonprofits, so-called dark money groups, to overturn the election results, including the bus tour.
In public, Bannon repeatedly used his platform to promote the Jan. 6 rally, hosting rally organizers on his podcast at least 16 times amid the push to overturn the election results.
Two days before the rally and subsequent attack on the Capitol, Kylie Jane Kremer of rally sponsor “Women for America First” appeared on Bannon’s “War Room” podcast to promote the event. “President of the United States, as we know right now, tentatively at 11 he’s going to come and address the nation and then it’s gonna be — the game is going to start on Capitol Hill,” Bannon said. “I think one of the most historic days in American history will be Wednesday.”
Bannon did not return a request for comment from ABC News.
Two of Bannon’s longtime associates also served in key roles on Jan. 6. Dustin Stockton was one of the lead organizers of the rally, and Jennifer Lawrence ran media relations.
Until 2017, Stockton and Lawrence worked as writers at the far-right media outlet Breitbart when Bannon was executive chairman, according to their LinkedIn profiles. The pair most recently worked with Bannon on his crowdfunding campaign “We Build the Wall,” which in August 2020 resulted in the federal indictments over allegations of defrauding donors.
Neither Stockton or Lawrence returned ABC News’ requests for comment.
Stockton served as “We Build the Wall’s” vice president of strategy and marketing, according to his LinkedIn and social media posts, while Lawrence was the group’s communications director before joining the “March for Trump” group. Stockton and Lawrence were both served warrants for their cellphones, as well as subpoenas to appear before a grand jury, in connection to the “We Build the Wall” group, but neither has been charged, according to CNN.
Stockton used some of the most incendiary language in the run-up to Jan. 6, at one point telling followers on a Facebook Live appearance to “clean your guns and prepare. Things are going to get worse before they get better.”
On a Facebook Live stream Wednesday night after the Capitol attack, Stockton appeared unrepentant, saying lawmakers were “trying to certify a fraudulent election.”
“I want to stand up against that,” he said. “It’s the whole reason I’ve been on this bus tour. That’s the whole reason I’ve been organizing these events in D.C.”
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