WASHINGTON — The FBI is investigating whether foreign governments, organizations or individuals provided financial support to extremists who helped plan and execute the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, one current and one former FBI official told NBC News.
As part of the investigation, the bureau is examining payments of $500,000 in bitcoin, apparently by a French national, to key figures and groups in the alt-right before the riot, the sources said. Those payments were documented and posted on the web this week by a company that analyzes cryptocurrency transfers. Payments of bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, can be traced because they are documented on a public ledger.
Separately, a joint threat assessment issued this week by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and various other federal and D.C.-area police agencies noted that since the Jan. 6 riot, “Russian, Iranian, and Chinese influence actors have seized the opportunity to amplify narratives in furtherance of their policy interest amid the presidential transition.”
Russian state and proxy media outlets “have amplified themes related to the violent and chaotic nature of the Capitol Hill incident, impeachment of President Trump, and social media censorship,” the unclassified intelligence report said. “In at least one instance, a Russian proxy claimed that ANTIFA members disguised themselves as supporters of President Trump, and were responsible for storming the Capitol building.”
Chinese media, meanwhile, “have seized the story to denigrate U.S. democratic governance, casting the United States as broadly in decline — and to justify China’s crackdown on protestors in Hong Kong.”
The examination of possible foreign influence related to the Capitol riot, which involves the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, comes after years of what current and former FBI officials say is mounting evidence that Russia and other foreign adversaries have sought to secretly support political extremists on the far right and far left.
Law enforcement officials and terrorism experts say there has long been “a mutual affection between Western white supremacists and the Russian government,” as two scholars put it in a February paper on the JustSecurity web site.
Some senators were concerned enough about the issue that they inserted a requirement in the 2021 defense bill that the Pentagon “report to Congress on the extent of Russian support for ‘racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist groups and networks in Europe and the United States’ — and what can be done to counter it.”
The current FBI official told NBC News that the bureau did not necessarily suspect Russian involvement in the bitcoin transfers, which appear to have been made by a French computer programmer who died by suicide on Dec. 8 after triggering the transfers, according to French media.
But the cryptocurrency payments prompted the FBI to examine whether any of the money was used to find illegal acts, which, if true, raises the possibility of money laundering and conspiracy charges, the FBI official said.
On Dec. 8, Chainalysis reported, the donor sent 28.15 BTC — worth about $522,000 at the time of transfer — to 22 separate addresses, many of which belong to far-right activists.
The Chainalysis blog post, first highlighted by Yahoo News, said far-right podcaster Nick Fuentes received the most money, 13.5 BTC — worth approximately $250,000.
Fuentes, who spoke at pro-Trump rallies last year in Michigan and Washington, D.C., told the ProPublica news organization that he was at the “Stop the Steal” rally on Wednesday but didn’t follow the mob into the Capitol.
One group of Fuentes’ supporters, which calls itself the Groyper Army, was filmed running through the Capitol carrying a large blue flag with the America First logo, ProPublica reported.
“We’re looking at and treating this just like a significant international counterterrorism or counterintelligence operation,” Michael Sherwin, the U.S. attorney in D.C., said at a news briefing last week.
“We’re looking at everything: Money, travel records, looking at disposition, movement, communication records.”
Ken Dilanian is a correspondent covering intelligence and national security for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Normally after a major event like this — a terrorist assault on the heart of our government — top federal law enforcement officials would step up to give the most comprehensive account of what they know. They would move quickly to inform and reassure the public — to tell us who did what, how it happened, and what the threat is now.
Not so well.
Perhaps the most notable part of the update was who wasn’t giving it. The top officials from Justice and the FBI — Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Director Christopher Wray — weren’t there. Nor were other senior officials from relevant agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, we saw the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington office, Steve D’Antuono, and the acting US Attorney for the District of Columbia, Michael Sherwin.
While these two officials are no doubt the ones most closely monitoring the investigations into the insurrection, the absence of their bosses — or even their deputies — was unexpected, given the magnitude of the attack.
The news conference focused almost exclusively on the investigation into the attack — on the crime-solving. It is, of course, the Justice Department’s job to gather evidence, track down suspects and bring perpetrators to justice.
We learned from D’Antuono that the FBI was treating the Capitol attack the same way it would an international terrorist incident, and that it had opened 170 “subject files” (referring to individuals identified as persons who potentially committed crimes), and of those has charged more than 70 individuals.
Sherwin emphasized that each perpetrator will be charged with the most severe crime warranted, including and up to seditious conspiracy.
But both officials appeared to skirt around explaining what federal law enforcement knew and did before that day’s Trump rally and the attack that followed it, in particular how the feds had coordinated with other agencies to prepare for trouble.
Nor did they mention the threat bulletin now issued to all 50 states warning of armed protests planned at every state’s capitol and in Washington in the days leading up to the inauguration on January 20.
Goal #2: Stop misinformation and conspiracy theories by offering facts
Many Americans are wondering how this attack was allowed to happen. Since 9/11, law enforcement has greatly increased its abilities to sniff out and disrupt developing terrorism plots. The FBI most recently thwarted an apparent plan by militia groups to kidnap and kill the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, in October.
It is hard to understand how — particularly in light of the many threats of violence made openly by pro-Trump groups and individuals on social media — the FBI and its law enforcement partners were not better prepared for what took place.
Unfortunately, neither D’Antuono nor Sherwin offered much in the way of explanation. To be sure, law enforcement is often unable to comment on things that might compromise ongoing investigations. But if that is the case, they normally just say that. On Tuesday, however, D’Antuono puzzlingly acknowledged that the FBI had information from its Norfolk field office indicating plans for violence at the Capitol.
, Friday, that the FBI did not have any such information in its possession at all before the attack. Nor did he explain why the Norfolk tip was not followed up on after the Joint Terrorism Task Force received it.
By not filling in these gaps, or even stating clearly that the FBI was reviewing all of the intelligence that was known beforehand, the officials invited more speculation about whether the government’s flat-footed response to the Capitol assault was caused by negligence or — far worse — an intentional intelligence failure.
They missed an opportunity to be as robust as possible in laying out how law enforcement approached this highly publicized rally, and potentially contributed to a further erosion of trust in law enforcement and the proliferation of unfounded conspiracy theories.
Goal #3: Deter future violence by sending a strong message
Many members of the Capitol mob were undoubtedly watching the news conference to find out what the FBI knew. On this front, both officials sent a clear message that they would use every resource at their disposal to identify and prosecute everyone who attacked the seat of our democracy.
Make no mistake: The people who planned and participated in this atrocity will get a knock on their doors from the FBI soon enough.
But the domestic terror threat is not limited to that one mob. The very fact that the FBI has issued a threat bulletin to all 50 states reveals that the depraved ideology based on the lie about the “rigged” election spreads far and deep.
But neither D’Antuono nor Sherwin addressed this future threat, issued a warning to anyone planning violence, or even referred to the people involved in this violence as domestic terrorists.
This may be because they have seen how the President reacts when such language is used against his defenders and allies. After all, neither the FBI nor the DOJ can afford, in this critical moment, to lose their leadership because Trump decided to fire them. Unfortunately, if that fear is what resulted in the gaps in Tuesday’s remarks, it may embolden the very people they are protecting us against.
Yet Ryan, 50, is accused of rushing into the Capitol past broken glass and blaring security alarms and, according to federal prosecutors, shouting: “Fight for freedom! Fight for freedom!”
But in a different way, she fit right in.
Despite her outward signs of success, Ryan had struggled financially for years. She was still paying off a $37,000 lien for unpaid federal taxes when she was arrested. She’d nearly lost her home to foreclosure before that. She filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and faced another IRS tax lien in 2010.
Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories.
The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.
The financial problems are revealing because they offer potential clues for understanding why so many Trump supporters — many with professional careers and few with violent criminal histories — were willing to participate in an attack egged on by the president’s rhetoric painting him and his supporters as undeserving victims.
While no single factor explains why someone decided to join in, experts say, Donald Trump and his brand of grievance politics tapped into something that resonated with the hundreds of people who descended on the Capitol in a historic burst of violence.
“I think what you’re finding is more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a political science professor who helps run the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, reacting to The Post’s findings. “And that precarity — combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something away — mobilized a lot of people that day.”
The financial missteps by defendants in the insurrection ranged from small debts of a few thousand dollars more than a decade ago to unpaid tax bills of $400,000 and homes facing foreclosure in recent years. Some of these people seemed to have regained their financial footing. But many of them once stood close to the edge.
Ryan had nearly lost everything. And the stakes seemed similarly high to her when she came to Washington in early January. She fully believed Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen and that he was going to save the country, she said in an interview with The Post.
But now — facing federal charges and abandoned by people she considered “fellow patriots” — she said she feels betrayed.
“I bought into a lie, and the lie is the lie, and it’s embarrassing,” she said. “I regret everything.”
The FBI has said it found evidence of organized plots by extremist groups. But many of the people who came to the Capitol on Jan. 6 — including Ryan — appeared to have adopted their radical outlooks more informally, consuming baseless claims about the election on television, social media and right-wing websites.
The poor and uneducated are not more likely to join extremist movements, according to experts. Two professors a couple of years ago found the opposite in one example: an unexpectedly high number of engineers who became Islamist radicals.
In the Capitol attack, business owners and white-collar workers made up 40 percent of the people accused of taking part, according to a study by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. Only 9 percent appeared to be unemployed.
The participation of people with middle- and upper-middle-class positions fits with research suggesting that the rise of right-wing extremist groups in the 1950s was fueled by people in the middle of society who felt they were losing status and power, said Pippa Norris, a political science professor at Harvard University who has studied radical political movements.
Miller-Idriss said she was struck by a 2011 study that found household income was not a factor in whether a young person supported the extreme far right in Germany. But a highly significant predictor was whether they had lived through a parent’s unemployment.
“These are people who feel like they’ve lost something,” Miller-Idriss said.
Going through a bankruptcy or falling behind on taxes, even years earlier, could provoke a similar response.
“They know it can be lost. They have that history — and then someone comes along and tells you this election has been stolen,” Miller-Idriss said. “It taps into the same thing.”
Playing on personal pain
Trump’s false claims about election fraud — refuted by elections officials and rejected by judges — seemed tailored to exploit feelings about this precarious status, said Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who studies political extremism.
“It’s hard to ignore with a Trump presidency that message that ‘the America you knew and loved is going away, and I’m going to protect it,’” Haider-Markel said. “They feel, at a minimum, that they’re under threat.”
While some of the financial problems were old, the pandemic’s economic toll appeared to inflict fresh pain for some of the people accused of participating in the insurrection.
A California man filed for bankruptcy one week before allegedly joining the attack, according to public records. A Texas man was charged with entering the Capitol one month after his company was slapped with a nearly $2,000 state tax lien.
Several young people charged in the attack came from families with histories of financial duress.
The parents of Riley June Williams — a 22-year-old who allegedly helped to steal a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office — filed for bankruptcy when she was a child, according to public records. A house owned by her mother faced foreclosure when she was a teenager, records show. Recently, a federal judge placed Williams on home confinement with her mother in Harrisburg, Pa. Her federal public defender did not respond to a request for comment.
People with professional careers such as respiratory therapist, nurse and lawyer were also accused of joining in.
One of them was William McCall Calhoun, 57, a well-known lawyer in Americus, Ga., 130 miles south of Atlanta, who was hit with a $26,000 federal tax lien in 2019, according to public records. A woman who knows Calhoun, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said he started to show strong support for Trump only in the past year. An attorney for Calhoun declined to comment.
Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by police when she tried to leap through a door’s broken window inside the Capitol, had struggled to run a pool-service company outside San Diego and was saddled with a $23,000 judgment from a lender in 2017, according to court records.
Financial problems were also apparent among people federal authorities said were connected to far-right nationalist groups, such as the Proud Boys.
Dominic Pezzola, who federal authorities said is a member of the Proud Boys, is accused of being among the first to lead the surge inside the Capitol and helping to overwhelm police. About 140 officers were injured in the storming of the Capitol and one officer, Brian D. Sicknick, was killed.
Pezzola, of Rochester, N.Y., also has been named in state tax warrants totaling more than $40,000 over the past five years, according to public records. His attorney declined to comment.
The roots of extremism are complex, said Haider-Markel.
“Somehow, they’ve been wronged, they’ve developed a grievance, and they tend to connect that to some broader ideology,” he said.
The price of insurrection
Ryan, who lives in Frisco, Tex., a Dallas suburb, said she was slow to become a big Trump supporter.
She’s been described as a conservative radio talk show host. But she wasn’t a budding Rush Limbaugh. Her AM radio show each Sunday focused on real estate, and she paid for the airtime. She stopped doing the show in March, when the pandemic hit.
But she continued to run a service that offers advice for people struggling with childhood trauma and bad relationships. Ryan said the work was based on the steps she took to overcome her own rough upbringing.
Twice divorced and struggling with financial problems, Ryan developed an outlook that she described as politically conservative, leaning toward libertarian.
But politics was not her focal point until recently. She recalled being upset when President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012. And she preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton four years later. But she said she wasn’t strident in her support for Trump.
That changed as the 2020 election approached.
She said she started reading far-right websites such as Epoch Times and Gateway Pundit. She began streaming shows such as Alex Jones’s “Infowars” and former Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic.” She began following groundless assertions related to QAnon, a sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology. She said she didn’t know whether the posts were true, but she was enthralled.
“It was all like a football game. I was sucked into it. Consumed by it,” Ryan said.
She attended her first-ever protest in April, going to Austin to vent about the state’s pandemic shutdown orders. That was followed by a rally for Shelley Luther, who gained national attention for reopening her beauty salon in Dallas in defiance of the shutdown.
Ryan said she traveled to Trump’s “Save America” rally on a whim. A Facebook friend offered to fly her and three others on a private plane.
They arrived in Washington a day early and got rooms at a Westin hotel downtown, Ryan said.
It was her first trip to the nation’s capital.
The next morning, Jan. 6, the group of friends left the hotel at 6 a.m., Ryan said. She was cold, so she bought a $35 knit snow hat with a “45” emblem from a souvenir shop. They then followed the crowd streaming toward the National Mall.
“My main concern was there were no bathrooms. I kept asking, ‘Where are the bathrooms?’” she said. “I was just having fun.”
They listened to some of the speakers. But mostly they walked around and took photos. She felt like a tourist. They grabbed sandwiches at a Wawa convenience store for lunch. They hired a pedicab to take them back to the hotel.
She drank white wine while the group watched on television as Congress prepared to certify the electoral college votes. They listened to clips of Trump telling rallygoers to walk to the Capitol and saying, “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
They decided to leave the hotel and go to the Capitol.
Ryan said she was reluctant.
But she also posted a video to her Facebook account that showed her looking into a bathroom mirror and saying, according to an FBI account of her charges: “We’re gonna go down and storm the capitol. They’re down there right now and that’s why we came and so that’s what we are going to do. So wish me luck.”
She live-streamed on Facebook. She posted photos to Twitter. She got closer to the Capitol with each post. She stood on the Capitol’s steps. She flashed a peace symbol next to a smashed Capitol window. The FBI also found video of her walking through doors on the west side of the Capitol in the middle of a packed crowd, where she said into a camera, according to the bureau: “Y’all know who to hire for your realtor. Jenna Ryan for your realtor.”
The FBI document does not state how long Ryan spent inside the building. She said it was just a few minutes. She and her new friends eventually walked back to the hotel, she said.
“We just stormed the Capital,” Ryan tweeted that afternoon. “It was one of the best days of my life.”
She said she realized she was in trouble only after returning to Texas. Her phone was blowing up with messages. Her social media posts briefly made her the infamous face of the riots: the smiling real estate agent who flew in a private jet to an insurrection.
Nine days later, she turned herself in to the FBI. She was charged with two federal misdemeanors related to entering the Capitol building and disorderly conduct. Last week, federal authorities filed similar charges against two others on her flight: Jason L. Hyland, 37, of Frisco, who federal authorities said organized the trip, and Katherine S. Schwab, 32, of Colleyville, Texas.
Ryan remained defiant at first. She clashed with people who criticized her online. She told a Dallas TV station that she deserved a presidential pardon.
Then Trump left for Florida. President Biden took office. And Ryan, at home in Texas, was left to wonder what to do with her two mini-goldendoodle dogs if she goes to prison.
“Not one patriot is standing up for me,” Ryan said recently. “I’m a complete villain. I was down there based on what my president said. ‘Stop the steal.’ Now I see that it was all over nothing. He was just having us down there for an ego boost. I was there for him.”
- Many of the Capitol riot defendants have something in common: a history of financial difficulties.
- A Washington Post analysis found that a substantial number of defendants had money woes.
- The documented financial problems include bankruptcies, debt, foreclosures, and unpaid taxes.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
The more than 240 defendants charged in the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol siege came to Washington, D.C. from around the United States and from all walks of life, but something in common: a history of financial difficulties.
A new Washington Post analysis of court records and financial documents found that out of 125 defendants who had publicly available financial information, nearly 60% had filed for bankruptcy, had unpaid tax bills and other debts, been sued for unpaid debts, or faced losing their homes through eviction or foreclosure.
The Post also found that among that group, the bankruptcy rate was 18%, almost double the national average.
Among them were some of the most infamous accused rioters who have become faces of the insurrection. Jenna Ryan, the Texas real estate agent charged with two misdemeanors in connection with Capitol insurrection who flew to Washington, D.C. on a private jet, had filed for bankruptcy in 2012, almost lost her home before then, and had a history of unpaid federal taxes.
Ryan, who was also banned from PayPal after trying to raise funds for her legal defense on the platform, told the Post that she now fully regrets her participation in the riots and says she “bought into a lie.”
Riley June Williams, the 22-year-old Pennsylvania woman accused of being involved in the theft of a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, had herself filed for bankruptcy when she was just a child, according to the Post.
And Ashli Babbit, who was shot and killed by law enforcement during the insurrection, had been hit with a $23,000 judgment from a lender a few years prior.
Research shows that low-income people with lower levels of education are not necessarily more likely to fall into extremist movements — but being saddled with debt or other struggles can make some feel as if they have nothing left to lose.
The Capitol insurrection further displays how outwardly successful and educated people in society’s mainstream can fall into anti-government movements.
Those arrested so far include people associated with extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, but also people who had never before been charged with a federal crime or had a connection to those movements.
The rise of domestic right-wing extremism and the QAnon conspiracy theory haven’t just targeted low-income or uneducated people, however, but have swept up many well-off, college-educated professionals, too.
One researcher interviewed by the Post said that middle-class and educated people may be more likely to be lured into extremism when they feel their position in society being jeopardized or threatened.
Ryan, for example, told the Post that while she had voted for Trump in 2016, she didn’t become politically engaged until 2020, when she started consuming right-wing media like the Gateway Pundit, Infowars, and Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, and fell down the rabbit hole of the QAnon conspiracy.