'Might just be me and a bullhorn': Meet the unlikely organizer of the Justice for J6 rally in DC

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WASHINGTON – The organizer of Saturday’s rally, aimed at recasting Jan. 6 as something other than the violent insurrection it was, immediately appears as an unlikely messenger for the Republican far-right.

Until Matt Braynard emerged as the face of a demonstration, staged to support hundreds arrested in the Capitol riots, the Republican operative had a relatively modest public profile, though a recent spate of false voter fraud claims has gained him financial support.

Yet in the run-up to Saturday’s event, he has been everywhere – including a Friday appearance on C-SPAN.

Live updates: Capitol security awaits rally for hundreds charged in deadly January riot

In recent days, Braynard has appeared to downplay expectations for the size of the gathering, contending that the heavy security measures are more aimed at "intimidation" than protection and designed to discourage people from attending the so-called "Justice for J6" event.

"It's all meant to deter people from coming," said Braynard, a former Trump campaign staffer, whose group has tried to present most of the hundreds arrested in the Capitol attack as "political prisoners."

DC prepares for rally: Fencing returns to Capitol ahead of right-wing rally. What we know about 'Justice for J6' protest

"It's all about dragging down attendance. In the end, it might just be me and a bullhorn," he told USA TODAY in a brief interview this week.

Braynard's assessment, however, may not be far off the mark, though law enforcement is prepared for violence.

There is little sign that the Saturday event is supported by the far-right, or will be attended by large numbers of extremists. On social media platforms popularized by far-right groups like the Proud Boys, discussion of the planned protest was split between ambivalence and warnings for people not to travel to the event.

On the secure messaging service Telegram, several accounts connected to the Proud Boys urged their followers not to attend the protest.

“We will not be attending this guaranteed disaster” read one post on the main Proud Boys Telegram channel.

Look Ahead America sponsor Matt Braynard, center, talks to conference attendees at his booth in the merchandise show with a statue of former president Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida.
Look Ahead America sponsor Matt Braynard, center, talks to conference attendees at his booth in the merchandise show with a statue of former president Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida.

From Trump staffer to election denial

A former Trump campaign data strategist, Braynard was dismissed in 2016 amid a shakeup in the months before the Republican National Convention. At the time, Politico reported that the campaign tapped an engineer with little political experience to fill Braynard’s post.

In the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020, Braynard promoted the false narrative that gave birth to Jan. 6: that President Joe Biden’s election was illegitimate.

During a December Fox News appearance, Braynard claimed to have delivered possible “evidence” of election fraud to the Justice Department and state attorneys general across the country. The claims were ceremoniously dismissed in the courts and by then-Attorney General William Barr, who said authorities had found no such evidence that would change the outcome of the vote.

In court records, where Braynard is listed as a paid witness involving alleged voting irregularities in Arizona, he includes a biography identifying himself as a principal of External Affairs Inc., since 2004.

He said the firm has represented more than 200 candidates for public office, “from president to town council,” providing fundraising, polling and “voter targeting” assistance. The court record in the Arizona case indicates that he was being paid a fee of $40,000.

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An entity associated with Braynard called the Voter Integrity Project created in the aftermath of the election, reported raising $675,492 to fund so-called anti-voter fraud initiatives. The amount surpassed a reported goal of $500,000.

About the same time, Braynard referred to the Voter Integrity Project’s fundraising efforts as a model he used to re-launch his Look Ahead America group that is driving the Saturday rally.

“I pitched this organization to some of the biggest and best-known donors and voices on the right, many of them with names you would recognize,” Braynard said in a statement posted on the group’s website. “But all of them blew me off because they didn’t understand the importance of our mission and the need for an operation like this to counter the hundreds of millions of dollars being given to progressive non-profits by globalists and tech billionaires."

If nothing else, Braynard has captured the attention a vast security apparatus in Washington.

Capitol Police planning for 'safe' rally, but brace for violence

Capitol Police and D.C. city officials said Friday they are preparing for a safe rally Saturday, but that intelligence analysts have heard warnings about potential violence.

Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said the department has been working around the clock for weeks to assemble training, staffing and equipment that avoids a repeat of Jan. 6. He said the goal is for a peaceful demonstration.

“We are planning for a safe event tomorrow. But there have been some threats of violence associated with the events tomorrow," Manger said at a joint Capitol news conference with city police officials. “We’re not going to tolerate violence and we won’t tolerate criminal behavior of any kind."

U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger speaks to reporters after attending a classified briefing with congressional leaders on the security preparations for a rally taking place this weekend on Capitol Hill on September 13, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger speaks to reporters after attending a classified briefing with congressional leaders on the security preparations for a rally taking place this weekend on Capitol Hill on September 13, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

Manger said the biggest threat of violence is the possibility that participants in the main rally near the Capitol will clash with counter-protesters at Freedom Plaza near the White House. One of three groups of potential counter-protesters has a history of violence, he said.

“It’s tough to say whether they’re credible or not. We don’t know with any certainty," Manger said. “That’s the most likely scenario for violence."

D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee said his department will keep the two groups apart. He noted that many other events are scheduled Saturday, including an H Street community festival, concerts and sporting events, so police will be visible citywide.

Contee said police would take action against any violation of city law against carrying guns within 1,000 feet of a First Amendment assembly.

"We are prepared," Contee said.

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Police are bracing for the rally as a precaution against the riot Jan. 6, which caught police and federal agencies flat-footed.

On Jan. 6, a mob of thousands of supporters of Trump laid siege to the Capitol at his urging. Hundreds of people broke into the building, temporarily halting Congress counting Electoral College votes that confirmed President Joe Biden beat Trump.

More than 600 people have been charged in the riot that left five dead and injured 140 police officers.

Police reinstalled fencing around the Capitol to keep people away from the historic building. Unarmed National Guard troops will be available to reinforce Capitol Police if the events take longer than expected, Manger said.

"We will be able to handle anything that occurs," Manger said.

Police and federal agencies have spent weeks on training exercise, including a table-top study of how forces will be deployed, according to Sean Gallagher, Capitol Police acting assistant chief for uniformed operations.

"Our officers are ready," he said.

The permit for Saturday's event anticipates 700 people attending. But Manger said police don't know how many will actually show up.

"We're also seeing mixed messages about whether people are coming or not," Manger said. "As is often the case with intelligence, it's not really clear."

While Braynard has sought to dampen expectations and said he would continue if he were alone, he has been fundraising to cover the costs of the rally.

Telegram Channels devoted to the Proud Boys and the QAnon conspiracy theory were rife with speculation that the September 18 protest was a trap set by the federal government to ensnare supporters of far-right causes.

“Reminder: Do not attend the FBI rally on September 18 in DC,” conspiracy theorist Ron Watkins warned his more than 400,000 followers on Telegram.

A half-dozen Republican House members have criticized treatment of defendants who have been detained pending trial. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., has called them "political prisoners."

But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he didn't think members of the Republican Conference would attend the rally.

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Justice for J6 organizer an ex-Trump staffer, election fraud promoter