Behind the violent insurrection at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 lies a group many Americans have never heard of: Women for America First. This group, founded by Trump loyalists and supported by the former president, not only obtained the permit for the rally where former President Donald Trump told the crowd to march on the Capitol, but also spent the weeks leading up to it on a 20-city bus tour, spreading incendiary propaganda, lies, and hate across an American tinderbox.
Women for America First’s bus tour was one of the biggest and best-funded efforts to bring people to Washington, DC, for Jan. 6. It was promoted by Trump on Twitter, and attracted thousands of in-person attendees and potentially millions more who watched livestreams on YouTube, Facebook, and Periscope.
Setting out in late November, the “March for Trump” bus tour hit more than 20 cities before culminating in the Washington rally that would escalate into a deadly insurrection at the Capitol. Many participants in the bus tour attended that rally, and at least one was involved in the ensuing coup attempt.
None of Women for America First’s leaders have been charged with crimes relating to the mob violence of that day. And after the insurrection, the organization took its March for Trump bus tour website offline and issued a statement condemning the violence. It did not respond to multiple phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages requesting comment.
But BuzzFeed News reviewed more than 20 hours of footage of the bus tour events dating back to November and found that organizers, rallygoers, and guest speakers — some of them government officials — propagated lies and conspiracies, and stoked fear at every stop, helping to lay the groundwork for the deadly insurrection.
Early in the tour, on Dec. 2, a county commissioner in North Carolina speaking at a Women for America First rally told the crowd, “We’d solve every problem in this country if on the 4th of July every conservative went and shot one liberal.” A few days later in Wisconsin, Cordie Williams, a chiropractor and former Marine who runs a nonprofit called 1776 Forever Free, threatened anyone trying to give his kids a COVID-19 vaccine.
“When they come for my kids with this nontested COVID vaccine, I’m gonna give them an insurance policy courtesy of a Glock on their forehead. And I don’t wanna do that, guys. I’m not inciting violence,” he said at the rally. “What I am inciting is resolve.”
One rally took place on Jan. 3 in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Couy Griffin, a regular speaker at Women for America First rallies, stood in front of a phalanx of American flags and a bus emblazoned with “March for Trump” and warned the crowd that they were about to lose their country.
“If we allow this election to be stolen from us, we will become a third world country overnight,” said the New Mexico county commissioner who founded Cowboys for Trump. “The elitist, gross, wicked vile people that are in place will continue to wage war on America. Because there is a war, mind you, I promise you that.”
At each stop, a parade of speakers including pastors, activists, and GOP officials spewed falsehoods. They told the crowd to fight for Trump or prepare for the end of the US as they knew it. They condemned coronavirus lockdowns as a ruse to control the population. They spoke of “globalist” and Chinese efforts to steal the presidential election. They encouraged people to arm themselves and study “tactics.” At least two speakers explicitly raised the specter of political violence. And they encouraged people to show up in DC on Jan. 6 to stop Joe Biden from becoming president.
“We got to get our country back. There’s no other way, there’s no other option,” Griffin said at the Bowling Green rally.
The day after the violent insurrection, Griffin pledged to return to the Capitol with weapons, according to the Department of Justice, who arrested him two weeks later. “We could have a 2nd Amendment rally on those same steps that we had that rally yesterday. You know, and if we do, then it’s gonna be a sad day, because there’s gonna be blood running out of that building,” Griffin said in a video.
It wasn’t the first time he had called for violence. In May, Griffin said “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” in a video that Trump retweeted. Months later, Griffin was a featured speaker on Women for America First’s March for Trump bus tour that recruited people to DC for Jan. 6.
Women for America First is a key cog in Trump’s political machine. It was cofounded by former tea party activist Amy Kremer and her daughter Kylie Jane Kremer, who together created Stop the Steal, a now-removed 365,000-member Facebook group organized around discrediting the results of the recent presidential election. Women for America First is a registered nonprofit. It received $25,000 from pro-Trump dark money group America First Policies, CNBC reported. It was registered by Dan Backer, a Trumpist attorney well known for his involvement in so-called scam PACs, political action committees that funnel the cash they raise back into the consulting firms that created them. The day this story was published, Women For America First filed to remove Dan Backer as an agent of the corporation. But the clearest tie to the former president came on Jan. 6. That day, Trump spoke from the Women for America First rally stage.
In the weekend leading up to that event, the organization’s bus tour steeped attendees and viewers in a miasma of lies and misinformation, evoking fear and a sense that the country was about to be taken over by dark forces unless they fought back.
One of the emcees of the bus tour was James Lyle, Amy Kremer’s husband and the program director of Women for America First. His speeches often included the false claim that the organization’s Nov. 14 event had drawn more than 1 million people to Washington. Crowd estimates place it closer to tens of thousands. He cited long-debunked claims of electoral fraud — including suitcases of ballots being brought in to polling stations and 200,000 more votes counted than possible voters in one state — as bogus evidence that the election was stolen from Trump. (The former president’s lawyers were laughed out of court when they made similar arguments, and Republican officials in states like Georgia refuted the claims.) Other speakers cited false claims of electoral fraud and often veered into conspiracies involving China, “globalists,” and the coronavirus.
Speakers warned attendees that they were about to lose their freedom and way of life.
“If we allow them to steal this election … my kids will not know American freedom,” said Dustin Stockton, a former Breitbart writer and tea party activist and a lead organizer of the March for Trump tour, at a stop in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, on Nov. 30.
Later that day in Savannah, Georgia, Stockton said, “We have to remember the people who betrayed us.”
Stockton advised people to arm themselves, “study tactics,” spend time on the firing range, and pursue self-reliance and self-sufficiency. At times, he evoked images of revenge and violence.
“Right now we still have the power to fix” the election result, he said in Savannah. “But if they allow the election to get stolen, we lose the power to do it. I mean there’s still ways to do it, but it gets a lot, lot uglier and a lot, lot worse. And I don’t think any of us want to go there.”
Stockton told BuzzFeed News the "ugly" option he referred to is state-by-state electoral reform.
On at least three occasions, speakers mentioned violence. Bob Cavanaugh, a county commissioner and local tea party organizer, took the stage on Dec. 2 in Morehead City, North Carolina, and talked about shooting liberals.
“I jokingly told — I don’t know if you want to cut this off — but I jokingly told some folks in the tea party, see, we’d solve every problem in this country if on the 4th of July every conservative went and shot one liberal,” said Cavanaugh, who did not respond to a request for comment.
The crowd cheered.
At a Dec. 6 rally in Madison, Wisconsin, Pastor Brian Gibson, a regular speaker at the bus rallies, brought a Black man from the crowd to the microphone who yelled, “This is treason. These are traitors. The election has been made by China. The punishment for treason is death.” The speaker could not be identified.
“Let’s thank that man for being a patriot. I love a patriot. Patriots come in every color,” Gibson said to applause. (He did not respond to a request for comment.)
At that same December rally in Madison, Cordie Williams, the chiropractor and former Marine who threatened anyone attempting to vaccinate his children, told the Wisconsin crowd, “We need to know how to fire those handguns, fire those rifles.”
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Williams said his organization is focused on defending free speech; he provided a link to an article in which he defended his comments and repeated that he was attempting to incite resolve, not violence.
On Dec. 9 in Ohio, the day YouTube announced it would remove videos that questioned the results of the election, Stockton was incensed. “I’m so angry, I’m in like pitchforks mode today, I really am,” he told rallygoers. “Let’s grab the pitchforks, let’s go to DC, and let's stay there until this crap is changed and we’re Americans again.”
He told BuzzFeed News that Women for America First held a rally in DC three days later, on Dec. 12, “at which no buildings were stormed.”
When he arrived in DC for the Jan. 6 Trump rally, Stockton spotted a woman with a pitchfork and posed for a photo.
“Do you believe in signs? Just landed in DC and the first thing we see is a pitchfork in baggage claim!” he tweeted.
“Scary! A political prop,” Stockton said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
All of the bus tour stops were livestreamed by the Right Side Broadcasting Network, a right-wing video streaming outlet. After being contacted by BuzzFeed News, YouTube said it removed three bus tour videos from RSBN, one for inciting violence and two for false election claims. Facebook said it had previously applied warning labels to RSBN content about the election, and Twitter said the bus tour content broadcast on Periscope did not violate its policies.
Stockton was usually followed onstage by his fiancé, Jen Lawrence, also a former Breitbart writer.
“Hey George Soros, you need to go to hell!,” she yelled at a stop in Franklin, Tennessee.
“You sit there in Davos and say you own John Roberts,” the chief justice.
“Soros doesn’t talk about you like this unless he has influence over you,” she said in an email to BuzzFeed News. “Have you asked Chief Justices Roberts about his relationship to George Soros?”
Onstage, she regularly called out “globalists,” a term often used as an anti-Semitic dog whistle, warning people that they were on the brink of losing their country.
“I’m not going to be the last generation of Americans who did not fight for their county,” she said in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “We have to get out there. These people are so evil.”
Lawrence said she had been talking about the “anti-freedom [Chinese Communist Party] and the United Nations” when referring to globalists.
“While the media try to radicalize people by censoring and ignoring discussion of the claims made by the President of the United States, we provided a productive platform for people to exercise their first amendment rights at our events,” she told BuzzFeed News.
In Pittsburgh on Dec. 10, right-wing activist Matt Couch addressed a rally crowd, saying, “This right now is a revolution by ballots, not bullets, and we hope it doesn’t come to that. We pray to God that it doesn’t come to that.”
“It might,” yelled someone in the audience.
“I’ll let you say it,” Couch said. “But yeah, I know what you mean.”
Later in his speech he told the crowd, "This is our 1776.” He did not respond to a request for comment.
Local officials often joined the tour when it rolled into their state. In Morehead City, Sheriff Asa Buck warned the crowd that “leftists” were “going to completely destroy our country if they get their way.” He also spoke to fears that Democrats will take away legal weapons and Americans will be unprepared to face armed robbers or criminals.
“I want you to have all the daggone guns you want,” he added. “Because I know you’ll be standing there with us for what’s right against the bad guys and the criminals.” (Buck did not respond to a request for comment.)
Andrew “Mac” Warner, the Republican secretary of state of West Virginia, said at a rally in Charleston on Dec. 9 that Congress needed to decide the election, because there were clear “irregularities.”
“We don’t have time to go in there and try cases and prove fraud and that sort of thing. We’re saying simply that the election itself was so fouled up that it needs to go to Congress,” he told the crowd.
“Secretary Warner stands by his comments made with the intent to educate attendees at the rally that the only legal remedy available at that time — after the election, but before the Electoral College convened — was to have allegations of improprieties addressed via Congressional action, such as an independent, bi-partisan investigation on a state-by-state level,” said Michael L. Queen, Warner’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, in an email to BuzzFeed News.
He added that Warner was asked by state GOP leaders to attend the Women for America First event and had no “prior knowledge of the group, its activities or other speakers.”
Griffin, the New Mexico county commissioner who started Cowboys for Trump, used his time onstage in multiple cities to spread lies about the coronavirus, which he called “a manipulated hoax.” In Little Rock, he falsely claimed that the United States had not seen an increase in overall deaths during the pandemic.
“We’re down on total deaths in the last 10 months. If it was a serious sickness, we’d have a spike in overall deaths — but we don’t,” he said. (In reality, deaths have been steadily rising, according to John Hopkins data. On Jan. 19, Trump’s last full day as president, the US surpassed 400,000 deaths from COVID-19.)
At a bus tour stop in West Monroe, Louisiana, Griffin called for Trump to impose martial law. As a result of his actions on Jan. 6, he’s now charged with one count of knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds without lawful entry. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Also facing legal jeopardy is another key figure in the Women for America First bus tour.
MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a tour sponsor and favorite of the former president, used his speaking slot in Des Moines on Dec. 6 to float a convoluted and false conspiracy theory involving machines from Dominion Voting Systems.
“Donald Trump got so many votes that they didn’t expect that it broke the algorithms in those machines,” he said. “They went into a panic so… they shut everything down at the same time, from Georgia to Wisconsin to Michigan to Pennsylvania. Crazy, at the exact same time? You know what the odds of that are?”
That never happened, according to election authorities in Pennsylvania. But Lindell kept pushing the lie, referring to “crooked Dominion machines” at a tour stop in Pittsburgh on Dec. 10. Lindell and MyPillow did not respond to a request for comment.
On Monday, Jan. 18, Lindell entered the White House carrying notes that appeared to call for the president to enact a range of extreme measures, including imposing martial law, in a last-ditch effort to steal the election. That same day, Dominion Voting Systems said it had sent Lindell a letter threatening a lawsuit over his repeated false and defamatory comments about the company. Lindell said he “welcomed” the suit.
Aside from its statement distancing itself from the violence at its Jan. 6 rally, Women for America has been relatively quiet since the insurrection. But on Inauguration Day, its Twitter account sprang back to life. Hours before Joe Biden was sworn in as president, the group’s account tweeted pictures of the March for Trump bus and announced a new stop:
“On our way to welcome President Donald J. Trump & First Lady Melania home to Palm Beach, Florida!” ●
Women for America First is a nonprofit corporation. A previous version of this story misstated its status.