Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff and a national campaign spokesperson were involved in efforts to encourage the president’s supporters to march on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. That’s according to a person who says he overheard a key planning conversation between top Trump officials and the organizers of the Jan. 6 rally on the White House Ellipse — and has since testified to House investigators about the phone call.
Trump and his allies have tried to minimize his role in calling his supporters to the Capitol and argue he was simply participating in a lawful, peaceful demonstration.
Scott Johnston — who worked on the team that helped plan the Ellipse rally — says that’s just not so. He claims that leading figures in the Trump administration and campaign deliberately planned to have crowds converge on the Capitol, where the 2020 election was being certified — and “make it look like they went down there on their own.”
Johnston, who says he described the phone call to House select committee investigators, detailed his allegations in a series of conversations with Rolling Stone. Johnston says he overheard Mark Meadows, then-former President Trump’s chief of staff, and Katrina Pierson, Trump’s national campaign spokeswoman, talking with Kylie Kremer, the executive director of Women for America First, about plans for a march to the Capitol. Johnston said the conversation was clearly audible to him since it took place on a speakerphone as he drove Kremer between the group’s rallies in the final three days of 2020.
“They were very open about how there was going to be a march,” Johnston says. “Everyone knew there was going to be a march.”
According to Johnston, Meadows, Pierson, and Kremer discussed the possibility of setting up a permit to make the march from the White House to the Capitol official. He says the trio decided against officially permitting the march, citing concerns about security costs and about the optics of a sitting president organizing a push towards Congress as lawmakers certified his loss in the 2020 election. Ultimately, Johnston tells Rolling Stone, they planned to “direct the people down there and make it look like they went down there on their own.”
Kremer’s group, Women for America First, helped lead the Jan. 6 rally at the White House Ellipse, where Trump delivered a speech and told supporters to “fight like hell” and said he expected them to march on the Capitol. “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said. As Trump spoke, people began leaving the rally to walk toward the Capitol.
The president’s camp insists this wasn’t part of any pre-planned push. In the book where he recounted his time in the White House, Meadows called the Jan. 6 violence “the actions of a handful of fanatics across town.”
Johnston’s account suggests there was a deliberate strategy by Trump’s allies to have supporters descend on the Capitol. Such a connection would implicate top White House and campaign officials in drawing crowds to Congress without a permit — a step that could have required added security and may have allowed law enforcement to better prepare for the day’s events. Those crowds overwhelmed the Capitol police and engaged in an hours-long battle with law enforcement. Four people died during the attack.
According to Johnston, rally organizers were “constantly” using “burner phones” — cheap, prepaid cells that can be harder to trace because they’re not personally identified with a user or a user’s account — “to talk about” potential permits and plans for a march with Trump aides.
Johnston says that, in the key phone conversation he overheard, the group settled on ordering a march without an official permit. “Nobody wanted to do it because they didn’t want to pay for it,” Johnston says of obtaining a permit. “They didn’t want to have to provide security and all the other expenses.”
On Dec. 20, 2021, Johnston testified to the House select committee investigating the Capitol attack, and he provided Rolling Stone multiple pieces of documentation showing his interactions with the committee. Johnston also says he told investigators that he knew the call took place on a “burner phone” in the final days of 2020 because the discussion came right after Kylie Kremer directed him to purchase three phones for her group.
“I’m the one that bought the burner phones,” Johnston says.
The committee did not respond to an inquiry regarding Johnston’s allegations about the rally organizers and about his testimony. A source familiar tells Rolling Stone that committee investigators have asked Amy Kremer, Kylie’s mother and the chair of Women for America First, about their use of burner phones. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation, said Amy Kremer has denied using the devices. The source did, however, confirm that key phones used by the rally organizers were purchased in California. That corroborates the account from Johnston, who says he told committee investigators that he bought the phones at a CVS in Cathedral City, California.
The committee is also seeking Meadows’ phone records via a subpoena sent to Verizon, but the former White House chief of staff sued to block that subpoena in December. The case is ongoing. A spokesman for Meadows declined to comment.
Rolling Stone reported in November that Kremer and other Jan. 6 rally organizers used burner phones to communicate with White House officials during the planning stages of that event. After that report, Kylie and Amy Kremer denied using burner phones in a statement from their lawyers. Johnston, who was one of the sources for that reporting, says Kylie Kremer directed him to purchase the phones on Dec. 28, 2020, so she could “communicate with high-level people.”
According to Johnston, on the call with Meadows and Pierson, Kylie Kremer was adamant that Women for America First could not be publicly affiliated with the march, even though she privately approved of it. Johnston says Meadows was willing to help secure a permit for the march but was also amenable to Trump supporters converging on the Capitol without one.
Pierson disputed Johnston’s version of events in a text message to Rolling Stone. “No such call took place,” Pierson wrote. Pierson further suggested that she did not know who Johnston was and that “phone records” would disprove his “defamatory claims.”
Asked about Johnson’s allegations, Kylie and Amy Kremer responded through their spokesman, Chris Barron. “The claim regarding the substance of any phone call between Katrina Pierson, Kylie Kremer, and Mark Meadows is absolutely false,” Barron wrote. “If anyone gave testimony to the J6 committee claiming that such a call took place and that was the substance of the call should be incredibly concerned — the last I looked lying to Congress was a crime.”
Organizers of the Ellipse rally told Rolling Stone last year that they participated in “dozens” of meetings with White House staff and pro-Trump Republicans in Congress as they planned protests against Trump’s election loss. And Rolling Stone reviewed text messages among the rally organizers — including Johnston — in which the organizers said they were “following [Trump’s] lead” in planning the Ellipse rally.
While the House select committee is clearly investigating the high-level organization of the Ellipse rally and related efforts to overturn Trump’s election loss, it does not have criminal authority. The congressional committee can, however, make referrals to the Justice Department, which is conducting its own investigation. Thus far, the FBI has largely focused on militant groups that were present at the Capitol and people involved in the storming of the building, hundreds of whom have been arrested and now face criminal prosecutions, jail time, probation, and fines. While these rank-and-file supporters have suffered criminal consequences, many prominent figures involved in the Jan. 6 rally remain members of good standing within the GOP, where they continue to hold powerful and lucrative positions in and out of government.
Rolling Stone cannot independently verify Johnston’s claim about the December phone conversation. He says he’s unaware of any recording of the call. The only other person Johnston believes may have overheard it is another Ellipse rally planner, Matt McCleskey. Johnston says McCleskey was also in the car when Kylie Kremer spoke about the march with Meadows and Pierson. However, Johnston says it’s unclear if McCleskey would have heard the call, as the staffer often wore headphones as he worked during the long drives.
McCleskey tells Rolling Stone Johnston’s story is “not true” and says he was “never in the presence of a phone call involving Meadows and Pierson.”
The committee has subpoenaed Meadows, Pierson, and Kremer. In a letter that accompanied those subpoenas, Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) indicated his interest in communications the Kremers had with Meadows. Thompson also indicated to Meadows that the committee is interested in the role Trump’s former chief of staff played in planning the Jan. 6 events. “It appears that you were with or in the vicinity of President Trump on Jan. 6, had communications with the President and others on Jan. 6 regarding events at the Capitol, and are a witness regarding activities of that day,” Thompson wrote. “Moreover, at least one press report indicates you were in communication with organizers of the Jan. 6 rally, including Amy Kremer.”
Johnston had been volunteering for conservative causes since long before Jan. 6, 2021. In 2015, he worked in Arizona with Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence, two right-wing activists who later joined the rally planning team led by the Kremers. Stockton and Lawrence introduced Johnston to the Kremers, and he assisted them during months of rallies they staged in the lead-up to Jan. 6.
With multiple investigations into Jan. 6, cooperating witnesses can have a variety of motivations for coming forward. Some may hope to avoid legal trouble while others could be eager to shape the public narrative or settle scores. Ultimately, Johnston said his relationship with the Kremers soured, in part, because he came to view them as “total grifters.” Johnston claimed he told investigators that the Kremers used donated funds for personal expenses. In text messages reviewed by Rolling Stone from the days after the Capitol attacks, Johnston accused Kylie Kremer of having him accompany her on a “weird and inappropriate” trip to go “bra shopping.” Johnston says he directly witnessed Kylie take cash that was collected at a Women for America First “March for Trump” event for her purchases on that trip.
“She took a handful right out of the donor basket,” Johnston said.
The Ellipse rally was not the only major pro-Trump event that was set to take place in Washington on Jan. 6. There were also plans for a rally called the “Wild Protest” that was to be held alongside the Capitol grounds. One of the organizers of that demonstration, far-right activist Ali Alexander, claimed in a television special produced by Fox News host Tucker Carlson last November that a Trump campaign staffer approached him at the Ellipse Rally and directed him — as well as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — to lead a march to the Wild Protest site. “A Trump campaign staffer walks up to me and says, ‘You know, Ali, there are people leaving the overflow and there are already tens of thousands of people at the U.S. Capitol. With your presence and the presence of Alex Jones, why don’t you guys walk down Pennsylvania, gather people together, and then position them for your rally.'”
Jones made a similar claim in a video that he posted on Jan. 7, 2021. “The White House told me — three days before — we’re going to have you lead the march,” Jones said. “Trump will tell people, ‘Go and I’m going to meet you at the Capitol.”
Alexander and Jones have both been subpoenaed by the House select committee. In letters accompanying those subpoenas, which were sent last year, the committee indicated it was interested in the role both men played in plans to march to the Capitol.
Alexander and Jones — who both have a long history of promoting false conspiracy theories — have not produced any evidence of their claims or named the White House and campaign staffers who they say directed them. The pair have insisted their actions on Jan. 6 were non-violent and law abiding. Jones did not respond to a request for comment. In an email, Alexander, who did not respond to requests to name the alleged staffer, claimed “event planning is not one dimensional.”
“No one instructed anyone to have a structured march (formation, banners, fencing, etc.) that I’m aware of. The walk over was colloquially described as ‘a march’ by some, as ‘a walk over’ by others,” Alexander wrote. “And that was an evolving issue that developed and changed the advertising or characterization of the event as it was quickly planned.”
Stockton and Lawrence have told Rolling Stone they were among a group of Ellipse rally organizers who had concerns about the Wild Protest due to Alexander’s links to militant groups and the rally’s proximity to the Capitol. The pair claimed Amy Kremer brought those concerns to Meadows and that they were under the impression he would resolve the issue. Earlier this month, the committee subpoenaed Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Trump campaign aide and the fiancée of the former president’s son Don Jr. In a letter accompanying that subpoena, the committee indicated it was interested in “concerns raised” about Alexander’s presence at the Ellipse rally.
Johnston said that, in his committee interview, the investigators were specifically focused on whether Meadows knew about plans to have a march on the Capitol. This questioning left Johnston with the impression that other witnesses testified the former White House chief of staff was involved in plans to have crowds go from the Ellipse to the Capitol. “I don’t think I’m the only one that’s told them that he knew about the march,” Johnston says of Meadows.
“Mark Meadows and Katrina Pierson,” Johnston says of the investigators, “that’s the two they’re going after.”