How did a Proud Boys leader with a felony record get into the White House?

Enrique Tarrio claims he visited the White House on Saturday, hours before a major pro-Trump rally

Published December 15, 2020 6:32PM (EST)

 President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House on Thanksgiving on November 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House on Thanksgiving on November 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images)

The chairman of the white nationalist Proud Boys group, a convicted felon, posted photos from inside the White House gates ahead of a violent pro-Trump rally in Washington DC on Saturday, raising new questions about the president's apparent embrace of the right-wing agitators.

Enrique Tarrio revealed that he visited the executive mansion on Saturday after receiving a "last-minute invite to an undisclosed location." The White House later said that Tarrio had not been invited, but had instead taken part in a holiday tour. "He was on a public White House Christmas tour," White House spokesperson Judd Deere said over the weekend. "He did not have a meeting with the president, nor did the White House invite him."

White House public tours are self-guided, and anyone who wants one, including Christmas tours, must apply no fewer than 21 days ahead of their booking date because the application includes a security form and background check. Hopefuls with a felony are generally denied, a former Trump White House official told Salon, unless a senior member of the administration intervenes.

In 2013, Tarrio, also known as Henry Tarrio Jr, was convicted of two class C, one class D and one class E felonies for stealing and reselling $1.2 million worth of diabetes test strips from Abbott Labs, and served 16 months in federal prison. Court records show that he was released in December 2014 with two years probation, and ordered to pay restitution for the full $1.2 million.

On Saturday, Tarrio was accompanied to the executive mansion by other members of Latinos for Trump, including Bianca Garcia, the president of the group, and her son, Armani Garcia, a former intern for Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga. It is unclear if or when Latinos for Trump applied for its White House tour, and unclear why Tarrio received a security pass. 

In the past, people who have been invited to the White House specifically because of their work on criminal justice reform have been denied entry. For instance, Vicki Lopez, a former county commissioner in Florida who had been previously sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for mail fraud, was not allowed into the Obama White House in 2009, despite receiving a commutation from former President Bill Clinton. People with prior convictions who are able to gain entry are generally given special badges and personal escorts.  It would be highly unusual for someone with Tarrio's criminal history to get inside the White House without someone high up in the administration personally pulling strings, according to the former White House official. 

A White House spokesperson declined to reply when asked who had checked Tarrio in on Saturday: The East Wing, where visitors usually enter, or the Executive Office of the President.

During the first presidential debate in September, Trump had the opportunity to denounce white supremacists and violent far-right groups — specifically, Democratic opponent Joe Biden invited him to condemn The Proud Boys. Trump did not denounce the group but told them "stand back and stand by," a directive that the group took as an endorsement. The Proud Boys Telegram account wrote, "standing down and standing by sir." Another known account incorporated a version of the phrase — "Stand back. Stand by" — into a new group logo.

"I think this 'stand back, stand by' thing will be another Proud Boy saying," Tarrio told The Daily Beast. (The Beast pointed out that previous slogans were: "The West Is the Best," and the warning "F*ck Around and Find Out.")

Trump eventually condemned the group in a Fox News interview two days later but he also claimed he knew "almost nothing" about them. "I condemn the Proud Boys," Trump said. "I don't know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing, but I condemn that."

The Proud Boys self-identify as "Western chauvinists," but deny being part of the racist alt-right. Members claim they are instead simply a men's group that promotes an "anti-political correctness" and "anti-white guilt" ideology, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

On his 2020 Ballotpedia candidate questionnaire, Tarrio cited as his favorite book Pat Buchanan's 2001 "The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization."

"This book shows the growing problems and divide in our country," Tarrio wrote. "It allows me to learn how to find solutions to conserve our nation and restore the love we have for it. We are not a perfect nation, but we must strive everyday to get as close to perfection as possible."

The group's initiation process demands aspirants to, among other things, denounce masturbation and recite five brands of breakfast cereal while fighting off an attack from other members. The final requirement for membership involves "a major fight for the cause," founder Gavin McInnes told in a 2017 interview.

"You get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa" and possibly get arrested, McInnes explained.

"Their disavowals of bigotry are belied by their actions," the SPLC says on its profile of the group. "Rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric."

In 2017, Proud Boys marched at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virg., but after a neo-Nazi terrorist attack on counter-protesters left one woman dead, the group's founder Gavin McInness sought to create distance from the white supremacist movement. In recent months, members have shown up to counter Black Lives Matter protests, and last month President Trump shared a video of a post-election Proud Boys brawl in D.C., selectively edited to make it appear that a member was a victim, not an instigator.

The group has held rallies where hundreds of members attended, many of them armed. However, its chairman, Tarrio, cannot legally own a gun, because he is a convicted felon. He often appears in photographs wearing a tactical vest with a fruit-flavored malted alcoholic beverage tucked into a front pocket.

The Proud Boys also have ties to longtime Trump associate and convicted felon Roger Stone, and they are open about its support for the outgoing president. Another leader, Joe Biggs, boasted last year that he was having dinner with Trump at the president's D.C. hotel, and shared a picture of himself seated beside Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Trump's official schedule that evening included "remarks at a fundraising committee reception" at Trump International Hotel at 8:00 PM.
Tarrio's Saturday visit coincided with a rally in the nation's capital where thousands of right-wing protesters, including several hundred Proud Boys, a number of them dressed in tactical vests and fatigues, took to the streets to protest Trump's election defeat. 

This January, Tarrio launched his ill-fated congressional campaign with a launch party at Trump National Doral in Miami on Jan. 25. (Tarrio had to accept Roger Stone's endorsement in absentia that evening, as the Trump confidant had been arrested that morning.) About 300 people attended the event, which caught the tail end of the Republican National Committee's winter meeting and ended with fireworks.

However, his campaign's finance records do not indicate any payments on the night other than a $900 expense on Jan. 27 to Trump's BLT Prime restaurant in Washington, D.C. (There is a BLT Prime at Trump's Doral club as well.) Tarrio later bragged that "We exceeded our expectation by three-fold with 250+ in the building."

A White House spokesperson referred Salon's questions about security checks to the U.S. Secret Service. The Secret Service did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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