First Person

Chelsea Manning on Her Alt-Right Partying: I Was a Spy, Not a Racist

Chelsea Manning says newly released photos of her and alt-right leaders are the result of a sting operation, not sympathy with their cause.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Maryland senate candidate and formerly imprisoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning came under intense criticism for attending the A Night for Freedom party at the nightclub FREQ NYC hosted by right wing leader Mike Cernovich who infamously propagated the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.

Manning claims she was acting as a double agent, trying infiltrate the alt-right world to gain insight into their plans for rallies, get togethers, and general political strategy. Her, at times convoluted, explanation for why she was featured in multiple photos and social gatherings with the who’s who of the alt-right, was told exclusively to The Daily Beast.

According to Manning, her connection with right wing social media leaders began in autumn of last year when she first got in touch with Gateway Pundit writer Cassandra Fairbanks over Twitter DMs during the “No Hate in the Bay” demonstration in Berkeley.

The demonstration took place in late September and, according to Manning, she was compelled to get more involved in direct anti-fascist action in the wake of white supremacist-led violence in Charlottesville that left a peaceful counter-protester dead.

“Charlottesville was a wakeup call for me,” said Manning, who at the time  was just starting to rebuild her life after her release from prison. “I saw how these people will actually kill us, and we need to do something about it. I felt like I hadn’t done enough. I just can’t sit and watch everything get worse.”

Manning’s solution was to use her fame and celebrity to integrate with an admirer who had connections with several alt-right social media personalities. Enter Fairbanks.

She’s most known for her very public shift from being a diehard Bernie Sanders supporter to a dedicated and vocal Trump influencer who was once on Kremlin payroll as a writer at Russian state propaganda outlet Sputnik. She now has close ties to many D.C.-area alt-right media influencers. Manning disclosed to The Daily Beast that she was aware of Fairbanks’ history before deciding to develop her as a potential source of information. According to Manning, who received military intelligence training in her time in the Army, a friendship with Fairbanks was never her intent.

Manning had given an impromptu speech at the demonstration in the Bay Area and found herself on the opposite side of countering protests from Fairbanks, who had previously sent Manning personal letters through the support group who was assisting her when she was in federal prison.

“We ended up sitting down and having coffee” said Manning, who said they met at a Starbucks in Silver Spring, Maryland a few weeks after the Bay Area demonstration. Reached through Twitter, Fairbanks confirmed the meeting.

“After we started talking I realized that she kept on telling me things about the alt-right and what was going on... I made it clear that I disagree with many of her positions politically, but she just continued to talk to me and even tell me things in confidence that quite frankly surprised me at first.”

For Manning, it was the first glimpse at whether or not she might be able to get access to sensitive information within the alt-right’s media wing.

A week or two after coffee with Fairbanks, Manning said the Trump supporter invited her to go to Escape the Room with friends.

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“She didn’t tell me who her friends were, [and] I didn’t really ask. I weighed [being seen in public with Fairbanks] for a few hours, actually, before responding,” said Manning.

But after thinking about it, she decided that deepening trust with Fairbanks and her friends outweighed the potential risk of appearing to associate with Fairbanks or other alt-right media figures.

“I viewed this as an opportunity to use the celebrity and fame I’ve gotten since getting out of prison to gather information and to ultimately find ways in which we who are against the alt-right can undermine the alt-right,” she said.

Manning said that when she first arrived at Escape the Room, she immediately recognized several of the others in her group, which, according to the recently uncovered photo, included pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, and Gateway Pundit White House Correspondent Lucian Wintrich. At that point, Manning said she decided to double down on her decision to hunt for information on the alt-right’s dealings. During the outing itself she said politics weren’t discussed at all within the group and that the general tone was muted and awkward.  Manning noted that keeping a cool exterior was a difficult and uncomfortable prospect for her knowing who they were and the various things they were willing to say and do in public.  “An hour after meeting these people, this photo was being taken,” she said, noting that it’s customary to have a photo taken as a group after the Escape the Room activity is completed.

That wasn’t the last time she hung out casually with the group.

About a month later, Manning disclosed that she also spent a December evening drinking and playing Cards Against Humanity at the Wintrich’s apartment with Fairbanks and several other people she didn’t recognize. (It should be noted that Manning disclosed this to The Daily Beast before Wintrich tweeted photos of Manning from that night Wednesday afternoon.)

Throughout the evening, the group discussed some inside baseball on what was happening at the time with Steve Bannon and the White House, defending Mike Flynn as accepted a plea deal in the Mueller Russia probe, and generally mocking right wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos, who they knew personally, including revealing very personal details that aren’t publicly available. “The thing in all this that I’ve learned is that they don’t actually believe the things that they say. I just feel they’re opportunists and that they exploit their Twitter followers’ fears,” said Manning.

The idea that Manning might have established relationships with alt-right media figures to gain insight into their plans isn’t as far fetched as it seems at first blush. According to a Charlottesville organizer who was connected to The Daily Beast from Manning’s team who spoke on the condition of anonymity, one of the foundational goals of anti-fascist organizing is to gather intelligence into the activity of fascists and the alt-right.

“Infiltrating leadership gets you access to all sorts of information, from plans to who’s coming, what their intentions are and a lot of of that is really critical to keeping people safe,”the organizer said.  

The weekend of January 20, on the night of the Mike Cernovich alt-right cocktail party in New York City, Manning said it was time to out herself as a spy and to  confront those in attendance on their own ground. She made it clear that she did not have a ticket to the event and that she did not pay for a ticket, but that Fairbanks helped her get into the event and get a wristband.. When reached for verification, Fairbanks confirmed that Manning didn’t pay for her own ticket but did state that an extra ticket was given to her by Cernovich to give to Manning and once inside, she was able to procure a VIP wristband for Manning.

Manning’s goal was use her celebrity to access the party to confront the alt- right VIPs on hand by making her presence felt in opposition, even if she wasn’t necessarily planning on making a scene inside before joining the anti-fascist protest assembling outside.

The far right party was headlined by a speech by VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes, who also founded the hostile far right wing men’s group the Proud Boys, in which he mocked transgender women like Manning and men who are attracted to them. Previous reporting in Mic stated that Manning couldn’t have witnessed McInnes’ transphobic rant because she was in another room, and Fairbanks confirmed Mic’s report to The Daily Beast. However, it’s an account which Manning disputes, saying that though she couldn’t see who was speaking, the event was held in one large room and she had no issues hearing the speech.

“There was a panel as I walked in and one of the people on the panel was actually making a transphobic rant. You know, this was the environment I was walking into,” said Manning. “I made it clear that I’m here because I’m not going to back down, I’m not going to hide, I’m not afraid, I will fight you… I view my presence in this event as a form of protest in and of itself because they would never allow somebody like me into a place like that.”

When pushed on the fact that she was, in fact, freely let in to the event, Manning explained, “I want to be clear that they let me in because they knew who I was and therefore they gave me that privilege to be there. Would they let any other trans person into that event? The answer is no.”

Manning’s claim that she attended the party to “confront” her ideological opposites flies in the face of a photo that have been released this week showing Manning with a relaxed demeanor and smiling, with drink in hand as she conversed with McInnes. According to Manning, however, the picture doesn’t show how discomforting the situation was, claiming McInnes called her a “cunt”, and asked her what she was doing at the party. Manning said that despite the fact she was caught off guard, she forced a smile and quipped back, “I’m here with my friends [the protesters] outside.”

Fairbanks said that she did not witness McInnes calling Manning any slurs.

In the end, Manning estimates that she was inside for about forty five minutes before emerging to join the protesters outside, who by that point had surrounded the entire building. She said she met up with a protest marshall and relayed several bits of useful of information, including the number of people inside, the general mood, what people inside were talking about, and whether they were planning any after parties.

A protester who wishes remain anonymous for fear of alt-right retaliation confirmed to The Daily Beast that Manning had indicated her intent to join the protest afterwards before she had entered the party with Fairbanks.

Because she doesn’t have Twitter access on her phone, she was unaware of the controversy that started when Buzzfeed reporters Charlie Warzel and Joe Bernstein tweeted about her presence at the party and then openly speculated about whether or not she “cosigned” on the alt-right event. And by the time Manning got back to her hotel room to tweet a selfie and a message about crashing the party, she said, the alt-right was already painting her attendance as a sign that she was sympathetic to their views and attended in the interests of bridging the left/right political divide.

The question after all is said and done is what, if anything, did Manning learn from her time in close proximity to these far right and alt-right media figures? According to her she was able to obtain some valuable information about the way they structure themselves and the structure of the alt-right itself. She also claims to have passed off valuable information to the people who could use it to counter the alt right, but refused to disclose who these people were or which, if any, organizations they might be affiliated with in the interests of safety. She was able to confirm to the Daily Beast that she obtained information on the way that the alt right social media figureheads are connected with the Richard Spencer wing of the alt right, as well as the Trump administration, supporting the links between all three groups as reported in in Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury.

In the end though, it’s impossible to really know what was going through Manning’s head as she decided to escalate her relationships with figureheads of the alt-right in order to supposedly gather intelligence on their plans. Manning’s decision-making process appears nonsensical to all but the most ardently engaged in the anti-fascist movement and the whole thing has an air of impulsiveness. Though she’s promised never to associate with the alt-right again, her lack of awareness of the symbol she’s become to many on the left, especially within a trans community facing constant attacks from the alt-right, have left many of her supporters confused and feeling betrayed.

“People have every right to be confused and hurt by this,” Manning said. “Regardless of good intentions, I leveraged my privilege to gain access to spaces others couldn’t dream of entering safely. I never meant to hurt my supporters. No amount of information on the alt-right is worth losing the trust of my supporters.”