A transgender poker player and progressive activist who went undercover and cozied up to right-wing extremists. A state Republican party desperate to see Donald Trump win. A Vegas-based GOP consultant. The Proud Boys.
This is the bizarre story connecting a far-right paramilitary group to an effort in Nevada to pressure election officials to overturn the 2020 election results.
In the months leading up to the 2020 election, Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, a self-described progressive activist, embedded herself in GOP circles as part of her research for a book on right-wing extremism. What she found was a Republican consultant desperate to team the Proud Boys up with the Nevada GOP in order to challenge ballots and flip the presidential election.
“These guys were too stupid to look into my progressive politics,” Ashton-Cirillo told The Daily Beast in a phone interview this week, “because they were so eager to tokenize me.”
Ashton-Cirillo’s infiltration only started last September, and began with more mainstream Republican groups. She went to a Sept. 12 Trump boat rally on Lake Mead, and the next night, she attended a Trump rally where MAGA supporters recognized her from her days as a top-flight Vegas poker player. It was at that rally where she first really connected with GOP officials and donors. And when Ashton-Cirillo organized a meet-and-greet for Democratic and Republican office-seekers at her house, almost 100 Republicans showed up.
By December, Nevada GOP state party chair Michael McDonald was in her home discussing future Republican strategy. And the next month, the Proud Boys were asking her to be a “hostess” for a rally in solidarity with the Jan. 6 insurrection. (She declined.)
But Ashton-Cirillo was only a couple months into her undercover voyage as a Republican when Woodrow Johnston, the vice president of Las Vegas-based consulting firm McShane LLC, contacted her about getting the Proud Boys involved in efforts to pressure Nevada ballot-counters.
On the night after the election, Johnston sent Ashton-Cirillo a message about an Arizona effort—led by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ)—to protest the vote-counting process. According to the texts she shared with The Daily Beast, Johnston wanted to stage a similar event in Las Vegas.
“Gosar is leading the charge on a ‘Brooks Brothers Riot’ down in AZ,” Johnston said, referring to GOP protests in Florida during the 2000 election. “We might need to do the same here in Nevada. Which means we need to get the Proud Boys out.”
Ashton-Cirillo knew exactly who to contact. She turned around and sent a message to a Telegram group of far-right activists, including a leader of the Las Vegas Proud Boys chapter.
“Just received this from the GOP. They are asking me to potentially gather the ’boys and all the patriots and lead a literal (non violent) charge on the County Elections office,” Ashton-Cirillo wrote.
“Support would come from the state party,” she added.
But a few hours later Johnston told Ashton-Cirillo to pump the brakes. “Damn. We’re not getting the green light,” he said.
Around this time, Johnston and other members of the firm were holed up in their “war room” at the Venetian Hotel and Casino. Party chairman McDonald and other Republican officials were also there, according to two people with direct knowledge of the meetings.
The next day, Johnston reversed himself. “Can you assemble your people?” he texted to Ashton-Cirillo.
She relayed the update to the Telegram group: “Guys. Straight from the state … *state GOP.” Ashton-Cirillo then alerted Johnston that “there will be a presence. Of at least a few PB and other Patriots from the party.”
“Very good,” Johnston replied.
“We know those colors,” Ashton-Cirillo wrote, referring to the Proud Boys’ black-and-yellow palette. Johnston “liked” the message.
A Proud Boys member on Ashton-Cirillo’s text chain suggested tactics to evade police and rush the event.
“There is only 5 officers on site,” he wrote, “and mostly at the car entrance. You would want to gather on the side walk as a protest just chilling. The some one gives the order to go. They are to far away to react.” [sic]
While the Proud Boys never actually stormed the Clark County Elections Office, two days after the text exchange, a Proud Boys banner flew at a contentious rally outside the building.
McShane LLC’s founder, Rory McShane, has publicly acknowledged working with the GOP to challenge the election results. But he denied knowledge of the messages in an emailed statement to The Daily Beast.
“I was unaware of these texts, but I know Mr. Johnston was not working on behalf of any client or organization,” McShane wrote, seeking to distance his associate’s activities from the local GOP. “Our management team has met with Mr. Johnston, I’m confident he sees the error of what he did.”
The Nevada GOP did not reply to questions about its relationship with McShane or the Proud Boys. Ashton-Cirillo, however, was under the clear impression that Johnston was taking marching orders directly from the Republican Party. Hours before the request for Proud Boys to show up in Clark County, Johnston texted Ashton-Cirillo that the “GOP has hired us to help with Nevada ballots.”
Ashton-Cirillo, who completed her transition in August 2019, told The Daily Beast that being transgender had helped her float between different worlds. “Some people can’t comprehend the duality,” she said. “However, once you’ve fought through the pain and anguish of a gender transition, everything else is simple both mentally and physically. You lose the sense of fear and realize anything is possible.”
“The far-left and far-right share tremendous grievances with the system in which we live,” she said. “However, only the far-right would be so blinded by hate for our republic that they would have allowed my infiltration to happen.”
“Ultimately,” she added, “their need to believe their own lies and falsehoods allowed me to slide right into their narrative.”
The genesis of her decision to delve into that world, she says, was her exposure to a Kentucky family composed of Nazi and white nationalist end-times preppers. For three months in 2018, she lived and worked with a friend on the family farm, and she saw firsthand that there was a seismic political shift underway. The family had not voted in a presidential election for 36 years, but they were now ardent Trump supporters.
Last week, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the Proud Boys had launched an effort to take over the Clark County Republican Party (CCRP). In a May 6 group chat between Ashton-Cirillo and other right-wing activists, Proud Boys Las Vegas chapter leader Matt Anthony announced that he discussed the plan with McDonald at a rally the night before.
“So May 18th! we’re turning the ccrp meeting into an all day event,” Anthony wrote, adding McDonald is “gonna feed everyone” and “offered to buy all the food.”
McDonald, an ex-cop with a controversial history tailor-made for the Trump era of the Republican Party, had visions of serving in the administration had Trump won a second term. He remains an influential figure in the Nevada GOP.
Ashton-Cirillo scored McDonald’s endorsement for a friend who was running for a district judgeship. While she was infiltrating far-right circles, Ashton-Cirillo also headed up the campaign of registered Democrat Nadia Krall, who faced a popular Democratic opponent on the nonpartisan judicial slate.
But Ashton-Cirillo convinced Krall, a close friend, to change her party affiliation to the Republican side. And she got McDonald’s endorsement for Krall.
Ashton-Cirillo even convinced McDonald to record a robocall, where he called Krall a “friend” of his who would be a “fair but firm” arbiter on the bench. She paid McShane LLC to produce the telemarketing campaign. And Krall ultimately prevailed in a close election.
Ashton-Cirillo is now running for Las Vegas City Council on a progressive platform, and her book about her experience in the extremist underground is slated for the fall.
She says she has since drawn “fierce blowback” from skeptics on both sides of the spectrum, but is comfortable with that.
“Some on my side, especially moderate Democrats, assailed me for my strategy in the judicial races, along with the fact that I went so deep into character,” she told The Daily Beast. “But right-wing extremists only respond to the utmost absurdity, and at the end of the day, I exposed the fraud and fascist dangers that had taken hold within the opposition party, and we are all better for it.”
McShane’s current clients include two Arizona congressmen who spearheaded right-wing efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election—Andy Biggs and Gosar, the representative referenced in Johnston’s texts. Both men have drawn criticism for their connections to right-wing extremist groups.
McShane shared a statement from Gosar’s chief of staff, Tom Van Flein, for this article, saying, “Rory McShane is an incredibly effective strategist. It doesn’t surprise me to see people trying to take him down.”
As for Ashton-Cirillo, she has no regrets about her time among right-wing circles. Krall won her election, and Ashton-Cirillo’s book is already receiving notable attention. The results, she said, justify her methods.
“No apologies. Ever,” Ashton-Cirillo told The Daily Beast. “Trump loves a winner, and as the GOP found out, I won.”