Correction: This story incorrectly described when Enrique Tarrio's criminal record began and included a crime he was not charged with.
Several hours before members of the extremist group the Proud Boys clashed with police and opponents on the streets of Washington, D.C., last weekend, the head of the group was strolling the halls of power.
"Last minute invite to an undisclosed location," Enrique Tarrio wrote on the social media site Parler, posting photos on the steps of the White House.
Tarrio's presence on a White House tour shows how he and the Proud Boys have moved closer to President Donald Trump via a little-known booster group called Latinos for Trump.
Latinos for Trump bills itself as a grassroots network of supporters that provides passionate support at Trump rallies across the country. Photos on social media show the group's leaders attending events at the White House and Mar-a-Lago, rubbing shoulders with Vice President Mike Pence, the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and Trump's sons Eric and Donald Jr.
In the middle of it all is Tarrio, who serves as Latinos for Trump's chief of staff.
Tarrio has been building the Proud Boys into a de facto army of fighters who traverse the nation getting into brawls, setting fire to Black Lives Matter banners and attacking antifa protesters.
In Trump's final days, the Proud Boys have evolved into the thuggish face of the far-right movement, giving their support to everything from Trump's claims of voter fraud to anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.
As the Proud Boys have gained notoriety, Latinos for Trump has seen its political star rise too.
Latinos for Trump president Bianca Gracia's Facebook page shows her attending White House events in August 2019, October 2019 and April 2020. A photo from November 2019 shows Tarrio standing, grinning, next to Donald Trump Jr.
In November, Tarrio and other leaders of the group flew in a private jet to attend the "Million MAGA March," a pro-Trump event in Washington, D.C.
The group has financed such trips through the kindness of donors, Gracia said.
"There are a lot of generous patriots out there," she said in an interview. "What can I say? We've been very lucky."
'Stand back and stand by'
In a debate with then-presidential candidate Joe Biden in September, Trump was pressed to denounce the Proud Boys. "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by," he said, delighting the gang's rank and file with what they took as an endorsement from one of the most powerful people in the world.
The phrase was quickly adopted for memes, songs and T-shirts touted by the Proud Boys.
A few days later, on the Fox News show "Hannity," Trump denounced the Proud Boys, saying "I condemn the KKK. I condemn all white supremacists. I condemn the Proud Boys.
"I don't know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing, but I condemn that," he added.
After the debate, the Trump administration sought to distance itself from Tarrio and Latinos for Trump. A spokesman told The New York Times, "This individual is not affiliated with the Trump campaign, the family, or our official Latinos for Trump coalition," referring to an arm of the campaign with the same name as the group Tarrio is involved with.
The Times reported that the campaign had sent Latinos for Trump a "cease and desist" letter in 2019 warning them to stop campaigning.
But the message to put distance between the Trump administration and Latinos for Trump apparently didn't make it to members of Trump's family.
In October, Gracia posted a photo of herself next to Tiffany Trump, one of the president's daughters, with the caption, "You NEVER say no to hanging out with Tiffany Trump at her cabana."
Last week's White House tour was a "Christmas present" for the group's leaders, Gracia said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Gracia said the tour was arranged through channels open to anyone by applying via a member of Congress. She declined to state which congressional office she went through.
But Gracia also hinted that she had used connections to ensure the tour would take place when the Latinos for Trump team was already in Washington for the Trump rally.
"We received a little help from people," she said.
A felon in the White House
Tarrio's tour of the White House raised another question: How did someone who has served time in federal prison get access to the presidential mansion?
In 2013, Tarrio was convicted of several felonies for receiving and selling stolen goods. He served 16 months in federal prison.
Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent who led the service's Presidential Protection Division, said Tarrio's record wouldn't automatically bar him from a White House tour.
The Secret Service conducts a background check of every visitor to the White House and other locations where the president is present, but it doesn't decide who gets in, Wackrow said.
"The Secret Service doesn't invite or disinvite anybody from the White House — that's a staff function," Wackrow said. "Obviously, he (Tarrio) is a reputational risk, for a variety of factors, but there's nothing that would be immediately disqualifying."
The only time the Secret Service forbids entry is when someone has an outstanding warrant, Wacklow said. In those cases the agency will arrest people at the White House gates, regardless of objections from the White House staff.
A few hours after he was admitted to the White House, Tarrio's followers were involved in violent clashes across the capital. Several people were stabbed in the day's protests and dozens of people were arrested. Tarrio claimed he burned a Black Lives Matter banner, posting a photo to Parler showing him kneeling as others held lighters to it.
Gracia said she isn't concerned about Tarrio's past. She said the Proud Boys have always been polite and supportive of her organization whenever she has encountered them at rallies and events. In some instances, the group has provided security for pro-Trump protesters, she said.
"We all wear several hats," Gracia said. "We're all volunteers, and I don't tell people what to do in their spare time."
Private jet to Trump rally
On Nov. 13, Tarrio and the Latinos for Trump team flew in a private jet from Houston to Washington, D.C., to attend the "Million MAGA March," a pro-Trump rally organized to protest the election results.
The plane, a Gulfstream IV, seats 14 people. Starflite Management Group, the company that owns it, charges $33,850 for a one-way flight from from Houston to Washington.
Latinos For Trump has a registered political action committee, but records show the group has raised just $14,600 since it was registered in 2018.
Gracia said the Latinos for Trump is a nonprofit registered in California and Texas, but the group hasn't filed paperwork with the IRS seeking tax-exempt status. That means it's not a 501(c)(3) organization and doesn't have to disclose anything about its finances.
Wherever the money is coming from to pay for Latinos for Trump and its Proud Boys chief of staff to travel to political events, the group is clearly benefiting from its ties to Trump's circle, said Joseph Lowndes, a political science professor at the University of Oregon who has written extensively about the extremist group.
"Some of these shadier figures, they’re kinda like political entrepreneurs," Lowndes said. "Tarrio is obviously a huckster and a swindler, and part of a violent, far-right organization, but he saw a real opening and saw real gains to be made, and he went for it."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Latinos for Trump group tied to Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio