The photo is chilling in light of what transpired 26 days after it was posted. It shows a member of the militant Proud Boys standing inside the White House and wearing a mask less than a month before members of that same group helped lead the crowds that broke into the U.S. Capitol as they sought to reverse Trump’s loss on January 6, 2021.
Dion Cini at the White House. Credit: Facebook.com/RealTina40
It was previously known that former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio toured the White House on December 11, 2020. However, based on the picture, Dion Cini, a far-right activist who has described himself as a member of the far-right militant group, was also on the tour. The fact that Tarrio wasn’t the only Proud Boy to make it inside the presidential residence during the final days of Trump’s administration isn’t the only notable aspect of the photo. It was posted on Facebook by Tina Forte, a Republican House candidate whose activism has brought her in touch with Cini, Tarrio, and other extremists.
“Dion in the White House this morning,” Forte wrote when she posted the picture on Facebook on December 11.
Forte followed that caption up with two American flag emojis and a social media handle: “@officialoperationflagdrop.” The handle was one of several Cini ran as he made it his mission to wave massive Trump banners at sporting events and other public spaces during Trump’s administration, the 2020 election, and its contentious aftermath. Forte and Cini’s ties go beyond the Facebook post. Forte helped Cini lead and administer the “OperationFlagDrop” channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram— a chat filled with Proud Boys, people who posted neo-Nazi slogans and symbols, and racial slurs. Her involvement in the group, which has not been previously reported, occurred at the same time she was running as the Republican candidate against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), one of the country’s most high-profile House Democrats. And, Forte was not the only aspiring Republican politician who participated in the extreme encrypted chat.
A handful of longshot GOP candidates at every level of government joined in the discussion even as members of the group shared neo-Nazi symbols and Proud Boys iconography. Right-wing influencers like Roger Stone and MAGA rapper Forgiato Blow made appearances along with multiple users who shared content promoting QAnon conspiracy theories.
The Proud Boys who participated in the channel included two of the group’s most prominent leaders; Enrique Tarrio and Ethan “Rufio” Nordean. Both Tarrio and Nordean were convicted this year of seditious conspiracy for their roles in organizing the breach of the Capitol. Tarrio received a sentence of 22 years in prison, while Nordean was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The group chat provides a vivid example of how the MAGA movement is encouraging people who are comfortable with the violent fringe, and who see it as part of their base, to run for office.
The “OperationFlagDrop” Telegram channel was nominally focused on Cini and his banner displays. Those “flag drops” gained some mainstream media coverage and led Cini to proudly declare that he had been banned from Major League Baseball stadiums, two Disney theme parks, Sea World, and Sesame Place. Cini’s demonstrations were cheered on by Trump and his sons, Don Jr. and Eric. Powerful Republicans were also associated with the group chat. Stone, who was a member of the channel, dubbed Cini his “protégé.” Cini suggested on multiple occasions that he had been in touch with Trump himself and, during one late 2021 flag drop, posed for photos with the former president’s son alongside a Proud Boys member who was prominently wearing the group’s gear.
Cini responded to TPM with an email where he laughed off the Nazi symbols posted in his group. He did not address questions about his relationships with the Proud Boys or Trump.
“Neo Nazi content …LOL,” Cini wrote. “The story is a illegitimate before pen goes to paper. I make flags I hang flags, that’s my story.”
In a brief phone conversation on Wednesday, Forte declined to comment before hanging up the phone.
“I might be an administrator, but I didn’t make that channel,” Forte said, adding, “You can write your story, and you can write whatever you’d like about me. It won’t be the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time, and I’m still going to run with my head up high against AOC and decline your questions. Have a good day.”
‘Where can we hang Nancy ??’
TPM has been reviewing the “OperationFlagDrop” channel since late last month. Several of the accounts that participated in the group appear to have been deleted and conversations there indicate that some individual messages were removed. We endeavored to reproduce all of the posts quoted in this story as close to their original format as possible, which includes some spelling and grammatical errors.
The earliest visible messages in the “OperationFlagDrop” Telegram channel date back to Jan. 10, 2021. At the time, Trump supporters and far-right activists were being driven from mainstream social media sites. They were also processing the failure of various schemes to keep Trump in office, which culminated in the Capitol attack. Members of “OperationFlagDrop” coped with this by, among other things, discussing plans to stockpile guns and ammunition.
Multiple messages posted to the Telegram channel indicate that Forte herself was posting under the main “OperationFlagDrop” account in those early days. On January 11, 2021, the account shared multiple pictures of Forte in Washington D.C. five days earlier. While Forte has been adamant that she did not break into the Capitol, she did attend the Jan. 6 protests against Trump’s loss where she carried a large banner showing a painting of Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who was House speaker at the time.
“Where can we hang Nancy ??” OperationFlagDrop asked in a message beneath the picture of Forte and her Pelosi banner.
Over the next few hours, users asked who was responsible for posting as the main OperationFlagDrop account. Cini posted from his personal Telegram page and seemed to confirm it was Forte.
“Tina = OperationFlagDrop she’s an admin,” Cini wrote. Forte replied to the message with two emojis: an American flag, and an arm flexing.
Forte also talked about her role helping to lead the Telegram group when she launched her own individual page on the encrypted messaging platform on Jan. 14, 2021.
“I’ve been on Telegram for a while. My friend Dion has an Operation Flag Drop group that I am administrator of,” Forte said in a brief clip posted on the app.
Tina Forte. TPM Illustration/Telegram.
At the time, Forte had not yet set her sights on elected office. However, she had become something of a MAGAworld influencer, building a social media following throughout 2020 by posting profane, pro-Trump, and anti-COVID restriction video rants. As she ramped up her activism during the 2020 election, Forte openly associated with the Proud Boys. On her Facebook page in November and December of that year, she posted pictures while attending protests against Trump’s loss in Washington D.C. In multiple shots, Forte posed with Cini and Tarrio, the former Proud Boys chairman who had also toured the White House.
In her Facebook posts, Forte discussed participating in events with the Proud Boys.
“Last night we did a flag drop in the middle of riots to support our Blue and our PB’s that were protecting us !!!” Forte wrote on November 15, 2020.
The following day, Forte posted one of her trademark Facebook video rants wherein she declared, “God bless our proud boys for having our back.”
Members of the Proud Boys were a prominent part of the “OperationFlagDrop” Telegram channel from the early days of the group. On Jan. 13, two different accounts that have since been deleted and no longer have visible usernames posted Proud Boy slogans. One deleted account declared, “UHURU!” another wrote, “Poyb,” which stands for “Proud of your Boy,” as they asked, “So whats this chat all about?” A since-deleted user responded with a message that identified Cini as a member of the militant group.
“Support for our brother he is a PB from NYC,” the person wrote. “He drops the big ass flags all over our country.”
Forte, who also posted to the group using her personal Telegram account, was evidently comfortable with the Proud Boys’ presence. She enthusiastically responded to the conversation that described Cini as a “PB” by declaring, “the big flag drops everywhere!! Biggest flag was 75 x 50. We walked everywhere with it !”
Along with Proud Boys members and iconography, the “OperationFlagDrop” Telegram channel also included multiple users who displayed neo-Nazi symbols. One of these people was apparently Jovi Val, who the Anti-Defamation League has described as a “Telegram troll” and prominent attendee of white supremacist events. Some members of the “flag drop” group bristled at Val’s presence. Cini, however, repeatedly defended him.
On Feb. 24, 2021, Cini got into an extended argument about Val with Tarrio, who was also a participant in the “OperationFlagDrop” group. While Tarrio used a pseudonym on the app, he was identified by name by Cini and his biography on Telegram listed him as, “ProudBoy Florida Chairman. Ultra-Villain. 4th Degree. Chieftain SFLPB.” Tarrio was not at the Capitol on Jan. 6 because he had been arrested two days earlier for burning a Black Lives Matter banner that hung on a Downtown D.C. church during one of the December 2020 protests. His various legal troubles figured into the argument with Cini, who consistently accused Tarrio of cooperating with law enforcement to receive a lighter punishment.
“Excuse me….did you just call me a traitor?” Tarrio asked Cini. ”We had this conversation over the phone…and now you stab me in the back in public?”
Cini responded with a series of messages indicating that he left the Proud Boys due to issues with Tarrio.
“Don’t worry I’m out and not coming back. Not that I was ever really participating,” Cini wrote, later adding, “I’m not willing to go down with the captain who’s driving a ship straight down. … I just would never touch a church and then boast about it. I’m not saying that my methodology is the best, or even the worst. But if you have a problem with BLM why don’t you go after the source and not the church. The church isn’t evil, BLM is evil. It really bothered me Enrique.”
Tarrio, whose attorney did not respond to a request for comment, countered by standing by his actions and arguing the stiff penalties he faced proved he wasn’t cooperating with federal prosecutors.
“A church that preaches Marxism is Evil period. You can defend them all you want. But I won’t ever bend a knee to no stinking communist…even if those communists hide behind a cross,” Tarrio wrote, before adding, “I’m facing two years for burning a BLM banner and you’re here stating I’m working with the Feds? … The prosecutor wants my head on a pike.”
As the pair fired messages back and forth, Cini incorrectly predicted Tarrio would not do time in prison and declared, “I used to be a drinking proud boy!”
Tarrio countered with a picture of Val giving a Nazi salute in front of a swastika flag.
“Remember you chose this over your own brotherhood,” Tarrio said.
“If Jovi is a Nazi, then I’m a fire truck,” Cini replied.
At this point, another member of the group piped in to ask, “The man’s got a point Dion. Is Jovi a real Nazi?”
Cini responded by pointing to “freedom of speech” and indicating he did not “approve” of everything Val did.
“I’m used to being called Nazi, so that sound kind of nice,” Cini added.
On Feb. 27, three days after his argument with Tarrio, Cini made a post indicating he was going to start a “three percenter” militia group in the New York area. When the month drew to a close, Cini commemorated the start of March with another inflammatory message.
“Happy White History 11 Months!” Cini wrote.
Roger Stone, Rufio, And ‘That Rat Who Ran The PB’s’
Along with heated rhetoric and personal beefs, Cini used the Telegram group to promote his businesses, like the websites where he sold the Trump banners he displayed during the “flag drops.” Cini also promoted several events including a “Trumparilla” boat parade and a cruise around New York harbor. The “Trumparilla” event, which initially took place in the Tampa, Florida area before expanding to other venues, featured appearances from Forte and Stone, who joined the Telegram group on March 5, 2021.
Despite Cini’s dispute with Tarrio and indications he broke with the Proud Boys, the “OperationFlagDrop” Telegram continued to feature Proud Boy memes and recruitment bulletins.
On May 26, 2021, the main “OperationFlagDrop” account posted a picture of a “PROUD BOY” tattoo on someone’s forearm. Forte, who was using her personal account, responded with a pair of fire emojis. Less than a month after cheering on the Proud Boys tattoo, Forte would announce her longshot congressional campaign against Ocasio-Cortez following alleged encouragement from none other than George Santos.
Forte’s statements in the group, on social media, and on the campaign trail cast her as a right-wing archetype: tough and patriotic, a lover of the 2nd Amendment and law enforcement, and a Queens native. Forte, however, has lived in suburban Nanuet, located in Rockland County, since 2003. Her spokesman confirmed to TPM that she no longer resides in AOC’s district, where she is once again running against the congresswoman in 2024.
Forte’s first candidacy — and her involvement in “OperationFlagDrop” — came at a difficult time in her home life. At the time, court records show, her husband and son were facing federal firearms charges, brought in part because Forte’s husband had a prior state-level assault conviction. A man who identified himself as the victim in that case wrote a letter asking a federal judge for leniency, explaining that he had an affair with Forte. The man wrote that the affair, combined with his own threats towards the husband, led Forte’s spouse to hit the man over the head with a bat.
Forte kept up her activity in the OperationFlagDrop group after she started her House bid. She continued to post in the Telegram group and both she and Cini shared promotional materials for her race.
Dion Cini and Roger Stone. OperationFlagDrop Telegram.
Roger Stone, the on-again-off-again Trump adviser who has been scrutinized by investigators for his involvement in the Jan. 6 protests, used the group to advertise for his legal defense fund and, on one occasion, to mount a vendetta. On June 2, 2021, Stone was sparring on Twitter with journalist Zachary Petrizzo, who was working for Salon at the time. Stone shared some of the tweets in “OperationFlagDrop” along with Petrizzo’s email address.
“This little asshole at Salon magazine is harassing me,” Stone wrote. “Please feel free to email this little jerk off right now and tell him what a complete piece of shit he is.”
Petrizzo and Stone did not respond to requests for comment.
Over the next few months, Stone repeatedly made posts praising Cini. On September 16, 2021, Stone shared a picture of him posing with Cini and a “TRUMP WON” banner.
“If Trump doesn’t run in 2024 maybe the ticket is Stone-Cini !” Stone wrote in the group.
The main “OperationFlagDrop” account responded with a message that encouraged users to give money to Stone and bashed Tarrio.
“Please donate to the man that didn’t rat on the President, unlike that rat who ran the PB’s,” the post said.
Other senior Proud Boys appear in the chat as well. Ethan “Rufio” Nordean was one of the first members of the group to be charged for his actions at the Capitol, where he helped breach the initial barricades which surrounded the building. In a Jan. 14, 2021 audio message, Nordean identified himself as “Rufio.” his Proud Boys callsign. Nordean also referred to his connection with another Proud Boy, the former lead singer of the punk band The Misfits.
While the Proud Boys were the most prominent militant organization in the “OperationFlagDrop” Telegram channel, other extremist groups also had a presence in the chat. For example, on Oct. 24, 2021, a user forwarded along a message fundraising for an alleged “militia” operation along the southern border.
“Me and my team of about 30 guys are heading to the border of Texas to meet up with other Militia down there getting ready for this massive incursion of migrants. We are running Private security in disclosed locations,” the post said. “This is a heavy cost out of our own pockets. Im asking anyone that can assist with even 5$ donation for gas and food for my men to lend a helping hand.”
This extreme content did not dissuade multiple Republican candidates from regularly posting in the channel. In addition to Forte, who has already announced her second House campaign after failing in her initial challenge to Ocasio-Cortez, the group featured multiple messages from other GOP hopefuls at every level of government. In a phone call with TPM, Peter Boykin, the founder of the group Gays For Trump, who is running for lieutenant governor in North Carolina, said he had participated in an Operation Flag Drop event. Boykin also said he posted in multiple Telegram groups that had offensive content that he himself does not agree with.
“I see a lot of anti-Jewish stuff on there. It’s like oh boy,” Boykin said with a laugh. “That’s pretty much all over Telegram. Jeez. I’ve made the joke before, It’s like, can I go into a chat room where somebody doesn’t bring up the Jews, somebody doesn’t post Nazi symbols, or somebody has to talk about everybody being gay? That’s about pretty much everybody that you have to deal with on Telegram.”
At least three New York City Republicans were members of the OperationFlagDrop group: Daby Carreras, who has run for multiple offices, Mark Szuszkiewicz, an unsuccessful Senate and City Council hopeful, and Helen Qiu, who lost an election for Council on Tuesday after a failed state legislature bid in 2022.
Carreras confirmed he was part of the group in phone conversions with TPM while insisting he was not aware of any content involving Nazism or the Proud Boys. Szuszkiewicz responded to a request for comment with an email blasting the “fake news.” He also attempted to plug and promote a “Fake News” song that he recorded. Qiu similarly tried to claim she was unaware of “OperationFlagDrop’s” content in a phone conversation with TPM. However, she directly and enthusiastically engaged with posts that explicitly referred to the Proud Boys’ activities and also wrote her own posts that echoed the extreme conspiratorial views of some of the members in the channel including one message on the first anniversary of the January 6 attack.
“Happy January 6th, Patriots!!! January 6 2021 was bright because of patriots believing in America and believing in God. We still do,” Qiu wrote, adding, “January 6 2021 was dark because of spineless GOP led by mike pence betrayed America and betrayed God. January 6 2021 was darkest because traitors of America solidified their steal of 2020 election.”
Ties To Trump
“OperationFlagDrop” provides a vivid example of how, in the current Trumpified Republican Party, fringe candidates are literally mingling with militants and members of the former president’s inner circle. In addition to his clear connection to Stone, Cini has boasted of his interactions with Trump and his family. Cini posted an interview he did with a Russian television station in January 2021 in which he claimed that Trump had called him. “Russia loves OperationFlagDrop!” Cini wrote. He repeated the claim in a 2021 interview with Insider in which Cini said the former president is the one who encouraged him to keep going after an initial flag drop.
“After I did Yankee Stadium three years ago, which is Trump’s favorite stadium, he called, and he tweeted, and he Instagrammed, and he said, ‘Thank you, please don’t stop,'” Cini said. “I’ve interacted with the Trump family multiple times. I’m not directly part of the Trump Organization, but they know who I am, they know what I’m doing, and they like it.”
On his Telegram channel, Cini shared videos of Trump’s son, Don Jr., cheering on a flag drop outside of the former president’s Manhattan headquarters, Trump Tower, in March 2021. In a video posted on his social media pages, Don Jr. shared footage of his father admiring the demonstration from his office window. The clip included footage of the event taken from the street.
“I pointed it out to my father … he walked over to check it out. He’s aware of what you guys are doing,” Don Jr. said.
On Telegram, Cini shared Don Jr.’s video and said he planned to return to the Tower for another flag drop.
“The President will be waiting for us again if you want to join,” Cini said.
In late May 2021, the main “OperationFlagDrop” account shared a photo of a “TRUMP WON” banner along with a letter from Cini describing the flag as one he displayed at Yankee Stadium that year and offering it as a gift to Trump.
“Hand delivered Monday nite :),” OperationFlagDrop wrote.
Forte answered the post with a pair of hearts and an emoji American flag.
Trump’s re-election campaign did not respond to a request for comment. In May 2022, Cini was interviewed by investigators from the House select committee on the January 6 attack. The investigators asked Cini about his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, as well as his ties to Trump, the former president’s family and campaign, Stone, Tarrio, and the Proud Boys. Apart from denying that he entered the U.S. Capitol as it was breached during the violent protests, Cini pleaded the Fifth to nearly every question.
Cini was apparently back at Trump Tower in late 2021. On Nov. 11, the OperationFlagDrop account posted a picture from the building’s bar where he was standing with the former president’s son, Eric Trump, and a large group as they displayed a “Let’s Go Brandon” banner. The group included a man in a beanie that featured a Proud Boys logo. Eric stood next to the man giving a thumbs up and smiling.
Eric Trump, “Pot Roast,” Dion Cini and others at Trump Tower. OperationFlagDrop Telegram.
Eric Trump did not respond to requests for comment. The man who was photographed alongside the former president’s son appears to be a frequent participant in the Telegram channel who used the handle “Pot Roast” and identified himself as Joe Reilly. “Pot Roast” regularly shared posts to the channel featuring photos of himself in Proud Boys regalia and described himself as a member of the group.
On Nov. 29, 2021 amid reports of leadership changes at Twitter, the main “OperationFlagDrop” account and “Pot Roast” discussed the news on the channel.
“Can we still say white power on Twitter? That’s all I need to know…” OperationFlagDrop asked.
“White Power,” replied “Pot Roast.”
Posts from “Pot Roast” that were explicit about his Proud Boys affiliation drew compliments and encouragement from the Republican candidates in the group. On Dec. 10, 2021, OperationFlagDrop shared a tweet from the “NYCAntifa” account that mocked, “Joe Reilly, an especially cringe Proud Boy from NYC.” The tweet included a photo of Reilly in Proud Boys regalia. Helen Qiu, whose username on the channel identified her as a state Assembly hopeful, responded admiringly.
“We are proud of you Joe,” Qiu wrote.
Later that month, both “OperationFlagDrop” and “Pot Roast” posted about a Proud Boys toy drive.
“The NYC and LI Proud Boys delivering toys today, please share tweet and post to FB,” OperationFlagDrop wrote.
Forte quoted the message and responded with a heart emoji.
“NYC and Long Island Proud Boys raised over $9000 . We delivered $9000 in Toys to a hospital in Port Jefferson Long Island great day. NYC Proud Boys Five Points great pack of Men,” wrote “Pot Roast” before adding a string of emojis.
Qiu was effusive.
“Wowowow!” the Republican candidate wrote. “What have you accomplished!”