If there were a hero crafted just for the anti-Trump resistance, she would look a lot like Chelsea Manning. A trans woman who speaks out firmly against white supremacy, deportations and the carceral state, Manning was court-martialed and imprisoned for seven years after exposing military secrets. She emerged a lauded icon of the left, celebrated as a paragon of progressive protest.
Over the weekend, photos surfaced of Manning attending a gala held on Saturday by the far right’s most acerbic demagogues. As Manning insisted that she was there to “crash” the A Night for Freedom party at the five-story nightclub FREQ NYC, new photos surfaced. A few showed her laughing along at the party with far-right talking head Gavin McInnes, who once called trans people “gender niggers.” Meanwhile, photos dating back to November emerged showing Manning posing after an “escape room” game with pro-Trump conspiracy hustlers including Lucian Wintrich and Jack Posobiec.
The reaction from many on the anti-Trump left has included feelings of confusion and betrayal. Advocates and enemies reached for myriad explanations for how it is that Manning — military whistleblower and hero to the anti-fascist left — ended up at a right-wing rager.
Is Manning a secret fascist? No, it turns out — she’s just allowed a trusted confidante to lead her into catastrophe, yet again.
Mic spoke to several right-wing media figureheads who described their experiences at both the gala in New York and Manning’s participation in the escape room game in Washington. Mic also spoke with a representative from Manning’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, as well as friends of hers on both on the left and the right. They spoke not of a leftist icon with secret allegiances with far-right fascists, but of a woman led by a friend into a series of bad photo ops, and who was not careful to watch whose elbows she was brushing.
Finally, we spoke to Manning herself.
Those close to Manning told Mic that the time she spent with the far right is part of a larger campaign of anti-fascism and an intelligence-gathering operation that compelled her to play along with far-right characters. That sentiment was echoed in tweets Manning sent out after the party.
Those on the far right, however, saw the friendly overtures as genuine — and now, ruined.
“I should have been more careful about these situations and done more to prevent this chaos,” Cassandra Fairbanks, the right-wing social media personality who brought Manning to the party, told Mic. “I should have been a better friend.”
After this story was published, Manning called Mic to insist that Fairbanks was never a “trusted confidante.”
“‘Trusted confidante’ implies I’m providing them information, which I’m not,” Manning told Mic. “They barely got anything from me. I didn’t trust them with anything.”
Instead, she said of the right wingers she’s met that she “viewed them as sources, but nothing more.” But what about Fairbanks and others’ assertion that the two of them had a friendship? Would she consider Fairbanks a friend?
“No one I can trust”
In May 2010, as an Army private working in intelligence, Manning had something to say and no one to turn to. Manning soon found Adrian Lamo, a famous savant hacker known in for his encyclopedic command of information security.
After reading about Lamo in a Wired profile, Manning reached out under the handle bradass87. She confided about her upbringing, her violent, alcoholic father and her struggles with gender identity.
“I’m honestly scared, and I have no one I trust,” Manning wrote to Lamo. “I need a lot of help.”
Then, she asked Lamo a hypothetical question: What would Lamo do if, in the course of working for the U.S. military, he’d seen things, “awful things.”
“Say... a database of half a million events during the Iraq War... from 2004 to 2009... with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures...?” she wrote.
Lamo eventually offered an answer: “Wikileaks would be the perfect cover.”
The first of Wikileaks’ revelations from Manning was the “Collateral Murder” video. But the leaks from Manning kept coming, eventually including hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables.
And then Lamo turned Manning in, claiming that the leaks posed a greater threat to national security than he initially anticipated. (A Department of Defense report obtained by BuzzFeed in 2017 concluded that Manning’s leaks didn’t pose a substantial threat to U.S. interests abroad)
Tried in a military court, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in military prison, the harshest sentence handed out for an intelligence leak in modern history. Just as she began her sentence, Manning announced she was a transgender woman.
Shortly after her sentence began, Manning attempted suicide and was put in solitary confinement in a 6-by-8-foot cell. The military called it “disciplinary segregation.” Her advocates called it torture.
As one of his final acts in office, President Barack Obama commuted all but four months of Manning’s sentence. Republican leaders puffed their chests; the progressive left rejoiced.
“That’s all I asked for was a chance. That’s it,” Manning told ABC News in an exclusive interview shortly after her release. “And now this is my chance.”
Manning entered prison under the Obama administration and emerged a perfect hero for the developing grassroots resistance to President Donald Trump. She quickly developed her own hashtag, #WeGotThis, a simple statement of solidarity and confidence often dressed with emojis of smileys and rainbows.
When anti-racists marched against right-wing rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in Berkeley, California, they carried #WeGotThis signs as messages of hope. It wasn’t just the government transparency hawks and far left lifting Manning’s name high: She had become an icon of anti-fascists, leftists and LGBTQ youth across the world.
#WeGotThis became a campaign slogan when Manning filed to run for Senate as a Democrat in the state of Maryland on Jan. 13.
“We need to stop expecting that our systems will somehow fix themselves,” Manning said in her announcement video. “We need to actually take the reigns of power from them. We need to challenge them at every level. We need to face this. We don’t need them anymore. We can do better.”
“You’re damn right we got this,” she added.
Despite the ABC News interview, prolific tweeting and a few appearances in magazines like Vogue, Manning had remained out of the public eye since her release. She still had critics, among both Republicans who saw her as a treasonous threat to national security and Democrats who saw no place for an Obama-era whistleblower in the progressive movement. So she kept to herself, out of the media and among close cadre of friends and allies.
And once again, she found a friend.
Before Fairbanks was dubbed a pro-Trump “leader in the Deplorable movement” by Cosmopolitan, she was a die-hard progressive, setting up a Tinder account just to convert thirsty young men to the Bernie Sanders ticket, according to the magazine. After the Democratic primaries, she cast all that off, adopting anti-immigrant vitriol and a hatred for Hillary Clinton.
She never stopped loving Manning, though.
Fairbanks, who now works for the far-right blog the Gateway Pundit, is staunch anti-imperialist and a dedicated supporter of Wikileaks. She joined Twitter just to keep up with Manning’s incarceration, and wrote her letters of support while she was in prison.
In September, they ended up on opposite sides of a protest against right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley. Fairbanks messaged Manning to say that she had Manning’s back if there was any violence. Regardless of politics, they always shared an animosity toward the American military machine and the atrocities they saw in the Iraq War. During the protest, Manning responded, and the two developed a personal relationship.
Those who knew Manning on the far right considered it a friendship. But close confidantes of Manning on the left insist that Fairbanks was being played.
On Nov. 30, Fairbanks planned on attending an escape room — a group activity where people are locked in a room full of puzzles that they must solve within a set time to find their way out. This particular room was themed after the moon landing.
“Venture back to 1969 and see if you can make America proud,” the escape room’s website advertises.
To anyone familiar with key players in right-wing political drama, the attendance list would have set off major red flags. One attendee was Wintrich, a coworker of Fairbanks’ at the Gateway Pundit and a fake news purveyor. Another was Posobiec, famous for, among other things, advancing the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that led a gunman to a Washington, D.C., pizzeria in search of a fake pedophile ring.
Fairbanks asked the group whether it was alright to bring Manning. They were happy to have her. Mic was told by those in attendance, as well as Manning’s campaign staff, that she was never fully briefed on exactly who she would be hanging out with.
“We kept the entire thing very surface level,” Posobiec told Mic. “We talked about the escape room, and joked about that. Everyone made it a point not to bring up politics that night.”
Afterward, Fairbanks brought Manning a few times to board game nights at Wintrich’s home near Washington. Wintrich told Mic he’d chatted politics with Manning, but only in the context of her revelations to Wikileaks. He told her he appreciated her heroism, but that he didn’t approve of some revelations, which he found needlessly embarrassed the United States. His open Islamophobia never came up, he said, and he insists they were firmly “on different political sides.”
“It’d be a mischaracterization to say that since she debated with us, and professed her beliefs against ours, that she agrees with us,” Wintrich told Mic. “It’s complete nonsense.”
In those months, Fairbanks knew she was treading an incendiary line. She told Mic that she wishes the whole thing — the escape room, the board game nights — had remained private.
And it might have, until Fairbanks got VIP tickets for Manning to attend a blowout right-wing gala in New York on Saturday. Wintrich said he could have guessed the inevitable consequence: a media spectacle that could jeopardize Manning’s reputation.
“I don’t think that she really thought it out,” Wintrich said.
Crashing the party
“Say you’re having sex with a tranny,” McInnes proposed to the room at FREQ NYC on Saturday. Surrounded by members of the Proud Boys, the violent far-right fraternity he founded, McInnes began speculating, in vulgar detail, how a man could be considered straight but still have an encounter with a trans woman.
“We’re having people now say that if you don’t wanna suck off a woman, on her cock, then you’re sexist,” he concluded, to whoops and hollers from the crowd. Outside FREQ NYC as he spoke, anti-fascist protesters fought with the party’s attendees, injuring several and putting a 56-year-old in the hospital.
At this point, Manning was just arriving. A close friend of hers from the far left, who was outside protesting that night and spoke to Mic on the condition of anonymity because of their anti-fascist activism and fear for their safety, said that Manning knew what she was walking into.
“This was part of a larger campaign that she undertook to get close to the alt-right for the purposes of undermining them and learning about them,” Manning’s friend told Mic. “She wanted to do something about what’s going on in this country with fascists and Nazis having cocktail parties in Manhattan.”
Upon arrival, Manning visited the protesters, who gushed on Twitter that they’d met their hero. After texting with Fairbanks, she was let into the party. As the right-wing DJ Milk N Cooks blasted dance music, Fairbanks stayed by Manning’s side. Attendees approached her near the bar, shaking her hand and paying respects for her actions against the security state.
To call the attendees of the gala part of the “alt-right” is a delicate category error. The event was held by the leaders of the “alt-lite” or “new right,” a loose coalition of pro-Trump internet celebrities and new media stuntmen who, while avowedly anti-white nationalist, nevertheless advance anti-black, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant talking points. Mike Cernovich, the party’s headlining host, built his reputation as a rape apologist blogger, was once charged with sexual assault and also famously advanced the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory.
Manning wasn’t present for McInnes’ anti-trans speech, which took place in a separate room. When McInnes worked his way through the crowd later, Fairbanks pulled him over to meet Manning. Despite being one of the far right’s most virulent talking heads, he referred to her as Chelsea, shook her hand and said he was grateful for what she’d done. He cracked a joke. Everyone laughed.
Meanwhile, reporters from BuzzFeed began tweeting about Manning’s attendance at the party, and were met with rage and denial from her leftist adherents. It became immediately clear that while the far right was happy to have her, leftists across the country weren’t amicable to the idea that Manning was cavorting with right-wing provocateurs.
After leaving, Manning tweeted that she had “crashed the fascist/white supremacist hate brigade party,” and that she “learned in prison that the best way to confront your enemies is face-to-face in their space.”
For many on the left watching from home, however, the damage was done. By attending the event at all, Manning set herself up for accusations of co-signing a gala of pseudo-fascists and white supremacists.
Those on the right, on the other hand, were quick to brag about how civil they’d been to Manning, even as her Twitter mentions filled to the brim with transphobic abuse. For those who always considered Manning a traitor, the photos were evidence that she was a pox on progressive politics all along. And for purportedly left-leaning conspiracy theorists, the event became a part of a broader plot.
“There’s a very simple explanation,” British politician-turned-blogger Louise Mensch tweeted about Manning’s attendance. “She wanted to be photographed with fascists, because they and she serve Russia.”
Fairbanks told Mic she’s now wracked with guilt, blaming herself for the damage and for pulling a vulnerable friend past the cameras and straight into a public relations catastrophe.
But perhaps no one was hurt more than Manning. Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, who endorsed Manning’s senate campaign, told BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein that Manning “expressed extreme regret” to Sarsour for attending the party, and was on “the verge of tears.” Two individuals close to Manning confirmed to Mic that she’s deeply upset that there’d be any doubt as to her anti-fascist credibility.
“It’s been frustrating for Chelsea to see any doubt, or these conspiracy theories that she’s switched sides and just enjoying hanging out with the fascists,” Manning’s anti-fascist friend who was outside FREQ NYC on Saturday, told Mic. “She wants to get out there and do things to help, and doing this was very consistent with everything else about her character.”
A member of Manning’s campaign staff told Mic that Manning is “absolutely, 100%” in solidarity with the anti-racist protesters,” which they said “should go without saying, but apparently doesn’t.” The staffer said Manning’s clout got her access to an event that would give her insight into what her protesting allies couldn’t see, and they find it unfortunate that there seems to be a concerted effort to damage her reputation.
Whether or not the left at large will forgive Manning, or believe her story about an infiltration campaign, is uncertain. Many are still waiting for Manning to speak about these events herself, potentially before further details emerge of her interactions with the far right. Close friends of Manning say that she’s preparing a response. Mic had reached out directly to Manning, who did not initially respond.
But Manning’s new constituency — the anarchists, the transgender rights activists, the radically anti-fascist left — are unlikely to tolerate any further fraternizing with right-wing provocateurs. No more parties. No more game nights. Wintrich told Mic he wouldn’t fault Manning for distancing herself further from them.
Fairbanks told Mic she wanted to make clear was it was never her intention to try to convert Manning to the far right. Indeed, she said she never believed anything of the sort would be possible.
“She has more guts and backbone than anyone else I have ever known,” Fairbanks said. “The left should be proud to have her.”
Benjamin Moe contributed reporting.
Jan. 24, 2018, 3:48 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comment from Chelsea Manning.