WASHINGTON (CN) — “Trump has done amazing things for our country,” Michigan Republican candidate Ryan Kelley said of the former president during a gubernatorial debate, one day before entering a not guilty plea to charges in connection with the pro-Trump rally-turned-riot last year.
On the eve of his telephonic arraignment Thursday, the Donald Trump loyalist told his four GOP opponents that he believes the 2020 election was stolen from the 45th president, who has repeatedly pushed the false claim without proof.
Kelley has denied to local media that he physically entered the U.S. Capitol and has refused to confirm if he is in pictures of the riot, but said Wednesday that he was in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to protest.
“We were there protesting the government because we didn't like the results of the 2020 election and how it happened,” he said during a debate hosted by WOOD-TV8 in Grand Rapids. “We have that First Amendment right and that’s what 99% of the people were there for.”
After someone tipped off the FBI about Kelley’s alleged involvement in the Capitol riot, the bureau reportedly identified him in pictures of the insurrection. The FBI raided his home and he was arrested and charged on June 9, which seemingly increased his popularity among conservative voters after a poll conducted between June 10-13 showed him as the most favorable GOP candidate to face off against incumbent Democrat Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
With 17% of poll respondents' support, Kelley was followed by chiropractor Garrett Soldano (13%); businessman Kevin Rinke (12%); businesswoman Tudor Dixon (5%) and pastor Ralph Rebandt (1%), according to the Detroit Free Press poll conducted by EPIC-MRA of Lansing.
It remains to be seen whether the GOP gubernatorial hopeful’s denial of wrongdoing on Jan. 6, and unshaken fealty to the former president, will help or hurt him in Michigan's Aug. 2 primary election.
According to an FBI affidavit, Kelley can be seen in pictures wearing a black hat and a black coat “in a crowd of people who are assaulting and pushing past law enforcement officers” outside the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“After causing U.S. Capitol Police to retreat, the crowd climbed the stairs towards the entrance to the interior of the U.S. Capitol … Kelley moved towards the side of the nearby stairs and began to climb onto an architectural feature next to those stairs,” the affidavit states.
At one point, Kelley is said to have motioned for the mob behind him to advance, which was reportedly captured in a YouTube video.
Three witnesses reportedly confirmed Kelley’s identity in pictures of the insurrection shown to them by the FBI.
“Based on the foregoing … there is probable cause to believe that Kelley … knowingly remained in any restricted building without authority to do so … with the intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of government business,” the affidavit states.
Kelley, 40, pleaded not guilty on Thursday to knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority; disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds; knowingly engaging in any act of physical violence against person or property in any restricted building or grounds; and destruction of government property.
The Michigan Democratic Party said Thursday that during the debate, Kelley “touted the multiple federal criminal charges stemming from his participation in the violent insurrection as a conservative bonafide.”
A self-described conservative Republican, Kelley founded the American Patriot Council, which seeks to “restore and sustain a constitutional government in the United States of America,” according to its website.
Kelley’s group has alleged that top Democrat officials in the Wolverine State – Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson – should be charged with felonies for their governmental actions related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a campaign brochure, sandwiched between a picture of Kelley with Trump and a photo of the U.S. flag next to the Michigan State Flag, is Kelley's vow that, as governor, he “will not allow the federal government to infringe upon the powers that belong to the state and to the people.”
Running on a pro-life and pro-Second Amendment platform, Kelley is backed by the Michigan Coalition for Freedom and the National Firearms Coalition.
Following the August primary, Kelley is due back in court on Sept. 22 for a status conference, just weeks before the Nov. 8 general election.
If convicted of all four misdemeanors, he faces a statutory maximum sentence of up to four years in prison.
The Justice Department has charged more than 855 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of July 6, about 264 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, 65 have pleaded guilty to felonies and at least 99 people have been sentenced to incarceration.