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Duncan Hunter said person making ‘OK’ sign in photo was a ‘stranger.’ The man calls Hunter a friend

California Republican backtracks, but episode could foreshadow his 2020 strategy

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., was recorded at a campaign event talking about his own criminal indictment and his Democratic opponent's name change. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., was recorded at a campaign event talking about his own criminal indictment and his Democratic opponent's name change. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When a constituent who posed for a photo with Rep. Duncan Hunter was later found to have white supremacist ties, a Hunter staffer dismissed him as “a stranger in a parade who wanted to be in a picture” with the Republican congressman.

The photo showed Hunter at a July Fourth parade in his Southern California district, standing beside Kris Wyrick, who flashes an “OK” gesture — a sign appropriated by extremists in recent years to mean “WP” or “white power.”

Hunter deleted the photo, which had been posted on his official Facebook and Twitter pages, after questions from CQ Roll Call on Wyrick’s history of making bigoted statements.

But it turned out Wyrick may not be the “stranger” Hunter’s team made him out to be.

“I know him personally. And I know his family personally. And he’s a great man,” Wyrick is seen saying of Hunter in a 2017 video he posted to his YouTube page.

“People can call me a white supremacist all they want, I wear that label as soon as I wake up in the morning,” he said in the same video.

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Confronted with Wyrick’s characterization of his relationship with Hunter, a spokesman for the congressman backtracked, saying the GOP lawmaker had previously seen Wyrick around his hometown of Alpine at a few community events.

“Alpine is a small community. It’s not unusual for the congressman to frequent different places around his district,” deputy chief of staff Michael Harrison told CQ Roll Call last month. “Congressman Hunter is not friends with this individual and does not socialize with him.”

Harrison conceded that Hunter’s father and predecessor in Congress, former Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, “has mentioned [Wyrick] a couple of times.”

Pressed on why Hunter has not personally issued a statement denying any affiliation with Wyrick, Harrison said, “I spoke to Mr. Hunter. That’s what I’m carrying on to you.”

Wyrick did not respond to calls to his business.

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Hunter, third from left, stands next to a man flashing the “OK” sign last month. The man was later identified as Kris Wyrick. (Screenshot/Rep. Duncan Hunter/Twitter)

Divisive times

Scrutiny of possible ties between Hunter, one of the first members of Congress to endorse President Donald Trump, and Wyrick comes amid fears the GOP will foment racial divisions to turn out its base in the 2020 elections.

Hunter, who faces trial next month on campaign corruption charges, used inflammatory ads and mailers to smear his 2018 Democratic opponent as a terrorist sympathizer. He’s continued with the same rhetoric this cycle, with the same opponent seeking a rematch, and Democrats have denounced the attacks as racist.

And that isn’t surprising given that those xenophobic appeals played a “vital role” in Hunter’s narrow win in his deep-red district last year, according to Carlos Algara, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, who studies how white racial resentment shapes the Republican electoral coalition.

“Our research suggests that Hunter is laying the groundwork in a campaign filled with blatant appeals at mobilizing whites with high degrees of racial resentment to rescue his bid,” Algara said in an email.

Several Republicans have also lined up to take on Hunter, who faces a trial next month on charges of misusing $250,000 in campaign funds, in next year’s open primary.

Trump’s recent racist tweets directed at four minority congresswomen were an early signal the president will borrow from the same playbook in 2020, Algara added.

Wyrick, who owns an ATV and motorcycle repair and welding shop in Alpine, described Hunter as a friend and a customer in an interview with reporter Alexander Zaitchik in 2016.

“It was clear it was more than just a handshake kind of thing,” said Zaitchik, who spent two days with Wyrick for his book “The Gilded Rage.”

In the book, Wyrick describes his decision to move to the forest-bound, unincorporated town: “It’s weird, because the majority of people out here are white people. … There wasn’t many of us in the neighborhoods where we grew up, around Santa Ana or Anaheim.”

He also expresses opposition to immigrants entering the country from the southern border.

“Why don’t you go back to Mexico and make it great? Don’t bring a s—hole over here,” Wyrick is quoted as saying.

A joke or something more?

In a July 8 interview with CBS 8 San Diego, Wyrick confirmed making the “OK” gesture in the photo with Hunter. But he denied being a white supremacist, saying the sign was meant to be a “giant joke against the left.”

“It is just the OK symbol,” he said. “It means nothing else.”

But Wyrick has embraced other symbols of racial and religious hatred.

A photo posted to Facebook in 2018, and shared with CQ Roll Call by a progressive activist, shows Wyrick wearing a shirt with the logo of the American Guard, which the Anti-Defamation League has called “hardcore white supremacists.”

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Wyrick, sixth from the left, wearing a T-shirt displaying the logo of the American Guard, which the ADL has identified as a white supremacist group. The photo was shared with Roll Call by a progressive activist who said it was posted to Facebook in August 2018 and who identified Wyrick. (Courtesy William Johnson)

In 2017, Wyrick spoke at a San Diego school board meeting wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an Iron Cross, a symbol adopted as a war decoration by the Nazis. The same year, he was arrested at a protest in Berkeley, California, on suspicion of public fighting while wearing a shirt with a symbol of the Crusades. The Iron Cross and Crusades imagery have become popular in white supremacist circles in recent years.

Wyrick has publicly stated he belonged to a group led by an accused neo-Nazi and has been captured in news photos pummeling people at protests. He has also participated in armed, extralegal prowls of the Mexican border, according to Zaitchik’s book.

Video from the 2017 school board meeting — in which Wyrick made anti-Muslim comments — appeared in the Facebook group for a far-right, nativist group called the United Patriot National Front. The group identified Wyrick as its “San Diego president,” according to a screenshot of the post shared with CQ Roll Call.

An undated photo on the group’s page showed Wyrick and 13 other people — not all of them white — making the “OK” gesture. Included among them was Antonio Foreman, who participated in the white nationalist “United the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

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Wyrick, seventh from left, and others make the “Ok” gesture in an undated photo posted to the Facebook page for the United Patriot National Front. Antonio Foreman, who participated in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., is also pictured, third from right. (Courtesy William Johnson)

That Facebook page has since been deleted. Facebook began to crack down on white nationalist pages in March.

William Johnson, a progressive activist who has clashed with Wyrick, said he warned Hunter’s staff to cancel the congressman’s scheduled speech at a 2017 event near San Diego dubbed the “Build the Wall Rally” because white nationalists might attend. A Facebook screenshot of the event shows Hunter speaking alongside San Diego Minutemen leader Jeff Schwilk.

A violent clash broke out at the rally. Photos from the day show Wyrick on top of a counterprotester, punching him.

Hunter did not witness the fighting, his spokesman Harrison said, adding that he did not remember receiving the warning about the rally.

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