Julie McDonald commentary: My conversation with congressional candidate Joe Kent, part one


After Joe Kent sat at our table in Ramblin’ Jack’s Ribeye in Napavine last month, I told the 3rd District Republican candidate for Congress — who beat U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in the 2022 Republican primary but lost to Democrat Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in the general election — that I’d be recording the conversation while asking questions to write a column.

“Sure,” he said. “Go ahead.”

That’s exactly what he told a young man during his unsuccessful campaign for Congress, but it turned out the questioner was Greyson Arnold, a Christian nationalist, Nazi sympathizer and blogger known for making racist and antisemitic statements.

“He’s some kid who came to one of my events and took a picture with me, and then within an hour, CNN is doing a hit on me,” said Kent, 43, of Yacolt. “If you’re a Republican and you’re a threat to the establishment, they’re going to call you a white nationalist.”

It wasn’t his first time being linked to a white supremacist. Early in his campaign, Kent took a call from Nick Fuentes, a political commentator and internet streamer who espouses far-right white nationalist viewpoints, who offered to support his candidacy. Kent later publicly distanced himself from Fuentes.

“I’ve been smeared,” said Kent, a former Green Beret with 11 combat deployments who retired from the Special Forces and worked for the CIA. “I fought for my country for like 20-plus years alongside people of every single ethnicity and background, took orders from them.

“I’m obviously pretty accessible to people. If people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, can I have a picture with you?’ I don’t automatically do a background check on them.”

Kent is accessible, which is why my writer critique partner and friend Kyle Pratt, of Napavine, set up a meeting. Kyle had told him that a Christian conservative friend in the media had supported Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler but refused to vote for him.

He’s right. I’ll never vote for a white nationalist, and I often referred to Kent in my discussions with Kyle as a “baby Trumper” because of his admiration for and endorsement by the former president. Like others, I believe President Donald Trump unleashed already-simmering hate and venom and made it acceptable to voice aloud prejudices against Blacks, Asians, Jews, the LGBTQ community and others.

So is Kent a white nationalist? 

“No, I am not a white nationalist,” he said emphatically.

Do you support the white nationalists?

“No — 100 percent I do not.” Kent continued, “Nick Fuentes and all those white nationalist kids came to my town halls because I said this America First thing is not a white nationalist (movement). It’s inclusive populism. It’s representing American citizens. They threw a tantrum about that, spent money against me. Who’s that money going to support? They came to my town halls to harass me.”

My tendency is to accept his explanation for how his interview with Nazi sympathizer Greyson Arnold unfolded. 

I admire Kent’s military service and feel only sympathy for him and his two sons over the tragic loss of his wife, Shannon, a Navy cryptologist killed in Syria by an Islamic State suicide bomber in 2019. He served 11 years as an enlisted serviceman before he was promoted to warrant officer, during which time he earned a bachelor’s degree in strategic defense analysis from Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. After retiring from the military, he worked for the CIA as a field operative, then as a foreign policy analyst to President Trump and a project manager for a technology company. He retired on his military pension in January to dedicate himself full-time to his 2024 congressional campaign against Gluesenkamp Perez.

Would I vote for him next year? Although we found more common ground on issues than I expected, I won’t — in large part because he buys into Trump’s narcissistic fantasy that he won re-election in 2020. Trump contended the election was stolen — without proof — and undermined the very fabric of our democracy.

“Rigged is probably a better way to put it,” Kent said, referring to unsolicited ballots mailed to voters because of the COVID-19 pandemic in states that had never used mail-in ballots; censorship from Twitter, big tech and media outlets; and the stifling of reports on Hunter Biden’s recovered laptop, which he said would have swayed 20 percent of Biden voters. 

Kent contends results were rigged in Pennsylvania and Georgia, despite the fact that Biden won those states by 80,555 and 11,779 votes, respectively. The vote difference in Arizona was the closest, with Biden beating Trump by 10,457 votes. 

But none of those races were even close when compared with the 537-vote difference in Florida during the 2000 presidential race between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George Bush and the 129-vote difference in this state’s gubernatorial race between Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Christine Gregoire.

I pointed to the former president’s hourlong telephone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021, where Trump stated, “I just want to find 11,780 votes” and hinted at criminal charges if Raffensperger and his staff didn’t find the votes.

How can anyone defend such behavior? 

“He was specifically talking about the national change of address database,” Kent said.

I noted that audit after audit confirmed the election results.

“The people who were in charge of counting the ballots, they audited it,” Kent said. “I mean, do we get to audit our own taxes?”

What about the more than 60 court cases filed by Trump and his allies seeking to overturn the election that were dismissed—even by judges appointed by Trump? 

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani stated, “We’ve got lots of theories; we just don’t have the evidence,” according to Republican Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who testified under oath before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack that Giuliani and other Trump lawyers urged him to decertify Arizona’s election results.

And Attorney General William Barr, who was handpicked by Trump, declared the U.S. Justice Department had uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could have changed the election’s outcome.

Yet still — without proof — Kent and others continue to concoct far-fetched conspiracy theories to support their erroneous contention that the election was stolen. Kent said COVID-19 changed the way ballots were cast, big tech blocked public discourse by Trump, and the national security apparatus abused its role through Russiagate (a probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections to aid Trump).

I know why Trump lost re-election in 2020. People like me and my husband, who wrote in candidates in 2016 rather than vote for either Trump or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, cast our ballots simply to keep Trump from further eroding public discourse and endangering our nation.

Which is exactly what he did on Jan. 6, 2021, when he urged his supporters at a rally to march to the Capitol where a joint session of Congress was counting electoral college votes to finalize President-elect Joe Biden’s win.

The January 6 attack on the Capitol never ever should have happened in this country, known for its peaceful transfer of power. And it never would have happened without the instigation of Trump, who with his huge ego refused to accept that he had indeed lost the election.

In previous media accounts, Kent has described the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol as a “phony riot.”

“Do you think it was an insurrection?” I asked.

“No,” Kent said. “I think it was a riot. I think if there was going to be an actual insurrection, at least one of those during the insurrection would have brought a gun, but none of them did.” 

According to the Washington Post, law enforcement officers arrested six men on Jan. 6, 2021, for having guns in the vicinity of the Capitol. That same article, published July 8, 2022, reported that Guy Reffitt of Wylie, Texas, who stood near the front of the mob, testified that he counted eight firearms carried by five people, including his .40-caliber pistol and his companion’s .45-caliber handgun.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says nothing about weapons in its definition of “insurrection” as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” The rioters who wanted to prevent a joint session of Congress from certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s win even erected gallows with a noose and shouted, “Hang Mike Pence.” That’s because the former vice president refused to reject the electoral college votes showing that Joe Biden won the presidential race. The congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, events heard testimony that Trump expressed support for hanging Pence. 

“The only person that was shot and killed was one of the unarmed protestors,” Kent noted.

But rioters assaulted 140 law enforcement officers that day.

“I think anybody who assaulted a police officer, anybody who broke things, obviously they need to be dealt with because you can’t do that in a free society,” Kent said.

“I have to agree with Joe Kent here,” Kyle said. “If it was an insurrection, if they were planning on doing harm, they would have brought guns or something more effective than rope. Even if you accept all of that—”

“Which I do,” I said.

“That’s not Joe Kent,” Kyle said.

Kent described what happened Jan. 6, 2021, as “a Trump rally.”

“I’m a supporter of President Trump,” Kent said. “I’m not a supporter of anybody doing any kind of violence. The violence is unfortunate, and we should get to the bottom of who started the violence. But people were detained for well over a year without any kind of due process. I think that’s wrong. I’d say the same thing if it was antifa, the people who smashed up Portland. They shouldn’t be detained without access to due process.”

I agree with Kent on that point. Nobody arrested in this country should be denied due process. 

And they weren’t. The Associated Press examined Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s contention that Capitol rioters were locked up for months on end without being charged. The AP said this was a “false” claim, reporting on Feb. 11, 2022, that “more than 700 people have been arrested in connection with the riot — and each one has been charged.”

At least Kent and I agreed that those who committed violent acts should be held accountable. 

I’ll share more of our conversation next week.

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.