CPAC staffers were doing damage control on Friday after they discovered attendees waving Russian flags emblazoned with “TRUMP” during President Donald Trump‘s speech at the conference.
So where did the flags come from?
Ian Walters, a spokesman for the American Conservative Union (ACU), which runs the CPAC each year, confirmed in an email to PEOPLE that a man named Ryan Clayton was responsible for distributing the flags. Walters added that the man pictured below, an intern at the ACU, confiscated the flags from Clayton before he was removed from the conference by organizers.
Clayton is the leader of Americans Take Action, a group opposed to Trump. The group confirmed his identity in an email to PEOPLE, including the following exclusive statement from Clayton himself.
“Donald Trump is a clear and present danger to the U.S. Constitution and the American people,” Clayton said. “That’s why Putin picked him for president, because he knows the Trump regime is good for Russian interests, not the American people. Trump is Putin’s puppet, a traitor to the United States, and must be impeached immediately.”
Mediaite first reported that a “prankster” at the CPAC handed out the miniature banners to attendees shortly before the president’s speech, passing them off as “pro-Trump flags.”
The outlet noted that Trump’s name was only printed on the front side of the flags, so when seen on camera from behind, they simply looked like Russian flags.
Peter Hamby, head of news at Snap, noted on Twitter that organizers quickly confiscated the flags after realizing the close resemblance.
Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, much to the dismay of politicians on both sides of the aisle.
The president recently expressed his admiration for Putin in a pre-Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly on Feb. 5.
“He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not, and if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS – which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world – that’s a good thing,” Trump said. “Will I get along with him? I have no idea.”
O’Reilly responded, “He’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.”
“There are a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers,” said Trump. “What, you think our country is so innocent?”
Facing backlash over his comments, Trump doubled down on past claims that he “doesn’t know Putin.”
“I don’t know Putin, have no deals in Russia, and the haters are going crazy,” Trump tweeted on Feb. 7. “Yet Obama can make a deal with Iran, #1 in terror, no problem!”
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In the latest update in Trump’s ties to Russia, White House officials confirmed on Friday that Chief of staff Reince Priebus asked a top FBI official to knock down news stories saying Trump aides had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials during the presidential campaign.
While the move drew accusations from Democrats of improper interference into a pending investigation, White House and FBI officials have said Priebus’ request did not cross any lines, NBC News reported.