Trump Official Charged in Capitol Riot Has Family Ties to Argentina’s Military Junta

Federico “Freddie” Klein, a Trump appointee, repeatedly praised the Argentinian military junta of the 1970s and ’80s while working at the State Department.
March 19, 2021, 2:35pm
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A Trump administration official who’s been charged with playing a major role in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol had a history of praising a military dictatorship that seized power in a coup—and close family ties to that junta.

Federico “Freddie” Klein, a former mid-level political appointee at the State Department who sits in jail awaiting a trial for his role in the riots, repeatedly praised the Argentinian military junta of the late 1970s and early 1980s while working at the State Department, according to three former colleagues.

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“He had warm feelings about the Argentine junta. His father’s Argentine, and he expressed some frustration about how history remembers that brutal dictatorship,” one former State Department official who’d heard Klein praise the junta told VICE News.

It turns out that those views may run in the family.

Klein’s uncle Guillermo Walter Klein Jr. was a senior economic official in the Argentine military junta shortly after came to power in 1976. While he pushed through drastic neoliberal economic reforms, the military and its allies were busy murdering as many as 30,000 Argentine students, trade union organizers and other dissidents. And he may not have been the only relative with pro-junta views.

Bob Cox, a former newspaper editor in Argentina, told VICE News that he knew both Walter and Federico, Freddie’s father—and while he hadn’t met Freddie, who was born in the U.S. in 1978, Cox said was “not a bit surprised” about his alleged involvement in the insurrection given his father’s and uncle’s politics.

“There is a connection of the belief that you use military force, if you can. That ran in the family,” he said.

A number of Argentina experts—as well as some of Freddie Klein’s former colleagues — noted unsettling parallels between his family’s support for a right-wing coup that toppled a democratically elected regime in Argentina and Freddie’s own alleged role in the attempted pro-Trump coup at the Capitol on January 6.

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But by all accounts, the Kleins are a genteel, well-connected upper class family. Their white-glove approach stands in contrast to allegations of Freddie’s literally bare-knuckled attack on democracy.

“His famous uncle played the role of a conservative technocrat who enabled fascist-inspired dictators,” said Federico Finchelstein, a Argentine history professor at the New School. “Federico [Freddie] played a very different role. This is a person who is on the fascist side of the equation. His uncle, Guillermo Walter Klein, was not in the trenches as a fighter.”

Unlike his relatives, Freddie got involved in politics not through think-tank conservatism but right-wing protest politics. After a decade in the Marines, he volunteered for the socially conservative Family Research Council and eventually landed a role on President Trump’s 2016 campaign. When Trump won, Klein was among a raft of hangers-on that Trump’s team placed in plum government jobs. And on January 6, as pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol in an effort to block the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory, Klein allegedly helped lead the charge.

He now faces six charges for his role in the insurrection. Video shows a man alleged to be Klein was among the first wave of rioters to attack the Capitol. He mounted a half-hour assault on Capitol Police, rallying others to attack with a call of “we need fresh people” while using a police shield to repeatedly attack officers. Prosecutors say he ignored police orders and only ended his assault when he was physically subdued by pepper spray. A judge denied his bail last week, saying he was a violence risk and had betrayed his oath to defend and protect the U.S. Constitution. 

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“There were enemies at the heart of American democracy, and a person who swore an oath switched sides,” U.S. Magistrate Zia Faruqui said at the proceeding.

Freddie Klein’s Pro-Junta Views

Klein landed a temporary position at the State Department shortly after Trump won the presidency. He then requested a job working on the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, according to Trump administration sources, and the office was told it had to take him.

Officials steered him towards the Southern Cone desk, which includes Argentina and where his family background and fluent Spanish could be an asset.

Klein jumped at the chance, but soon proved his lack of diplomatic training and inability to carry on that job as well, say former colleagues.

“In the course of talking to him it was clear he was way out of his depth,” said one former State Department official.

“He was very paranoid, always worried about there being a purge of what he called ‘the real Trump loyalists,’” said another official. “He saw himself as a real Trump hardliner.”

He was quickly moved to the Freedom of Information Act desk, a gruntwork detail one State Department official described as “the island of misfit toys.” Klein seemed content there, and officials were happy to have him out of their hair.

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Colleagues said that he touted his Trump ties and wasn’t shy in voicing his strident views on policies like abortion, immigration and foreign policy.  But even compared to his normal right-wing tough talk, his views on Argentina stood out to colleagues.

One former State Department official said that he’d heard Klein argue a viewpoint held by archconservatives in many Latin American countries that when rightwing dictatorships committed human rights abuses, “the body count was in their legitimate fight against anti-government guerillas.”

“I think that clearly the views expressed were very sympathetic to a notorious human rights-abusing regime that came to power in a coup and brutalized its civilians,” said the official.

Another former colleague said Klein occasionally talked about his family’s Argentine roots, at one point saying that “it’s all gone downhill now” in recent decades.

A third former State Department said they had heard from multiple mutual colleagues that Klein had “made very sympathetic remarks about the military junta,” calling it “a positive thing” for the country.

"When I saw the news that he was involved on January 6 I wasn’t surprised at all,” that official said.

Cecilia Klein, Freddie’s mother, said she’d never heard her son voice pro-junta views, but speculated that if Klein had said anything it was to put the regime in a broader historical context.

“What he was probably explaining to his friends in the office of the Southern Cone was that there was context to the military takeover. And I'm not saying I think it was a great idea. But you should do a little research as to what was going on before the Videla [military] government came in,” she told VICE News.

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Freddie Klein’s Family Ties

Klein comes from a well-to-do Argentine family that has deep ties to the country’s right wing. His grandfather, Guillermo Walter Klein Sr. served as an economic adviser in the government in the 1930s, and was an executive director at the International Monetary Fund in the early 1960s.

Both Guillermo Walter Klein Jr., known as Walter, and his brother Federico German Klein, Freddie’s father, studied at prestigious American universities. Federico stayed in the U.S. and began his long career at the Inter-American Development Bank in 1968.

Walter, Freddie’s uncle, served in the military dictatorship of the late 1960s as an economic undersecretary, went to Harvard University for graduate school when dictatorship was toppled, then returned in the mid-1970s to serve as the right-hand man to the newly installed junta’s top top economic adviser.

That dictatorship had tacit support from the United States, and was viewed by many on the right as a necessary response to a rise in marxist violence, unrest and economic instability in the country. But it soon became clear that it was a significantly bloodier regime than many expected.

Bob Cox was the editor and publisher of the Buenos Aires Herald. The paper was one of the few in the country willing to document the junta’s human rights atrocities. Cox was forced to flee the country a few years into the regime after he was arrested and his son received death threats. He told VICE News he knew both Freddie’s father Federico and his grandfather, also named Guillermo Walter Klein. 

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“They were right-wing, very much,” he said. 

He says he was close friends with Walter, Freddie’s uncle, until the latter’s support of the military dictatorship ended their relationship.

“When he [Walter] came back from Harvard, he turned to me and said ‘I want to help, I want to be able to give back to my country.’ And he then went into a number of governments. Unfortunately all of them were military governments,” Cox told VICE News. “He said it was necessary—that he thought that if they could get the economy of Argentina [working] they could then be concerned about human rights problems.”

Walter Klein made clear his views at the time, reportedly saying that the right-wing economic reforms he viewed as necessary were “incompatible with any democratic system and only applicable if backed by a de facto government.”

The Klein family faced direct threats from Argentine leftists. In 1978, Montonero guerillas bombed Guillermo Walter Klein’s home. Two guards were killed, but he and his family somehow survived after being dug up from the rubble. The attack received international attention.

Cecilia Klein said her former brother-in-law was a technocrat who had nothing to do with the junta’s violent elements.

“He was an economist, and I was down there when he was an economist for that government, and I can absolutely assure you he didn't get involved in disappearing people,” she said.

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Experts on the regime agree that Walter hailed from the suit-and-tie, neoliberal wing of the government, which was an alliance between the old establishment conservatives in the country who saw their business interests threatened by Peronism and the stagnating economy, and the neo-fascist military leadership. 

Walter served as the right-hand man of Argentina’s Minister of Economy, Jose Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, who pushed through a series of controversial reforms aimed at jumpstarting a struggling economy that was wracked with hyperinflation. The economists weren’t murdering dissidents, but were plenty controversial in their own right as they pushed through reforms that caused short-term pain for broad swaths of the country’s middle class with the goal of getting inflation under control.

“Martínez de Hoz, his boss, is widely regarded as the maximum dark figure of the dictatorship, the initiator of neoliberal reforms in Argentina and the direct or indirect architect of a wide variety of crimes,” University of Connecticut history professor Mark Healey told VICE News. “It doesn't surprise me in any way that his nephew would be an enthusiast of military dictatorships.”

Guillermo Walter Klein continued to work in Buenos Aires’ elite circles long after the dictatorship collapsed. But in 2008, the daughter of an economic minister who disappeared after opposing what he saw as a corrupt deal testified that the last time her family heard from him, he was on his way to see Klein. The Argentine government opened an investigation into whether Klein played any role or had knowledge of the disappearance in 2014.

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It’s unclear how close the Kleins were, and what Freddie’s relationship with his uncle is like. Guillermo Walter Klein didn’t respond to a Facebook message asking to discuss this story, a phone number and email at his former law firm are no longer in service, and an attempt to reach him through the Harvard Club of Buenos Aires, where he’s a former president, were unsuccessful. Freddie Klein’s attorney declined comment, and he couldn’t be reached directly in jail. Federico Klein Sr., Freddie’s father, died in 2018.

According to Cox, Guillermo Walter Klein Sr., the patriarch, once told him “The only way to deal with terrorism is to look upon them as stones, and you throw them into a bottomless well,” a haunting comment given that the Argentine military junta was known for drugging its political prisoners and throwing them to drown into the Atlantic Ocean from airplanes.

Cox said that Federico and Walter Jr. “didn't get on very well,” but that their political views weren’t that different.

“Just from talking to him, it was quite clear he was very supportive of the military regime in Argentina,” he said of Federico.

Cecilia Klein denied that her ex-husband Federico supported the dictatorship.

“I can assure you that wasn’t how his father felt,” she said when asked about Freddie’s views.

But she argued that it was unfair to lump in anyone who supported the junta with its most bloodthirsty and violent elements.

“You might research the government in place before then before you take out of context any remarks someone might have made. There was armed insurrection in the streets before the military stepped in,” she said. “Bodies were piling up, the economy was in the tank. I would hope if we ever got to that point, somebody would think some new thoughts.”