Image is further proof of links between GOP officials in Pacific north-west and far right activists who regularly seek out confrontations with anti-fascist protesters

A member of a rightwing militant group that has violently clashed with anti-Trump protesters has been given a commemorative portrait of Donald Trump by a Republican political operative who worked on the presidents election campaign.

John Beavers, a self-described free speech warrior, was presented with a framed replica of a Trump portrait following the violent clashes in Berkeley, California, in April.

Beavers nose was broken during the fracas on the university campus, and a widely circulated image from the protest showed his face gushing with blood.

Three days later, Beavers posted a photo of himself receiving the Trump portrait from Adam Benton, who was paid almost $9,000 to work on field consulting for the Trump campaign. Beavers had a bandaged nose in the photo.

The image is further evidence of links between Republican officials in the Pacific north-west and rightwing activists who are regularly seeking out confrontations with anti-fascist, or antifa, protesters.

Contacted by the Guardian, Beavers initially said the artwork, a replica of a portrait he said hangs in New Yorks Trump Tower, was a gift from the president.

Mr [Don] Benton had it delivered to me from Mr Trump, Beavers said. However, moments later, Beavers said he had been mistaken and that the artwork was in fact a gift from Adam Benton and his father, Don, who is a senior Trump administration official.

Don Benton is a former chair of the Washington state Republican party who is reported to wield an unusual degree of influence over Trump. Beavers noted in a Facebook caption accompanying the image that the elder Benton was currently working for Trump. So bad ass. I feel honored to be given this.

Despite the timing of the present, Beavers insisted the gift had nothing to do with his bruising encounter in Berkeley and was instead intended to be a reward from the Benton family for his tireless work for candidate Trump during the election more than six months ago.

Beavers nose was broken during the fracas on the university campus. Photograph: GoFundMe

Beavers also at one point attempted to claim the photograph was taken four or five days before he posted it, which would have been a day or two before the Berkeley riots. When it was pointed out that his nose was bandaged in the photo, Beavers conceded the image was in fact taken after the Berkeley riots. Normally I dont post [photos] the same day. I live in the woods, he explained.

Asked why he changed his story about the painting being a gift from the president, Beavers replied: I guess [because] youre the media. I dont know. Ive talked to media so much and it seems like they twisted some words.

Earlier this week, James Buchal, a top Republican in Portland, Oregon, said the local party was considering using militant groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters as security. The Anti-Defamation League later denounced the remark, describing the two groups as militia-style, anti-government extremist groups.

Don Benton is a significantly more senior figure in GOP politics in the region. A former Republican lawmaker, he served as Trumps statewide campaign chair in Washington and appears to have developed a close relationship with the businessman, traveling with him on his private plane.

Following his election, Trump rewarded Don Benton with a high-level political appointment at the Environmental Protection Agency. Benton only lasted three months on the job after reportedly clashing with the EPA director, Scott Pruitt. Trump then appointed him to lead the Selective Service System, a small agency with a $22m annual budget responsible for ensuring that 18- to 25-year-old men register for the military draft.

It is unclear whether Don Benton sanctioned his sons presentation of the gift. Don Benton did not respond to requests for comment. Contacted by phone, Adam Benton declined to elaborate on the nature of the gift.

Beavers, who runs a custom print shop, met the Bentons during the 2016 presidential campaign after he sold his house to campaign for Trump, in part by driving around in a specially decorated Trump Truck.

Beavers said he used all of his own money to fund a 28-state tour in the Trump Truck but was never formally involved in the Trump campaign, even as a volunteer. He said he believed the Bentons planned to give him the portrait as a thank you gift prior to his travel to Berkeley.

Beavers said that he used all of his own money to fund a 28-state tour in the Trump Truck, but was never formally involved in the Trump campaign, even as a volunteer. Photograph: Twitter

Beavers has distanced himself from the more extreme, neo-Nazi elements who have been battling with anti-fascists around the country. He also professes to want to seek dialogue with political adversaries who he argues want to shut down free speech. Im hoping for peace anywhere I go, Beavers told the Guardian. But Im not going to be the one thatll back down.

Beavers, who lives in a remote section of the Olympic Peninsula, is a key member of a group based in Vancouver, Washington, whose members have been traveling the country styling themselves as warriors for Trump and repeatedly engaging in brawls with political opponents. Such rallies, ostensibly protests over free speech, have become well-known gathering points for fights between rightwing and leftwing activists.

Beavers group is aligned with the Three Percenters and Oathkeepers, as well as other militia leaders who have helped foment unrest in cities such as Seattle, Boston, New Orleans, New York and Portland.

They include Based Stickman Kyle Chapman, a convicted felon who gained notoriety after he was filmed attacking leftwing protesters, and Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Vice magazine who now heads an online propaganda channel, Rebel Media, that has been accused of antisemitism.

McInnes and Chapman recently joined forces to form the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, which they describe as the military wing of the alt-right, a term popularized by, among others, Richard Spencer, a white supremacist.

The Vancouver group to which Beavers belongs is fronted by Joey Gibson, who runs a YouTube video blog and Facebook group called Patriot Prayer. Gibson has vowed to press ahead with a controversial rally in Portland this Sunday, barely a week after a white supremacist fatally stabbed two men in Portland after they tried to shield young women from his anti-Muslim tirade.

The suspect in that attack, Jeremy Christian, who appeared in court this week, attended another of Gibsons pro-Trump events in Portland in late April, not long after the Berkeley protests.

Christian was filmed draped in an American revolutionary war flag, throwing fascist salutes and yelling racial epithets during that event. However, the same video footage shows members of the Gibson and Beavers group openly clashing with Christian and disavowing any association with his more extreme ideology.

Beavers takes credit for driving Christian from the Portland rally. I was the one right there that ran him out of our group, he said. We dont stand for that crap.

There is no suggestion Beavers, who has described himself as the first person to get bloody at the Berkeley protests on 15 April, was responsible for any violence. In an online video interview about the incident, Beavers said he was engaging in amicable conversation when he was blindsided and struck in the face.

However, others in the his group do not appear to have held back from violence.

At a May confrontation between Gibson and Beavers group and black-clad antifa rivals in Portland last month, Tusitala Tiny Toese, a Samoan who calls himself a brown brother for Donald Trump, knocked down an antifa demonstrator with a punch to the face. Despite video of the incident and the presence of witnesses, Portland police bureau officers on scene declined to make an arrest because the man Toese punched declined to provide his name.

Gibson, Toese and others also traveled to New York last month for a protest featuring the rightwing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, which also resulted in a brawl.

Toese later posted a video to Facebook showing him rolling around gleefully in a large stack of dollar bills. He bragged that the cash had come as a bounty for attacking leftists. I believe in the Tooth Fairy now. Ever since the beginning of this movement, Ive been knocking some antifa teeth out, Toese said.

Contacted by phone, Toese said he had been justified in punching the Portland protesters in self-defense. He said he had only been joking about the the bounty paid for punching opposition protesters. Sarcasm, he said. I was just playing around with my money. Sometimes, youve just got to laugh.

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