WASHINGTON — Kash Patel was recruiting foot soldiers.

It was a Friday morning in February at one of America's biggest conservative conventions, and Donald Trump's trusted lieutenant was on center stage, pleading with the former president's supporters to help the now presumptive Republican nominee reclaim the White House.

Getting behind Trump was the only way to root out ''government gangsters,'' Patel said, at once referring to the title of his recently published memoir and the entrenched and shadowy cabal of ''deep state'' operatives he believes are threatening the country.

''That's what it's going to take'' to win in November, he told the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington. ''An entire army.''

Then, draped in a green scarf emblazoned with a ''K$H'' logo he once sought to trademark, Patel announced his book's upcoming film adaptation.

A trusted aide and swaggering campaign surrogate who mythologizes the former president while promoting conspiracy theories and his own brand, Patel is poised to take on an influential role in the federal government if Trump wins a second term. Patel has a pedigree that sets him apart from other Trump advisers, and he frequently cites his experience as a public defender, federal prosecutor, top House staffer and national security official to lend credibility to his plan to go after the very intelligence community he could one day help oversee.

There is little daylight between Patel and Trump: Patel has made it clear that he is in lockstep with the former president on most national security issues, including purging government officials deemed disloyal.

Many who worked with Patel before he joined the Trump administration said he was an ambitious if not exceptional lawyer whose quick rise and far-right tilt have left them stunned.

Tom Rooney, a former Republican congressman, worked with Patel on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He described Patel as a smart and focused staffer, but said he hardly recognizes the man loudly defending the Jan. 6 rioters on far-right podcasts and radio shows.

''It's not the same person that I knew,'' Rooney said. ''But Kash is still relevant and I'm not, so who's the smart one?''

Patel, 44, declined requests for interviews and did not respond to a list of questions. He provided a statement saying he was proud of his public service and blasted The Associated Press for ''taking potshots at my private life.''

The Rapid Rise

During Trump's recent criminal trial in New York, Patel was part of a small group of supporters that included Republican lawmakers and Trump family members and accompanied him into court.

After a day's testimony, Patel addressed a throng of reporters outside the courthouse, arguing Trump was the victim of an ''unconstitutional circus.'' His legal career provided the basis for his assertions, he said. But Patel hadn't always wanted to be an attorney. The son of Indian immigrants, Patel grew up in Queens, New York, and had dreamed of becoming a doctor before deciding law was a better course.

After graduating from law school at Pace University, Patel failed to get a job at the prestigious law firms he'd hoped to join. Instead, he became a public defender, and spent nearly nine years in local and federal courts in Miami before joining the Justice Department.

After working there for about three years, Patel was hired as a staffer for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence led by Rep. Devin Nunes, a fierce Trump ally.

Nunes gave Patel a job running the committee's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Patel ultimately helped author what became known as the ''Nunes Memo,'' a four-page report that detailed how it said the Justice Department had erred in obtaining a warrant to surveil a former Trump campaign volunteer. The memo's release faced vehement opposition from the Justice Department. A subsequent inspector general report identified significant problems with FBI surveillance during the Russia investigation, but also found no evidence that the FBI had acted with partisan motives in conducting the probe.

The memo caught Trump's attention, and soon Patel was working on the National Security Council and would later serve in increasingly influential roles. He was briefly the top adviser to the then-acting director of national intelligence and was tapped in November 2020 to be chief of staff to acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.

Patel was interviewed as part of an investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, and said the former president ''pre-emptively authorized'' 10,000 to 20,000 troops to deploy days before the attack. But a Colorado court later found that Patel was ''not a credible witness" on the topic.

In November 2022, Patel appeared before a grand jury investigating Trump's retention of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate after being granted immunity for his testimony.

In his final months in office, Trump pushed the idea of installing Patel as the deputy director at either the FBI or CIA in an effort to strengthen the president's control of the intelligence community.

Trump dropped those plans after CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign and Attorney General Bill Barr argued against such a move. ''Patel had virtually no experience that would qualify him to serve at the highest level of the world's preeminent law enforcement agency,'' Barr wrote in his memoir.

Not everyone feels that way. Michael Sherwin, former acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who has known Patel since the two worked in Miami, said Patel has earned Trump's respect and that loyalty isn't his only asset, adding that Patel is particularly well versed in issues of national security.

''He is well respected by the Trump inner circle, and he is held in very high regard. His opinion matters,'' Sherwin said.

Patel has been open about what kind of changes he'd pursue if given the chance. His various proposals include reducing the FBI's footprint in Washington and ''dramatically'' limiting its authority. He hopes to curb the power of the Justice Department's Civil Division and jettison a Pentagon office that produces classified assessments of long-term trends and risks, arguing it is just a tool of the ''deep state.''

Patel has said he also intends to aggressively hunt down government officials who leak information to reporters, and change the law to make it easier to sue journalists. During an interview with Steve Bannon in December, Patel said he and others ''will go out and find the conspirators not just in government but in the media.''

''We're going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections," Patel said, referring to the 2020 presidential election in which Biden, the Democratic challenger, defeated Trump. "We're going to come after you, whether it's criminally or civilly. We'll figure that out. But yeah, we're putting you all on notice.''

Fight with Kash

In Patel's telling, Trump is facing off in a do-or-die battle with Democrats and bureaucrats who helped steal the election, an assertion that has been rejected by federal and local officials, dozens of courts, top former campaign staffers and even Trump's own attorney general. Patel reserves particular disdain for the media, which he has called ''the most powerful enemy the United States has ever seen.''

Shortly after Trump left office, Patel launched Fight with Kash, an organization that funds defamation lawsuits and peddles a wide variety of merchandise, including branded socks and water bottles, sweatshirts and baseball hats, a deck of playing cards with Trump as the ace and a bumbling Joe Biden in a jester costume as the king.

The organization has since been rebranded as The Kash Foundation, a nonprofit that purports to support whistleblowers, law enforcement and education in ''areas the mainstream media refuses to cover.''

Patel has said he won't make money from the foundation and has publicly promised to be transparent about where it directs its resources. Two former FBI agents who accused the bureau of discrimination after their security clearances were revoked over their views of the Jan. 6 insurrection testified before Congress that they received money from Patel.

But the foundation has released few specifics about its finances, and Patel's comments about his organization's expenditures don't appear to align with public records.

Patel said in early 2023 that his charity had distributed nearly $100,000 the previous year. The charity funded defamation lawsuits, covered the cost of sending kids to camp and provided holiday meals for the needy, Patel said. But the charity filed a report with the IRS a few months later showing it gave away only about $55,000 in 2022 to unidentified entities.

In his statement to the AP, Patel said his charity is ''approaching $1 million in donations for legal funds, whistleblowers, scholarships, and support for veterans, active-duty soldiers, law enforcement, and communities affected by disasters and violent crime. ''

On a podcast in 2022, he boasted of having filed several defamation lawsuits, including one against a reporter for The New York Times. But court records show Patel did not take any necessary steps to proceed in that case after filing it in 2019 and it was dismissed two years later.

Such lawsuits suggest a broader strategy pursued by Patel, Trump and others to file often meritless lawsuits that seek to grind down political opponents and journalists, said Mark Zaid, who has represented defendants in such cases, including one funded by Patel's charity.

''They use it to show that they're tough and aggressive to their base to raise money,'' Zaid said.

The K$H Brand

Since Trump left office, Patel has benefited from his close association with the former president.

In addition to his 2023 memoir, ''Government Gangsters: The Deep State, the Truth, and the Battle for Our Democracy,'' Patel has published two children's books that lionize Trump. ''The Plot Against the King'' features a thinly veiled Hillary Clinton as the villain going after ''King Donald,'' while Kash, a wizard called the Distinguished Discoverer, exposes a nefarious plot.

The line between his charitable work and money-making activities isn't clear. Patel promotes ''K$H'' branded clothing lines for his nonprofit as well as for a company run by a close associate.

He's also a pitchman for a variety of goods marketed to Trump supporters. One dietary supplement he's promoting claims to be a COVID vaccine ''detoxification system'' made by a company whose co-founder was a defendant in a class-action lawsuit filed by people who say they were overcharged for Keto diet pills.

''Order this homerun kit to rid your body of the harms of the vax,'' Patel said in a recent Truth Social post promoting the supplements.

Records show that Patel has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from his own business dealings with Trump-related entities.

He's on the board of Trump Media and Technology Group, which owns Truth Social, and had a consulting contract with the company that paid him $120,000 a year.

The income from his books, clothing and endorsements is unknown, but his social media feeds show a well-traveled Patel attending high-end sporting events like the Super Bowl, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup and a UFC fight, in addition to stumping for Trump around the country.

Patel said in a 2022 podcast appearance that Truth Social was trying to incorporate QAnon, a set of conspiracy theories borne out of the idea that the government is run by a cabal of child predators, ''into our overall messaging scheme to capture audiences.''

''He should get credit for all the things he has accomplished,'' Patel said of the anonymous figurehead of the QAnon movement.

Patel has been a featured guest at rallies organized by Trump's former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who has been building a political movement mixing conspiracy theory with Christian nationalist ideas.

He's also joined Trump in defending those who were charged with crimes in connection with the Jan. 6 riot, and is listed as a producer of ''And Justice For All,'' a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner sung by a group of defendants. In a social media post, Patel likened the song, which was briefly #1 on iTunes, to ''We Are the World,'' a single written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in 1985 to benefit Africa.

Trump's leadership PAC has paid Patel more than $300,000 since the start of last year to serve as a national security adviser to the former president, according to campaign finance records and Truth Social's public filings. The campaign of Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican close to Trump, paid Patel $145,000 for ''fundraising consulting'' in 2021, campaign finance records show.

Loyal Lieutenant

Experts say the financial benefits of Patel's loyalty could present a potential conflict in a second Trump administration.

Douglas London, a retired CIA officer who briefly overlapped with Patel while working at the White House, expressed doubt that Patel would be willing to deliver hard truths about the consequences of certain policy decisions.

''Trump wants an echo chamber and he'll get that in Kash Patel,'' he said. ''I do not see Kash Patel saying, 'Mr. President, if you do this, this bad thing's going to happen.'''

During his CPAC appearance, Patel left no doubt about the depth of his loyalty to Trump.

''We're blessed by God to have Donald Trump be our juggernaut of justice, to be our leader, to be our continued warrior in the arena,'' Patel said.

After 10 minutes of praising the former president and blasting the media, intelligence community and Democrats, Patel left the stage and traded his blazer for a Revere Payments hoodie. He went to Bannon's booth for a live episode of ''War Room'' to discuss the Christian merchant services platform he's marketing.

The notoriously unkempt Bannon, a former Trump adviser who is influential in right-wing politics, joked about Patel's informal attire.

''I've got to, you know, get my stuff out there,'' Patel replied.

After the interview Patel hustled to the vendor floor, where he whipped off the hoodie and his handlers scrambled to remove flecks of fuzz before putting his blazer back on. Then he was ready — to pose for pictures with fans in front of a booth for a cellphone service he's promoting.

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Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this story.

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Contact AP's global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

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An earlier version of this story said Patel has a consulting contract with Trump Media and Technology Group. That contract was terminated in March.