Tucker Carlson Capitol
Molly Butler / Media Matters

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The evolution of Tucker Carlson's January 6 conspiracy mongering

Carlson went from condemning the protests to downplaying them to claiming they were an inside job

For a year now, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson has been the loudest voice in the right-wing media’s campaign to rewrite and reframe the January 6, 2021, riot in the U.S. Capitol. From virtually the day of the events, Carlson has thrown a mess of misinformation -- conspiracy-mongering, minimization, obfuscation — at the riot in the hopes of delegitimizing any serious inquiry into the events of that day. Over that period he has shifted from condemning the violent protest to describing the riot as nothing more than “elderly people who showed up with signs,” to producing a three-part torture-porn series calling the event a “false flag.”

Carlson’s current fixation on the false flag theory is not an earnest attempt to link outside actors, the FBI or the Department of Justice  to the events of January 6; instead, it’s about creating as many sidebars as possible to avoid dealing with the responsibility of amplifying lies about a stolen election that led to an attack on the American seat of government. We’ve laid out the evolution of Carlson’s coverage of January 6 here, from his initial efforts to muddy the waters through his pivot toward conspiracy theory and the adoption of the false flag theory.

Carlson’s conspiracy-mongering about January 6 follows a clear pattern in his tenure at Fox: As he has done with vaccinations, immigration, education, and race, Carlson creates a terrifying narrative and then scrambles to fill in the gaps with cherry-picked stories devoid of context or reasonable interpretation. The push by Carlson and right-wing media to inject the false flag theory into the public consciousness is not a genuine attempt to hold those responsible for violence during the Capitol riot accountable. It is instead an intentional campaign to shift the understanding of the attack on President Joe Biden’s electoral ratification from an unacceptable violation of democratic norms and processes to a covert plot orchestrated by clandestine actors that absolves those who committed violence from their own agency.

  • Muddying the waters: Reshaping the narrative in the months after January 6

  • The night after the attack, Carlson told his viewers that the chaos in the Capitol, where staffers were forced to flee the Senate chamber with Electoral College certificates mid-vote, was not an attempted insurrection but rather a political protest that got “out of hand.”

    Days after the riot took place, Carlson joined his colleagues in the scramble to muddy the waters around the causes. They highlighted the arrest of John Sullivan, branding him as an antifascist radical and suggesting that Trump supporters themselves may not be responsible for the riot. Carlson repeatedly called allegations that white supremacist and militias groups had a hand in coordinating the assault “lies” despite clear evidence of their participation

    On January 26, less than a month after the riot, Carlson lent his show to one of his largest advertisers, Mike Lindell of MyPillow, to broadcast ludicrous claims about a supposed conspiracy to silence him by Dominion Voting Systems. Lindell claimed that Dominion, a company that makes voting machines and was accused of coordinating election fraud in a QAnon-fueled conspiracy theory, “hired hit groups and bots and trolls” to target him and his advertisers, and he alleged that Twitter had been running his account “like they were me.”

    The interview was friendly, with Carlson lamenting that Lindell was being unfairly censored. In November of 2020, Carlson had criticized Trump lawyer Sydney Powell for pushing the same conspiracy theory about Dominion. Carlson’s coddling of Lindell, who was operating from the same sources as Powell, was a clear indication that Carlson’s coverage of baseless election fraud allegations and the violent riot they spurned was now turning to the conspiratorial. The Fox host would shift from condemning the actions of rioters to waging a full-fledged campaign for exoneration. Below are some of the notable claims and assertions Carlson made during this time period: 

  • The night of the riot Carlson warned viewers that Democrats would strip Americans “of the rights you were born with” in response to the violent protest. [1/6/21]

  • Carlson defended pro-Trump insurrectionists from the “domestic terrorism” label. [1/7/21]

  • Carlson called protester John Sullivan a “professional agitator,” declaring that the media and government “lied” about solely Trump supporters being present. [1/14/21]

  • Carlson said January 6 “was not an insurrection. It wasn't an armed invasion by a brigade of dangerous white supremacists. It wasn't. Those are lies.” [1/14/21]

  • Carlson hosted election conspiracist and major sponsor Mike Lindell for a friendly interview regarding Lindell’s claims of electoral fraud by Dominion voting systems. [1/26/21]

  • Carlson responded to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) describing January 6 as a “white nationalist insurrection”by saying “It was awful. It was not that.” Carlson went on to warn viewers that Democrats were saying this to wage “a new war against our own population.” [2/3/21]

  • Carlson told viewers there was “no evidence that white supremacists were responsible” for January 6, despite being repeatedly disproved by law enforcement officials. [2/22/21

  • Carlson claimed he and his team at Fox couldn’t find any evidence that the QAnon conspiracy theory exists. [2/23/21]

  • Pivot: Carlson’s turn to conspiracy-mongering

  • Carlson’s initial coverage of January 6 was generally focused on downplaying the severity of the riot itself and attempting to discredit claims that extremists were involved in its planning and execution. Next, he would take the plunge into full-fledged conspiracy theory.

    On June 15, Carlson hosted Darren Beattie, a former Trump White House staffer who was ousted from the administration after reporting emerged that he attended a white nationalist conference, to discuss a “report” published on far-right outfit Revolver that suggested the January 6 attack on the Capitol may have been orchestrated by FBI operatives. Carlson claimed, without offering any concrete evidence, that “in potentially every single case,” unindicted co-conspirators referenced in legal cases related to January 6 “were FBI operatives.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 15, 2021, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

  • Beattie’s work gave Carlson the framework he needed to embrace the conspiracy theory that has become the radioactive core of his January 6 coverage: The riot was a “setup” by government organizations put in place in order to justify a large-scale persecution of conservatives.

    The theory was tissue paper in water, principally because the government cannot legally name undercover agents as unindicted co-conspirators. Yet Carlson dedicated entire monologues to defending the theory, claiming that backlash and fact-checking of his claims was another instance of information suppression and alleging that the government was refusing to make public closed-circuit TV footage from within the Capitol complex because “people they know are on the tape.”

    In November, Carlson released his January 6 magnum opus, a three-part special titled Patriot Purge.” The series condensed months of Carlson’s Infowars-style conspiracy-mongering in a montage of torture porn set to a horror film soundscape. The message of Patriot Purge was clear: The January 6 Capitol riot was an intentional setup by one of various parties in order to justify the persecution of conservatives as domestic terrorists and as punishment for supporting Trump.

    Patriot Purge featured appearances by Beattie and former psychological operations officer Emily Rainey, who led a large group of people to the Stop the Steal rally. Rainey cited her experience in psychological operations to claim the attack could be a “false flag.” It also teased a fringe conspiracy that would come to dominate Carlson’s January 6 narrative: footage of a man named Ray Epps outside of the Capitol building, a voiceover declaring that “agents provocateurs” operated with “a sort of military-like precision in what was to become a storming of the Capitol.” Between June of 2021 and January of this year, Carlson steadily hammered the theory that the January 6 attack on the capitol was actually a government-orchestrated setup: 

  • Carlson spouted a bizarre conspiracy theory that the January 6 insurrection was a false flag organized by the FBI. [6/15/21]

  • Carlson hosted Darren Beattie, a former Trump staffer who alleged that the January 6 attack on the Capitol may have been orchestrated by FBI operatives. [6/15/21]

  • Carlson said he believes that the FBI had foreknowledge of January 6 and was in contact with people who stormed the Capitol, “given the FBI’s long track record.” Carlson's guest added “we know for certain” that the FBI planted informants in the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters. [6/18/21]

  • Carlson asked, “Is it possible that some of the people there were actually reporting to the FBI and that they encouraged, as we said, others to commit crimes?” He added that he’s right to ask this question because a known FBI informant invited former Drug Enforcement Agency agent Mark Ibrahim to the January 6 riot and encouraged him to breach the Capitol. Carlson hosted Ibrahim, who said that he doesn’t believe that the informant “was malicious or trying to entrap [him].” [7/22/21]

  • J. Michael Waller of the Center for Security Policy, a far-right anti-Muslim, think tank, said that “January 6 was a political warfare operation” instigated by “cadres of agents provocateur and other troublemakers.” [11/1/21]

  • The Gateway Pundit’s Taylor Hansen said he “saw multiple agitators changing clothes,” adding that “in the initial phase it was changing from black bloc” — referring to antifa — “into Trump gear right before it all started.” [11/1/21]

  • Carlson claimed the January 6 riot was a “setup” to entrap protesters. [11/02/21]

  • Ray Epps

  • With his audience primed with months of allusions to false flags and undercover agents, Tucker then introduced a character who, despite a lack of evidence, would become the linchpin to the false flag conspiracy theory.

    Ray Epps, the former president of the Arizona chapter of the anti-government extremist group The Oath Keepers, was present around the Capitol building on January 5 and 6. Epps was filmed on January 5 telling a crowd, “I’ll say it. We need to go into the Capitol.” While Epps was filmed around the perimeter of the capitol on January 6, there is no evidence he entered the building. Epps’ encouragement of people to enter the building, and later on his removal from an FBI person of interest list in connection to the riot, have led to claims that Epps was an undercover agent and thus proof that January 6 was a false flag attack orchestrated by the U.S. government.

    Carlson’s first mention of Epps on his nighttime program came several days before the release of Patriot Purge, when he covered footage of Epps encouraging protesters to enter the Capitol. Carlson later interviewed Elijah Schaffer, a right-wing media personality who shot the footage of Epps. Schaffer declared that if he was a federal agent Epps would be “key suspect number one” in the investigation into the organizers and instigators of the riot. 

    Epps would become the duct tape holding the January 6 false flag theory together, with Carlson hammering a consistent drumbeat of speculation and conjecture. While broadcasting to millions, the Fox host would go as far as describing Epps as “maybe the central figure” of January 6, declaring him the protest attendee that Democrats should be “the maddest at.”

    Despite the lack of evidence that Epps had any sort of tie to federal agencies, either as a direct employee or as an informant, Carlson chose to barrel ahead with the accusations. While he accused the federal agencies of a coverup, the FBI itself has not shied away from naming informants who were present, confirming to The New York Times that a member of the Proud Boys turned informant was present the day of the riot.

    The congressional January 6 committee disclosed that it had interviewed Epps in November. Details of the interview are sparse, but the committee stated that Epps informed the committee that “he was not employed by, working with or acting at the direction of any law enforcement agency on Jan. 5 or 6 or at any other time, and that he has never been an informant for the F.B.I. or any other law enforcement agency.” Carlson framed the announcement as further proof that the federal agencies were hiding something, and would say that the January 6 committee was “clearly lying about Ray Epps”

  • Video file

    Citation From the January 11, 2022, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

  • In the span of a few weeks, Epps became the central figure propping up Carlson and the right’s theorizing that federal agencies were involved in January 6:

  • Carlson aired footage of Epps in and around the capitol on January 5 and 6. [10/25/21]

  • Carlson’s guest, BlazeTV host Elijah Schaffer, said Epps should be “key suspect number one” in the investigation into the organizers and instigators of the riot. [11/1/21]

  • During an episode of his daytime show Tucker Carlson Today, Carlson interviewed Thomas Caldwell and his wife Sharon Caldwell. Thomas Caldwell was arrested in connection with the storming of the Capitol and would go on to be charged with seditious conspiracy on January 13 alongside Oath Keeper leader Stewart Rhodes and nine others. During the interview, Carlson tried to get Caldwell to endorse his Ray Epps conspiracy theory. [11/4/21]

  • Carlson asked, “Did Ray Epps have any contact with federal law enforcement agencies before the Capitol was stormed on January 6?” [12/14/21]

  • Carlson questioned why Epps’ photo has been taken off the FBI website without his having been charged with anything. [1/5/22]

  • Carlson goaded Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) into agreeing that the “obvious implication” was that Epps had been working with the FBI — though Cruz said it was also “not conclusive.” [1/6/22]

  • Carlson told viewers that Epps was possibly “the central figure" in the January 6 riot. [1/11/21]

  • Carlson claimed Epps “helped stage-manage the insurrection” and said that Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) thanking Epps for speaking to the committee indicated he is “withholding critical information from the public.” [1/12/22]

  • Carlson hosted alleged Oath Keeper Thomas Caldwell on the night he was charged with seditious conspiracy. Caldwell claimed innocence and said, “When they don't know what to charge you with, they charge you with conspiracy.” [1/13/22]

  • Carlson told viewers that nothing that took place on January 6 “came remotely close to threatening our constitutional order.” [1/14/221]

  • Carlson told viewers the January 6 committee is clearly “lying about Ray Epps.”  [1/21/22]

  • Carlson insinuates that a pipe bomb found near Vice President Kamala Harris’s location on January 6th could have been placed there by the FBI or some similar type of government-aligned operative. [2/9/22]