In a development that perfectly illustrates the right-wing media’s collective moral incorrigibility and imperviousness to facts, conservative commentators are now digging in further on a conspiracy theory about the January 6 insurrection — right after it was thoroughly dispelled on Tuesday.
The claims surround an Arizona man named Ray Epps who, on the night of January 5, 2021, was seen on video telling a crowd of Trump supporters to enter the Capitol the next day, and was also seen outside the Capitol building during the siege. Epps was identified online and interviewed by The Arizona Republic in the days following the attack, and it does not appear that he ever actually entered the Capitol or personally committed any violent acts that day.
In a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) asked FBI official Jill Sanborn a series of leading questions aimed at making it appear that Epps was connected to the FBI — questions that Cruz had been urged to pursue by Fox host Tucker Carlson last week. There is no credible evidence that Epps was some kind of point man in leading the entire attack, but his name has been spread prolifically by Darren Beattie, a former Trump administration staffer who has worked with Carlson to spread a propaganda campaign that the riot had been a setup by elements in the federal government to entrap conservatives.
Sanborn had responded to Cruz’s questions by explaining that the FBI could not get into specifics on sources and methods of investigations. But toward the end of the exchange, he asked her: “Did federal agents or those in service of federal agents actively encourage violent and criminal conduct on January 6?”
She responded: “Not to my knowledge, sir.”
In response, former Trump adviser and far-right media personality Steven Bannon — who has his own record of incitement leading up to the January 6 insurrection — immediately accused Sanborn of having perjured herself.
Beattie appeared with Bannon as a guest and delivered something of a backhanded compliment to Cruz for his reversal from calling the rioters “terrorists” to now spreading the theory that the riot was a false-flag operation: “And so I have to give credit to Ted Cruz. I think this is a testament to the fact that constructive bullying does work.”
“You're liars, and we're going to get to the bottom of all of it, and you're not going to be able to hide,” Bannon proclaimed. “Save your receipts, preserve your documents.”
Tucker Carlson, the man who arguably had done more than anyone else to pressure Cruz into parroting these conspiracy theories, followed up on this broad range of denials Tuesday night by asking new rhetorical questions to suggest the committee was lying: “Supposedly this interview was conducted in secret last November. If that is true — we don't know that it is, but let's say it is — then why did the committee wait months to tell us today in a tweet? … Can we see a transcript of this interview? If not, why not?”
The new pile of follow-up questions that Carlson asked were remarkably similar to tweets from Tuesday afternoon from right-wing commentator Julie Kelly, a frequent guest on Carlson’s January 6 conspiracy theory beat who has also claimed that a D.C. police officer testifying about his violent and traumatic experiences that day was a “crisis actor.” Kelly also claimed that the committee’s denial that Epps had ever worked at the direction of a law enforcement agency was “a pretty narrow denial, by the way.”
Cruz also appeared that night on Fox News, this time with prime-time host Sean Hannity, who said that Cruz had “asked the FBI very important questions about that day. Their answers, or lack thereof, are very telling.”
It is very much worth remembering that text messages released a month ago revealed that during the January 6 riot, Hannity sent text messages to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows urging that Trump make a statement asking people to leave the Capitol. But later that same evening, the Fox host spread false claims that the Capitol rioters may have been left-wing militants disguised as Trump supporters — which had to have been a deliberate lie, because if he had actually believed that, then his private message for Trump to call off the mob would have been pointless.
Hannity and Cruz also claimed that Sanborn had failed to deliver a blanket denial of agency involvement in fomenting January 6 — even though she in fact did state that no such deeds occurred according to her knowledge, video of which was included right before that in the segment. Meanwhile, the segment chyron claimed that “Top FBI official dodges when Cruz asks if agents participated in Jan 6th.”
Fox Nation host Lara Logan also retweeted a message from right-wing radio host Jesse Kelly, who continued to insist that Epps was “an FBI informant who was tasked by the FBI to get people to break the law so the FBI could attack Republicans.”
It may also be worth noting that Cruz’s persistent conflation of terms like “agent” and “informant” could have led to problems in Sanborn’s ability to answer his questions. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a member of the House select committee investigating January 6, explained in a Twitter thread that these terms are actually very different categories, with informants usually being “criminals that turn to save their own butt. An informant is not an agent. But Ted wants you to think it is.” (Kinzinger also reiterated that Epps was not even an informant.)
With that in mind, the sort of questions Cruz asked, such as, “Did any FBI agents or confidential informants actively participate in the events of January 6th? Yes or no?” were overly broad because they could have potentially covered anyone who became an informant in the period of time since the riot — that is, to “save their own butt” after the fact — something that law enforcement officials would not publicly comment about.
By contrast, Sanborn actually was able to answer Cruz’s final question on the topic. But that is not going to stop right-wing commentators from acting in extremely bad faith by continuing to spread false-flag conspiracy theories that shift blame for the Capitol attack — especially when they’ve got some serious skeletons in their own closets.