Right-wing media are attempting to exploit a single arrest that has been made in connection with the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol to further the right’s campaign of denial and conspiracy theories about the event.
To bolster those claims, they’ve zeroed in on Utah man John Sullivan, who recorded the events and reportedly cheered on the mob, regarding his past attendance at Black Lives Matters protests. But the fact is, those local activists all say Sullivan is not welcome, and they’ve been trying for some time to keep him away.
Despite early claims by right-wing media and Republican members of Congress that far-left provocateurs had really been the ones to instigate the attack on the Capitol, FBI Assistant Director Steven D’Antuono told reporters later that week, “We have no indication of that, at this time.” And a report in the Los Angeles Times has found that the suspects who have been arrested since the riot have represented “a broad cross section of President Trump’s supporters — people with office jobs, kids and mortgages, and otherwise respectable public reputations,” along with some “fringe radicals.”
In a since-deleted tweet, however, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani posted an image of a text message appearing to be from Sullivan’s brother Jake, who claimed to be working with the FBI to “expose and place total blame on John and the 226 members of antifa that instigated the Capitol ‘riot.’”
The local Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist movements do not trust Sullivan
Sullivan, who also goes by the online names “Activist John” and “Jayden X,” recorded video including the key moment at which rioter Ashli Babbitt, a prolific conspiracy theorist, was shot and killed by Capitol Police as she attempted to force herself through a doorway into the Speaker’s Lobby toward members of Congress.
According to the affidavit in support of the criminal complaint, Sullivan can also be heard on his own videos of the event yelling such further inciting language as, “That’s what I’m sayin’, break that shit,” and also, “It would be fire if someone had revolutionary music and shit.” He also recorded himself telling Capitol Police officers to leave the scene, rather than get hurt by the insurrectionists.
The Intercept interviewed various BLM and anti-fascist activists who were previously acquainted with Sullivan, revealing a picture of a marginal personality who is said be “living in a fantasy land,” “shows up for attention,” and is “not welcome in leftist activist spaces.”
Indeed, this impression of Sullivan has been going around for quite some time, as well as speculation regarding the far-right affiliations of Sullivan’s brother. From The Intercept:
Activists in Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Los Angeles have made similar warnings, and a member of the Seattle protest community shared a detailed briefing document on him headlined “John Sullivan: Naive Organizer or Agent Provocateur?” that has been circulating since November. The anonymous author of that memo also drew attention to the fact that his brother, James Sullivan, is an outspoken Trump supporter, a member of the far-right “Blexit” campaign to convince Black voters to exit the Democratic Party, and spoke at a Proud Boys rally in Portland.
Others on the left are convinced that John Sullivan has no real political convictions and is simply exploiting movements for racial justice and against fascism for personal gain. “Activist John,” they speculate, is a character Sullivan has invented, and the protests he organizes are a kind of performative, karaoke activism.
Sullivan’s presence at the Capitol, however, has been used by far-right outlets including the website The Gateway Pundit, One America News correspondent Jack Posobiec, and music video director Robby Starbuck to try to further spread the idea that left-wing elements had stoked the riot. Far-right blogger Pamela Geller and the site Trending Politics are even asserting that CNN had been behind the entire violent event, simply because CNN had interviewed Sullivan and freelance documentary filmmaker Jade Sacker about the event — an interview that had taken place after the fact (the AP has since posted a fact check to that extent as well).
And while YouTube personality/conspiracy theorist Mark Dice described Sullivan as “a leader in the riot at the Capitol last week,” The Intercept also reviewed Sullivan’s unedited footage of his journey through the Capitol with the rioters, concluding it was “obvious that he was not leading but following the rioters as they made their way through police lines into the Capitol.”
Fox hosts still aren’t sure if the insurrectionists were “patriots” or “antifa” plants
Sullivan’s presence was also promoted by discredited columnist John Solomon during appearances with Fox Business host Lou Dobbs and Fox News host Sean Hannity, with Solomon repeatedly describing Sullivan as a “liberal activist” and calling him “one of the instigators.”
Dobbs had repeatedly insisted on January 6 that the mob was really being peaceful, claiming to have “only heard of one instance of violence” and that Congress was being “melodramatic” in its response. But then the very next day, Dobbs speculated that there were “reasons and other grounds for suspicion that left-wing agitators were in the mob.” Likewise, Hannity had initially defended the mob while the event was happening, characterizing them as “protesters” with grievances that had been “building for a very long time” — before pivoting during that same broadcast to suggest they were antifa wearing “MAGA gear.”
Neither is Rush Limbaugh
In the week-plus since the attack on the Capitol, Rush Limbaugh has also compared the rioters to the American Revolutionaries and racial justice protesters — that is, when he’s not saying that the crowd “undoubtedly” included “antifa Democrat-sponsored instigators.”
And so naturally, he seized Friday on Sullivan’s arrest in order to claim that “an antifa operative was at the forefront of this insurrection — antifa, which the Democrats and the media claim had nothing to do with this.”
The key objective: Muddy the waters
Fox News host Tucker Carlson highlighted Sullivan’s arrest on Thursday night, in contrast to the Justice Department’s statements that anti-fascists were not behind the attack. Carlson took a much more subtle tack than others in right-wing media, though: not attempting to deny that Trump supporters were involved — but continuing to ponder whether others might have been behind the attack, as well.
Over on Fox’s “news side,” the story about Sullivan was discussed by co-anchor Jon Scott and Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee — in a similar manner as Carlson did the previous night. They weren’t pushing a full-throated conspiracy theory about the riot being a solely left-wing hoax, but rather muddying the waters about who participated.