Tucker Carlson has plucked a debunked conspiracy theory that the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot was incited by a man with links to the FBI from the fringes of right-wing media circles and brought it to the millions of viewers of his prime-time Fox News show – as well as a sitting Republican senator.
This conspiracy theory recently drew additional attention because Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) raised it at a committee hearing, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) and the House commission investigating the January 6 Capitol attack subsequently debunked it. Both of these events were covered on Carlson’s show after the Fox host spent months repeatedly amplifying the conspiracy theory, even pushing it in an interview with Cruz just days before the GOP senator raised it in Congress.
The conspiracy theory was started by a right-wing group with ties to “Stop the Steal”
- Ray Epps, the man at the center of the theory, is a Trump supporter and a member of the January 6 crowd who believed that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Epps was filmed the night before the Capitol riot telling a crowd of Trump supporters that they needed to enter the Capitol the next day, as the crowd began chanting, “Fed, fed, fed.”
- The video was first shared in June by the right-wing group Stop Hate, which has ties to the “Stop the Steal” movement that helped incite the insurrection. Right-wing actors began suggesting that Epps was working with the FBI and incited violence at the Capitol. Eventually this video caught the attention of Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who, on October 21, asked Attorney General Merrick Garland about Epps’ ties to the FBI. Garland did not provide a clear answer to the question, which was expected – as The Washington Post noted, “federal law enforcement and intelligence officials don’t confirm or deny such questions because even a denial potentially reveals confidential information.”
Right-wing media spread the conspiracy theory
- The day after the hearing, the conspiracy theory began to spread in right-wing media. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) mentioned it on One America News Network, saying, “Thomas Massie really made the point that there could have been FBI assets, federal assets, that really animated the violence.”
- However, the false narrative started making rounds in right-wing circles when the right-wing blog Revolver News published a piece on October 25, titled “Meet Ray Epps: The Fed-Protected Provocateur Who Appears To Have Led The Very First 1/6 Attack On The U.S. Capitol.” Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon hosted Darren Beattie, the former Trump staffer fired for attending a white nationalist conference who now runs Revolver News, on his podcast War Room: Pandemic the same day to discuss the story.
- On the night of October 25, Carlson brought the conspiracy theory to his massive Fox News audience and interviewed Beattie, saying, “You keep hearing Democrats say we need to find out exactly what happened on January 6, and actually we strongly agree with that. At a recent hearing in Congress, Thomas Massie of Kentucky confronted our highly partisan Attorney General Merrick Garland with this footage.”
- Later that night, Fox’s Laura Ingraham cited the story, saying, “According to a new investigation from Revolver, Epps may have led the breach team that first entered the Capitol on January 6.”
- The next day, OAN’s prime-time show The Tipping Point also interviewed Beattie.
- Blaze reporter Elijah Schaffer’s Slightly Offens*ve podcast invited Beattie on the show and covered the Epps conspiracy theory while calling the Revolver article an “explosive piece” and encouraging his listeners to “check it out.”
- The story continued to spread as Beattie was invited on to Alex Jones’ Infowars show and Glenn Beck’s podcast.
Carlson’s January 6 “documentary” spreads the conspiracy theory to his Fox Nation audience
- On November 1, Carlson released the first part of his Patriot Purge docuseries on Fox Nation, which focused on building a narrative that the FBI and left-wing groups were responsible for the violence on January 6. Carlson included interviews with Beattie and Schaffer, footage of Jones at the Capitol, and a slowed down video of Epps while a voiceover said there were “agents provocateurs … who had a sort of military-like precision in what was to become a storming of the Capitol.” The same night, Carlson promoted the special on his show in an interview with Schaffer, who said of Epps, “I was there and if there was anybody I would pick out as a journalist and say that's the man who would be key suspect No. 1. For some reason the federal government says, well, we are just not interested.”
- On November 2, the day after Carlson’s docuseries premiered, the theory had advanced. One right-wing central Florida radio show, American Adversaries Drivetime, discussed Carlson’s documentary and definitively declared, “It turns out [Epps] is an FBI guy.” Another host commented, “It's going to generate such distrust toward our agencies … if this story reaches a lot of individuals. That's horrendous.”
- OAN hosts also began to promote the Patriot Purge special on their shows. During a segment on Epps and those involved in violence at the Capitol, OAN host Stephanie Hamill said, “One of the biggest names stirring the pot in asking questions on the matter is Tucker Carlson, who just released a docuseries about it.” While interviewing Beattie, Hamill highlighted Carlson’s series, saying, “I learned so much from that documentary. I saw all this like never-before-seen footage of what occurred on that day, and it left me with more questions.”
- Carlson’s show continued to harp on Epps. On December 14, Carlson asked rhetorically, “What exactly was the role of Ray Epps in the chaos of January 6?” Filling in for Carlson on December 28, guest host Will Cain brought up the conspiracy theory again.
Carlson brings the conspiracy theory into the halls of Congress
- On the anniversary of the Capitol riot, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to apologize for calling January 6 a “terrorist attack” the day before, for which he had received some backlash from Trump supporters. After Carlson gave Cruz a hard time for his comment, he brought up Epps again, asking Cruz, “So who is Ray Epps, by the way, since you are a senator? … He and this other guy are clearly encouraging the crowd to commit crimes. Neither one has been arrested or charged. What is that, do you think?”
- Just five days later on January 11, Cruz questioned an FBI spokesperson about Epps, which Carlson later highlighted on his show.
- On Infowars, co-host Owen Shroyer credited Carlson with pushing Cruz further to the right and getting him to ask the FBI about Epps: “Tucker didn’t give [Cruz] an inch, and so what has Ted Cruz had to do? Now Ted Cruz has had to go further to commit to the truth, further to the right and populism and nationalism and America first. So today, he’s now at a hearing with the FBI, questioning the FBI about Ray Epps. So that’s how this is going to go. We need more Tucker Carlsons.”
- In reaction to this, the House committee investigating the January 6 attack said that it had interviewed Epps in November and he had said he had no involvement with the FBI. Additionally, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) posted a thread on Twitter to debunk the theory. In it, he specifically called out Carlson, writing, “I know this will break some hearts. For a few months, people like Tucker Carlson … and now Cruz have been ‘just asking questions’ about a man named Ray Epps.” Carlson cast doubt on the veracity of that claim and called Epps “maybe the central figure there.” The next day, Carlson again doubled down on the conspiracy theory, saying, “Adam Kinzinger loves Ray Epps. He’s spent the last 24 hours sticking up for Ray Epps on Twitter against all comments. How strange is that? It’s impossible to overstate the strangeness.”
Carlson’s platforming of the Epps conspiracy theory appears to have given it more legitimacy and expanded its reach in both the news media and the political world. Through his show, his specials on Fox Nation, and his right-wing media clout, Carlson is able to take fringe ideas that start in corners of the right-wing internet and make them into news stories.