Television presenter Tucker Carlson pushed another far right conspiracy theory downplaying the rioters who attacked the United States Capitol in January 2021, suggesting on his show that the attack was orchestrated by federal “operatives.”
Carlson claimed on his Fox News show on June 15 2021 that court filings show that law enforcement officers took part in the attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump. Authorities have charged 521 people in connection with the attack, which caused the deaths of five people.
The government has thrown the book at most people who were present in the Capitol on January 6. There was a nationwide dragnet to find them. Many of them are still in solitary confinement tonight. But strangely, some of the key people who participated on January 6 have not been charged. Look at the documents; the government calls those people unindicted co-conspirators. What does that mean? Well, it means that in potentially every single case they were FBI operatives. Really? In the Capitol on January 6?
Carlson claimed that individuals identified as “Person Two” and “Person Three” in court filings were not charged because they were “almost certainly” working for the FBI.
“So it turns out that this ‘white supremacist’ insurrection was, again by the government’s own admission in these documents, organized at least in part by government agents,” he said.
Both “Person Two” and “Person Three” were listed as part of a federal indictment against Thomas Caldwell, a member of the extremist gang the “Oath Keepers” — one of several such groups and other right-wing personalities spotted during the attack. Carlson’s remarks were his latest attempt to minimize their involvement in that incident.
In September 2020 a federal judge dismissed a defamation case against Carlson, saying that attorneys for Fox News “persuasively” argued that Carlson’s commentary should be taken with “an appropriate amount of skepticism.” Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil — who was appointed by Trump — wrote:
As Defendant notes, Mr. Carlson himself aims to “challenge political correctness and media bias.” This “general tenor” of the show should then inform a viewer that he is not “stating actual facts” about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in “exaggeration” and “non-literal commentary.”
The ruling came two months after Carlson sold his stake in the right-wing blog the Daily Caller; a subsidiary of that site, Check Your Fact, is still identified as a partner in Facebook’s “fact-checking” program. It was reportedly included in that initiative at the behest of a high-ranking Facebook official, Joel Kaplan.
As the Washington Post reported, Carlson’s claims fail to stand up to legal scrutiny:
“There are many reasons why an indictment would reference unindicted co-conspirators, but their status as FBI agents is not one of them,” said Jens David Ohlin, a criminal law professor at Cornell Law School.
Added Lisa Kern Griffin of Duke University Law School: “Undercover officers and informants can’t be ‘co-conspirators’ for the purposes of establishing an agreement to violate the law, because they are only pretending to agree to do so. … An unindicted co-conspirator has committed the crime of conspiracy, and investigative agents doing their jobs undercover are not committing crimes.”
Among the other possible reasons someone might be listed as an unindicted co-conspirator:
The government doesn’t know who they are.
The government doesn’t have sufficient evidence to indict them and wants to avoid impugning their reputations or compromising ongoing investigations.
They have secured leniency from the government for cooperation with investigations into others.
Media Matters For America reported that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, claimed that he supplied “other folks” with the (false) information that fueled Carlson’s segment.
“Tucker did a really good job,” said Jones, who has been sued for claiming on air that the 2012 fatal mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was fabricated. In April 2021, the Supreme Court denied Jones’ appeal of a court-issued penalty for a verbal attack against an attorney representing some of the families bereaved in that shooting.
Carlson entrenched himself even deeper in conspiracy theories minimizing the coup attempt in March 2023, when he aired video drawn from 41,000 hours of security footage he obtained from right-wing House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and again cast them as victims of government persecution. As Associated Press reported:
Fox distilled the thousands of hours of footage of the gruesome scenes at the Capitol that day and did show some of the hand-to-hand combat as rioters laid siege to the building, broke windows and kicked down doors to gain entry.
But Carlson also emphasized imagery of the invaders, some in combat gear and wielding flagpoles, merely milling about the gilded halls, taking pictures of the surroundings during pauses in the hours-long attack.
“These were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers,” Carlson said.
CNN reported on March 9 2023 that an attorney for Dominic Pezzola, a member of the white nationalist “Proud Boys” gang, has cited Carlson’s act of distortion in asking that the lawsuit against him be dismissed.
“This footage is plainly exculpatory; as it establishes that the Senate chamber was never violently breached, and – in fact – was treated respectfully by January 6 protestors,” attorney Roger Roots wrote in a federal court filing. “To the extent protestors entered the chamber, they did so under the supervision of Capitol Police. The Senators on January 6 could have continued proceedings.”
While Trump himself claimed that Carlson had vindicated his followers by airing the highly selectively edited footage, text messages produced as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion lawsuit against the Fox “news” network showed that the presenter griped about the former president in private text messages — while publicly, and falsely, claiming that his lies about a “stolen election” were reasonable.
“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait,” Carlson wrote in a January 2021 text exchange with his producer Alex Pfeiffer, adding, “I hate him passionately.” The Washington Post published photographs depicting the texts:
But on his show that same night, Carlson minimized Trump’s attempt to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to change the results in his state, saying:
No matter what you conclude about vote counting in Georgia, we’re willing to bet that you won’t decide Donald Trump’s latest phone call is the single most important thing happening in the world right now. Probably not even close. And yet CNN is claiming that it is. Why are they doing that? Well, that’s a good question and worth pondering. Do you notice a theme here? Manipulation? Maybe. Ignore the details, Don’t ask questions. Here’s the latest outrage. Take the bait. Get mad about it. Trump’s phone call in this case and move on. Write a grouchy Instagram post if you want. But whatever you do, do not think for yourself because once you start doing that, you might not stop.
Dominion’s lawsuit accuses Fox of airing election-related conspiracy theories knowing they were not true. As CNN reported, a transcript of Murdoch’s deposition showed that Rupert Murdoch, chair of the Fox Corporation, also knew as much:
“Have you ever seen any credible evidence to suggest that Dominion was engaged in a massive and coordinated effort to steal the 2020 presidential election?” the Dominion lawyer pressed.
“No,” Murdoch replied.
“Have you ever believed that Dominion was engaged in a massive and coordinated effort to steal the 2020 presidential election?” the Dominion lawyer asked.
“No,” Murdoch replied.
In a statement, Fox claimed that it had been the victim of “distortions” on the part of Dominion.
“We already know they will say and do anything to try to win this case, but to twist and even misattribute quotes to the highest levels of our company is truly beyond the pale,” the network said.
On Monday, April 24 2023, Fox News announced that Tucker Carlson had decided to “part ways” with the network in a brief press release. “We thank him for his service to the network as a host and prior to that as a contributor,” it said, without elaborating further.
The release added that Carlson’s final program had been on April 21 2023.
It turned out that there was a grain of truth at the bottom of his disinformation campaign about the FBI, however. On May 1 2023, the FBI arrested one of its own former bureau chiefs for participating in the insurrection — who had, in fact, once had oversight over an office that was supposed to combat domestic terrorism:
An ex-FBI official who allegedly urged rioters to “kill” officers during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was previously the supervisory special agent in charge of Homegrown Violent Extremism for the FBI New York Field Office’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a senior law enforcement official told NBC News.
Jared Wise was arrested in Oregon this week, charged with four misdemeanor counts. After he entered the Capitol and exited through a broken window, an FBI affidavit alleges, Wise yelled at officers outside the Capitol.
“You’re disgusting. You are the Nazi. You are the Gestapo. You can’t see it,” he yelled, according to the bureau. “Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!”
On May 4 2023, four high-ranking Proud Boys were found guilty of seditious conspiracy after a months-long trial:
Proud Boys leaders Mr. Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs and Zachary Rehlwere convictedof seditious conspiracy, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and other charges. The defendants have been in custody since their arrests and will be sentenced at a later date.
The jurors acquitted a fifth Proud Boys defendant, Dominic Pezzola, of seditious conspiracy after additional deliberations on Thursday. They found him guilty on other charges including obstructing a proceeding of Congress and destruction of government property.
The jurors were unable to reach a verdict on some lesser charges against all the defendants, and the judge declared a mistrial on those counts.
The government earlier secured seditious-conspiracy convictions against six members of another far-right group, the Oath Keepers, for their roles in the Jan. 6 attack. In two separate trials, prosecutors presented evidence that the group stashed weapons for a “quick reaction” force that could be summoned into Washington. They also showed video of some Oath Keepers members moving into the Capitol in military-style “stack formation.”
The Justice Department says that at least a thousand more people could face charges linked to the attack on the United States Capitol.
Update 3/9/2023, 2:26 am: Updated to reflect Carlson using his show to further minimize the January 2021 coup attempt as well as new information about his network’s purported relationship with Trump. –ag
Update 4/24/2023, 8:51 am: Updated with news that Carlson and Fox News have decided to “part ways.” –bb
Update 5/4/2023, 1:27 pm: Added information about this week’s arrest and convictions. –bb