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‘Not all Trump supporters’: Conservative media tries to shift blame, cast doubt on identities of Capitol invaders

Pundits on the right condemned the violence but many maintained that ‘Trump supporters don’t do these things’

Right-wing media outlets spent significant time on Jan. 6 suggesting that the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol weren't actually Trump supporters. (Video: The Washington Post)

Conservative radio host Mark Levin lambasted the Trump supporters who breached the U.S. Capitol building and shut down the electoral certification process on Wednesday afternoon as “fools” and “idiots” who should be prosecuted. But, he reassured his listeners: “None of you had anything to do with it. . . . You, we, are the law-abiding citizens of this country.”

Greg Kelly, the top-rated host on conservative upstart Newsmax, said “we condemn it unambiguously.” But, he told viewers during his prime-time show: “These people don’t look like Trump supporters. Trump supporters don’t do these things.”

Across conservative media platforms on Wednesday, the most popular figures in the pro-Trump media movement sought to draw a bright line between the Trump supporters who incited violence and Trump himself — even going so far as to cast doubt on the rioters’ true identities or sympathies.

“I’d like to know who the agitators were,” Fox News host Sean Hannity told viewers, referring to the people seen marching on the Capitol after Trump urged them to in a speech outside the White House. Hannity maintained that “those who truly support President Trump … do not support those that commit acts of violence.”

Live updates: Pro-Trump mob storms U.S. Capitol

“I do not know Trump supporters that have ever demonstrated violence that I know of in a big situation,” “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade said during a Wednesday night appearance.

A common refrain was a claim that the protesters were “infiltrated” by outside “agitators” in an effort to embarrass the president and his supporters — a claim for which no evidence was presented.

“They were likely not all Trump supporters,” Laura Ingraham said during her 10 p.m. show on Fox, going on to allude to unverified, since-denied “reports” of involvement by antifa, a loosely organized far-left network whose practice of physically confronting white supremacists has made them an object of fear and fascination on the right. “I have never seen Trump rally attendees wearing helmets, black helmets, brown helmets, black backpacks — the uniforms you saw in some of these crowd shots.”

Trump supporters who gathered to protest the certification of Joe Biden as the next U.S. President describe how they view the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

“We may never know the truth here,” said her fellow Fox host Tucker Carlson earlier in the evening. "I keep seeing all kinds of accounts of who they were and what their motives might have been.”

Newsmax, a cable channel that has won favor with Trump for endorsing his baseless claims of a stolen election, turned to Trump supporter and pillow company founder Mike Lindell for commentary Wednesday afternoon, and host Chris Salcedo seemed to concur with Lindell’s claim that “there were probably some undercover antifa people that dressed as Trump people.” Later on the same channel, Greg Kelly suggested that the chaos was planned (“Did someone want this to happen?”) — but maintained that it could not have been by Trump supporters, whom he described as “law-and-order people.”

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns or operates local stations in over 100 markets, sent its affiliates a news report from correspondent James Rosen suggesting that “far-left infiltrators” helped perpetrate the riot. He cited no sources but stated it as if it were a fact.

It was a claim not so distant from the unsupported story posted by right-wing conspiracy theory-spewing Gateway Pundit claiming that “at least 1 bus load of antifa thugs infiltrated peaceful Trump demonstrators as part of a false Trump flag ops.”

From historic day to ‘insurrection,’ how the mob takeover of the Capitol unfolded in news coverage

But media outlets that have long supported a more establishment conservatism did not hesitate to lay blame on Trump. “A sitting president of the United States, having lost reelection, incited a mob to storm the Capitol as the Congress sat in joint session to certify the electoral college vote,” wrote Matthew Continetti at National Review. “This act was without precedent. It was based on a lie, fed by myth, and culminated in violence, in vandalism, and in the desecration of the people’s house. The lawbreakers cannot go unpunished. Nor can the person ultimately responsible. His name is Donald Trump.”

“The nauseating scene in Washington, D.C., is Trump’s fault,” wrote Michael Brendan Dougherty, another National Review pundit, in a piece under the headline, “Trump did this.” The Daily Wire, founded by popular conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro, played up stories about prominent Republicans, including former president George W. Bush and Vice President Pence, condemning the violence.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ingraham was forceful in calling for peace during the heat of the conflict. “Security [breach] at Capitol is disgraceful,” she wrote on Twitter. “The president needs to tell everyone to leave the building.” (She gave herself credit during her TV show on Wednesday night, saying, “I think I was one of the first people on Twitter to say the president has to tell people to go home.”)

Carlson, though, used much of his show to argue that the media has not adequately explained why some of Trump’s supporters feel frustrated by the results of the election — frustrated enough, he said, to storm the Capitol. He evoked some of the claims of election fraud promoted by Trump that have been repeatedly found baseless by the courts.

“If people begin to believe that their democracy is fraudulent, if they conclude that voting is a charade, that the system is rigged and it’s run in secret by a small group of powerful, dishonest people who are acting in their own interests, then God knows what could happen,” he said.

Carlson defended the rioters as “solid Americans” who are “deeply frustrated.” An hour later, his fellow Fox host Hannity maintained that “the majority of them were peaceful.”

Both hosts, though, bristled at the property destruction they saw at the Capitol. “You’re not allowed to break windows or encourage people to break windows,” Carlson said. “I don’t want to ever see our Capitol building breached like this ever again,” said Hannity.

A common theme among conservative media personalities was a fear that the riot at the Capitol would be used by liberals to justify restrictions on regular Americans. “All of this is going to be used as a pretext to make the lives of the people watching this show much worse, and everybody knows that,” Carlson said. “The people who want to clamp down on the Bill of Rights are thrilled by this.”

“It can now be used against all of you,” Levin told his radio listeners. “It will be.”

Paul Farhi contributed to this report.