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Opinion Kevin McCarthy’s Jan. 6 footage stunt demands a real response

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
5 min

Democrats have loudly expressed outrage about House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision to grant Fox News’s Tucker Carlson exclusive access to surveillance footage of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Democrats say this will compromise security and enable Carlson to rewrite the day’s history with cherry-picked footage shaped into cleverly concocted propaganda.

But Democrats have a better response to the California Republican’s tactic than fulmination: They can access the footage themselves. They can either allow news organizations to view all of it or at least respond to any distortions Carlson might conjure up by making whatever footage is relevant available to outlets.

This would be smart politics, but it would also be good for the country. Carlson says his producers have gained “unfettered” access to about 44,000 hours of footage and already insists some of it does “contradict” what’s publicly known.

But Carlson has a track record of falsely depicting the attack as a “false flag” operation, absurdly portraying rioters as political prisoners, and pushing other distortions and lies. It’s obvious Carlson will selectively pick from footage to try to further obscure public memory of that day with confusion and agitprop. Democrats can’t let that go unanswered.

If they so choose, Democrats can access all the footage now. After McCarthy (R-Calif.) granted access to Carlson, Capitol Police officers explained that they are required to release it to congressional leaders or oversight committees that demand it.

It turns out this applies to minority leaders, too. Investigators on the Jan. 6 committee, of course, were permitted to view the footage (only a fraction aired in hearings) while Democrats were in the majority. But a Capitol Police spokesperson confirmed that Democrats can access it in a GOP-controlled House.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the majority or the minority,” the spokesperson told me, noting that “we cannot control what congressional leaders or the oversight committees do with the materials we provide.”

House Democratic leaders, then, presumably have the option of making that footage available to other news organizations, just as McCarthy did for Carlson.

True, Democrats might hesitate out of security concerns. They have lambasted McCarthy’s decision for compromising information about security camera locations, procedures guarding lawmakers and other protocols. Democrats point out that the Jan. 6 committee viewed footage under tight safeguards and didn’t air any unless the Capitol Police confirmed it wouldn’t endanger security. So they might be reluctant to reveal it now.

But now that Carlson has access, Democrats should at least debate giving news organizations access as well. Presumably they would be at least as sensitive as Carlson — if not more so — to the risks of airing or reporting on specific footage without the Capitol Police signing off first.

Alternatively, Democrats could access the footage now by themselves, if only to prepare for the worst.

It’s hard to know what Carlson is planning. But it could involve graphic unseen footage of, say, the killing of Ashli Babbitt outside the Speaker’s Lobby (making her more of a martyr on the right) or of cops letting protesters enter the Capitol in isolated situations (making rioters appear unthreatening or supposedly exposing a “false flag” operation).

However Carlson seeks to deceive, Democrats should be ready to invite in news organizations and fact-checkers to view context and visual information that conveys the full truth, on a case-by-case basis.

This would call Republicans’ bluff. After Democrats blasted McCarthy’s decision, some Republicans piously wondered why Democrats would oppose such admirable transparency.

But if Republicans wanted transparency, why would McCarthy grant access to only Carlson? What makes McCarthy’s decision odious is the granting of special access to a propagandist with a history of serial deceptions about the attack. If Democrats make footage available, they’d be merely doing what Republicans pretend they want. How can they object?

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who served on the Jan. 6 committee, says strategic decisions should be left to Democratic leaders. But Lofgren told me, “Should Mr. Carlson try to distort, we would have the opportunity, I presume, to get information and rebut the distortions.”

Of course, Carlson’s threat to air footage might be pure grift. In this scenario, Carlson and Republicans are just throwing the base a fake sop in the form of advertised revelations to come.

Notably, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has been priming the base to think big things are afoot, tweeting that McCarthy’s decision means “the video tapes are coming.” The goal might be to create the impression that the official story of Jan. 6 is about to collapse. Following this, even nothingburger footage will be hyped by right-wing media as damning.

Democrats might be reluctant to respond to such a pathetically hollow gesture, instead preferring to let the Jan. 6 committee’s revelations speak for themselves. But at a minimum, Democrats should be prepared.

Whatever depiction of Jan. 6 that Carlson airs likely won’t stop there. Expect it to become the party-wide message, repeated by scores of Republicans and right-wing media as a scandal of epic or even historic proportions.

Amid such supercharged information warfare, Americans’ memory of the Jan. 6 hearings can’t be relied upon to help them sort everything out. Carlson and Republicans know this. Democrats should, too.