“He describes four different types of people: plainclothes militants, agents provocateurs, fake Trump protesters, and then a disciplined, uniformed column of attackers,” Johnson said of the article. “I think these are the people that probably planned this.”
As evidence that the crowd observed at the Capitol was not likely to have attacked Capitol Police officers or vandalized the building, Johnson offered another observation from the same article: “Many wore pro-police shirts or carried pro-police black-and-blue flags.” He didn’t mention the sentence that preceded that in the article: “Some said they were police officers from around the country.” Which, of course, some rioters were.
Johnson’s goal was the same goal he had last week when he offered that the events of that day didn’t amount to an “armed insurrection,” a claim that hinges largely on what you think counts as armament worthy of the adjective: He wanted to make the violence seem like something different than what it was.
What it was is by now obvious. A crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump, including and bolstered by white nationalists and other far-right extremists, broke into the Capitol in an effort to disrupt the counting of electoral votes that they had been convinced by Trump were the product of rampant fraud. As officials testified Tuesday, some element of that effort was planned in advance; some groups in attendance that day came to Washington with the intent to wreak havoc. But it was made possible by the scale of the crowd that overran the limited law enforcement presence intended to protect the building.
That reality, though, serves as a condemnation of a lot of the political right. It’s a condemnation of Trump, who encouraged thousands of people to be there that day and who repeatedly misled them about the legitimacy of the election he lost. It’s a condemnation of those in D.C. who chose to enter the Capitol, a group that was, again, almost entirely Trump supporters. And it’s a condemnation of the movement manifested on Jan. 6 that groups planning violence or supporting far-right and racist ideologies were simply part of the day’s activities.
So we see efforts like Johnson’s to separate the bad parts of what occurred from those he wants to defend, specifically Trump and those protest attendees who weren’t part of the violence. But Johnson’s effort is by no means the only one underway.
There’s another effort propagated by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, in which he attempts to diminish the idea that white nationalists had a significant presence — or, perhaps, any presence — on that day. His motivations for doing so are complicated. Carlson is sensitive about people being labeled as “white nationalist” after he himself was targeted with the label following various members of his staff being outed for using white nationalist rhetoric and for his own comments about immigration and race. He’s also heavily invested in the idea that allegations of white nationalism are being used as a fraudulent predicate to attack Republicans broadly.
On his show Monday night, Carlson played a clip from a Senate hearing considering the nomination of Merrick Garland to serve as attorney general. In the clip, Garland said that he would “supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6.”
“There’s no evidence that white supremacists were responsible for what happened on Jan. 6,” Carlson said in response. “That’s a lie.”
It’s not. During Tuesday’s hearing, the officials who were responsible for Capitol security that day were asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) whether they would “agree that this attack involved white supremacists and extremist groups.” The audible responses were offered without delay: Yes.
Some of this is an effort to blur lines between “being involved” and “being responsible for.” There’s no real question that white supremacists were involved in the attack on the Capitol, but it’s not safe to say that they were entirely the cause of the day’s violence. Claims that white nationalists were the group centrally responsible for the violence or that every Trump supporter present necessarily was involved are straw men, created to try to undercut the public understanding of what happened and, by extension, to soften the implications for Trump and his supporters.
Trump is by now used to such efforts. For the past six years, he’s tried to reframe or minimize events or investigations in which he’s implicated, generally with the aid of allies like Johnson and Fox News. The events of Jan. 6 pose a particular challenge, though, given that he explicitly and repeatedly both ginned up skepticism about the election and told people where and when to show up to protest.
So we see another effort to reshape our understanding of what occurred: an attempt to cast his nonsensical allegations of voter fraud as accurate or legitimate.
For some, like House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), this means pretending that Trump’s complaints were about the constitutionality of state laws about mail-in voting. For others, like the American Conservative Union’s Matt Schlapp, it means pretending that courts didn’t repeatedly reject the idea that evidence existed to prove significant voter fraud.
In an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Monday night, Schlapp defended the focus on purported fraud at his group’s influential conference that begins this week. The Conservative Political Action Conference has seven sessions focused to some extent on the idea that, hey, maybe Trump was right! One, for example, is titled, “Why Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence.”
Cuomo pointed out that the Trump campaign and its allies had repeatedly failed to prove their case in court.
“You’re right. They did, they did fail,” Schlapp replied. “But guess what? You know this. You’re a good lawyer. Just because you fail in court doesn’t mean you don’t have a good case. It means you lost in court.”
It can also mean both things. In November, Trump’s legal team suggested that there was evidence of fraud in six states. In all six of those states, a lawsuit brought by the campaign or its allies was rejected not only in general but on the lack of evidence presented in defense of the claim.
“Plaintiffs rely on numerous affidavits from election challengers who paint a picture of sinister fraudulent activities occurring both openly in the TCF Center and under the cloak of darkness,” Michigan Circuit Presiding Judge Timothy Kenny wrote that month. “The challengers’ conclusions are decidedly contradicted by the highly-respected former State Elections Director Christopher Thomas who spent hours and hours at the TCF Center November 3rd and 4th explaining processes to challengers and resolving disputes.”
Wisconsin state Justice Brian Hagedorn similarly rejected the idea that the state’s presidential votes should be tossed.
“One might expect that this solemn request would be paired with evidence of serious errors tied to a substantial and demonstrated set of illegal votes,” he wrote. “Instead, the evidentiary support rests almost entirely on the unsworn expert report of a former campaign employee that offers statistical estimates based on call center samples and social media research.”
In Arizona, U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa wrote that “allegations that find favor in the public sphere of gossip and innuendo cannot be a substitute for earnest pleadings and procedure in federal court.”
“Plaintiffs have not moved the needle for their fraud theory from conceivable to plausible, which they must do to state a claim under Federal pleading standards,” she added.
In Georgia, U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten Sr. wrote that although the plaintiffs “make allegations of tremendous worldwide improprieties regarding the Dominion voting machines, those allegations are supported by precious little proof.” Nevada District Judge James Russell decided that “there is no credible or reliable evidence that the 2020 General Election in Nevada was affected by fraud.” U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann determined that the court “has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence.”
It wasn’t that courts didn’t look at the evidence. Often, it was that what Trump and his allies presented as evidence — like those affidavits in Michigan — weren’t actually evidence at all! You can declare that a small hole in the ground is evidence of Bigfoot, but that doesn’t mean that a court must therefore treat that evidence as substantive.
Again, the effort here is to reframe what occurred in a way that softens Trump’s culpability. But it is also an effort to rationalize sweeping efforts to curtail voting access, a process that tends to disadvantage Democrats.
What remains to be discovered about the violence that day is a full understanding of who was responsible for fomenting or initiating it and why law enforcement was unprepared to deal with it. That there are questions, though, also offers an opportunity for some to try to reshape the reality of what occurred to their political benefit.