Those narratives suffered significant blows Tuesday, even as Republicans continued to try to muddy the waters and plant seeds of doubt.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified repeatedly to the Senate Judiciary Committee that there was no evidence that antifa, anarchists or provocateurs who didn’t support Trump were involved in the Capitol siege.
“We have not, to date, seen any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to antifa in connection with the 6th,” Wray said at one point.
Asked at another point whether the people involved were fake Trump supporters, Wray said flatly, “We have not seen evidence of that at this stage.” And again: “We have not seen any evidence of that.”
That’s pretty significant, given that about 280 people have been arrested.
Even as he was saying these things, though — and even as there is real work to be done in drilling down on Jan. 6 — Republicans sought to refocus the hearing and question the idea that these were people inspired by Trump and his bogus claims of voter fraud.
The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), began his opening statement by assuring the committee that the events of Jan. 6 were horrible. But he then spent most of his statement and round of questioning on the threat of antifa and extremist groups associated with the left.
Grassley didn’t go as far as Sen. Ron Johnson did last week, when the Wisconsin Republican used a similar hearing to float theories about Jan. 6 provocateurs based on a single, speculative account from a witness at a right-wing think tank. Grassley instead essentially set Jan. 6 aside and suggested that the FBI might be giving left-leaning extremists and anarchists comparatively short shrift by not equally investigating last summer’s protests against police violence.
Grassley said repeatedly that he agreed with comments from Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) about the gravity of Jan. 6, but he added that “a narrow view of these matters would be intellectually dishonest. We’re not serious about tackling domestic extremism if we tolerate mobs that attack some police officers, but not all police officers.”
He also used his comments to suggest that antifa is aligned with the Democratic Party — a suggestion that misunderstands what the group is truly about.
“Supporters of that group have been charged federally for violence, promoting riots and using molotov cocktails — even after President Biden’s electoral victory,” Grassley said. “Can you believe this? Antifa rioters attacked the Oregon Democratic Party headquarters, and they did that on Inauguration Day. You’d think the results of the election ought to satisfy them.”
At another point, Grassley probed what ideologies Wray was seeing associated with Jan. 6 and more broadly with extremism in the United States. When the director eventually got around to anarchists, Grassley stopped him and tried to redirect. He cited comments from former acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf and former attorney general William P. Barr suggesting that law enforcement wasn’t focused enough on these groups.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) also got in on the act, more directly — albeit subtly — questioning the official account of Jan. 6 and even possible anarchist involvement in the siege.
“I’ve heard the expression that, here in Washington, whoever has the best narrative wins,” Cornyn said. “And so sometimes I think the narrative is created, and then [they] try to search for facts that might bolster that narrative.
“But as you said, the fact is these extremist groups are not monolithic. So that’s, I think, an important part of understanding the threat. I’ve heard them described — some of these folks described as white supremacists, domestic terrorists, insurrectionists, rioters, seditionists, anarchists. The list goes on and on.”
That is indeed quite a list. It just includes a group — anarchists — that lacks any evidence for its participation in the riot, as Wray had already explicitly said.
Cornyn went on to cite a George Washington University study that classified the Capitol rioters in a few different groups, including a large but not overwhelming chunk of “inspired believers” — accounting for 142 out of 257 arrests at the time. Again, the implication seemed to be that perhaps other rioters weren’t inspired by Trump. As the study makes clear, though, those people were separated from others not because they were motivated by Trump but because of their lack of participation in an organized group like a militia.
Cornyn used it to again cast doubt on the “narrative.” Grassley, similarly, didn’t make accusations about antifa involvement, but he did seek to focus the debate on that, at a time when the events of Jan. 6 are front and center in Congress — and as much of the conservative movement has latched on to baseless claims about antifa being the true entity behind the attack.
It’s valid to examine these issues. But they predictably feed into a narrative that has misled many Americans — even by the direct account of the man who was testifying Tuesday.
The hearing wasn’t just about Jan. 6 but also “other threats” and domestic terrorism. But focusing so much on antifa and anarchists at a time when so many in the GOP have latched on to speculation about them and Jan. 6 is certainly a choice. The effort to question the “narrative” also suggests there was some reason to doubt that this was Trump supporters acting on his behalf. Wray made clear there wasn’t, after 280 arrests.
Cornyn said he was worried about people setting a narrative and then looking hard for facts to support it. But that’s been the story of what has happened on his side of the aisle, with Trump’s allies immediately pointing to antifa and still failing to find evidence to back up that assertion, two months later.
If these Republican lawmakers are truly worried about false narratives taking hold, they might want to try extra hard to make sure they aren’t feeding them.