It’s been more than five months since President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and those seeking to deflect blame still can’t figure out exactly how to do so. First, the idea was that the riot was provoked by antifa. Then it was that it was preplanned, so Trump couldn’t have incited it. Then it was that the riots weren’t really that bad or that they were even “peaceful,” despite the violence and deaths. None of those arguments is borne out by the evidence available.

But now we’ve got a new entry in this long-running quest for a conspiracy theory that will stick: That perhaps the riot was actually the work … of the FBI?

Fox News host Tucker Carlson wove just such a tangled, conspiratorial web Tuesday night.

Carlson’s theory is essentially that the presence of unindicted co-conspirators in the Capitol riot indictments means those people are government agents and that this, in turn, means the FBI was involved in organizing the riot. The idea has since caught on with conspiratorially minded congressional Republicans.

There are myriad problems with this. But first, let’s get to the argument.

The theory follows Carlson’s well-established style of asking extremely suggestive questions with little basis in evidence — and which are easily disputed — and then treating the answers he likes as fact to build a narrative he prefers. I’ll quote him at-length:

Strangely, some of the key people who participated on Jan. 6 have not been charged. Look at the document. 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.

Carlson goes on to cite two unindicted co-conspirators in the indictment against alleged Capitol rioter Thomas Caldwell. The government alleges Caldwell conspired with members of the extremist “Oath Keepers” to storm the Capitol. “Person Two” was someone Caldwell stayed with at his hotel. “Person Three” was someone Caldwell identified as being involved in a “quick reaction force.”

Here’s where Carlson gets to the crux of his conspiracy theory:

But wait, here’s the interesting thing: Person Two and Person Three were organizers of the riot. The government knows who they are, but the government has not charged them. Why is that?
You know why: They were almost certainly working for the FBI. So, FBI operatives were organizing the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to government documents.
And those two are not alone. In all, Revolver News reported there are, quote, “upwards of 20 unindicted co-conspirators in the Oath Keeper indictments, all playing various roles in the conspiracy who have not been charged for virtually the exact same activities, and in some cases, much, much more severe activities as those named alongside them in the indictments.”
Huh? 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.

Carlson goes on to note that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has said the government has aimed to infiltrate extremist groups like the Oath Keepers, which shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone.

The theory was promoted Wednesday by Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

The first thing to emphasize is that Carlson’s theory is based on a report in Revolver News. The site is run by Darren Beattie, who appeared on Carlson’s show shortly after the above monologue. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Beattie is a former Trump White House speechwriter who was fired in 2018 over a past appearance on a panel with a white nationalist, Peter Brimelow, at a conference attended by well-known white nationalists.

The second and perhaps most important point is that the basis of Carlson’s theory — that the unindicted co-conspirators are either likely or must be government agents — is extremely shaky.

Legal experts say the government literally cannot name an undercover agent as an unindicted co-conspirator.

“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.

While all of these are plausible, that last one seems like a distinct possibility. We already know that a founding member of the Oath Keepers, Jon Ryan Schaffer, has agreed to cooperate.

In addition, you don’t need to look any further than the Caldwell indictment to see that we should hardly assume the unindicted co-conspirators are government agents.

The first time the indictment references one, it says, “The Oath Keepers are led by PERSON ONE.” That person is easily identifiable as Stewart Rhodes. There’s no evidence he is a secret government agent.

And there is reason to believe one of the two unidentified co-conspirators Carlson focused on might actually be Caldwell’s wife. Caldwell’s indictment says, “CALDWELL and PERSON TWO took ‘selfie’ photographs of themselves on the balcony and in other areas on the perimeter of the Capitol.” The Washington Post has reported that Caldwell posted images to Facebook while writing, “Us storming the castle. Please share. Sharon is right with me. I am such an instigator!” Caldwell’s wife, who has not been charged with a crime, was not otherwise referenced in his indictment, despite being present near him in the Capitol.

Even if we set aside these reasons to disbelieve Carlson’s theory and the fact that the government isn’t supposed to cite government agents as unindicted co-conspirators, it’s still a massive leap to assume that these people were government agents. Carlson initially raises this as a supposedly likely possibility, but then essentially treats it as fact.

Is it possible it’s right? Virtually anything is possible. There’s just no genuine reason to believe it, despite Carlson’s presentation.

“Tucker Carlson and Revolver News make a speculative inflammatory leap that may play well with their audiences,” said Ira P. Robbins, a professor at American University’s law school who has studied unindicted co-conspirators, “but which may lack any basis in reality.”

Carlson also says that the insurrection was, “by the government’s own admission in these documents, organized at least in part by government agents,” which goes quite a bit further than merely suggesting the possibility that the government had infiltrated the organizations involved. It’s the kind of suggestion journalists in other organizations would quite possibly be fired for if they sought to push it nearly as hard.

But for Carlson, it’s just the latest segment.