The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The far right rushes to embrace Tucker Carlson’s FBI-Capitol riot conspiracy theory

Supporters of President Donald Trump take over balconies and inauguration scaffolding at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) rose to speak on the floor of the House on Thursday, a sheaf of news articles in his hand and the spirit of a Breitbart commenter in his heart.

He began by defending his recent question to a Forest Service official asking if that agency might be able to shift the Earth’s orbit. Then, a riff on a Washington Times article about criminal activity in Mexico, a country that enjoyed a “fantastic location.” Then, in conclusion, Gohmert shifted to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, an event that he has in the past dismissed as “people without any firearms coming into a building.”

“There’s been so much appropriate concern about January 6,” Gohmert said. “What happened that day. Unfortunately, we don’t know all that happened that day. There are some major, major questions that need to be answered.”

Among them? A report that had been elevated the night before by Gohmert’s “friend,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson: that perhaps a significant part of the violence that day was spurred by FBI agents embedded in the crowd.

“This is scary stuff,” Gohmert said of the sketchy claims made by Carlson. “This is third-world stuff. This is not only third-world stuff but this is like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin kind of activity.”

The sketchy and quickly debunked claims made by Carlson. The Fox News host was elevating a story written for the website Revolver by a former Trump administration official (later fired for links to white nationalists) arguing that “unindicted co-conspirators” referred to in Justice Department charging documents referred to government law enforcement agents. In other words, that the references implied a significant intertwining of FBI agents in the violence that day. But, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reported, that term wouldn’t apply to FBI agents, and the “co-conspirators” identified by Carlson were at times clearly identifiable. One, for example, was obviously a suspect’s wife, based on the available information. Marrying someone for a long-game sting operation would be quite a level of commitment.

The dubiousness of the story would have been trivial for Carlson’s team to unearth before his segment aired. But the story was irresistible on the right because it contributed to efforts to reframe the violence that day as something other than the fury of supporters of President Donald Trump misled about claims of rampant voter fraud — claims that people like Gohmert had amplified. The Carlson report shifted responsibility from Trump to the “deep state,” a very comfortable pattern for the political right.

Other right-wing House Republicans were similarly eager to elevate Carlson’s report. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted the segment shortly after it aired, just as he had quickly elevated false claims on Jan. 6 itself that the left was to blame for the violence. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), perhaps Gaetz’s closest ally in the House, amplified Gaetz’s tweet, writing that just as the deep state “had a ‘back up plan’ to stop Trump in Russia Collusion witch hunt, now we are finding out they were deeply involved in Jan 6th” — untrue and unfounded claims in their entirety.

The following day, Gaetz sent a formal letter to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, demanding answers to three questions about the government’s activity in that period — questions lifted directly from the Revolver article.

Carlson’s story also gained traction elsewhere in conservative media. Sites like the Western Journal repeated Carlson’s claims credulously, with that site tacking on a just-asking-questions disclaimer at the end. Data from the Facebook-owned analysis site CrowdTangle shows that a number of posts linking to that Western Journal article were among the FBI-related content on Facebook with the most interactions in the past week.

Sputnik, an outlet funded directly by the Russian government, elevated the Carlson report, casting a slightly different light on Gohmert’s “Putin kind of activity” claim. It was also picked up on the right-wing cable network Newsmax, with host Steve Cortes — himself a former Trump campaign adviser — interviewing Gaetz on the subject.

“I’ve been called a conspiracy theorist just for asking these questions. But whether it was the Russian hoax that was nonsense or the origins of the coronavirus at the Wuhan lab,” Gaetz assured Newsmax viewers, “I’ve got a pretty good track record of being right when I make pronouncements.”

Linking this particular theory to the right’s preferred narrative on the Russian interference investigation and to the genesis of the coronavirus is apt. In each case, outlying evidence was used to cast media coverage as flawed — and those flaws were used to argue that the opposite of that coverage must be true.

The lab-leak theory of the coronavirus origin is the most recent example. Renewed consideration of where the virus came from led to criticism from the media itself about how much credence the theory had been and should have been given. This was used by the right not only to claim that the media was flawed but, further, that the lab-leak theory was therefore more likely to be true. In many cases, it is simply asserted to be true, as by Trump himself.

Two weeks ago, Carlson used a few lines from publicly released emails to cast the government’s chief infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, as dishonest and criminal. His claims, like his report on the co-conspirators, lacked any robust foundation, as subsequent reporting by The Post and others makes clear. But the broad strokes of Carlson’s claims seem already been accepted by many on the right as true, with any questions about his evidence being sanded off as unimportant to the understood reality.

This is why the claim that the FBI spurred the violence on Jan. 6 is useful. It suggests that the common understanding of that day — an understanding inconvenient to Gohmert, Gaetz and others who promoted false election-fraud claims — is incorrect. It shifts responsibility away from Trump and the right and onto the government itself, a now-familiar target of the right’s frustration.

That the claims lack any substantive evidence doesn’t derail the effort at all.