The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

5 conspiracy theories that remain unproven, despite what you might have heard

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier Jan. 6 at the Capitol in Washington. (Julio Cortez/AP)
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Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that a member of the Proud Boys who was serving as an FBI informant had kept his bureau handler updated as he participated in the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. The report was not surprising, given that the FBI was known to have informants in the group and given that dozens of people being watched by law enforcement were known to be in the area that day. The story, though, offered new insight into how the FBI was tracking the riot that day in real time.

What the story did not do is validate the conspiracy theory promoted by Tucker Carlson earlier this year that the Capitol violence was fomented by federal agents. And yet, on social media, that was the response: Because the Times showed some connection between the FBI and the rioters, that proved that Carlson’s presentation of a connection was accurate.

Again, it didn’t, for reasons that we’ll get into in a moment. But this phenomenon keeps repeating — a conspiracy theory declared to have been confirmed by an unrelated development — and bears examination on its own. Over the past few months, it’s occurred over and over again, with isolated bits of evidence being used to declare a conspiracy theory proven when it hasn’t been. It’s something that we saw frequently when Donald Trump was president, as when he declared that Trump Tower had been wiretapped during the 2016 campaign (which it wasn’t) and that this was proved by the fact that federal law enforcement had been investigating members of his campaign. A wild claim was shown to be wrong, but a minor detail was then used to rationalize his saying it.

So let’s walk through the recent examples.

The FBI and Jan. 6. In June, Carlson elevated a story from a site called Revolver News, written by a former Trump speechwriter. That story claimed that the presence of unidentified and co-conspirators in charging documents indicated that the accused rioters had probably been spurred to their actions by FBI informants whose identities were being withheld.

“FBI operatives were organizing the attack on the Capitol on January 6, according to government documents,” Carlson claimed, pointing to the report. He later added that “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.”

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake quickly debunked this claim at the time. There simply wasn’t any evidence presented in the report that agents helped stoke the violence, and in fact, the report made assumptions about some of those unidentified individuals that were demonstrably incorrect.

Carlson elevated the story because it allowed him to play into a popular narrative on the right that the violence on Jan. 6 was not committed by Trump supporters or, at least, that their role was overstated. In response, right-wing politicians embraced Carlson’s report specifically as evidence that the FBI had a role in stoking the violence, not just in tracking it.

The Times report does not in any way bolster Carlson’s actual claim. In fact, it goes out of its way to point out that it doesn’t.

“If anything, the records appear to show that the informant’s F.B.I. handler was slow to grasp the gravity of what was happening that day,” the Times’s Alan Feuer and Adam Goldman write. “And the records show that the informant traveled to Washington at his own volition, not at the request of the F.B.I.”

The violence at the Capitol itself. Meanwhile, authorities released new video from the day of the riot that was quickly elevated as showing that claims of violence were overstated. For months, some on the right had demanded the release of any video associated with the day, in part clearly hoping that they might be able to pick out something that undercut the idea that any significant crimes had occurred in Trump’s name.

When BuzzFeed News’s Zoe Tillman shared a snippet of the new video on Twitter, that effort geared up. Here were people peacefully entering the Capitol. What happened to the “insurrection”??

Have you ever seen the movie “Saving Private Ryan?” There’s a scene about a third of the way into the film in which Allied troops are filing onto the beaches at Normandy as the movie’s protagonists prepare for their new assignment. If you tuned into the movie at that point, you might think to yourself that the invasion of France on D-Day was a bit overblown.

But of course, you’d have missed the first minutes of the movie, in which U.S. soldiers first take the heavily defended coastline. Here’s the equivalent of that moment from Jan. 6.

The FBI released 10 new videos on March 18 of suspects in the most violent assaults on federal officers during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Video: FBI)

It’s this activity, obviously, that is the focus of concern and outrage. That there were locations and moments in which violence didn’t occur doesn’t and can’t prove that there weren’t any where significant violence did.

Purported fraud in the Arizona election. The months-long review of voting in Maricopa County, Ariz., concluded last week with a lengthy presentation in which the group conducting it presented its findings. In short: not much. Its count of the vote largely matched the official county results.

This is not how Trump framed the findings, of course. In a speech in Georgia, he alleged that the review proved that it was a “corrupt election.” After all, hadn’t the review found that there were “enough fraudulent votes, mystery votes, and fake votes to change the outcome of the election 4 or 5 times over,” as he said in a statement?

No, it did not. What the review did was try to create a sense that questions remained after a lengthy assessment of how voting unfolded, allowing those who conducted the review and those who supported it to feel as though they’d generated something for their time and money. Maricopa County quickly shot down a number of these lingering “questions” over social media, revealing them as non-substantive. Unfortunately, reality has never been a constraint on Trump’s fraud claims.

The Russia investigation and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The indictment of an attorney who worked for a firm hired by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign reinvigorated assertions that the entirety of the investigation into Russian interference in that year’s election stemmed from Clinton’s efforts. Federal prosecutors allege that the attorney misled the FBI about his ties to Clinton’s team as he discussed an allegation about a link between Trump’s company and a Russian bank. That purported link was never credible and, though it made a splash in the media shortly before the election, was never shown to have been a significant part of the federal investigation into Russia’s efforts.

This idea that the probe originated from ginned-up allegations by Clinton’s campaign has been a popular one over the past several months. Usually, that’s because of the so-called Steele dossier, a set of reports compiled by a former British intelligence officer on behalf of a firm hired by the aforementioned law office. This idea gained more traction last October when the acting director of national intelligence published a misleading report suggesting that the investigation was spurred by Clinton’s team.

To believe that Clinton was central to the investigation, you have to ignore two significant things. First, that Russia was known (and later shown) to have stolen information from the Democratic National Committee as early as June 2016 and, second, that various members of Trump’s 2016 campaign had clear connections to Russia. An adviser told an Australian official in May of that year that he had heard Russia had emails linked to Clinton. Another adviser traveled to Moscow that July and met with a senior government official. Trump’s campaign manager, who’d worked for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, was communicating with a man believed to be a Russian agent as he ran Trump’s campaign. All of those things were the predicate for the investigation, as was later shown by an inspector general’s review.

The rumor about Alfa Bank that never amounted to anything was, at best, tangential.

The Hunter Biden laptop. Shortly before last year’s election, the New York Post reported that a laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter had been handed over to Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani. The Post picked out some emails from the trove of documents, ones suggesting obliquely that the Democratic presidential nominee was in some way connected to his son’s business activities. (This, of course, was a focus of the effort to defend Trump during his first impeachment in 2019.)

That report spurred an unusual reaction. Social media companies, concerned about having been vectors for Russian misinformation in 2016, limited the sharing of the Post’s story. This was framed by the right as being an effort to protect Biden (though the allegations being made were unlikely to significantly affect a campaign centered on Trump’s own popularity), but, at the time, was instead generally presented by the tech companies as a question of provenance. If the laptop was seeded by Russian intelligence, for example, should it be elevated in the national conversation?

That question is a difficult one to answer, but there was good reason to ask it. The story of how Giuliani obtained the laptop was itself unusual, centered on a device being left at a store in Delaware years before. There was also a report from Time indicating that some of the material found on the laptop had been circulating in Ukraine in 2019, during a period when Giuliani was actively seeking dirt on Biden. Had Russia managed to hack Hunter Biden’s online accounts to obtain material? Was Giuliani being duped? That he picked the Post to report on the laptop out of concern that other outlets might “spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out” didn’t engender confidence.

When Politico last week reported that some of the emails included in the Post’s reporting had been verified by a reporter, critics of the decision to mute the Post’s reporting heralded the news as vindication. Here was evidence that this wasn’t misinformation after all!

But again, the idea that what was being shared might have been edited or invented was only part of the decision. The question wasn’t simply one of misinformation but one of Russian intervention. The release of material by WikiLeaks in 2016 was similarly accused of being fake, but the broader issue that emerged was whether an effort already linked to Russia at that point should have been incorporated into election coverage. Much of the response last year centered on that same question. Twitter’s rationale for limiting its spread, for example, indicated that it might violate rules against sharing “content obtained through hacking that contains private information.” That some of the emails were legitimate doesn’t actually prove that initial response to have been unwarranted, nor does it prove that the genesis of the information wasn’t dubious.

The laptop story is at least nuanced. Others, like the Times report on the FBI, isn’t: There’s nothing in that story that lends credence to the most outrageous claims being made about the events of Jan. 6. Perhaps some evidence will emerge that does. In the meantime, pretending that unrelated details prove a conspiracy theory to be true is more revelatory about those making that claim than about the theory itself.