So for 11 months, the likes of Tucker Carlson and conspiratorially minded members of Congress such as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have sought evidence in support of that conclusion.
It continues to go poorly.
The HuffPost’s Ryan J. Reilly is out with a must-read piece on the latest claim du jour, and it’s a wild one. It’s also emblematic of how shoddy the most prominent conspiracy theories have been, avoiding even the bare minimum of vetting and substantiation while seeding the whole thing with falsehoods and innuendo.
To set the table: Carlson on Monday welcomed Joseph McBride, an attorney who has represented people arrested for their roles on Jan. 6. McBride recently alleged in court that certain participants in the riot were actually government provocateurs. Hence the invite from Carlson, who has been on this case for a while, including in his widely panned Jan. 6 conspiracy theory documentary “Patriot Purge.”
McBride proceeded to highlight one specific supposed agent provocateur, who stood out because he was wearing red face paint.
McBride describes the red-faced man as “clearly a law enforcement officer.” His evidence? On video, the man “interacts with uniformed personnel.” McBride has said the man was also passing out things that could be used as weapons.
“That is clearly entrapment,” McBride told Carlson.
A journalist at this point might have asked for some more compelling evidence. (McBride’s lawsuit also claims the man had been using “military hand signals.”) But Carlson was impressed with a theory that confirmed his priors. He instead asked that the red-faced man’s image be put on the screen again. “Why is it so difficult in an age of facial recognition,” he said before trailing off. He added: “Who is this person?”
Reilly answered that question by early Thursday morning. He reported that the red-faced man is actually something of a minor local celebrity in St. Louis known as the “Rally Runner.” The Rally Runner is known for sprinting around Busch Stadium during St. Louis Cardinals baseball games. He even does so wearing the same red face paint.
The Rally Runner also happens to be a big fan of Carlson’s show and was visited by the FBI shortly after the Capitol riot, apparently thanks in part to posting regularly on social media about it. And in a twist, he has also promoted the idea that the Capitol riot was a “setup.”
That’s certainly a curious statement to make if you’re actually the provocateur. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to definitively rule out anybody having worked with the FBI — the Justice Department doesn’t comment on these things for a reason — but he would seem an unlikely candidate. It’s also quite likely that informants have infiltrated some groups involved in Jan. 6, if past is predicate, but the idea is that these people specifically fomented it, which remains wholly unproven despite these best efforts.
And at the very least, making such an allegation should probably involve more evidence than what was presented. That’s up to and including trying to actually identify the apparently somewhat identifiable guy whose image you’re plastering on the most popular cable news show and allowing a guest to accuse him of being an agent in a government conspiracy.
The pièce de résistance involves McBride’s response to Reilly. When pressed on his claims, McBride stated that he was representing his client and didn’t “need to be right” in all his claims.
“If I’m wrong, so be it, bro. I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t give a s--- about being wrong.”
That last quote should perhaps be the new motto for those most forcefully pushing this baseless conspiracy theory.
Back in February, Johnson used a congressional hearing to promote highly speculative claims about this. The claims came from an employee of a right-wing think tank founded by someone who once argued that Barack Obama might be a secret Muslim, and the man argued that people present before the Capitol riot looked and acted like potential provocateurs. The evidence: Some “obviously didn’t fit in” and displayed “awkward” body language and/or didn’t show much enthusiasm. Some young people wore MAGA hats, but the hats were backward. He described them as people “I presumed to be antifa or other leftist agitators,” with no evidence besides inference.
There remains no evidence, to this day, that antifa or leftists played any significant role in fomenting the Capitol riot. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified the following week to that effect. Around the same time, Johnson conceded to the New York Times that the piece he cited “might be a flawed part of the evidence, but why exclude it?” Maybe because it fertilized a baseless conspiracy theory that was already catching on?
The other main example of this involves other suggestions of government agents, specifically, provoking the attack — with Carlson this time endorsing the theory himself more explicitly.
In June, Carlson homed in on a report from another guest — this time a man, Darren Beattie, who had been fired by the Trump White House for appearing on a panel with a prominent white nationalist. Beattie had written a piece for his website making a remarkable claim: that government documents themselves pointed to their own agent provocateurs participating in Jan. 6.
The logic: Federal indictments declined to identify certain people they cast as taking part in the riot — unindicted co-conspirators. Ipso facto, these were probably government agents who were being protected, which mean the FBI effectively organized the riot.
That might sound like an oversimplification. But it’s what Carlson said repeatedly.
“The government calls those people unindicted co-conspirators,” Carlson said. “What does that mean? Well it means that, in potentially every single case, they were FBI operatives.”
He 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.”
Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) soon promoted the theory.
Except that wasn’t what the documents showed at all. As was quickly noted, including in this space, experts said the government literally cannot describe government agents as unindicted co-conspirators. And there are plenty of other valid reasons to avoid naming someone in an indictment, including the fact that you don’t want to impugn people you haven’t yet charged.
As he did this week, Carlson went so far as to feature specific supposed agent provocateurs — a “Person Two” and a “Person Three” who were named in the indictment of Thomas Caldwell. He asked why they hadn’t been charged alongside Caldwell and then answered his own question: “You know why: They were almost certainly working for the FBI.”
But the context of the indictment strongly suggested “Person Two” was, in fact, Caldwell’s wife, Sharon. Despite going to the Capitol with him, she was not otherwise named in the indictment. The indictment also said Caldwell lived with “Person Two,” that they stayed in the same hotel room and that they snapped selfies together — which lined up with contemporaneous social media posts Thomas Caldwell wrote about his wife.
Anyone who actually examined the indictment would have surmised this was very likely a family member, but Carlson chose to air this specific example as being someone who was “almost certainly working for the FBI.”
(Carlson and Beattie have since pointed to another specific person who they suggest might be a government agent. The theory, similar to the above examples, again rests on the fact that the person hasn’t been indicted and was egging people on — video shows him repeatedly encouraging people to go to the Capitol. A PolitFact review last month found this claim to be unproven and highly speculative, and it should probably be measured against the rest of these claims.)
In another twist that might be amusing were it in another context, Carlson in early October welcomed both Thomas and Sharon Caldwell on his show, using the opportunity to cast them as victims of overzealous government prosecution.
This would’ve seemed a golden opportunity to get to the bottom of whether Sharon Caldwell was, in fact, a government agent participating in that plot. But Carlson didn’t ask about it.