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House Jan. 6 committee dismisses ‘unsupported’ claim of FBI involvement in riot

The panel interviewed Ray Epps, an Arizona man who was on the Capitol grounds on the day of the attack and who is at the center of a baseless, right-wing theory accusing the FBI of planting agents to incite violence that day

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) watch footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol during a news conference on Republican lawmakers’ response to the anniversary of that day on Jan. 6, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday dismissed the “unsupported” claim that the FBI helped to incite the insurrection, a theory perpetuated by right-wing media and some Republicans looking to absolve the pro-Trump mob that stormed the building.

In a statement, the panel said it interviewed Ray Epps, an Arizona man who encouraged others to break into the Capitol on Jan. 5 and was seen on the Capitol grounds the day of the attack. Supporters of former president Donald Trump invaded the Capitol to stop the affirmation of Joe Biden’s electoral college win, but some Republicans have pushed false claims of antifa involvement or the baseless theory that the FBI had planted agents in the crowd to instigate the violent attack.

In the interview with the committee, Epps denied any involvement with the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.

“The Select Committee is aware of unsupported claims that Ray Epps was an FBI informant based on the fact that he was on the FBI Wanted list and then was removed from that list without being charged,” said a committee spokesman. “The Select Committee has interviewed Mr. Epps. Mr. Epps informed us that he was not employed by, working with, or acting at the direction of any law enforcement agency on January 5th or 6th or at any other time, and that he has never been an informant for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.”

Separately, the committee issued subpoenas Tuesday for records and testimony from three individuals — Andy Surabian and Arthur Schwartz, advisers to Donald Trump Jr., and Ross Worthingon, a former White House official who “assisted with drafting then-President Trump’s speech at the rally held on the Ellipse” before the riot at the Capitol, according to a letter released by the committee.

“The Select Committee is seeking information from individuals who were involved with the rally at the Ellipse,” Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the committee, said in a statement. “Protests on that day escalated into an attack on our democracy. Protestors became rioters who carried out a violent attempt to derail the peaceful transfer of power. We have reason to believe the individuals we’ve subpoenaed today have relevant information.”

Thompson said he hoped the three “join the more than 340 individuals who have spoken with the Select Committee as we push ahead to investigate this attack on our democracy and ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”

The House select committee investigating the attempted insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 faces an uphill battle with former Trump administration officials. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

According to fact checking site PolitiFact, Epps — a Trump supporter who was on Capitol grounds the day of the attack — became the focus of the false theory claiming that federal agents were planted in the pro-Trump mob ahead of the insurrection to incite violence after he was seen in several videos encouraging others to “go into the Capitol.”

On Jan. 8, the FBI put Epps’s picture on a list of participants it was looking for in connection to the riot. Days later, the FBI removed Epps’s picture from the list without charging or arresting him, causing a stir among right-wing conspiracists who took that as a sign that Epps was acting on behalf of the federal agency that day.

Experts have repeatedly debunked this claim, arguing that there are many reasons why the FBI didn’t go after Epps, including the fact that there is no public evidence that the Arizona man entered the interior of the Capitol.

Epps’s actions that day had gone largely ignored until right-wing bloggers posted videos of him inciting others to break into the Capitol on message boards and blogs. Among them was former Trump aide Darren Beattie, who runs a right-wing site that, in two separate posts, claimed Epps was hired by the FBI to agitate the pro-Trump mob. Republican lawmakers opposed to the Jan. 6 investigation, including Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), picked up the baseless theory and began peddling it, along with Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

On the first anniversary of the insurrection, Greene and Gaetz held a news conference on Capitol Hill where they pushed this and other debunked theories about election fraud. The two argued that Republicans, if they regained the majority after the midterm elections, should take over the House Jan. 6 select committee to investigate “the extent to which the federal government may have been involved” in the insurrection.

Neither Greene nor Gaetz has shown any evidence that Epps was employed by the federal government.

By revealing Tuesday that it had interviewed Epps, the Jan. 6 committee addressed the baseless theory just hours after Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) questioned top law enforcement officials about it during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Cruz, citing one of the videos of Epps on Capitol grounds, asked FBI assistant director Jill Sanborn: “How many FBI agents or confidential informants actively participated in the events of January 6th?”

Sanborn said she couldn’t answer, a typical response as law enforcement rarely confirms or denies such questions. When Cruz asked if she knew who Epps is, Sanborn said she was “aware of the individual” but didn’t have “the specific background to him.”

Cotton posed similar questions to Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olson. Olson said he didn’t know if the FBI had any plainclothes officers among the crowd of rioters. He also said he didn’t have information on Epps.

There is no evidence linking Epps to the FBI. Epps, in fact, once served as the president of the Arizona Oath Keepers, a military group whose members were among those who broke into the Capitol.

Jacqueline Alemany and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.